Luis Muñoz Marin Boulevard is not considered a place where pedestrians go on purpose. Nevertheless, there’s a new Australian bakery just north of Morgan Street, and a café, open air seating, and a bandshell outside of the big tower on the northwest corner of the Bay Street intersection. Right in between the two, Art House Productions has opened a gallery space with glass windows fronting the sidewalk, beckoning passersby. Curator Andrea McKenna has done her part for the walkability score of the neighborhood by keeping the walls full of eye-catching paintings and sculptures. McKenna understands the challenge. If you happen to be strolling by the Art House, she wants to stop you in your tracks, get you curious, and maybe draw you inside.
So far, she’s chosen her accomplices wisely. Mark Kurdziel, for instance, makes large paintings that look enticing from street level, and hit the eye like multicolored sprinkles on the otherwise dry and crumbly brownie that is Marin Boulevard in mid-March. (They’re pretty tasty on the Internet, too.) The good news is that those pieces are even better when they’re seen up close. You’ve got one last weekend to experience “Moments and Measure,” the engrossing Kurdziel show at Art House Gallery (345 Marin Blvd., 1-4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays) before McKenna turns the floor over to Frank Ippolito, an artist who flashes actual lightboxes at viewers, in early April.
All the illumination in Kurdziel’s work is suggestive, but there’s plenty of it. The painter commits oil and distemper to rough-woven linen in a manner that captures the dynamics of radiance. He’ll surround a brilliant spot or square with a halo of faded color, heightening the intensity of his hot pinks, electric blues, and Gatorade-bright chartreuses by letting the field of pigment melt into the rest of the canvas. Kurtziel’s technique gives his work a Lite Brite effect: stripes on a sweater, wine in a glass, lipsticked lips, and the petals of flowers shine out from his paintings in glorious bunches.
The painter uses his command over color and shape to set strange scenes that stop just at the pulsing border of the surreal. There’s usually a woman, and she’s often the possessor of a cat. If Kurdzeil’s female characters are alert and intelligent looking, his feline ones are positively brimming with alacrity. In “Fall,” a lap cat shoots a quizzical look up to the girl holding it; her face is impassive, but her hooked fingers pressing against the cat’s haunches suggests proprietary defensiveness. “Hiromi, Layla and Blu,” a seven-foot reverie that occupies the entire north wall of the gallery, confronts the viewer with a pair of cats. One lurks behind the head of an impassive woman, while the other stares fiercely outward from the middle of her torso. The roster of residents of “The Yellow House” include another couple of cats, one of whom is as alert and angular as a pointed terrier and another who sinks into a blue blanket in a worried crouch. Mice are at play in some of these paintings, but their traditional adversaries aren’t paying any attention. They’ve got heavier responsibilities — ones that include the amplification of the emotional states of their owners.
The mouse holes in “The Yellow House” and other Mark Kurdziel paintings nag at the viewer’s eye like a loose thread on a sweater. They’re there to raise the stakes, and suggest that the domestic sphere is more permeable that it sometimes feels like it is. The outdoors is breaking in, and the indoors is bleeding out. In many of Kurdziel’s pieces, the borders of a house appear to be dissolving in a storm of color. House plants bend toward the sky, and trees peek under triangular shapes suggestive of roofs. Are these psychological portraits of women in a transient state, keeping outwardly cool in an unstable world as security buckles around them? Or are they queens, in command of more than the eye can see?
For further investigation, three earlier Kurdziel paintings currently hang at the Novado Gallery (110 Morgan St.) two blocks to the east of the Art House. These slightly earlier, pre-pandemic pieces share many of the elements of the “Moments and Measure” canvases — poised young women, cats, houseplants, and a vibrant, near-electric color palette — but the distinction between indoor and outdoor space is better defined by the artist. They’re still dreamlike, but they’re not quite as restless. In their beauty, their mastery of color, and their curious suggestive power, they’re a nice match with “Black’ity Black,” the excellent new show (up until Apr. 18) that fills the gallery’s main space.
The exhibit, which is winsome and elegant even by the high standard of Novado shows, is a bouquet of abstract work by African-American artists. Curator Jerome China calls our attention to work by several aces who ought to be familiar to those who frequent Jersey galleries. There’s Dawn Stringer, whose “Dystopian Society” greets visitors to the gallery with a rush of orange and grey curves as kinetic as a waterslide. There’s the gently provocative Heather Williams, whose mesmerizing assemblies of torn paper, purple paint, ebony, and ripped-up pages of books shimmer with expressive confidence and formidable intellect. There’s the ambitious, impertinent Lisette Morel, who has been known to create large expressionist pieces with nothing but a janitor’s mop.
But my favorite pieces in this accomplished show come from two artists whose work I’d never seen before. In “Keloid Constructivist,” Beresford Boothe fashions a round, flat object from wood and small, overlapping pieces of violet-tinted fabric. It’s a play of concentric circles and acute angles, a totem, a shield for a careful, gentlemanly superhero. Even better are a trio of low-key stunners by Pennsylvania artist Al Johnson, a non-figurative painter whose works seem watchful nonetheless. Johnson’s abstractions are so tonally balanced and masterfully rendered that they can’t help but suggest actual non-abstract things: look at the very vertical “In Divine Orders” long enough, and you’re likely to see a guarded, weeping face. A gold rectangle peeks out from behind streaks of dark, dotted pigment in “The Merits of Faith.” “Ya Know Ya Outta Sight” contains rough rectangles of color (and a yawning black shape in the distance) and brushstrokes that swerve, jab, and arc. As stable as it appears to be at first glance, there’s turbulence under the placid exterior.
Johnson’s restraint echoes that of many of the artists in “Black’ity Black.” All over this show, painters, sculptors, and assemblers are holding mammoth forces in check, disciplining them, working at the hot forge and maybe getting their fingers singed in the process. Pain is palpable in the large, unframed wall-hanging by Ashley Cole, filled with great tufts of grey and gold paint, trickles, scribbles, and the letter “e” spelled backward, “Shining”-style, in “Legacy,” the piece’s title. Nearly hidden in the clouds is a question lettered in black: “what will we leave behind?”
Fragility and impermanence run like fault lines through “Welcome to Egglandia,” a marvel of a show on view in the lobby of ART150 (150 Bay St.) until the end of the month with a closing party this Sunday at 2 p.m. Paul Wirhun, aka “The Eggman,” does astonishing things with cracked eggshells: he shatters them into little pieces hardly bigger than a pinhead, batiks them, paints them, and affixes them to wooden planks in dizzying patterns. His work hovers somewhere between animal-assisted pointillism and the most maddening jigsaw puzzle imaginable. But no matter how small he breaks his shells, his medium retains its essential egginess. The brittle quality is always there, as is the slight curve and the matte finish that comes courtesy of Wirhun’s suppliers, and collaborators — ducks and chickens.
Eggshells are a metaphor for trepidation, and many of the pieces in “Egglandia” do seem disturbingly breakable. A mobile adorned with whole eggs dares viewers to breathe nearby (I didn’t). An American flag made of shattered eggshells?; well, that’s barely a metaphor. In 2023, that’s just current-events reporting. But other works in “Egglandia” suggest strength, permanence, and even muscularity. The egg-assembled images of spear-toting warriors do more than mimic the feel of unearthed mosaics. They mark Wirhun as a true transmutation specialist — an artist who can coax something brawny and masculine out of the most feminine of symbols. “Goddess 1” turns eggshells from cassowaries into a design suggestive of a frieze painstakingly retrieved from a dig, and reassembled by archaeologists. Cassowaries are ornery birds infamous for administering taloned kicks powerful enough to break skin and bones. Mess with their eggs at your own risk.
As skilled as the Eggman is at teasing peeled shells into the shape of representational images, some of the most wondrous pieces in “Welcome to Egglandia” are the most abstract. A long wooden plank that could have been a slat from a large fence (from a poultry farm, perhaps?) has been transformed into a stark, near-iconic image of the shore, complete with sand, surf, and high sky. It’s a beautiful seaside hallucination, and it’s almost too much to take in at once. A wallful of abstract shell assemblages have the luminous quality of beach glass and sanding sugar. Then there’s the “Tower of Broken Dreams”: six wooden blocks, each aggressively salted, peppered, and otherwise encrusted with eggshells, presented in a thin stack that looks as if it’s about to totter. Yet on close inspection, it’s sturdier than it looks. Whether for good or ill, broken dreams don’t come crashing down quite as easily as it often seems they will.
Another object that represents caution is the focus of “Koans,” a show mounted in the lobby of the A Condominiums (389 Washington St.). I’m trying not to use the o-word to describe Peter C. Emerick’s work, but there’s really no way around it: this man is obsessed with traffic cones. His digital prints feature scores of cones in elaborate arrangements suggestive of pinwheels, crowded circles, floral blooms, star charts, mandalas, and long strips that resemble readouts spat out of a mainframe. Emerick photographs his cones from above, emphasizing the aperture at the top and the gentle slope that surrounds the opening. Gather enough traffic cones together and vary the angle of the shot slightly, and the holes in the cones begin to take on the character of the moon as it drifts through its phases.
Almost all of the images in this curious, but not insubstantial, show are untitled, although cryptic combinations of letters and numbers are assigned to each one. Individual handles are warranted: Emerick shows us exactly how much variation a dedicated traffic cone connoisseur can coax out of photoshopped assemblies of cones by the bushelful. In “D21-0288,” the white arcs at the base of dozens of cones often touch, forming a cone relay with one circle swiveling into the next. ”D14-0720” is a traffic-orange doily of cones set against a field of blue dots that might be the cone’s reverse image. “D09-0645” is presented as a series of diamond-shaped panels, some quite large, each decorated with a single red cone and mounted on the wall like a traffic cop’s version of a rosy cross. The cones in the oddly chilling “D21-0162” resemble eyeballs in heavy-lidded sockets; set in a star-pattern on a yellow field, they form a tribunal, a hundred eyes peering through the peep holes of apartment doors.
It’s probably not accurate to say that a show like “Koans” could only happen in New Jersey. Traffic cones are general across America. They exist wherever drivers beep around. But the traffic cone has taken on near-mystical signification for highway-bound Garden State residents. Cone-orange is one of the primary colors in our regional palette, embedded as it is deep within our collective consciousness. In Zen Buddhism, the “koan” is a paradoxical statement meant to free the mind from the constraints of reason and guide the supplicant toward enlightenment. Emerick lifts this term with tongue only partially in cheek. All puns aside, he clearly believes there’s something transcendent about the traffic cone, and that its distinctive shape, texture, and hue is burning away somewhere on a Jersey-themed plane of ideas.
Emerick wins additional points from me for casting this magic spell in the entrance foyer of a charmless residential tower on the Newport-ish northeast corner of the neighborhood. The A Condominiums lobby doesn’t have the style that the common areas of the Majestic or the Hamilton Square do, but the building’s commitment to hosting art shows is promising. Better yet, the doors are open all day and into the evening, and if you’re just there to check out the art, you don’t even have to sign in. Art shows in condos weren’t exactly what the conceptualizers of WALDO or the Powerhouse Arts District had in mind for this neighborhood, but they sure beat no art shows at all. This weekend, with enchantment tucked in funny corners all over the neighborhood, we’re closer to the original vision that we’ve been in a long time. Get out and enjoy it, I say.