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|The Jersey Side
by Calvin Reid
|Jersey City has an awful lot of artists. That much is clear from the recent Jersey City Art Tour, an annual city-wide event held to show off the town's downtown revival and a long-established concentration of artistic activity. A short train ride from Manhattan, Jersey City seems ever poised to absorb the hoped-for spillover of public attention and critical scrutiny from the overheated Manhattan art scene, a spillover that never quite seems to arrive.
But the city's close proximity to Manhattan and its impressive stock of ancient and massive warehouse buildings supplying reasonably priced studio space have combined to make the town a haven for artists -- if not yet for dealers and art critics. This year's Jersey City Art Tour (Oct. 21-22, 2000), despite a significant amount of forgettable stuff, managed to show off both the town and a community of artists with the Manhattan art world on their minds.
The centerpiece of this whole affair is the B.U.M.F. Expo, a sprawling group exhibition of more than 40 artists at the Morgan Industrial Center, a hulking 100-year-old dour-red brick warehouse that looms over the area like a medieval fortress. Equally important is the grandly named Jersey City Biennial, located in another jumbo space called the Art Center on First Street, a labyrinthine five-floor former industrial building completely crammed with artists studios as well as two gallery spaces.
Coordinator of the citywide activities and also organizing the B.U.M.F. Expo (that would be the Big Ugly Mother-Fucking Expo to insiders) is freelance curator Robert Costa, a bewhiskered, tireless veteran of many baggy but smart group exhibitions in downtown Manhattan during the 1980s. Since abandoning Manhattan, he's become a kind of low-budget impresario for visual artists on the Jersey side, hitting up friendly landlords for the temporary use of big vacant spaces and putting the kind of large, all encompassing presentations of the local art scene he was known for in the East Village.
If the history of the nomadic urban group exhibition is ever written, Costa's masochistic devotion to finding ingenious ways to present serious art on a gigantic scale, all with very little money or even reliable help, should be given some kind of art historical pat on the back.
At the Morgan Center, Costa managed to come up with three cavernous adjoining spaces (more than 50,000 square feet total) and filled the halls with works and installations by a fair number of New York City-identified artists. These included the post-modernist appropriation artist Mike Bidlo as well as Jersey City denizen Ron Moresan, a painter, former Manhattan gallerist (the now defunct B4A Gallery) and a congenial art-world polemicist who has a studio in the next building over.
Bidlo turned part of the space into a temporary studio-for-the-weekend, executing and displaying three imposing, nine-foot-square black and white paintings of Duchampian icons -- the urinal, bicycle wheel and bottle rack. Droll and vividly graphic, Bidlo's recreation of the signature works is a delightful combination of homage, adept gestural drawing and spare psychological goofiness.
Bidlo paints half of each well-known image onto one side of a giant canvas, then produces a cheerfully inventive Rorshach image of the whole -- one half a painted drawing, the other side a monoprint -- by folding the painting's blank half over the painted side to create a symmetrical hybrid. The result is a series of stark and uneasy Duchampian logos, wavering in meaning between a simple but vibrant drawing and a wry schematic of an art historical moment of tremendous symbolic power.
Moresan (whom I count as both a New Yorker and a Jersey guy) offered his own version of Duchamp's career in a box, along with works from some of the artists he exhibited at B4A. His own work came in a box; a series of small engaging cartoon-like narrative paintings presented right from a small battered valise and depicting, I was told, the many less-than-happy experiences he endured while dealing with artists at an artist-run gallery.
But there were more than a few surprisingly impressive works spread out over the massive halls. Tiffany Ludwig's segmented photographs of ordinary objects (a steering wheel, for instance) were suspended from the ceiling, each segment a small section of the overall picture, transforming the subsequent image into retinal jigsaw puzzles that forced the eye to resolve their dispersed forms.
Jersey City artist Kit Sailer's huge fabric work (it must have been 25 or 30 feet long) of multi-colored cloth overlaid with carefully rendered drawings of octopuses read like a painting, its scale, color, material and meticulous draftsmanship suggesting some hybrid between theatrical backdrop and a sensitive public mural.
Other installations are quiet and small. Hoboken artist Laura Alexander's work is a thoughtful combination of painterly skill and atmospheric lyricism. The sculpture features a small red and white suitcase, placed on its end and opened. Inside is a tiny set of watercolor paints and on the floor nearby, she's painted a baby in trompe l'oeil that looks like its reaching for a very real, blue toy.
There were New Yorkers all over the place. Sarah Barker included one of several strikingly serene works. The piece, Digits on the Move, consisted of long sheets of bubble wrap suspended on four sides around a delicately painted blue green abstraction set on the floor. Barker has carefully (obsessively) inserted tiny bits of colored paper into each bubble to produce an alternating series of stippled stripes, whose color and effect vary as the light plays across the works.
Surrounded by suspended sheets of fabric painted with a series of footprints and languid imagery, Rebecca Goyette's installation combined the Zen-like calm of Barker's work with a carefully appointed interior space, comfortably furnished with pillows and snacks and intellectually animated by a confessional narrative playing on a tape recorder.
Richard Nocera presented large muscularly painted, representational portraits of the heads of young black boys. Far more dramatic than serene, with more than a bit of ghetto cliché, the work's presentation -- suspended from the ceiling in a darkened area and spotlit -- was nevertheless effective, projecting a moody combination of painterly facility and a powerful sense of social emotion and possibility.
For an example of the sheer power of social empathy in art, you couldn't beat Margareth Schnipper's ad hoc installation of the sundry bits and pieces of the emotional connections between human beings. In her ongoing project, Schnipper collects letters, postcards, photographs and idiosyncratic notes from friends and acquaintances detailing long unexpressed or suppressed sentiments of attachment, loss or regret.
She displays these metaphorical notes-in-a-bottle on clotheslines strung across the space. Like an emotional laundry day, the installation seems to offer some sense of purgation, symbolically cleansing a lot of grimy, infectious, misplaced inner stuff and allowing her correspondents to move on from the past with reasonably clean existential underwear.
As for the Jersey City Biennial, it was installed in the Irving Goldman Memorial Gallery, a huge artist-run space tucked within the Art Center on First Street. This artist-organized "Biennial" (full disclosure: I wrote a pithy, cheerleading little introduction on artist-organized exhibitions for the catalogue) is the first of what they hope to be a series of independently run biennials focusing on the Jersey side. The rest of catalogue is rich in chutzpah about Jersey artists needing their 15 minutes of "Public Acclaim."
The show-proper featured works by about 25 or so artists with some kind of real or symbolic connection to New Jersey. Among those featured were rubber sculptor Chakaia Booker, Ab Ex painter Serena Bocchino and psychosexual, black pop culturalist painter Lennon Jno-Baptiste.
Notable too was Bernard Jackson's Slave Ship, an imposing and over-the-top theatrical installation that dealt in no uncertain terms with the slave experience (this installation has apparently been exhibited in other locations around the state), and the thoroughly unusual works of an unidentified, outsider painter called the Anonymous Artist. AA's quirky works feature a succession of dark, murky and diverting faces painted on bits of cardboard or Styrofoam, which are then broken down for transport and reassembled for display. Their fractured, fissured surfaces, awkward and moody technique and air of blunt mystery are hard to ignore.
The rest of JCAT was spread out around the city in open studios, historic buildings and in the handful of commercial galleries in Jersey City. They seemed to attract an audience of weekend art lovers. There was even an exhibition at a tattoo parlor, Modern Electric Art and Graphics, run by tattoo artist Denise de La Cerda. The show, "Tattoo Baby Doll Project," was organized by Sherri Wood, an artist specializing in women's traditional crafts.
She compiled a collection of fabric-body baby dolls and searched the country for female tattoo artists (apparently a rare phenomenon in the tattoo world) to draw designs for the dolls. Wood then painstakingly embroidered the drawings on the dolls. Meticulously crafted, funny and damn cute in a wild thing kind-of-way, Wood's dolls are best cataloged in the Thelma & Louise school of feminist art projects.
CALVIN REID is an artist who writes on art.