Clarence Rich and Mr Mustart
Clarence Rich and Mr Mustart

One nice thing about attending gallery shows: even if the exhibition is extensive, you’re probably not going to be in there for hours. A visit to a gallery can be as long or as short, as cursory or as intensive, as you’d like it to be. Some of the best shows hung in Jersey City in 2021 were mounted in tiny rooms, and could be apprehended and absorbed in no more than five minutes.

Yet when the work is good — really good — the exhibition doesn’t end when you walk out of the gallery door.  It keeps resonating.  The best shows of the year, and every year, are the ones that you don’t stop thinking about: they color your frame of reference, deepen your understanding, and ease your mind open. I’ve picked eleven favorites, but these aren’t the only shows I saw in 2021 that prompted deep reflection. I’d also like to praise Dennis Ouch’s investigation of the image of the pop star at Novado Gallery, Rebecca N. Johnson’s beautiful, warm, radically twee limewash paintings at Deep Space, the Hispanic Heritage Exhibition at City Hall, Bryant Small and Diane English’s exuberant arrays of alcohol paint at Dvora Pop-Up Gallery, and the explosive, deeply unsettling “A Message From the Underground,” a dance of passion and discontent choreographed at MANA by curator Maria De Los Angeles.

There were many others, too, including ones I’m sure I’m forgetting; I’m doing this off the top of my head, which is part of the fun. If you made art, or presented art, or just appreciated a painting or a sculpture or a beautiful building, you’re part of the story, and my hat is off to you. Keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll keep looking, and trying my hardest to understand.

  1. Amanda Thackray, “Surface Tension” @ Lemmerman Gallery at NJCU (Curated by Doris Caciolo)
"Harbinger" by Amanda Thackeray
“Harbinger” by Amanda Thackeray
“Harbinger” by Amanda Thackeray

Amanda Thackray’s woven nets of paper, torn in all the right places, are set afloat on the walls of the galleries where she exhibits. There, they achieve the weightlessness of junk tossed into the ocean, bobbing on imaginary waves, innocuous, but lethal to marine life, and, eventually, to you and me. “Surface Tension” also included a three-dimensional, column-like slice of the Pacific trash gyre, frozen in place, and complete with illustrations of objects Thackray reclaimed from the sea. Equal parts beautiful and sinister, “Surface Tension” told a complicated tale in a few quick strokes. All chastisement should be this gentle, this lyrical, and this persuasive. Maybe we’d get somewhere.

  1. Sandra DeSando, “Puzzlement” @ Dvora Pop-Up Gallery (Curated by Jim Pustorino and Drawing Rooms)

The Arts Center at 111 First Street is long gone, but ghosts still wander through the works of the artists who were there at the time, and who still embody its utopian aspirations. Sandra DeSando, a 111 favorite, makes work that’s elemental, soulful and un-commercial, humble, heartbroken, and emotionally forthright. Evidence of her labor is always visible in her canvases. In “Puzzlement,” her paintings extended over several panels, which were then assembled roughly on the Dvora wall, like pieces of a great jigsaw that won’t quite come together. And it was in those spaces — those cracks in the composite image — that the power of DeSando’s tormented, deeply humane vision was felt most forcefully.

  1. Dot Paolo, “Monkey Bars” @ Fine Arts Gallery at Saint Peters University (Curated by Beatrice Mady)

Imaginative people often entertain fantasies of escape into parallel worlds.  Dot Paolo went ahead and made one for herself, drenched it in bright, inviting, Parker Brothers hues, photographed it, and let us all in. Her tiny town, constructed from miniatures, contained many of the same features that our big world does: dangerously overstuffed kitchens, slick corporations, domestic tensions, board meetings, stressed-out secretaries, families groping toward detente. Yet hovering over Paolo’s Candy Land was a spirit of pomposity-puncturing mischief that is surely the artist’s own and worked as a commentary on our self-importance. How seriously are we meant to take a summit meeting attended by little tin dignitaries? Well, how seriously do we take the real thing?

  1. Valerie Huhn, “What Remains” @ Outlander Gallery (Curated by Outlander Gallery)
Valerie Huhn
“Fingerprint Pin Encyclopedia” by Valerie Huhn
“Fingerprint Pin Encyclopedia” by Valerie Huhn

If you attended gallery shows in the Garden State in 2021 — the Hunterdon Museum, Art150, and 14C, perhaps — there’s a very good chance you saw work by Valerie Huhn. If you did, you’re not likely to forget it. Huhn hole-punches plastic sheets of colored fingerprints, affixes each circle to a pin, and then drives those makeshift tacks into the surfaces of undistinguished everyday objects. These pieces were the heart of “What Remains,” a small but eloquent retrospective show that featured Huhn’s arresting transformations of sofas, books, floor-lamps, and at least one stiff business suit. Huhn’s sculptures and fingerprint tapestries aimed to destabilize — they asked unsettling questions about surveillance, identity, personality, policing, and the traces of ourselves we leave behind on the objects we handle. And if you found yourself chuckling under your breath at the artist’s dark, biting humor, well, you’re not alone.

  1. Christian Gallo, “Alive Is A Matter Of Opinion” @ SMUSH (Curated by Katelyn Halpern and SMUSH)

A photographer of urban happenstance, Christian Gallo searches for the casual poetry in unloved intersections, discarded objects, empty aerosol cans, and scribbled graffiti on abandoned buildings.  In “Alive Is A Matter Of Opinion,” Gallo never pushes: he lets the city come to him, and when it does, it reveals itself at a stoner’s pace, flash by high-beam flash, image by shadowed image, moment by frozen moment. The show took us into the wee hours, and led us to the periphery of the sleeping town. SMUSH underscored the continuity of the photographs — and maybe even the circular nature of a night spent wandering — by presenting them in a continuous line, suggesting the arc of nocturnal adventure, guiding urban explorers from one uncanny revelation to the next.

  1. “The Empowering: A Social Justice Exhibition” @ Art150 (Curated by Danielle Scott)
"Little Rock" by Peter Delman
“Little Rock” by Peter Delman
“Little Rock” by Peter Delman

As gentle as its members can be, ProArts has always been willing to fight. Were it not for the group’s advocacy, it’s doubtful there’d be a Powerhouse Arts District to squabble over.  So it suited the organization to open Art150, their first gallery of their own, with a combative group show. “The Empowering” was an expression of grief on behalf of a country that has had too much to cry about lately: state-sponsored brutality and abuse of authority, exacerbated divisions, disenfranchisement, ecological injustice. Many of ProArts’s heaviest hitters lined up to make their contributions felt: incisive, uncompromising photographer Dorie Dahlberg, lyrical, pained visual storyteller Francisco Silva, and Peter Delman, dean of Jersey City painters, whose reinterpretation of the famous photograph of integration in Little Rock felt laden with sorrow for the years we’ve wasted since then. But it was Danielle Scott’s outraged vision that held this inaugural voyage together, and provided unity of purpose to a show that was too generous to be contained by the Art150 walls. Instead, it spilled out of the doors of the gallery and occupied the corridors of the second floor of 150 Bay Street.  This was what real patriotism looks like: an expression of tough love for a wounded nation, a hard look at difficult truths, a sigh so sharp and deep that it sounded like a scream.

  1. Paul Leibow, “FeelLicks” @ Novado Gallery (Curated by Anne Novado)
Paul Leibow’s "FeelLicks"
Paul Leibow’s “FeelLicks”
Paul Leibow’s “FeelLicks”

There were prettier shows mounted in Jersey City this year. Heck, there were prettier exhibitions at Novado Gallery. But nothing I saw stuck with me, and prompted me to think, quite as much as “FeelLicks,” Paul Leibow’s impish, chatty, occasionally salacious re-animation of the big-eyed, knife-eared Felix the Cat. Leibow’s paintings and sculptures hinted at Felix’s century-long fragmentation, and exposed the traces of Felix’s design in Batman, the Simpsons, anime characters, and pornography. But as you might expect from a show that included a branding iron in the shape of the top of Felix’s head, nothing about “FeelLicks,” felt cautious. Instead, the show was a dream-surfacing, a slow re-inflation of a figure that still exists in the collective American unconsciousness, all gummed up with other cartoon ghosts, corporate brands, and fading icons. Once a world-famous character reaches the end of the line, what happens next?

  1. The Juried Show @ Art Fair 14C (Curated by Kristin DeAngelis and Robinson Holloway)

The dates for the next edition of the Art Fair are already up on the 14C website: November 11-13, 2022, right back at the Glass Gallery at MANA Contemporary. It’s hard not to want more of a good thing. Given the sheer number of artists in the juried show, you’d expect it to be multi-threaded and hydra-headed, and indeed it was. But consistent themes emerged, and they turned out to be the same ones that preoccupied Jersey City artists all year: the city at a time of crisis, the degradation of the environment, the difficulties inherent in the act of communication, and the human body under stress.  It was an instant history lesson, a round-up of bright visions and eloquent voices, and it contained work from some of the most daring artists in Jersey City, including Paul Ching-Bor, whose giant watercolors of bridges and melting skyscrapers deserve a show of their own. Sometime in ’22, I hope.

  1. “Implied Scale: Confronting The Enormity Of Climate Change” @ MANA Contemporary (Curated by Kele McComsey)

Can peril on a planetary scale ever be captured and understood?  Or are the threats we face simply too big for human comprehension?  As harrowing as it was, “Implied Scale: Confronting The Enormity Of Climate Change” was an expression of optimism: an act of faith that total immersion in the problem might shock us into action. And everything in this show was indeed immersive, including the unsparing footage of forest fires and hurricanes, the film shot from above receding sea ice, and the giant wall mural of a massive wave of trash, threatening to engulf the sun. Among Jersey City arts institutions, only MANA could have mounted an exhibition of this scope, quality, and intensity. I was pleased to see them using their superpowers (and their bankroll) for a good cause.

  1. Clarence Rich and Mr Mustart, “Polarity” @ PRIME Gallery (Curated by Maria Kosdan)

Artists don’t usually share canvases. The space within the frame is an exclusive fiefdom — the expression of a singular vision — and others are not invited to butt in, no matter how talented they are. But Clarence Rich and Mr Mustart are used to productive collisions: their outdoor work chatters at passersby from the same walls. PRIME brought that dynamic into the gallery, hanging Rich, Mustart, and Rich/Mustart paintings on the walls in flurries. The whip-smart presentation by Maria Kosdan led to productive confusion: unless you were looking at a price list, it was unclear where one artist’s expression ended and the next one’s began. That mystery was part of the point of a show that was all about dialogue, brotherhood, and the act of pushing your friends to be as creative as they can be. By demonstrating that their small works and portraits were every bit as evocative as their murals, Rich and Mustart made an airtight case for their versatility, their virtuosity, and their leadership among the new generation of Jersey City painters.

  1. “Walls To Smalls” @ Deep Space Gallery (Curated by Jenna Geiger and Keith Van Pelt)

Deep Space Gallery is many things. It’s a clubhouse of sorts, an incubator for a startlingly good roster of emerging artistic talent, a lure leading the curious to a corner of the city without much else in it, and a reflection of the gritty beauty of its surroundings. It’s a good place to start your art collection, too: if you’re not sold on the pieces in the gallery upstairs, you can always check out the older works by Deep Space-affiliated painters that hang on the walls of the variety and vintage shop downstairs (there’s a neatly curated selection of vinyl records down there, too). But perhaps most importantly, Deep Space acts as an interface between freewheeling, aerosol-spraying street art and the more sedate world of indoor exhibitions and gallery shows.

Many arts institutions in the metropolitan area have struggled to bring street artists in from the cold. Nobody in the Garden State has done it better — or with more understanding and less condescension — than Deep Space did in “Walls To Smalls.” A procession of outdoor-art luminaries, including 4SAKN, DISTORT, Clarence Rich and Mr Mustart, BlusterOne, and the dazzling storyteller RU8ICON returned the favor with pieces that were electrifying, and, frequently, more provocative than the stuff they spray on outdoor walls. Without sacrificing energy, insight, or good humor, the show reflected the particular challenges of the urban experience in a time as vexed as 2021. It’s the story of the city they’re telling, and Deep Space, with its natural light, its small, lovely rooms, and its location in the middle of a heavily tagged post-industrial stretch of Ward F, was the ideal place to see that story told.

Featured image by Clarence Rich and Mr Mustart

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...