Vivid colors dazzle, but also represent danger, in Watchung Arts Center group show

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Josephine Barreiro’s “Cat Devouring Bird” is part of the “Black & White to Magnificent Color!” exhibit at the Watchung Arts Center.

In the fantasy, the plague ends with a triumphant flourish. Epidemiologists take to the airwaves and declare victory. The pathogen is vanquished. Our masks come off; our guard comes down. Flowers bloom, the sun blazes, and we reclaim everything we’ve lost.

Alas, the gloom of the long pandemic season is unlikely to dissipate in one sudden stroke. If you’d like to experience a pivot to a bright spring free of viral threats — if only in your imagination — the place to be is the Watchung Arts Center. “Black & White to Magnificent Color!,” a group show on display until April 9, imagines a world sprung awake, saturated in vivid hues, relieved of the emotionally deflationary pressures of COVID-19. Curator Alpana Mittal of Bayonne has done this with a simple gesture: She has filled a tight little room downstairs with wintry works in grayscale and turned the upstairs Heinz W. Otto Gallery into a sumptuous feast of color.

Taking the staircase from the ground level to the second floor feels like an emergence from hibernation.

Yet there is something cozy about a long sleep, and when the world outside is wild and uncontrollable, constriction isn’t always unwelcome. “Black & White to Magnificent Color!” slyly suggests that the step from pandemic-era confinement to post-pandemic freedom is one that comes with its own dangers and challenges. The world under wraps is curiously tame and containable. A world liberated may be one in which forces that had long lain dormant come alive in ferocious (or at least exhausting) ways.

A large oil painting by the visual storyteller Francisco Silva gives a good indication of the tone of this 60-artist show — and its subtlety, too. Superficially, it’s idyllic: a man and his dog at play, on the banks of a lake, blue mountains looming in the background under a high sky. Yet the title tells a different story. Silva has named his painting “Too Much Energy on an Oppressively Hot Day,” and the more the viewer examines it, the more its undercurrents become clear. The dog may be venturing a little too far from shore. The water contains fiery red-orange pigments that sure don’t look like reflections of any sun we know. Streaks in the distance hint at the coming of a storm. The slashing green brushstrokes of the trees on the bank and the swirl of the eddies of the water create a wave of color and force at the man’s back. All of nature is conspiring to drag him into the depths.

Eitan Barokas’ “Checkmate” is part of the “Black & White to Magnificent Color!” exhibit at the Watchung Arts Center.

Like many of the artists in “Black & White to Magnificent Color!,” Silva is a member of ProArts, the long-running Jersey City organization that has done more to give Hudson County art its peculiar character than any other group. (Curator Mittal is a freshly minted ProArts co-VP.) It isn’t entirely accurate to call this a ProArts show, or even a Hudson County invasion of the Somerset mountains, because many of the participants in the exhibition aren’t affiliated with the gang. But it isn’t misleading, either. Gentle irony has been a characteristic of ProArts shows since Jersey City time immemorial, and poetic whispers and provocative misdirections are the rule in Watchung as long as this show is in town.

Louise Wheeler’s “Pixilated Sunflowers,” rendered in rectangles of hand-made, pigment-saturated paper, is pretty as a mosaic. It’s also a wry commentary on the way in which years of confinement, mostly spent staring at backlit screens, have altered our view of the natural world. Experimental photographer Susan Evans Grove conjures wisps of ghostly color from black backgrounds; Sandra De Sando’s “Big Blue” arranges its azure-washed blocks like the pieces of a sliding puzzle that won’t quite fit. The formidable Valerie Huhn, whose late 2021 Jersey City show at Outlander Gallery was one of the year’s revelations, contributes two of her unsettling backsplashes of ceramic tile, each one marked with a fingerprint.

These works are immediately appealing, as energetic applications of color often are. They’re illustrative of things unsaid and when they do talk to us, they speak boisterously. But they also demonstrate that color can conceal as much as it reveals — and how flamboyant pigment often stands in for nature unchecked and forces unleashed.

“Black & White to Magnificent Color!” is likely to be best remembered for the searing “Cat Devouring Bird,” the loudest piece in the show, and the one that’s most candid about post-pandemic anxieties. Josephine Barreiro of Newark hits us upside the head with a great acrylic-and-spray-paint feline whose teeth, ears, and eyes are all viciously serrated. Beneath its claws is a dead bird, agonized as a “Guernica” figure, with x-ed out eyes, splashing in a bed of blood. Color bleeds all over the canvas in test pattern stripes. Everything is in lethal motion, and the murderous cat, eyeing its next conquest, doesn’t even seem to be paying attention to its victim. (Cheryl Gross’ hook-beaked “Bird of Prey,” glowering in the nearest corner, feels like an avian rejoinder.) Is this what awaits us once the pandemic-era repose is over? Impulses long suppressed, roaring out of the jack in the box with terminal velocity?

Joe LaMattina’s “Funkytown” is part of the “Black & White to Magnificent Color!” exhibit at the Watchung Arts Center.

In this context, even abstract canvases feel aggressively saturated. Robert Kosinski’s beautiful “Greenish Stripes on Crimson Gradient,” with its aching inkjet color on a long paper scroll, plays like a sidebar to “Cat Devouring Bird.” The print shares its cascading energy, its feeling of inevitability and its sense of gravity unchecked. Beatrice Mady, curator of the Fine Arts Gallery at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, gives us a mountain under an olive-colored sun, subdivided into squares.

“Funkytown,” a surreal streetscape from Joe LaMattina, juxtaposes ordinary block-like city buildings with a foreground of yellow bubbles, and great grey sluices that exude pink slime. This is a portrait of the city roaring back to life, all vectors of speed and force colliding in the rush toward re-emergence.

By contrast, the art in the small downstairs gallery is suffused with gorgeous gloom. Where their upstairs neighbors are pinwheels caught by a gale, these pieces are static, poised, caught in a state of waiting. Two of New Jersey’s camera wizards are at work on the ground floor. Edward Fausty’s shot is pure January: the deep woods by day, a leafless tangle of trunks, branches and vines, with trees leaning at dangerous angles. It could air-condition a room. Dorie Dahlberg’s contribution isn’t even a photograph. “Winter Night,” a gorgeous etching, gives us a frost-covered landscape, dotted with miniscule animals, dwarfed by a sky of artfully scribbled circular stars.

Yet the pandemic has sunk its teeth deep into this gallery, too. Guillermo Bublik’s “A Formulated Phrase 4,” confidently drawn on paper in magic marker, resembles a peek into a Petri dish, with organic-looking figures clustering together in its teeming middle. And then there is Akhtar Ahmed Rasha’s “COVID Tragedy,” a flat-panel sculpture composed of dozens of wooden heads, stashed in a basement of a fortress-like house, like the skulls of sacrificed Aztecs. Above ground, the survivors are either gagged or imprisoned, and two great wooden doors in the center of the piece look as if they never will open again. We all await the moment when they swing on their hinges and let the sunlight in. But if we’re all a little skittish about what is on the other side of the door — if that brilliant color is, at first, overwhelming — it’s hard to blame us.

“Black & White to Magnificent Color!” is on view at the Watchung Arts Center from noon until 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 9. Call (908) 753-0190 for Saturday hours. Visit watchungarts.org.

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