If an art show was mounted in Jersey City in 2022, I caught it. I didn’t write about everything I saw, but I hit this space every week with a reaction to a different exhibit. Comprehensive coverage doesn’t guarantee insight, but it does give the benefit of perspective to the person who put in the time. You, artist, bravely hung your work where the public could see it. I paid attention.
Because I am an opinionated character, I’ve developed some ideas about how the Jersey City scene did in 2022. But that’s for next week, when I’ll post a broad overview of the year in fine arts. Today is for accolades. These weren’t the only shows that moved me this year, but they’re the ones that stayed with me and kept me thinking. Even a big art exhibition rarely takes more than a half hour to absorb. But if it’s done right, a show can provide an experience that’ll continue to speak to the viewer long after she’s left the gallery. Here are my examples of Jersey City arts at its best and most articulate. I’d love to know yours.
IMUR Gallery opened in midsummer with a show of beautiful Ottoman-inspired miniatures. It was hard to imagine that the little gallery could do much better than that. They topped it on the very next try. “Paramnesia” consisted of stark, devastated, impeccably composed photographs from an artist who considers the grey and weathered panels of a blank billboard the true face of the city. Jiuxun Jin’s eerie, depopulated streetscapes teased meaning from things discarded: a sofa stripped of its cushions, a door torn from its hinges and leaned on a tree, a medical glove and a trail of liquid bleeding into the cracks of the pavement. Objects that promise comfort are rendered imposing and strange, weeds grow around the wheels of a rubbished desk chair, home is hard to find. Jin shot his photographs with 35-millimeter film and printed with care on cotton paper so that every detail sang in pure tones. Sometimes that song was pleading. Sometimes it was downright scathing.
Power pop isn’t the hippest style of music in the record bins. But because power popsters hard-sell their hooks and prioritize approachability and ease of comprehension, it’s often the most fun. The same can be said for Pop Art: in the hands of talented practitioners, it’s both delightful and immediate, even when it confronts tricky themes. Joe Waks sends up cigarette ads and oil company logos, but always with a wink and a clever punchline; Robert Piersanti combs through the cultural detritus of the late ’50s and early ’60s, cranks up the volume and intensifies the color, and drops you into his cracked worldview headfirst. Then there’s the brilliant Kayt Hester, a Jersey City original, who makes searing portraits — each one a narrative marvel — with nothing but black masking tape. They’ve shown together before. But they’ve never harmonized better than they did at the Firmament Gallery at Nimbus. Close harmony, as all listeners know, is another power pop virtue.
9. Sean Irwin & Todd Lambrix, “Wonder Bred,” Novado Gallery
The Novado Gallery spent 2022 serving up a series of quizzical objects: Brian Gustaffson’s brittle, breathtaking all-glass umbrella, Felice Koenig’s hypnotic discs composed of hundreds of shiny acrylic pebbles, gallerist Anne Novado’s own wall-hung plywood boxes. The town’s most winsome gallery saved its most squeeze-worthy toys for last. Todd Lambrix traps his fiber sculptures made of off-white felted wool under glass domes; these (mostly) benign alien specimens aren’t looking to break free, necessarily, but they do seem to pulse with curious inner life. Each one stands on curved wooden legs that makes it look a bit like a fuzzy lunar lander. The closer you get to them — and they do have a way of drawing you in — the more you’ll notice about them, like grooves and ridges in the textile, oddly organic-looking apertures and wiry cilia, and black spikes jutting from a sculpture’s fluffy underbelly. These visitors nestled under the glitter-drenched drawings of Sean Irwin and the head of a glass hare that scanned the gallery with a mixture of bemusement and disapproval. Should you like a peek through the looking glass, “Wonder Bred” is on view until Dec. 18.
Those who were in Jersey City during the first few months of the pandemic won’t soon forget what the experience was like. Nothing but bad news, no escape, nowhere to go but bed. Spring arrived in the parks and on the Palisade, but we weren’t permitted to enjoy it — instead, a silent adversary took the town from us. Artists who lived through those strange, alienated times will spend the rest of their careers attempting to understand what they experienced. P.E. Pinkman, for instance, brought a harrowing, so-funny-it’s-not-funny visual representation of cabin fever to the Fine Arts Gallery at St. Peter’s: his head, over and over, with various adornments and creative defacements. The paintings of Ben Fine and Deb Sinha were not quite as monomaniacal as that, but they, too, were reporters who got a grim story right. Fine’s April-bright paintings of Hamilton Park, captured from his own quarantine room, showed us a city evacuated, tantalizing, maddening, just outside the locked window. Singh’s cityscapes weren’t all made during the lockdown, but they were suffused with the spirit of the times. Here were nighttime journeys through a mist-covered town haloed by lamplights. Visibility was low, shadows in blues and grey were everywhere, and no signposts hung on the horizon. Both artists warned: the next step in a haunted town is always a treacherous one.
“Coming Into Focus” captured what the pandemic felt like. “Troublemakers” explored what it did to us. The name of the Eonta Space comeback show was mischievous, but the exhibited art was wounded, raw, reeling and soulful. Here lurked a man made entirely of Band-Aids, a BLM protester cautiously dropping her surgical mask, and a great textile-heap statue of a cardinal, protectively shielding the room. “Troublemakers” attracted many of Jersey City’s best, including Jill Scipione, fashioner of pendulous spheres of cloth roses, Barbara Seddon, the incisive fabricator of jigsaw-edge linocuts, the poised painter Richard Isgard, who lit up Outlander with one of the winter’s most meditative shows, and Bruno Nadalin of JC Print Room, whose etching of a black-walled, fortress-like church felt like a snapshot of a city in danger. Eonta’s roster of troublemakers included some of our most accomplished and experienced gallerists: Jim Pustorino and Ann Trauben of Drawing Rooms, Andrea McKenna of Art House Productions, Alpana Mittal of ProArts. But the star that shone brightest of all was one of the newest-minted — Kubra Ada, who dazzled us with her gorgeous, hypnotic patterns on marbled paper.
By now, you’re sensing a theme. The best shows of the year were unflinching engagements with what we’ve gone through together — attempts to process and contextualize hardship and loss at an unprecedented moment in Hudson County history. Our town’s shrewdest conceptual artist was not going to miss a chance to let her own feelings on the subject show, and when she did, she sure dropped the hammer. “Disaster [Place],” a single-weekend takeover of Deep Space Gallery, was a chronicle of devastation rendered in greyscale. Katelyn Halpern, director at SMUSH Gallery, turned the second floor of the Cornelison St. art space into a three-dimensional representation of collective mourning: a city apartment in which an unspecified upheaval had happened. Coffee was on, candle-flames flickered, clothes in hospital white on a rack, a tiny mattress was tucked in a corner, and the obsessive thoughts of the occupants were scrawled on paper and hung all over the walls like confessions in charcoal. The air in Halpern House was heavy with emotion, and the vibe hit visitors like a pulsewave from the moment the threshold was breached. Yet as candid as the show was, it wasn’t forbidding. Instead it played as an act of compassion and sympathy for the thousands upon thousands of disaster places, all over our benighted town.
The ART150 Gallery launched to deserved fanfare in 2021. In 2022, the space hit its stride — even as it lost much of its hanging space to an inconveniently timed building renovation. Nevertheless, it was one solid show after another on Bay Street, including a dense, entertaining Studio Tour delight, an ode to baseball curated by an experimental photographer, and a feisty spinoff at the neighboring Outliers space. My favorite, though, was the year’s most uncompromising: a group show that attracted arresting work from a gang of Art150 regulars. Some of the pieces in the show were quietly confrontational, like Cheryl Riley’s typeset messages, Susan Evans Grove’s wry, elegant still life photographs adorned with broken computer parts, and Josh Urso’s artfully fractured blocks of cement, precariously stacked, brightly painted, and placed in vulnerable corners of the gallery. Other pieces came right out and hollered at us: Fabricio Suarez’s meticulously detailed face-melt paintings, Frank Ippolito’s Madonna, trapped in carbon freeze in a lightbox. But it was curator Tarik Mendes whose giant, textured, endlessly re-visitable paintings, full of scribblings, bubble-wrap impressions, and blueprints for a future lived at incomprehensible speed, that this excellent show will be remembered for.
When you look at paint scrapings, what do you see? Residue of your labor, random arrays of color and shape, faces, animals, distant landscapes? Or, perhaps, do you read those chromatic tea leaves and witness scenes from American History, Greek myth, and The Bible? Jim Fischer found the heroic and the horrific in shards and peelings that a less enterprising artist would have swept off the table with the back of his hand. With a bit of enhancement, shrewd framing, and a little showmanship, his accidental squiggles became an expression of human — and superhuman — struggle. God, the Devil, the Ghost of Christmas Future, The Grim Reaper, the spirit of the atomic bomb, and plenty of geisha girls all showed up at Casa Colombo for the consistently amazing “Imagination,” which was as much a magic show as it was an art exhibition. Fischer’s exercise in serendipity demonstrated a profound understanding of the literature that his scrapings channeled. Then, as if to show us the versatility of his wizardry, he gave us the excitement of a sailboat race in a few economical strokes of black paint.
If you believe that the built environment is a work of art, then you might consider the Sixth Street Embankment our great accidental masterpiece. It’s the big stone serpent that sleeps heavily across the Downtown, reminding visitors and residents alike of our brawny industrial past. Unmolested for decades, the Embankment has been reclaimed by nature: it’s become a habitat for plants and nesting birds, breeding ground for bugs, shade for the squirrels, a spot for amateur scientists, and a hideout for well-meaning trespassers. All sides of the rail conduit were celebrated at “The Embankment on My Mind,” a heartfelt paean to one of Jersey City’s defining architectural features. Forty-three artists testified to the enduring value of the Embankment, showing us a biome, a backbone, a garden, a cause, an object of Stonehenge-like fascination and mystery, a black beast, a stone expression of muscle and sweat in an increasingly sedentary town, and a thousand-ton metaphor for resistance to overdevelopment. Here was a show too passionate and too lyrical to be contained by a single NJCU gallery; instead, it spilled across Culver Street and illuminated the Visual Arts Building and the Lemmerman alike. History provides us with a framework for understanding who we are, and “The Embankment on My Mind” spoke straight to our collective identity. If you’re proud of that old rock wall, and protective of it, but you’ve never quite been sure why, well, here’s why.
MANA Contemporary is the most moneyed arts organization in town. It was also the one that came into 2022 with the most to prove. A year ago, artistic director and local antihero Eugene Lemay was indicted for tax evasion and exiled. Was the arts center under siege? Would it ever truly connect with the Garden State, or would it always be understood as a New York City institution that got lost on the way to the tunnel? Happily, MANA came roaring back with gorgeous, provocative, emotional show that highlighted everything that the institution does well, and reaffirmed its indispensability to Jersey City arts. “Land of the Free” also felt familiar: Joe Minter’s wonderfully belligerent sculptures made of rusted chains and car parts were continuous with the Hudson County tradition of adaptive re-use in visual art, and Hugo Crosthwaite’s lively drawings of his native Tijuana presented the Mexican border city as a place of danger, exhilaration, and cultural collisions very much like the ones we’ve all grown accustomed to in urban Jersey. But the luminous cornerstone of the show was Vincent Valdez’s series of rice-paper portraits of Central American desaparecidos, hovering over the apse of a temple-like chamber. Together, they made a local exhibition with the grace, the majesty, the cultural relevance, and the sheer aesthetic power of a well-budgeted Manhattan museum show. There was simply no way for a scrappy small gallery to compete with that — or so I thought.
I was wrong.
In theory, it’s possible to appreciate BARC the Dog paintings one at a time. The bright colors and compositional balance despite the density of the imagery, the casual confidence of the storytelling, the dizzying play of shapes, the delight and mischief and callbacks to ‘90s and ‘00s cartoon shows and other artifacts of disposable filmed entertainment all come through, no matter how superficially they’re accessed. But to really understand the zonked brilliance of what Alexander Lansang is up to, it’s necessary to plug your nose and cannonball into the deep end of BARCworld. “Machines I Wish Existed” was an exercise in total immersion that included BARC stories in comic books, BARC sketches, triptychs in acrylic, illustrations of characters drawn from the BARC Expanded Universe, and a series of infernal contraptions including a time machine, a Geiger counter, and a command chair with a makeshift targeting device for a laser beam.
Did any of these machines… work? Well, technically, no — but they certainly had a profound effect on BARC, the roaring, blue-gray every-dog, bastard child of the city, who skulks, sneaks, and snarls through all of these pictures. In the paintings, we get to see what happens to BARC when he interacts with Lansang’s jerry-rigged sculptures, and let’s just say it isn’t always fortuitous for him. But even when he’s hit with a death ray, he always comes back for more. His bark testifies to his resilience — we see that ketchup-on-a-hotdog squiggle of a tongue and those serrated teeth, and we know that as beleaguered as he is, he’s survived another misadventure. It’s a pleasure to join him in the rabbit hole that Lansang has dug for him, and experience an unashamed exhibition that made a persuasive argument that escapism is the only rational response to a world like ours.
Featured image: Fabricio Suarez “My own tempest”