One of the greater ironies of art in Jersey City: the three truly incendiary group shows mounted during the pandemic era have all hung in our most moneyed institution. “Implied Scale,” a condemnation of waste and a passionate staredown directed at habitat destruction, “Land of the Free,” a searing examination of the border and the dynamics of exclusion, and “A Message From the Underground,” a howl of protest from the marginalized and dispossessed, were all exhibited at MANA Contemporary. Financial independence can insulate an arts venue from the public pressure to play nice. Our college and university galleries aren’t quite as shielded from the marketplace or expectations of propriety, but at least they don’t have to sell tickets (or paintings) to stay afloat. They can afford to provoke us a little. Sometimes they do. Earlier this year at NJCU, Nedko Bucev rang the alarm about the pollution of the water table, and P.E. Pinkman threw elbows at the walls of his lockdown room in his solo show at St. Peter’s.
Now comes “Your Home Is My Home,” a group show at the Benjamin J. Dineen III and Dennis C. Hull Gallery at Hudson County Community College (71 Sip Ave.) that feels like a gentler and more measured follow-up to “Land of the Free.” Though it doesn’t close until Nov. 14, this exhibit is the College’s contribution to Hispanic Heritage Month, and it asks many of the same questions that “Land of the Free” did, albeit in a calmer voice. Who gets to call the Americas home, and on what basis? Are borders serving anybody, or are they just there to exacerbate ugly differentials in power? What do new arrivals in North American cities have to do to be embraced? How much of ethnic culture is heritage, how much is happenstance, and how much is simply self-preservation? Curator Michelle Vitale doesn’t hit us over the head with any of this, but it all murmurs in the background of this consistently intriguing show. It’s one of the few exhibitions to pick up MANA’s implicit challenge to Jersey City gallerists: be confrontational.
Surely it is no coincidence that some of the most attention-catching works in “Your Home Is My Home” were created by Maria de Los Angeles, curator of the incendiary “A Message From the Underground.” De Los Angeles fills a wall at Dineen Hull with pencil drawings and watercolors of the U.S. southern border zone. Some of these scenes are portrayed in a realistic style, with sad faces and hunched postures from migrants and clenched jaws and impassive expressions from patrolmen. Others are quick impressions, hasty protests, surreal images of cages and masticating mouths. Her drawings are urgent, immediate, nakedly emotional, and her colors are those of a court sketch artist. Like Vincent Valdez in “Land Of The Free,” de Los Angeles sees the border as a corrupting, crippling force, stealing opportunity from detainees and humanity from those doing the detaining.
A different kind of national dividing line runs through the work of New York City photographer Alex Morel, whose work straddles the conceptual chasm separating two nations on the same island of Hispaniola: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Morel’s Haiti is communitarian, scarred, soulful, and dispossessed; his Dominican is striving, functional, idyllic, but guarded. One gorgeous, telling shot captures Dominicans peering at each other from corners of an outdoor swimming pool divided from another watering hole by a fence-like line of trees. Shrewdly, Vitale hangs the photo essay near Maria de Los Angeles’s sketches, highlighting the resonances between the two projects. Policing imaginary lines in the earth is by no means an affliction confined to the people of United States. It’s a human challenge for everyone to overcome.
For the moment, misinterpretation and confusion is general across the hemisphere, and the artists in “Your Home Is My Home” are determined to register that destabilization. A crimson haze hangs over the lagoon depicted in Fabricio Suarez’s recent oil painting “Old Gods Almost Dead,” and withered, top-heavy sunflowers bow toward the surface of the water. In a chilling, effective breach of realism, black paint drips from the leaves toward the murk at the bottom of the canvas. Onel David Naar’s amalgams of paint and torn-up posters crackle with the same restless spirit of recontextualization and adaptive reuse that runs through hip-hop. His pieces are records of cultural collisions — everything bouncing around, nothing settled, with art, advertisement, and architecture all competing for attention in the ideological turbine of the modern city. The plantain leaves that decorate the frames of his pictures speak to his background, and remind the viewer that every grand cityscape was built on the sweat of humble laborers. Likewise, Blanka Amezkua’s images of pugilistic women are embroidered directly on to tortilla cloth. They don’t have to let you know they’re Latin American. Identity, defiance, desire: it’s all stitched right into their combative faces.
Vitale has supplemented the works by contemporary artists with pieces drawn from the college’s Foundation Art Collection. All of these reinforce the theme and the mood, but none encapsulates the show quite as fully as “The Crossing,” a 1991 lithograph by Cuban artist Luis Cruz Azaceta. A severed head floats in a dinghy, surrounded by jagged Caribbean waves. Its eyes are bloodshot, and its mouth is frozen in a rictus, caught somewhere between amazement and horror. Should the decapitated man reach the United States, what sort of reception could he possibly hope to get? Would it have been better for him to stay in a place where his neighbors were determined to separate his head from his shoulders? This is the existence he’s guaranteed: caught between nations, robbed of volition, at home everywhere and nowhere, drifting in the great, turbulent inbetween.
Featured work: “The Crossing” by Luis Cruz Azaceta