One month left for brilliant ‘Land of the Free’ exhibition at MANA Contemporary in Jersey City

mana contemporary

JOHN BERENS

Vincent Valdez’s “Siete Dias” is on display at MANA Contemporary in Jersey City.

MANA Contemporary in Jersey City can be intimidating. On an ordinary day, it can come off as a cross between MoMA and the hotel from “The Shining.” A sense of mystery hovers over these six floors of narrow corridors, whitewashed brick walls and giant gray doors. Unlike other factories converted into artists’ studio complexes, there is not a trace of dissolution visible; everything about MANA radiates opulence. If it called itself a museum, it would instantly be the Garden State’s most impressive one. But MANA does not call itself anything. It seldom talks to the public at all. Its reticence suggests that it doesn’t need you.

Nevertheless, everyone in the state should know about it. There are wonders waiting in these halls: several galleries of original Warhol silkscreens, an auditorium-sized room decorated with breathtaking cross-shaped canvases by Arnulf Rainer, Dan Flavin’s sizzling maze of colored fluorescent lights, John Chamberlain’s giant crushed-fuselage metal sculptures and Rammellzee’s sliding wall-mounted wooden boxes. And that’s just the ground floor. Since Kele McComsey took over as director earlier this year (and the institution tapped veteran Jersey City curator Kristin DeAngelis as director of community outreach), MANA has made a much more concerted effort to inform art lovers about what’s going on inside that fortress-like building.

Joe Minter’s “We Lost Our Spears.”

They’re still not exactly twisting arms to get anybody to visit. But “Land of the Free,” McComsey’s debut exhibition with guest curator Irene Mei Zhi Shum, is so provocative and so perfectly realized that it would fully justify a hard sell. Before it is taken away on Sept. 17, it needs to be seen by more New Jerseyans.

Even those who attended the boisterous open house in May didn’t catch the whole show. Hugo Crosthwaite’s dramatic murals, projections and wall paintings of a constantly evolving and disintegrating Tijuana were already on view, as were Joe Minter’s rusted sculptures, redolent of bondage and forced labor, and Vincent Valdez’s striking etchings of scenes of everyday inhumanity at the Texas-Mexican border. The show’s most salient points about the pain of migration and cultural whiplash were all firmly made, and the crashing sound of the collisions of wills at the main North American cultural fault line were audible in every corner of the show.

But the finest work of this strong and argumentative exhibition wasn’t finished, and hung, until June 11. Valdez’s emotional “Siete Dias” is the sort of installation that means to make a profound impression on the hearts of its beholders. It asks for sympathy and shoots for transcendence. The signal fire it hopes to spark requires the oxygen of attention.

Though the subject matter is grave, “Siete Dias” is an act of levitation. Valdez and McComsey have dimmed the overhead lights in a long, shrine-like MANA gallery, and they’ve concentrated the illumination on an array of poster-sized illustrations on textile sheets that appear to float midair. The fabric is translucent: When you’re looking at one image, it is possible to catch a whisper of those hanging behind it. If you were embedded in a display of oversized playing cards — if you were a face card yourself — you might have an experience akin to getting shuffled into the “Siete Dias” deck.

Works by Vincent Valdez, left, and Hugo Crosthwaite in “Land of the Free.”

Alas, the faces on these cards are unrecoverable, and what’s showing here is an extremely raw deal. Fourteen of the hangings contain images of Central American desaparecidos: the disappeared. They’re victims of the persistent violence that has haunted this hemisphere for decades and continues to find ugly expressions on both sides of the Southern border. The other seven textile panels contain the days of the week in Spanish, reminders of the dailiness and ordinariness of terror, the pain of waiting to learn the fate of a loved one, and the cruelty and unanswerability of time.

Valdez demands that you recognize these people. He asks you to interrogate your neglect and apprehend their beauty and vulnerability. The ephemerality implied by the see-through fabric isn’t all they are: they’re also inscribed in indelible ink. They’ve faded to ghost form, but they’re still among us.

“Siete Dias” is a cornerstone of a wider “Land of the Free” show that suggests that the border is a conceit. It is folly, these artists argue, to draw right lines on the surface of an interconnected globe, and immoral to exclude some and include others when all are caught up in the same economic and political game.

Crosthwaite’s phantasmagoric Tijuana isn’t so much a transition zone as it is a rough amalgam — a repository of everything at once. “La Apoteosis de un Taco,” his detailed and darkly funny 21-panel mural — and centerpiece of his “Borderlands” project — contains Catholic iconography, Lucha Libre masks, cowboy hats, brutalist European architecture, copious smoke and at least one zebra head. Trouble is everywhere: an upside-down skull grimaces from the middle of a mandala made of bullets.

A detail from Hugo Crosthwaite’s “La Apoteosis de un Taco.”

What’s most striking about this fantasy scene is how familiar it is. Though it’s firmly grounded in Crosthwaite’s experience of Tijuana, it could be a symbolic representation of a multi-cultural zone anywhere in the Americas, including the Marion district of Jersey City the MANA Contemporary. Similarly, Valdez’s etching series “En Memoria/In Memory” speaks, poignantly, about the futility of guarding the gate. His South Texas is a place where a political imperative — the one to that keeps the undocumented out — cripples and dehumanizes everybody.

It wasn’t too long ago that MANA opened the doors to the public, regularly and for free, on Saturdays. Not everything was viewable, but those in the know could wander the floors and get the rough measure of a remarkable building and its collection. These days, MANA can only be visited by booking a tour. Tours run at 3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and last about an hour; visit manacontemporary.com/visit/jersey-city.

A guided tour isn’t always how gallery-goers enjoy interacting with museums. It means considerably less freedom than a place as multifaceted as MANA demands. But it’s still worth doing. “Land of the Free” manages to be beautiful and confrontational in equal measure — a hard thing to pull off, but McComsey, Valdez, Minter and Crosthwaite have managed it. And while the facility does look imposing, it possesses the rarest thing in North Jersey: a wide and welcoming parking lot. It’s right off of the Pulaski Skyway, too.

If you’re a New Jerseyan interested in visual art, there is simply no excuse for missing this show. It’s the best we’ve got in the state.

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One thought on “One month left for brilliant ‘Land of the Free’ exhibition at MANA Contemporary in Jersey City

  1. “doesnt talk to anyone”
    Federal investigation for tax fraud, constant lawsuits by unpaid overused illegal labor, racist, sexist and art deviants.
    Ask someone about Gene Thompson, a story how they use and throw away lives.

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