Attend a gallery show and you may be given a flashlight. Visitors to Damien Davis’ “SEARCHING.” at Project for Empty Space in Newark tickled beams of light over fluorescent acrylic sculptures in a simulation of a nighttime police raid. Lance Weiler prompted viewers to turn a firefighter’s lamp on the reconstructed interior of a house besieged by flames in “Where There’s Smoke” at the ArtYard in Frenchtown. By outsourcing the lighting direction to members of the public, creators make the audience complicit in the creation of meaning.
It’s a clever move, and Anne Trauben of Jersey City is the latest one to make it. At “Step Up on a Stool to Reach the Sky” at the Watchung Arts Center, she encourages gallerygoers to shine tiny flashlights on the ceramic sculptures she’s hung from the ceiling of the space and tucked into the corners of the first floor exhibition space. Unlike Davis and Weiler, she hasn’t dimmed the lights all the way; instead, she has fitted low-wattage lightbulbs into her installation and made the white rat-tail electrical cords part of the show. The result is a dim, warm amber glow that you’re invited to enhance — perhaps while standing on a stool that will bring your forehead up to bulb level.
What does your fragile beam expose? Eggshell-delicate objects suspended from cords, mushroom-like stacks of inverted ceramic cups at the margins of the room, rings of metal and mesh tacked to the walls like vanity mirrors, pendants of white-clay pearls and strange cloverleaf sigils, and nests of wire in fierce little tangles. The flashlight brings all of these objects alive, projecting dense, curious shadows on the walls of the gallery, exposing the near-organic texture of the clay, probing for fissures in the sconces, and exposing the fierce individuality of small sculptures that, at first glance, seem to be components of a single harmonious whole.
Trauben means for her luminous assembly to evoke a starry summertime sky — and it does. But it also resembles a fantasy cavern, filled from rocky floor to ceiling with drip stalagmites and funny creatures hanging upside down.
A different kind of secret world is on view upstairs at the Arts Center. “Portals, Apparitions, and Other Voices,” an exhibition of recent works by the semi-abstract painter Mona Brody, will haunt the larger gallery until Oct. 22. (Trauben’s installation runs for the same span.)
Brody, a steady presence in shows in New Jersey over the past few years, may be incapable of creating a canvas that isn’t at least a little spooky. She is able to tease the spectral from the industrial: She conjures ghostly, translucent images that twist and smear like smoke curls, and lets them loose on gunmetal-dark backgrounds rendered in shellac, wax, enamel and homemade oils. These are the kind of pigments that you might expect to find in a factory, and her paintings are full of rust browns, institution greens and machinery grays.
In many of her pre-2023 paintings, phantom figures appear to be partially occluded behind heavy curtains of color, as if they’re waiting to be summoned from beyond a veil. In her new pieces, which are some of the best she ever has done, the pale presences appear to have slipped their fetters, and they’re pouring forward toward the viewer like smoke from a doorway. “Escape,” a recent work, features three wavering streamers of white paint emanating from a copper expanse. Like the explosive “Other Voices,” another 2023 work, it’s full of the thrill of liberation and the dread that something dangerous may have slipped the boundaries of Pandora’s box.
Brody was the prime mover behind Manufacturers Village, an arts collective and warren of studios in a disused factory complex in East Orange. Trauben is a partner and curator at Drawing Rooms, a respected arts space in the Tops Industrial Building at the western edge of Jersey City. Both of these artists make work that reflect the solidity and impermanence of the North Jersey post-industrial landscape and the beauty of the built environment. They are deeply involved in their communities, and they will be opening their doors to the public during this October’s art events.
Brody’s studio will again be a centerpiece of the Manufacturers Village Open House (Oct. 21-22), a showcase at a byzantine arts incubator that now boasts 60 participants. Drawing Rooms will be open during Jersey City Art Week (Oct 12-15), a citywide blowout that combines the annual Studio Tour with Art Fair 14C (Liberty State Park) — it’s the biggest event of its kind in the Garden State. Consider the Watchung show a teaser for both events, and an immersive, engrossing introduction to what promises to be a fascinating month for the visual arts in New Jersey.
“Step Up on a Stool to Reach the Sky” and “Portals, Apparitions, and Other Voices” will be at the Watchung Arts Center through Oct. 22. Visit watchungarts.org.
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