You’d be forgiven for thinking that the artists with works on display at “Vivid Visions” will also be showing at this year’s Art Fair 14C. The 14C logo is right there on all the official communications about the show. Curator Kristine Go is the Exhibitions Director for the Fair (she’s also one of the founders of the ambitious MK Apothecary in Collingswood). Several of the contributors to “Vivid Visions,” a group show that will hang in the central gallery on the second floor of 150 Bay St. until September 8, have been part of previous Fairs, including Nathalie De Zan, whose surreal images of red-lipped models remain visible in the background of the 14C site. Thomas John Carlson, one of the standouts of last year’s Fair at the Armory, is part of this show. So is Eileen Ferara, artist, environmentalist, and renderer of the natural world in paper designs. So is Mustart, Jersey City’s resident aerosol virtuoso.

Yet when Art Fair 14C opens in Liberty State Park this fall, none of the thirty-seven pieces in “Vivid Visions” will be there. Instead, this show consists of work that didn’t make it into the Fair. The high quality of the pieces in “Vivid Visions” makes this a peculiar kind of preview for Jersey City’s flagship art event.  It is at once a reminder of the 14C commitment to quality and a reinforcement of the event’s exclusivity.  The relegation of some 14C favorites to the undercard suggests that the work we’ll see in October is formidable — strong enough to keep these “Visions” on the periphery. 14C Executive Director Robinson Holloway is telling us that she’s poised to fill the Central Railroad Terminal at LSP with art that is as good or better than a not-atypical Mustart painting. She’s given herself quite a bar to clear.  

Sarah Van Vleit

She’s also made a gutsy play in a high-stakes game.  Many artists in Jersey City have expressed worries that the Fair’s main event at LSP will overshadow the citywide Studio Tour — the decades-old democratizing art event that was bequeathed to 14C by the city’s Cultural Affairs department earlier this year.  “Vivid Visions” is unlikely to assuage those fears, but it ought to reassure the leery about the creative capacities of Holloway’s team.  Kristine Go has taken a disparate group of pieces by artists united only by their frustrated aspirations and made an exciting show out of them.  Credit the curator’s excellent eye — that, and her knack for graceful juxtaposition.    

The coherence of “Vivid Visions” is also the residue of the Fair’s consistency. After five years, we know what the team likes. There are a few whimsical pieces of sculpture in the show, including a hatbox-sized hanging ornament in green and blue by local stained glass master TF Dutchman, and Charlie Spademan’s gravity-defying “Pillbox Hat,” a study of an anvil plunging point-first into a red balloon. Photographer Kasia Skorynkiewicz captures a wan pair of payphones, fading unloved into obsolescence in scrubby Meadowlands undergrowth, shadows stretched like taffy in a pool of standing water. But the show is dominated by the moody figurative paintings that the 14C arbiters dig: canvases that are lustrous, dreamlike, non-realist but not entirely abstract. These “Vivid Visions” hint at larger tales, and whisper in a visual language familiar to people who’ve made their lives in the urban Northeast.

There’s the Hopper-like “All This to Say That I’m Thinking of You and Where We Are in Our Lives” by Nan Ring, a painting that’s so 14C-like in its tone and execution that I’m left thinking that its exclusion from the big show at the railroad terminal had to have been a clerical error. A woman stands alone in a tight corner of a sparsely furnished room and stares at a blank window. She’s not dressed for the damp and chilly day; she’s not dressed at all. The unforgiving northern winter hovers over the scene. Nevertheless, the painting is lively. Light pours through a transom and paints streaks on the grey wall. A desk-chair is frozen in mid-swivel on a floor is reflective as a sheet of ice. The protagonist, too, seems like she’s on the move: her white shadow suggests a body making a hesitant turn toward the light. Her expression is mysterious, but her carriage is hopeful. This is a storyteller’s painting — a still image from a reverie in progress — and it’s designed to linger in your mind long after your eyeballs have finished the labor of looking.

Macauley Norman

There is nothing in Ring’s painting that situates it in the midst of the pandemic.  But lockdown longing permeates the piece anyway — and estrangement from the flow of normal life is felt throughout the show.  “Let’s Scroll,”  an oil painting by Sarah Van Vleit, tackles a different sort of isolation.  She captures a pair of young women absently probing their phones with that strange mixture of consternation and ennui that is one of the hallmarks of the age.  As character studies go, it’s a damning one.  There’s more humanity visible in the face-like grill of the broken-down sedan in Carlson’s “Rusty Tusk 9.”  Hood popped open and headlights staring, it seems positively shocked to have been dumped in the Jersey swamps. 

Other paintings address the viewer more cryptically, but they, too, are bearers of drama.  Deep Space favorite Macauley Norman spins a web of twine over fields of pretty colored acrylic paint. The spider lurks in the upper right hand quadrant; some unfortunate being appears to be trapped in the upper left.  Move around the piece quickly and the whole thing seems to shimmer to life.  Franc Palaia situates a grimacing, alligator-like horse’s head on a piece of polystyrene.  This ornery customer curves around a photograph of a graffiti-smothered door.  It feels like the artist has torn a husk of wall torn out from a city intersection and transposed it to a minor key.  Dolores Poacelli’s work is explicitly polemical: her painted rows of bricks are both smothered and distanced by a wash of peach colored paint. You’d get the message even if she didn’t call it “Gentrification/Displaced.”

Franc Palaia

These images of the built environment are powerful reminders that for all its scope, this Art Fair is named after a Turnpike exit.  The people behind 14C are territorially ambitious — they’ve contemplated expansion to Utah — but they’re carried to their destinations on a Meadowlands breeze.  Their visions are urban ones, and they’re vivd because they’re emotionally honest.  They’re true to the environment that the Art Fair represents.  “Rise and Shine,” a brilliant collage by Matt Gabel, is the city as a manifestation of sunlight, energy made solid and habitable, a cluster of old-school architectural exemplars against a morning yellow background. Then there’s Joseph Castronova’s impish three-dimensional tangle of colored paper, which looks as if somebody took a potato peeler to a work of street art. Cleverly, Kristine Go has tucked it right next to the Mustart aerosol. No, they won’t be in the big October show.  But anybody who has followed the evolution of 14C knows they certainly could have been.  That makes “Vivid Visions” a very provocative teaser, and a starter pistol shot announcing that Fair season is upon us again, ready or not.  

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,...