Macauley Norman
Macauley Norman

McGinley Square likes to call itself the heart of Jersey City. It says so right there on the green banners that hang from the streetlights on Bergen Avenue. Residents of other neighborhoods might object. Yet McGinley Square’s centrality is a geographical fact. Most of the major roads in town will bring you there sooner or later. And if the designation of a city’s heart implies a certain liveliness — a beat on the street — McGinley Square has a legitimate claim to lay. The area continues to feel like Jersey City’s incubator: blocks where you’d never be surprised to find an oddball startup business run on a shoestring budget, or a café that attracts a multi-ethnic crowd, or a bike shop, or a vegan restaurant.

Or visual art. Galleries in the vicinity of McGinley Square have tended to be transient, which forces organizers to improvise. Thomas Banks, an artist who lives in the neighborhood, has squeezed a show with a broad scope and almost one hundred pieces by twenty local artists into a narrow space: Crema (1 Duncan Ave.), a coffee shop and ice cream spot on a busy Bergen Avenue corner. The hallway leading to the washrooms at the back of Crema is narrow, but that hasn’t stopped Banks from filling it with work from artists who are usually the beneficiaries of copious wall space. That includes outdoor artists Clarence Rich and Mr. Mustart, who’ve contributed tiny little pieces in their distinctive styles — those vertiginous bismuth-inspired squiggles from Rich, and those melting, near-edible aerosol textures from Mustart. Kati Vilim, who often works geometric wonders on large canvases, keeps things tight with a black backward C on a modest-sized square. Stained-glass boxes from TF Dutchman of Deep Space Gallery perch on the north wall.  Macauley Norman and Rebecca N. Johnson make their signals heard, too; if you saw their solo shows at Deep Space, you’ll recognize their styles immediately.

But the main audible voice is “The Emancipation Exhibition Part Seven — A Prayer for Peace” is that of the curator himself. Thomas Banks has decorated the front window of the ice cream parlor with his sculptures and lined the walls with his paintings, and he’s also added some of his pieces to the salon-style assembly in the corridor at the back of the shop. He’s made the front of the shop feel a bit like the playroom of an imaginative but recalcitrant child: it’s colorful, a bit confrontational, and loaded with toys. Statuettes of a ninja, a unicorn, a Mutant Turtle, and Charlie Brown share space at the top of a rotating phonograph with an array of matchbox cars. Baby Yoda peers out at us from between two plants, and a fat model American Airlines plane perches next to Pegasus above an expanse of Astroturf. Two hands (or are they claws?) protruding from a pair of empty Frosted Flakes containers grip a leering rubber face made from a deflated basketball.

These toys do not feel reclaimed from the trash. Many of them look rather new, and maybe even well-loved.  While nobody will mistake this for a display at F.A.O. Schwarz, there’s a real sense of care for these dolls and figurines. Banks is giving you a glimpse of a mind at play: associative, uncooperative, deliberately untethered from tradition. “The Emancipation Exhibition” reminds us that children are the great postmodernists, unafraid to pit Batman against Barbie, mixing together characters and stories and assembling wild worlds of their own invention, and getting their disparate playthings to sing in rough, chaotic harmony.

His paintings are similarly mischievous. Banks likes to paint thin vertical lines in bright candy-store colors; sometimes, he’ll let these stand as they are, and sometimes he’ll interrupt them with ketchup-package splotches of shiny pink and red pigment. Like many of Banks’s works, these pieces look almost edible, and fit in very well in a café where icing and sprinkles are general across much of the menu. He’s also made room on the Crema walls for pieces done by his wife and child Hannah and Fiona. Do these extended Banks family paintings share the curator’s idiosyncrasy? Well, let’s just say like father, like daughter.

“The Emancipation Exhibition” is viewable whenever Crema is open — and Crema is open rather often. The show is technically not part of tonight’s JC Fridays events, but if you’re at SMUSH Gallery (340 Summit Ave.) and in the mood for some ice cream and a menagerie of toys, you might make the ten minute walk south to Crema before it closes at 7 p.m. SMUSH is participating in JC Fridays, as the little Gallery always does; this time around, they’ve invited artisans to set up shop on the floor. That commerce will happen in the shadow of a remarkably affordable art show. “Zero to 80” features pieces by twenty-five artists, all of which are priced for eighty bucks or less.  In its polite, low-key provocation, its salon-style presentation in tight quarters, and its McGinley Square eclecticism, it resembles “The Emancipation Exhibition.”

Just as Tom Banks baits the hook with the work of some of the town’s more audacious street artists, Gallerists Benedicto Figueroa and Katelyn Halpern have brought back some SMUSH favorites. The irreverent Buttered Roll, poet of traffic-cone orange, gives us a few more of his cartoon-like streetscapes, including an image of an anarchist vape shop positively dripping with nihilism. Doodleallday’s collage superimposes a girl with a smart handbag and Mary Janes — and a jagged-leafed fern where her head should be — atop vintage maps and images of grapefruit slices. Kat Almirañez sells a fantasy of black and white bricks and broad columns and a strange, insect-like habitant for ten dollars. Halpern stitches love notes in Valentine red into discarded Styrofoam; Figueroa’s insouciant cartoon character, in a rough white circle on a Buttered Roll-orange background, tells us in Spanish that she doesn’t mind.

And also like “The Emancipation Exhibition,” “Zero to 80” is a stealth family affair. The star of this show turns out to be Figueroa’s young daughter Isis, whose guerrilla photographs are all over this exhibit. The junior Figueroa (and the senior, too, probably) has an eye for urban incongruity, and her shots of skyscrapers and cranes at angles that suggest a sojourn in the gutter, forlorn shopping trolleys abandoned on the grassy verge by the Embankment, and at least one Smurf-blue and graffiti-tagged Porta Potty are full of quotidian mystery, and they’re more than a bit reminiscent of the fantastic Christian Gallo show that lit up SMUSH last autumn. Her photos aren’t just good for a kid: they’re among the most intriguing pieces in this consistently interesting show. A curator finding space in a show for his own child isn’t the sort of thing that you’d expect to encounter on the other side of the river; heck, you wouldn’t encounter it Downtown.  In McGinley Square, it’s happened twice in about five city blocks.  That ought to tell you something about the neighborhood.  It might even tell you something about heart.

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,...