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This Is Jersey City Part II, A Closer Look at the Gallery Scene

A view of Jersey City from the NJT Extension (2011) (photo by the author)

Editor’s Note: Our first post on the Jersey City art scene generated a lot of interest in this small scene in New York’s own backyard, so we asked the author to take another look but this time at the gallery scene.

Like most men, I am often thoughtless. I cannot break down complex narratives into easily digestible parts. To write a post about Jersey City’s art scene, I had to concentrate solely on a list of 10 artists, discarding the galleries and exhibitions venues that play an occasionally pivotal role in the city’s cultural life.

This post is my attempt to paint a picture of the gallery scene in Jersey City. It is not pretty. But it is captivating.

There is something anomalous about running an art gallery in Jersey City. This is a land of discount liquor stores, nail salons, Chinese take-out restaurants and check-cashing joints. The sidewalks are not paved in gold. They are covered in small animal bones with bits of cooked meat, acrylic hair extensions torn from heads and used rubbers.

To be fair, not every part of the city is gritty. Pockets of the city are home to tree-lined streets with brownstones, red-brick Georgian row houses, Victorian mansions and art deco apartment buildings. The section along the waterfront is rejuvenated with shiny buildings, fancy restaurants and boutiques that are indistinguishable from lower Manhattan. But that doesn’t count, though. For the most part no one from this neighborhood walks past Marin Boulevard. They think downtown Jersey City (with its Park Slope–style brownstones) is the hood. For them, Jersey City is strictly a bedroom community.

But I digress.

Mike Tyson's pigeon coop, Ringside Lounge, Jersey City, NJ (Photo Courtesy of Reena Rose Sibayan of Jersey Journal)

Most galleries resemble the pigeon coops that were depicted in notable movies like Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). (If you do not recognize the beats, they’re RZA.) Pigeon coops abut sopping linens that hang from clotheslines. They are not the gleaming white cubes found in Manhattan. Like the boxing ring, pool hall and racetrack, the pigeon coop is the domain of the working class, disenfranchised and alienated. Just ask Terry Malloy.

Jason Seder, "Pigeons" (2011)

For the uninitiated, the pigeon coop might seem like nothing more than a dilapidated shack wrapped in chicken wire to house dirty birds for men with hard-ons for all things avian. But for the knowledgeable, the pigeon coop can be a rooftop sanctuary filled with unexpected beauty. Its inhabitants range in shape, size, color and behavior. Daubed in caramel, Payne’s gray, and yellow—they hover, swoop and zigzag across the sky. They warble, coo and sing. The coop is a place of contemplation and refuge.

Art galleries do exist in this city. And they manage to show thoughtful, beautiful and engaging work from time to time. If this sounds harsh, it is not. There is simply no infrastructure in place to support, nurture and sustain galleries in Jersey City. Moneybags stay in the city.

Notwithstanding these bleak realities, people frequently get together to run galleries, organize shows and display artwork. They transform ground-floor apartments, glass factories and garages into exhibition venues. There are no cash and prizes. Lotto’s Dollar and a Dream is a New York thing.

You will not spill your can of warm beer on the shoes of critics, dealers, collectors and big-name artists. But you might share a swig with some daily grunt in the nine-to-five world — beautician, manicurist, computer programmer, graphic designer, real-estate agent or bartender.

Herein lies the beauty of the Jersey City art gallery. It is not so much the exclusive domain of artists and art-world types. Instead, it is meeting place for various members of the community, old and new, who may be familiar or unfamiliar with art and contemporary practices. Like pigeon coops, the ad hoc exhibition spaces are labors of love, pivotal to a small — but devoted — group.

Here is my list of exhibition venues I encourage you to visit.

Curious Matter

Curious Matter (in collaboration with Proteus Gowanus), "Naming The Animals," installation shot (2011) (Courtesy of Curious Matter)

Founded by Raymond E. Mingst and Arthur Bruso, two NYC expats, Curious Matter is an exhibition venue inspired by cabinets of curiosity. Located in the parlor room of their mid-nineteenth century row house, Mingst and Bruso organize exhibitions and select artwork to complement the decorum of the space, with its chandelier, crown molding and natural changing light.

58 Gallery

58 Gallery (October 2010) (Photo courtesy of Jason Seder)

Founded by Orlando Reyes and Mario Monroy in 2003, the ad hoc street-front gallery/backroom performance space is a mainstay in the city’s art scene. Dancing Tony, of Jersey City’s Love and Leisure Department, runs the back of the house, ensuring a pleasurable experience for all involved.

If you want to blanket the exterior of a building in wheat pastes, paint a large mural of a pair of urine-stained Y-fronts inside the gallery or do the psychedelic boogaloo in a backroom performance space, 58 Gallery is the spot for you.

Kirkland Bray is the current artist on view at 58 Gallery. Bray portrays a pastoral Eden where beaches, swimming holes and zip lines swarm with bikini-clad teenyboppers and daredevils. As the band Wreckless Eric sings, “I should be lying on that sun-soaked beach with her, caressing her warm brown skin … ”

Pop-Up Art 

Pop-UP Art, "In Spirited Company," Harsimus Cemetery (2010) (Photo courtesy of Jon Rappleye)

Founded by artists Michelle Mumoli and Beth Ann Morrison, Pop-Up Art organizes exhibitions through temporary site-specific installations. Their aim is to provide an aesthetic experience for people who may not have the time or opportunity to visit galleries and museums.

Last October, Pop-Up Art invited artist Jon Rappleye to temporarily furnish the groundskeeper’s residence in Harsimus Cemetery in Jersey City with a collection of his paintings and sculptures from the past two years. The show ruled. And guests received hot apple cider and fancy cupcakes.

Abaton Garage, Courtesy of Lauri Bortz

Abaton Garage

The West Side neighborhood in Jersey City is known for its palatial Victorian houses and tree-lined streets. Located in one of the many large backyards typical of the neighborhood is Abaton Garage. Founded by Artist Mark Dagley and playwright Lauri Bortz in 2004, Abaton Garage is a hidden gem in the city. They’ve featured the work of James Biederman, Tom Warren, Paula Gillen, Amy Wilson and Cora Cohen, to name a few.

Unfortunately, the gallery closed its doors in autumn of 2008, after an exhibition by Nora Griffin, who was in her mid-twenties at the time. Mark and Lauri felt is was important to end their run with an artist whose career was just beginning.

Although, the couple have no immediate plans to re-open the space, they have been contemplating an in-house concert series, Abaton Salon. Their house came with a lovely grand piano, an old Knabe. Hope is not lost.

The Garage 

The Garage, Lisa Dahl installation shot (2008) (Courtesy of Margaret Murphy)

Margaret Murphy was born and raised in Baltimore, home of John Waters and the HBO series The Wire. She knows funky. And she knows aikido — she’s a black belt. This woman can fuck you up if she wants too. I doubt she will. She is too busy making art, teaching and curating art shows.

In 2005, she converted a garage into an exhibition venue in the Heights, a neighborhood known more for its dollar stores than art. She focused on emerging and established artists from Jersey City, New York and beyond. As the exhibitions evolved, artists began to utilize the garage door as an outlet for site-specific installations.

The garage door installations became the most successful aspect of the venue. Murphy said via e-mail:

Neighbors, passers-by, artists all looked forward to the next installation on the door. I always received a lot of feedback about that: People would drive by when an artist was working and get excited that a new piece would be in the works. The garage really did bridge the community with the art.

The Garage is temporarily on hiatus. When it re-opens, visit it asap.

New Jersey City University Art Galleries 

New Jersey City University, "Kaleidoscope," Installation shot (2008) (Courtesy of Midori Yoshimoto)

New Jersey City University’s Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery and Visual Arts Gallery are sleek exhibition venues that physically resemble the traditional white boxes found across the river in Chelsea. Located on the outskirts of Jersey City, they are not easily accessible by public transportation, which is regrettable. The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and buses do service the area, but the trip can be long, very long. However, if you own a car, the trip is easy and parking is available on the street.

Dr. Midori Yoshimoto spearheads the galleries. She is a champion of emerging and under-recognized artists. Due to Yoshimoto’s art history expertise (her specialization was Japanese art of the 1960s, particularly the women artists who came to New York and joined the movements of Fluxus and Happenings) and personal connections, there may be more Japanese, Asian and women artists shown than at other similar venues, but that’s not the prescribed mission of NJCU Galleries. It just happens to be that way.

Yoshimoto welcomes artists’ curatorial proposals with topical content and will fully support emerging artists.

The current show, Afterwards and Forwards, is a group exhibition commemorating the 10-year anniversary of September 11. Highlights include Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree,” an interactive installation that invites people to write down a wish on a piece of paper and tie it to a tree branch; Joel Meyerowitz’s images of a still-smoldering ground zero; and Chee Wang Ng’s plaintive table shrine that is made up of a small bowl of rice, two chopsticks and prayer candles.

Laurie Riccadonna

Laurie Riccadonna, "Latitude 44.5" (2008) oil on canvas (Courtesy of the artist)

Laurie Riccadonna is not a gallery; she is a person, a painter to be specific. I did not get an opportunity to discuss the artist in my last post, which was unfortunate. Riccadonna’s paintings fuse the visual motifs of Andalusia region of Moorish Spain and the Hackensack Meadowlands. If the pairing sounds odd, it is. But it works. Her paintings predominantly consist of stylized abstract and naturalistic forms. The common motifs punctuating her imagery include cherry blossoms, lilies, violets and roses, to name a few.

You can read the first part of my “This Is Jersey City” post here.

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