For the most densely populated state in the Union, New Jersey can sure feel like a lonely place. Crowded towns and congested roads are only part of the Garden State landscape. Those who know the territory recognize it as theater filled with vast and dramatic collisions of land, wind, surf and sky. Our architecture reflects the scale of the forces we face down: Sometimes our buildings are grand bulwarks against nature, and sometimes they are humble attempts to live in harmony with a changing earth and shifting tides. Then there is the psychic landscape of Jersey — the residue of life lived in the shadow of bigger cities, the experience of the loners and nonconformists we celebrate, the desolated characters of Jersey poets such as Bruce Springsteen and Philip Roth, and the whispered secrets of the Pine Barrens and the Meadowlands.
Solitude and mystery suffuse “NJ & Me: Imperfect Together,” a Jersey-focused group show at Drawing Rooms in Jersey City. This quietly unsettling exhibition — which includes pieces from 16 Garden State painters, photographers and sculptors — will be on view in the gallery at the far western end of Newark Avenue, right on the lip of the Jersey swampland, until July 29. It includes work by the gallerist James Pustorino, a fixture in Hudson County arts for decades, and his Drawing Rooms partner and show curator Anne Trauben, who contributes a series of postcard-small, curiously emotional photographs of diner signs. They’re exhibited in a row, like stops on a trafficked city street, each one telling private stories in the interval before the flash of the green light.
Trauben’s snapshots are characteristic of a persistent trend in New Jersey visual art. There is plenty of evidence of human habitation and activity, but few humans. If the artists in this show were to strike a discordant note, this would feel like a misrepresentation. But the artists never do seem to strike that note, and that’s because they are getting at something real — a real feeling, if not exactly a real place. Empty New Jersey, quite often, feels to us like the true New Jersey. The lonesome strand of Turnpike at night, the vast and powdery beach in winter, the eerie quiet of the old factory and the stillness of suburban lawns all speak to us, even as we roll on our crowded buses to bustling downtowns.
Is this wish fulfillment? The urbanite’s secret longing for wide open places? Maybe a little. But the tone of these works is sometimes critical, sometimes winking, and always self-aware. These are works that speak to, and from, the unconscious, but they aren’t defined by it. Instead, they are deliberately reflective of a Garden mindstate that we all appear to share. The Jersey person is a dreamer, a day-dreamer in particular, and those dreams are no one’s but her own. No matter her relationship to the fetters of society, privately, she is ungoverned and ungovernable. Her imagination is a wide sandbox, and she is in possession of the whole thing — in her mind, she will not and cannot be told what to do. The only threats to her sovereignty are the mighty natural forces that surround her and the heavy press of history, represented by elements of the built environment: brick walls, roadways, trains, cyclone fences, city clocks.
Solitary drama is even visible in the few pieces in “NJ & Me: Imperfect Together” in which groups of people are depicted. John T. Meehan III contributes large and detailed slice-of-life oil paintings of crowded beach scenes. There are more than 30 distinct human figures in “Snack Time,” though many are tiny dots in mid-bob, up to their shoulders and contending with Atlantic waves. But though these people are right on top of each other, many of them are having private experiences — especially the children, who are wholly focused on their ice pops. They are in the midst of that age-old, desperate race between the sun and the frozen dessert. Can these confections on a stick be enjoyed before they’re reduced to a sticky slurry by the big bully in the sky? Meehan captures this through body language, the restless rhythm of human shapes shown too-close on a day that’s clearly a scorcher, and through the sherbet-soft pastel colors of his palette.
Meehan’s subjects inhabit a holiday congregation — the Shore during showtime, high summer, crammed as a matinee of a hit movie. Photographer Dorie Dahlberg of Long Branch gives us the Shore off-peak. Her scenes show us the Monmouth County that winter (and weekday) visitors know well: a place of monumental interactions between the ocean and the shore, humans and wildlife, and the built environment and the fearsome effects of entropy. Her boardwalks recede into the mist and beach spray, and her streetlights fight a losing battle against the high sky and the sea haze. Human figures are transients, either faceless and wrapped in garments to protect them from the elements, whizzing through massive structures on bicycles or clustered together at the water’s edge, miniaturized by the immense and turbulent Atlantic.
That mood is extended and amplified in the realistic paintings of the Hoboken visual balladeer Tim Daly and his like-minded Hudson County neighbor Tim Heins. Daly drops us right into the turning lane of a highway at night. As a full moon struggles through gauzy clouds, streetlights throw circles of illumination on scrubby patches of grass near the verge of the road. There are cars coming, but they are so far from the center of the frame that they feel incidental. The highway is the rude fact; the drivers are ghosts drifting through. Heins’ “Jersey City After Storm” spotlights the crisp right angles of the warehouses and billboards of the district abutting the Holland Tunnel. All these habitations are meticulously rendered, but no inhabitants are shown. Like much of “NJ & Me: Imperfect Together,” this work suggests that it has been apprehended from a moving vehicle, from behind a rolled-up window. A single slice of a reverie made of girders and concrete, tar, paint and distant spires.
If Heins’ vision is as careful as a scissor, Jessica Rohrer’s is sharp as a sawtooth. Her paintings of Essex County from above are so minutely realized that they would never be confused for a photograph; because photographs rarely achieve such obsessive clarity. Rohrer’s work feels computer-generated and machine-smoothed: perfectly processed, pre-flight surveillance for a fussy race of aliens looking for a place to touch down. Here are houses in orderly rows, squatting atop uniform lawns as flat as a putting green. Fences are as rigid as soldiers on a firing line, cars are responsibly parked, and not a shutter hangs out of place. Rohrer crops her images in a manner that suggests that grid of perfection rolls on, unimpeded, far beyond the limits of the frame.
Yet there is a creeping sense of destabilization in all these images: in the biggest and most impressive one, only the pine trees are green. We are deep in winter and this town is holding its breath. Upon close examination, the rigidity of Rohrer’s suburbia begins to feel like evidence of superstition. Might lawlessness and misfortune pass over these squared-away Jersey towns if, as in the Book of Exodus, the right outward signs are exhibited by residents hidden indoors? The aerial view of Essex County is a kind of inspection — perhaps by the Almighty, and perhaps by an eye in the sky that is considerably less benign. Rohrer’s smaller paintings show her Essex County rooftops through a circular aperture, as if they are being watched from a spyglass or a police helicopter. Cleverly, Trauben hangs these near Ed Fausty’s gorgeous globe-like “Worlds” photographs, which look like the North Jersey woods seen through shooters’ marbles. Anything round tends to evoke the ocular, and open questions about the nature of perception. Even in the wilderness, everything is viewed, judged and ascertained by human beings, through human eyes.
But the wilderness has a way of striking back, and nature in New Jersey can make us feel very small indeed. In Eileen Ferara’s powerful “Muhheakantuck” (that’s the Lenape name for the Hudson River), the city is a heap of brown sticks in the distance — ineffective, unimpressive, a series of insect scratches in the firmament. It is literally swamped by Ferara’s makeshift marsh and river, rendered on homemade paper in a gorgeous, roiling, frightening amalgam of acrylic, pencil, crayon and thread. The image is as elemental as floodwaters — a Garden State version of Hokusai’s wave — and a stark reminder that our human settlements cling tenuously to the periphery of terra that is not quite as firma as we may like.
Which brings us to another reason why Empty New Jersey is a prevalent aesthetic in the Garden State: humility. Our famous self-effacement may make us disinclined to depict faces. The heads of painter Doug Madill’s human figures frequently have no features; instead, they bend with the landscape, mimicking the sway of the leaves, the stateliness of the brownstones, and the Tilt-a-Whirl scramble of an amusement park after dark. They are as rooted in the Hudson County soil as the spring saplings. Photographer Jean-Paul Picard’s tower-like structures mimic the sheen of plate glass, and people caught in his reflective surfaces are warped, distorted and sometimes severed by the dividers between panes. Buildings impose their characteristics on bodies, souls are trapped in the funhouse mirrors of the financial centers.
Kevin McCaffrey satirizes the Garden State propensity to monumentalize buildings, cartography and the rhythms of the landscape with a gorgeously drawn spoof of a vintage map, complete with phony place names and an invented origin myth detailing the holy apotheosis of “Lord Hoodsin” of “Hoodsin County.” (Illustrations of his adventures ring the map like stations of the cross.) But even the parodist is swept up in the excitement of place names, borders and town planning. It’s a grand statement and a beautifully realized project, but it’s also as modest, unassuming and playful as Anne Percoco’s pile of winsome paper leaves, cut from circulars and mailers and raked in the corner of the gallery with custodial care.
Drawing Rooms is an ideal place to do this sort of self-examination. It is deeply integrated into the Jersey City arts scene, but it also stands apart: it’s the gallery in town that is closest to the Hackensack River, the swamps and girders of the highway crossings, and urban Essex County. The gallery occupies part of the first floor of the Topps Industrial Building, a hulking, old-school Jersey warehouse that could easily find its way into a Tim Daly or Tim Heins image. This part of Jersey City is busy with old factories, but it also feels capacious and, at times, rather empty. (It also shares a large parking lot with MANA Contemporary.) Rarely is the match between arts venue and arts show as seamless as this one is.
“NJ & Me: Imperfect Together” will be at Drawing Rooms in Jersey City through July 29. The gallery is open Thursdays and Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. There will be an opening reception, June 3 at 6 p.m. and artist talks on June 24-25 from 3 to 5 p.m. Visit drawingrooms.org.
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