Curating a group show is a little like deejaying a set, a little like stitching together a patchwork quilt, and a lot like assembling a choir. A curator must get many different voices to sing in harmony. Like a choir, a well curated group exhibition isn’t univocal. Instead, each participant is selected to augment and amplify the strengths of its neighbors. That’s tough to do. It requires a combination of vision, editorial talent, and patience.
Also, a little self-effacement doesn’t hurt. But in Jersey City, that can be tricky, since many of the best curators are often exhibiting artists themselves. “Notes on Experimentation,” the revved-up group show that’ll occupy in the big ground floor DeCentralize Gallery at MANA Contemporary until the end of the week, wouldn’t sing as sweetly as it does without the inclusion of paintings and homemade dresses by curator Maria De Los Angeles. “Notes” includes work from twenty-four MANA artists with markedly different approaches, skills, and motivations for making art. The chances of confusion were high. Instead, De Los Angeles has shaped these pieces into one of the year’s most coherent shows — an exhibition that presents MANA as the spiritual home of opinionated, politically engaged artists dedicated to the vivid, dramatic gesture. This show would roar with personality even if the curator hadn’t parked a motorbike in the middle of the floor (she did).
“Notes on Experimentation,” which contains paintings from the ecologically aware Rebecca N. Johnson and the earthy abstract expressionist Anthony Boone, an assemblage in wood, twine, and paper cutouts from the pained Danielle Scott, more vivid visual storytelling from Leandro Comrie and superficially childlike, live-wire work from joyrider Amelia Shields, feels like a direct successor to the outstanding “A Message From the Underground.” That show, curated by De Los Angeles at MANA Contemporary two autumns ago, was explosive and hyper-aware — but for reasons that were hard to fathom, it was tucked in a back gallery on a higher floor. “Notes” brings De Los Angeles’s vision to MANA’s most prominent presentation space, and gives the curator lots of room to follow her own rhythms and create productive juxtapositions between pieces that, at first glance, don’t have much in common. You’ve got one last chance to take this motorcycle ride. There’ll be a mixer and closing reception at MANA (888 Newark Ave.) on Thursday evening from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
On your way into the DeCentralize Gallery from the main hall, you may notice some small but talkative drawings hung on the western wall. They’re contributions from Kele McComsey, the creative director of MANA Contemporary and curator of some of the most ambitious shows mounted in Jersey City over the past few years. To catch McComsey’s latest round-up, you’ve got to look Downtown: “I Would Prefer Not To…,” a group show featuring work from twenty-three artists, closes at ART150 (157A Bay Street) this weekend. This sly, subtly subversive exhibition is inspired by the title character of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a meek white-collar worker whose acts of self-negation and passive resistance twist the company men around him into knots of frustration. McComsey has solicited work from artists who share Melville’s tacit critique, and maybe even some of Bartleby’s maddening methods.
Many of them are a more forceful than Bartleby, though. There’s Sajal Sarker’s remarkable pen portrait of an anarchist, wide-eyed, suspicious, looking over his shoulder in an expression that is at once hounded and defiant. There’s Deborah Pohl’s painting of a copy of Waiting for Godot taped to the wall along with a brown bag — an accusatory still life in grayscale. There’s the wonderfully belligerent Mary Jean Canziani, who paints directly on to the jackets and spines of old books, the arresting portraitist Hui Tian, and local provocateur Fabricio Suarez, whose hallucinations are rendered in oil paint in crisp and frightening detail. Other pieces whisper of turbulence, like a battle map of Eastern Turkey stitched into a lace-like textile and a golden paperweight melting, possessively, into a pile of cash. “I Would Prefer Not To…” closes with a brunch reception at the big gallery on the second floor of 150 Bay Street on Sunday afternoon from 1 p.m to 4 p.m.