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Art Review: Cheryl Gross and Andrea McKenna at the Eonta Space


It’s difficult to be a human being on a planet in ecological distress. It’s far tougher to be anything else. Plants and animals have been hit hard by the Holocene—they’ve suffered from widespread habitat degradation and general disrespect from the dominant species (us). Some scientists argue that we humans have driven the biosphere into its sixth global extinction event. Others say we’re merely cutting a swath of unprecedented devastation. All agree: It’s bad out there.

Exterior conditions eventually seep into our interior worlds. Most thoughtful human beings are haunted by what we’re doing and how we’re living, and artists, for whom sensitivity is part of the calling, are particularly susceptible to guilt feelings. Yet expressing those reservations about our poor stewardship of the planet is a challenge. If an artist’s commentary is too subtle, she risks soft-pedaling something that demands immediate action. If her commentary is too blatant, she risks coming off as a scold.

An existential crisis requires an aesthetic response more forceful than the creeping unease present in many modern gallery shows. In a moment as fraught as the one we inhabit, we shouldn’t be put off by a firm guiding hand or even a wagging finger. “Commit to Memory: The Precipice of Extinction,” an arresting two-artist show that opens at Eonta Space (34 DeKalb Ave., eontaspacenj.com) at 6 p.m. tonight and runs through the end of March, makes a passionate case for the animals.  It can be blunt.  At times, it’s downright angry.  But it’s never less than articulate, and if it prompts viewers to chuck fewer bottles into the ocean, it’s wall space well used.

Not that all of it is on the walls. Some of the pieces in the show hang on a gauzy black curtain—a veil, really—that cuts Eonta Space in half. The rest of the gallery is inhabited by Cheryl Gross’s creatures drawn on paper in bright, lurid colors. Almost all of them are single images of animals that are either extinct or endangered.  A few of these tributes to the beasts in the crosshairs have been framed. Others feel like they were torn from the sketchbook and hung in the raw, which imparts some added urgency to a show that already rings like an alarm clock. Some of this work was indeed recently completed: A multi-panel image of an owl, its white wings fluttering across a hot yellow background, bears a 2020 date. Gross is feeling the press of time. She expects you to feel it, too.

Those familiar with the artist might remember prior work that possessed the fantastic quality of storybook illustrations. These drawings aren’t dissimilar: Her animals are patchworks of colors and textures, and the scenes they inhabit often contain splatters of ink, frantic crosshatches, waves and dots that reveal a world untethered and in motion. Yet the whimsy associated with Gross’s prior pictures isn’t always present. Instead, there’s peril, and unwelcome restraint—frogs hemmed in by black lines that bunch and scratch like barbed wire, red ink that drips suggestively over the determined face of a tortoise, a penguin with a bullseye in its belly. A flying squirrel, soaring from a blue sky into a nebulous field of gray, appears to be coming apart. Others blend in as best as they can, but camouflage isn’t easy to find. Many of the animals bump against the limits of the page, their  presence too large for the paper to contain—goldfish that have outgrown their tiny bowls to which they’ve been consigned by humans. The message is clear: There’s nowhere to hide.

To her credit, Gross resists the urge to anthropomorphize her beasts. She’s preserved their alterity and with it their dignity. The artist demands that the viewer confront these animals in all their animality and see them as creatures with the same right to inhabit the planet that humans have. The violence of habitat loss is not always left implicit. One fish is trapped in a bottle like a mariner’s model of a ship, while another confronts a row of plastic containers (and another blood-red splatter) with a look of extreme agitation. This sort of literalism would swamp an artist with lesser skills. But her experience handling fantasy material helps her out—she’s able to draw an allegory with a point so fine that you don’t mind cutting your fingers on it.

Gross supplements the drawings with a fifteen-minute animated film that features some of the same characters you’ll recognize from the walls. That penguin, for instance, has a starring role, although notably she’s given a near-human personality and a near-human set of concerns. This elicits sympathy for the character, but it doesn’t address the viewer with the same straightforward, impersonal honestly that the drawings do.

“Undercurrent” by Andrea McKenna. Photo courtesy Eonta Space

A better counterpoint to Gross’s images of animals is provided by a series of devastated paintings by Andrea McKenna, who is also the curator of the gallery at Art House Productions. These hang like scrolls from rough wooden rods affixed to both sides of the black curtain in the middle of the gallery.  Each image is of a single spectral human figure whose face and body is dissolving into the gloom that surrounds her. Some of the paintings are so distressed that they’re practically translucent—like a threadbare coat that’s no longer up to the task of stopping the wind. Gross’s color palette runs marvelously, unreasonably hot; McKenna works in steel gray, rust red, and institution blue. Gross’s work speaks of a fiery, vivid present where the animals are in peril. McKenna’s paintings whisper of a cold future after the animals are gone.

Both artists do have their antecedents in the canon. McKenna’s images, for instance, echo the modern dislocation and emotional fraying that Francis Bacon captures in his canvases. Nevertheless, their styles remind me more of pop-album art than museum art, and as a huge appreciator of record sleeves and covers, I don’t mean that as an insult. McKenna’s scraped and slathered paint and ghostly figures are evocative of industrial music and the art that surrounds it—images from the catalog of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, and similar groups. Likewise, the furiously colored animals in Gross’s drawings bear more than a passing resemblance to the menagerie of Roger Dean, the imaginary-landscape artist who designed the covers to many of the classic Yes sets of the 1970s. Yes was one of the first rock groups to take environmental threats seriously, and Dean’s images, fragile and fantastic as they are, are visual analogues of lyrics about a world spiraling close to the edge. Yes’s message was timely then, just as Eonta Space’s message is timely now. But eventually, time runs out.

“Commit to Memory” series by Cheryl Gross. Photo courtesy Eonta Space

Commit to Memory: On the Precipice of Extinction
Eonta Space (www.eontaspacenj.com)
34 DeKalb Ave.
February 7 — March 31
Artist Reception Weekend Hours: Friday 6-10 p.m., Saturday 4-8 p.m., Sunday 2-6 p.m.
Header: “Commit to Memory” series by Cheryl Gross. Photo by Tris McCall

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Art Review: The Hudson County Post-Industrial Style


The rough places have been made smooth. Most of our old factories are long gone: ringed with cyclone fences or converted into condominiums or grocery stores or artist’s studios. Yet we all know that Jersey City was once major manufacturing territory. We know our forerunners made stuff here and that that stuff was rock solid and consequential, loud during and after its assembly and sometimes even beautiful. And we know that this version of the city — the city that was — can’t be erased entirely no matter how many smokestacks succumb to the bulldozers and no matter how many tall brick walls are tattooed with murals.

Artists are well attuned to this, better attuned, I believe, than the politicians who’ve occasionally made preservation a part of their platform.  Art shows in Hudson County are frequently repositories for our cultural memory — places where a visitor can catch the echoes of the Jersey City that was and hear some of the tales that the bricks and stones and dirty strands of fiber tell. It’s meaningful that MANA, the town’s largest arts institution, is located inside a warehouse built in the 1920s. It’s doubly meaningful that the city chose the disused Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse as the visual anchor of its designated arts district. We can turn our faces to the gleaming towers on the other side of the river and call ourselves a sixth borough, but we’ll never get away from who we really are.

All of the art shows I’ve seen lately bear the firm and grimy imprint of Hudson County’s industrial history. It was visible in the resin paintings now hanging at the Art House, the fabric webs and bunched cloth flowers at Drawing Rooms, and the hollow stump made of glued books at Mapping Life at the Lemmerman in NJCU. But nowhere have I caught the echoes any louder than at a pair of exhibitions in a part of town where the developer’s hammer hasn’t fallen quite as hard as elsewhere: McGinley Square.

‘‘Reprocess,” which is curated by Beatrice Mady and will be up at the Fine Arts Gallery at Saint Peter’s University until Dec. 13, and Bayard’s enveloping installation “Theme M Purr Purse Knew Close Or He Nay Kid Mother Far Curr” at Eonta Space, different as they are, both feel like strong examples of what I’ve come to understand as a specifically Hudson County post-industrial style. I think it’s the dominant style in town, and it’s one in which history keeps bubbling through the surface of the contemporary.

What do pieces in our local post-industrial style look like? Usually, they’re large. They impress with scale, and energy, and brightness, and they wear their ideas without intent to conceal. Even when the artists don’t operate on a grand scale, there’s a rough-hewn quality to the objects they’ve made. There’s a sense of chaos and kinetic energy bordering on clutter — collage, tangles, clumps. Materials are made manifest, and often, they’re ones with industrial applications: glue, grit, fibers, resins, threads. Post-industrial art isn’t always pretty; in fact, it’s sometimes downright dirty.

What truly characterizes the Hudson County post-industrial style, though, is a particular mood. This kind of art is playful, open handed, thoroughly comfortable with the occasionally soiled stuff it’s composed of. It challenges the viewer to locate the whimsy inside the heavy metal — and that challenge carries a message of quiet defiance. Our post-industrial art insists on the dignity of these materials, and, by extension, the people who’ve handled them. Theses object might be obsolete; they might even be, if viewed from a certain perspective, garbage. It doesn’t matter. From this trash, we can assemble a different world.

Eonta Space as outfitted by Bayard

I doubt Bayard was thinking about local history when he transformed the Eonta Space (34 DeKalb Ave.) into a Seussian playground.  Nevertheless, this great bear hug of an art show might be the quintessential Hudson County post-industrial exhibition. Out of humble materials, Bayard has fashioned friendly giants. He’s made massive sculptures — some twice the size of a person — out of linked frames festooned with thousands upon thousands of strips of fabric. Some of these have the quality of the business end of a janitor’s mop, others are reminiscent of the fuzz atop McDonald’s fry guy characters, others look as if they’d been torn from your great aunt’s frumpiest dress, others look like they’ve been snipped from the ribbon on an unloved Christmas present.

Swatches hang in great drapes, textile fronds trail on the floor and tickle the walls, they’re matted down to form a comfy bed for the gallery cat, they fray and twist like tangles of angel hair on the fork.  More than a dozen of these stand at strategic spots on the Eonta Space floor, overlapping, commenting on each other, poised to come shambling toward you. You’re encouraged to touch these sculptures: You can run your fingers across dangling orange strands in the same way you might set a wind chime in motion, or you can rough them up a bit. Everything about this show is meant to be tactile and fully sensory. Entering the space gives the same thrill as the approach of the giant soapy pom-poms of the car wash do.

‘‘Theme M Purr Purse Knew Close Or He Nay Kid Mother Far Curr” spills out into the backyard of the gallery where a lone statue stands sentinel against any incursion from the graveyard next door and across the street, where a clique of three vertical cloth sculptures cut a mischievous figure against the backdrop of a brick building. They’re a burst of color, a visual insurrection on a shrouded stretch of DeKalb Avenue. They’re polite neighbors, too — they weather the winds and rains cheerfully. In a statement about impermanence and in a refusal to be too precious about the art he’s made, Bayard leaves them to the mercy of the elements. He’s also managed to reaffirm the sturdiness and resilience of cloth. These scraps, cut roughly, have their own gravity, their own weight, their own specific beauty, and their own stories of perseverance to tell.

Tucked at the end of a cul-de-sac, Eonta Space seems like a secret; by contrast, the Fine Arts Gallery at Saint Peter’s University (47 Glenwood Ave.) feels as public as a train station. The gallery is located in a wide corridor on the fifth floor of the Mac Mahon Student Center, a big, square, modern building with campus foot traffic on all of its floors. Yet the spell cast by the “Reprocess” installation isn’t so different from the one at Eonta, and I reckon that Bayard would consider Robert Lach and Jodie Fink fellow travelers. They’re singing a similar tune, albeit in a lower key.

“Nest Colony II” by Robert Lach

Much like Bayard, Lach and Fink take industrial materials that might have been cast into the dumpster and give them new life. Lach uses the foam rings from packing tape, cardboard, glue, and wire to create sculptures that mimic biological forms. These honeycombs, shells, aggregations of barnacles, and broken wings hang on the student center wall like a beachcomber’s collection. The colors evoke the shore; the tone is hushed and maybe even reverent. He’s presented these manufactured fossils alongside photographs of cars abandoned deep in the woods — doors loose amidst the bramble, leaves blown on to floor, chassis exposed, windows long gone.

Jodie Fink’s assemblage of artifacts feels like a specimen drawer, too. Her small mixed-media sculptures are made from long-unused tools and kitchen implements, many heavy with oxidation, some broken altogether, others functional but bearing the damage of heavy use. Yet Fink manages to find the joke underneath the patina of rust. She’s turned these junked objects into expressive, downright talkative little fellows: A sawblade, for instance, when turned at a particular angle and slotted into a flattened can, becomes a shy but determined turtle. An old potato ricer is given cold-water buttons for eyes, and the ringed pattern of holes in the object’s ‘‘face” positively smiles back at the viewer. A protractor and a wooden clothespin becomes a “Pregnant Woman Walking;” a horseshoe affixed to a metal plate becomes the upraised arms of a “Strong Woman.” These are object-narrators in the truest sense.

These pieces go beyond personification. It’s more accurate to call them a sort of revivification and maybe even a resurrection. There was a bright and freshly minted spirit in these materials, this art suggests, and although that spirit can’t find expression in the same manner it once did, it can still be located, redirected, and honored. Objects carry the tales of the people who may have handled and possessed them, and in Hudson County, industrial materials whisper tales of our shared heritage. Bayard, Fink, and Lach are playing with ghosts, channeling spirits that lurk just beneath the Jersey topsoil, engaging in quiet, playful protest against amnesia, insisting on the dignity of labor, and reminding us of a town that’s disappearing from sight but which still hangs like smoke in the air around us.

Header: “Turtle” by Jodie Fink

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