‘It Feels Like Home’ show at ArtWall has a lot to say about Jersey City


Deb Sinha’s “Hamilton Park II” is part of the “It Feels Like Home: Genius Loci Jersey City” exhibition at ArtWall.

When the city of Jersey City designated an artist district just north of the Exchange Place PATH train station, it was a sense of community that its designers were chasing. Arts advocates dreamed of blocks filled with galleries and performance spaces, populated by individual creators who would live, work and interact with each other. They even gave it a snappy name: The Powerhouse Arts District, after the giant triple-smokestacked former plant for the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad that squats at the eastern edge of the neighborhood.

That was two decades ago. The Powerhouse Arts District is still there, wedged between the office buildings on the waterfront and the historic Downtown neighborhoods. Yet it never became the attraction that its proponents wanted it to be. The erection of tall, glass-fronted residential towers made parts of the District feel inartistic. Lax enforcement of the Arts District ordinance allowed developers to cut corners on their requirements to create live/work units. Most of all, high property values and elevated rents made the District a hard place for artists to put down roots. Transience has been a persistent problem. So has low morale.

Nevertheless, there always have been artists in the District. And though it is sometimes difficult to find space, those artists do manage to show their work. Some of the most illuminating shows in the arts neighborhood have been mounted in its most unconventional room: a nook in the back of an upmarket wine shop and grocery. The ArtWall at CoolVines (350 Warren St.) is exactly what it sounds like it is — a single stretch of white wall, right around the corner from the cash register and leading to the store’s back door. Over the past few years, painters, photographers, textile artists and unclassifiable mystery-makers have taken turns hanging pieces on that wall, often to startling effect.

It helps that CoolVines takes its space as seriously as any other gallery in town. Its shows are small, but they get proper opening and closing parties; they are well conceived, and they always feature notable local artists. In a town as distinguished and as art-mad as Jersey City, that is saying something. Some other exhibition spaces in the Powerhouse Arts District are locked away on upper floors of former warehouses and available to inspect only by appointment. The ArtWall, by contrast, is viewable whenever the store is open, and the store keeps the generous hours you would expect from a wine seller. The commercial considerations of the parent business have turned ArtWall into one of the town’s most accessible galleries.

“It Feels Like Home: Genius Loci Jersey City,” on view through June 3, may be the quintessential ArtWall exhibition. It is a group show featuring work from artists associated with Hudson County and, in some cases, associated with The Powerhouse Arts District. In succinct strokes, it makes its points about Jersey City, which is presented as a town in perpetual transition between physical and emotional states, and possessing a rough, defiant beauty. The works, lined up one after another, tell a short but complicated tale. It is, like all ArtWall shows, thoughtful, and attuned to its surroundings and to the story of a city and a neighborhood that has been written, rewritten and overwritten, but always remains curiously incomplete. Maybe it even begs for further alteration.

Jennifer Krause Chapeau’s “Studio View Jersey City.”

The grabbiest pieces in the show come from a genuine poet of city transit. In Jennifer Krause Chapeau’s best paintings, nothing stands still. She has won deserved acclaim for canvases that look like the view from a speeding car on a highway in the Jersey swamps: heat-smeared treetops, blurred guardrails, a hovering feeling of in-between-ness. The dreamlike quality of these oil paintings is amplified by the edges of the pieces, which fade into whiteness or merge with the clouds as if the viewer is slowly slipping out of consciousness. Grayness gathers in the corners of “Studio View Jersey City,” a big painting rendered on linen. The familiar features of the Meadowlands are here, including the iron rail bridges, smokestacks and relay towers, and the glassy, reflective surface of the Hackensack River capturing the yellow-pink radiance of the afternoon sun.

Krause Chapeau the traveler has reached a destination, but restlessness pervades this static image from the melting factory walls to the gelatinous mountains in the distance to the turbulence of the Jersey sky. She loves this place — and to love is to worry.

A creeping feeling of impermanence also haunts the smaller landscapes by Deb Sinha, a prolific painter who maintains a studio in the heart of the Arts District, one block away, at ART150. Sinha’s “Sun Lit Hudson Mill” and “Fire House” are recognizably situated in Hudson County, but they’re also Hopperesque: His buildings are mute and expectant, as if they are waiting for the viewer to make the first move. Sinha’s small canvases are brightly colored and superficially cheerful, but there are marks of disquiet all over them — the droop of the American flag at the “CRNJ Terminal,” the cherry blossoms signifying the brevity of spring in “Hamilton Park II,” the long shadows and urban hieroglyphics on the high brick wall in “Red Jeep by Dixon Mills.” Most telling are the “Old Boats,” propped up in drydock at the bend of a pathway in a park. They are, literally, out of their element, braced against the towering green waves of summer vegetation that swell all around them. Will they ever know water again? Has the town floated on without them?

Like Krause Chapeau and other artists who work in the shadow of the Powerhouse, Sinha is drawn to buildings that have been repurposed and, in the process, have become unmoored. Dixon Mills, a former crucible factory, was one of the first industrial structures in Jersey City to be converted to condominiums; it has since been outpaced by larger, flashier projects. The CRNJ Terminal anchored the mighty rail networks that once dominated the Hudson waterfront, but now those tracks are silent and the building is an ornament of Liberty State Park, used for art fairs and book festivals.

John Xavier Nouel’s “Liberty?”

Even the most famous denizen of New York Harbor isn’t immune to the alterations happening around her stone pedestal. John Xavier Nouel’s painting “Liberty?” captures the Statue in an introspective moment, unsure of herself at the golden door, heavy-lidded, frowning and wearied by her massive crown. She looks ready to put down the torch and take a long break from her stewardship.

It is hard to blame her, or anybody else, for struggling to keep up. The seismic shifts that continue to transform New Jersey’s second largest city have been too dramatic for any one artist to capture. It takes a team.

In “It Feels Like Home,” the painter Donna Kessinger shows us the beauty of metamorphosis, while Lucy Rovetto, an imaginative curator (her “Touch” show will be up at ART150 until May 26) and frequent contributor to the ArtWall, provides an image of its implied violence. For the next show, they are as likely as not to swap attitudes.

“Newark Avenue,” Kessinger’s winsome contribution to the show, is a quartet of abstract paintings on small square panels. Each is streaked with institution-green pigment, but flashes of a deeper layer of gold is visible beneath. Some of the paint has rubbed or chipped off; parts of the squares are artfully smudged; corners are blunt, rounded and, in some cases, dotted with glitter. These are the colors and textures of a city on the move that Kessinger is entertaining us with: the blue-green of incomplete washing, the sticky black of tarmac, the gleam of commerce, the blotchy, grubby, ennobled dirt of busy sidewalks.

It is as comforting as a stroll on a familiar avenue, surrounded by familiar businesses, tugged by familiar energies, and teased by the familiar faces of strangers.

Lucy Rovetto’s “Chandelier with Lucy R. Lippard.”

Rovetto, by contrast, wakes us from our reverie with a slap. “Chandelier With Lucy R. Lippard” is an arresting digital photograph of a half-destroyed home. What was once a private interior space has been flayed and rudely exposed to daylight. Planks from the torn roof are a heap of tindersticks on the floor. A lighting fixture, its bulbs askew, dangles precariously from the tilted ceiling; soon it, too, will crash to the pile below. The business end of the crane sniffs around in the upper left corner of the shot, gathering itself to strike again.

Rovetto, always a thoughtful and literate artist, has scrawled questions in the blank spaces of this print, wondering who lived in this place, and what will be left when all the traces of human habitation are hauled away to make room for new construction.

The lesson, as it is often expressed in the artwork made in Jersey City, can be applied to the Powerhouse Arts District: adaptive reuse is always preferable to erasure. Change may be inevitable, but the obliteration of the historical record isn’t. Like Kessinger, we don’t mind seeing the marks, stains and striations from where we have been before; if we’re skillful enough and pay sufficient attention, we can even make them shine.

Eileen Ferara, a professor at New Jersey City University, created her lovely print “Ivy Intervention” on a piece of trash. She has festooned it with images of ivy: a plant that works itself into the cracks of old buildings, transforms their appearances, and testifies to their longevity.

There are lots of buildings like that in Jersey City — mysterious vaults that have lived many lives, with many stories to tell those with the patience to hear them. Some of those buildings are there in the Arts District. On its walls, our best artists will continue to riddle out what that District is, and what it still might be.

“It Feels Like Home: Genius Loci Jersey City” can be seen through June 3 at ArtWall in Jersey City; visit artwalljc.com.


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