Like an ocean liner or a flying saucer, Art House Gallery (345 Marin Blvd.) is full of portholes. These do not look out the sea or a starry sky. Instead, they’re peeks into a frosty netherworld — one that is brightly illuminated, but where the light is refracted through so much haze that it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s going on. There are people here, too, heads outlined in circular frames, faces partially occluded by mist or peeking through the condensation on the other side of the glass. One porthole contains a glamorous mermaid, attended by three Nemo-like clownfish, staring, astonished, with big blue eyes through a patch of waving purple seagrass. Another porthole opens on lighthouse that flares and dims depending on where the viewer stands. Walk past it and you’ll see it blaze to life; keep going, and the beacon fades to night.

Frank Ippolito from the "Outsiders" series
Frank Ippolito from the “Outsiders” series

This trick is the doing of the wizard Frank Ippolito, an artist with a studio at 150 Bay Street, but one whose practice and outlook sets him apart. For one thing, in group shows at 150, Ippolito is the artist whose work needs to be plugged in. Among a local art scene that is often reserved and sometimes even grave, he’s a homegrown generator of industrial light and magic. Ippolito’s frames are lit from within, and the photographs and illustrations beneath the glass often have the quality of objects buried under sheets of ice. Among the characters caught in carbon freeze in “Trans-Lucid,” a show that’ll be on view until the end of the month, are a heavily bearded old sorcerer with an arched eyebrow and knuckles pressed against the glass, a Prometheus figure with purple circled eyes bestowing a burning twig to the viewer, a woman-machine hybrid staring out of a window in a window, face bathed in the red glow of a lightstick, and a family groping forward through the fog, apprehensive, huddled together against misfortune. Frames evoke picture windows, television screens and computer monitors, vanity mirrors, dimensional portals, and in some cases, vintage European portraiture enlivened by jolts of electricity.

Frank Ippolito "Shakti"
Frank Ippolito “Shakti”

Many works of modern art feel like they’ve been sat for; Ippolito’s works feel acted out. References to fantasy and science fiction are fully and enthusiastically intended. He’s the rare Jersey City visual artist who draws, with few reservations, from popular filmed entertainment, and his enthusiasm (and perhaps, envy) for the power of Hollywood compels him to put his pictures in motion. In “Breaking News,” a triptych that opens the show, a trio of beleaguered men are pursued by letters and numbers that chase them across the frames. These are lenticular prints: a technology that coaxes animation and depth out of flat images. It’s not seen very frequently in Hudson County and its appearance in “Trans-Lucid” signals Ippolito’s ambition, his restlessness, and his sense of play.

Frank Ippolito "Immaculate"
Frank Ippolito “Immaculate”

Since the Art House Gallery fronts Marin, Ippolito and curator Andrea McKenna have no choice but to fit all the light-up portholes, lenticular prints, shining windows, and radiant frames on the western wall of the space. The effect is more than a bit like entering the monitor section of the Best Buy. But Ippolito’s subjects aren’t television characters. The separation between audience and performer never evaporates as it does when watching a program. Instead, the people in “Trans-Lucid” are all aware of the restrictions imposed by the frame and the glass. Sometimes, they’re miffed about it. Much of this show concerns the distance between ourselves and what we perceive — a distance mediated, but not always reduced, by light. The artist’s understanding of light is nuanced: it can clarify, but it can also conceal. He’s amazed by the way that those photons squirm beyond his control (and the control of his subjects), and that awe, wonder, and occasional irritation is part of the show.

Kevin Darmanie "La Cantante"
Kevin Darmanie “La Cantante”

Light gets channeled a little differently, but no less masterfully, by Newark watercolorist Kevin Darmanie, whose slices of urban life are suffused with pandemic-era anxiety. “Apartment Therapy,” an exhibition on the Art Wall in the back of CoolVines Powerhouse (350 Warren St.), consists of just five Darmanie paintings, but those five are plenty sufficient to make his points. Darmanie, who works from photographs of interiors, is meticulous about rendering the play of sunshine and shadow in the rooms he portrays. In his watercolors, everything either absorbs light, blocks it, filters it, or refracts it — and he’s got techniques for capturing all of that. The floor of an empty “Market Street” apartment is vigorously mopped by sunbeams. Everything from the fronds of a fern to a wall fixture that looks like a security camera casts a wan shadow in “The Visitor.” A black sphere dangles over the head of the “Woman With Fake Plants,” portending disaster and hinting at nihilism; the reflection of a white cabinet plunges into the squeaky-clean linoleum floor of the antiseptic “Market Street Interior.”

Kevin Darmanie "Market Street"
Kevin Darmanie “Market Street”

Because of Darmanie’s facility with representing light, we know specifics quickly — what time it is, what season it is, what the weather is like. This puts us right in the middle of his visual storytelling, and like Ippolito, he’s got plenty of drama to show us. The single humble potted plant on the floor of the Market Street apartment is the last living thing to be moved out. The cleaning is assiduous, probably because the tenant needs his security deposit back. The subject of “La Cantante” is so absorbed in her selfie that pixilation is creeping into the fabric of her surroundings. Amazingly, the fake plants surrounding the impertinent woman really do look factory assembled, perhaps because of the vinyl-like slickness that Darmanie has managed to impart to the leaves. “The Visitor” perches on a stool with the toes of her sneakers tenuously touching the floor; her posture is friendly, but she looks ready to run. Even if her face wasn’t masked, you’d recognize her mid-lockdown skittishness. She’s in a room that isn’t hers, and even though it’s nicely appointed, it’s become alien territory. Casual encounters are fraught, the inorganic replaces the organic, the city is evacuated, a pervasive sense of loneliness hovers over a frightened town.

Kevin Darmanie "The Visitor"
Kevin Darmanie “The Visitor”

A different kind of discomfort pervades “Meliflua,” an unsettling installation in the first floor lobby of 150 Bay Street. Josue Morales Urbina, a Guatemalan-American artist with an affinity for polymers and a taste for room-transforming installations, has come up with his largest and most memorable piece yet: great asterisks of intersecting plastic tubing, drinking straws for dinosaurs, suspended in bunches from the ceiling. Most of the cylinders hang unmolested, but a few ends are dipped in a square trough filled with honey. Urbina, who made a splash last year in the main gallery at 150 Bay by stuffing hundreds of tiny tubes into a tall stack of PVC pipes, continues to be fascinated by the optical distortions caused by channeling light through narrow tunnels. The plastic cylinders in “Meliflua” are objects manufactured to shield, direct, and amplify electric light. They’re tube guards for fluorescent bulbs.

Yet it’s the puddle of honey that this installation will be remembered for. In this quantity, it’s a little overwhelming to see, and even more arresting to smell. Olfactory notes from “Meliflua” are clearly discernible in the elevator, and detectable on the floor above. In the late April sunshine, the pool of honey takes on the color of tarnished brass. It looks far too viscous to be drawn through the straws, but some wayward giant appears to have attempted to take a drink anyway: some pipes that are nowhere near the honey appear to have their ends ringed with it. A few other, smaller creatures found the pool too hard to resist. At the time of my visit, several flies were buried in the honey. I do not believe that their bodies, encased in Urbina’s amber, were meant to be part of this show. But their fate has a lesson for all creatures lured by the light. Illumination is a trickier and more treacherous business than it seems.

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,...