Not Feeling The Originals

The Originals. Wall text (top) and Installation shot (below). (All photos courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise stated)

The Originals: Mana Contemporary Resident Artists, curated by Eileen S. Kaminsky, is the current group show now on view in Mana Contemporary’s sixth-floor gallery space. The exhibition features 28 artists who range in age, formal approach and experience.

But before I begin to discuss this show, I want to share an anecdote about a recent exhibition I saw in a humble gallery in Jersey City. Two weeks ago, I ventured to Jersey City to see Material Tak, a group show at Panepinto Galleries. Material Tak, curated by Kara Rooney, featured five contemporary abstract painters, and it was a knockout. I didn’t want to leave the gallery and I couldn’t remember the last time I had that feeling.

Most exhibitions don’t usually evoke such euphoria. Like an addict, I didn’t want this good feeling to end, but my high came to a thudding crash at Mana Contemporary’s The Originals. In the three days that have passed since I saw the exhibition, the only term I can find to describe my experience is “soul crushing.” As an artist myself, I’m hesitant to use these words. 

Why is the exhibition soul crushing?

Before I answer this question, let me tell you that I did see a previous show at Mana Contemporary called Our Own Directions: Works From The Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel Collection. Though flawed, the exhibition did present a singular collection of photorealist work, which included some of the finest paintings from the genre. Notable works included Robert Bechtle’s “’73 Malibu” (1974), Ralph Goings’s “Golden Dodge” (1971), Richard Estes “The Plaza” (1991) and an intimate gallery devoted to the work of Chuck Close. These standout works, coupled with the strong curatorial vision of Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel, made it easy to overlook the intrusive commercial interests of Mana Contemporary. The Originals, by contrast, neither possesses museum caliber work nor convincing curatorial vision. As a result, the hustling for client services is too hard to ignore.

The Originals is not so much about the art on view — which, taken as a whole, is a dubious assemblage of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures — but an advertisement for Mana Contemporary itself. The show is a ruse to lure potential clients to Mana Contemporary in the hope that one day, they may patronize their vast array of artist services.

“The Originals,” installation shot.

Mana Contemporary, which currently spans 500,000 square feet, plans to expand to 1.1 million square feet. Mana Contemporary, as a business, provides fine art services, which include art collection management, state of the art climate controlled storage, domestic transportation and international shipping, to just name a few.

The gallery, which is sequestered on the sixth floor and accessible via only a freight elevator, feels soulless. 
With 4,000 square feet and expansive wall space, the venue would seem to be an ideal place to contemplate art, but it’s not. The overhead fluorescent lights provide no safe haven for the work on view. Each piece, no matter where it hangs, is subjected to an unnatural light, which makes me think of the Jersey City D.M.V. on Summit Ave more than an art gallery. More morgue than gallery, the only thing this place is good for is storage, which is fitting because Mana Contemporary is an offshoot of Moishe’s Moving and Storage Company.

Min Hyung, “Thinker with Tattoo” (left) and “Sun Bathing” (right), mannequin body, puzzles made from paper black stones.

On the surface, the show looks nice and clean and polished, like those spanking new, gargantuan-size supermarkets, which offer limitless goods, all neatly arranged on shelves and displays down endless aisles. The by-the-numbers installation is professional but uninspiring. The work is secure on the walls, which is too bad. If something fell, I might have seen something interesting. The QR codes on museum labels, which lead to artists’ websites, are state of the art but inaccessible. That being said, the exhibition was not a complete loss. Positive standouts include Lili Almog’s suite of photographs; Leslie Sheryll’s collection of interchangeable scanned daguerreotypes and tintypes; and two, incredibly creepy (but in a good way) mannequins by Min Hyung.

The disjointed exhibition took me back to my childhood, when my mom would serve us the week’s leftovers on Friday nights. This meal, which she cheerfully called a “smorgasbord,” was a culinary crap shoot. Dishes that we enjoyed earlier in the week somehow became unappetizing and unsightly days later: crusty tuna casserole; dried-out chicken cordon bleu; watery stuffed peppers. As a dining experience, and as an aesthetic experience, our “smorgasbord” was a gross disappointment.

The Originals felt like an offering from a similar menu. My intention isn’t to humiliate the artists on view. The show, in many ways, looks and feels like any other large group exhibition that brings together a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but adds up to nothing in particular. The exhibition is harmless, even silly. What isn’t harmless, and what I found distasteful, is the grandiosity of Mana Contemporary and its attempt to pass a buffet of artists as a groundbreaking exhibition. 

The wall text, which greets visitors as the enter the gallery, states: “What we may be witnessing is … The end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” This declaration is an excerpt from Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. 

Lili Almog, “Window” (2011), Inkjet on archival paper, 38 x 60 inches, Edition of 3. (image courtesy of Mana Contemporary)

The hyperbole does not end here.

According to a statement associated with the exhibition, written by Chen Yerushalmi, titled The End of New York:

“Mana Contemporary is a unique structure, based on a vertically integrated model, appropriated from the world of business. Vertical Integration brings large portions of its supply chain under a single corporation in order to promote efficiency and innovation.”

In the next sentence, Yerushalmi suggests Mana Contemporary may be the next Apple, which “revolutionized the computer industry by merging all components with one unit.” To compare Apple and Mana Contemporary is ludicrous.

Yerushalmi’s statement goes on to say New York City, once the creative center of the modern art world, died in the 1970s, that the current art world is suffering an ideological crisis, and that Mana Contemporary and Jersey City may be solutions to artists seeking new ways of seeing and thinking about art. To suggest Mana Contemporary, and its artist residents, are the only persons equipped to face this “self-proclaimed” endpoint in history, or ideological crisis in the art world, is as self-important as it is fatuous.

The Originals, according to the PR statement, “features the first group of visionary artists to ditch the NYC scene to set roots at Mana Contemporary.” News flash: Mana Contemporary discovers Jersey City, which has been sitting across from Manhattan for 382 years.

Plus, they didn’t offer food during the opening reception, not even bread sticks, much less a smorgasbord.

If I sound angry, I am. But why?

Leslie Sheryll, “Dysphoria” (2012), Archivial Digital prints scanned from daguerreotypes and tintypes, interchangeable.

Mana Contemporary did not force me to see the exhibition, and I did not have to pay an admission fee. Mana Contemporary even provided a shuttle bus — which I rode — from Chelsea to Jersey City to make the trip more accessible for visitors. This is a nice touch, I admit. The PATH sucks on Sundays.

Maybe the source of my indignation resides in Jersey City, or my idea of what Jersey City is, and what it should be. Jersey City, the birthplace of most of my family and the city where I lived as an adult for 10 years, is this place where nothing really works, no matter how much effort you put into it, and it’s this place that nobody from Manhattan or Brooklyn visits because it’s on the other side of the Hudson River, and because it’s in New Jersey, and it’s this crummy city that sits — no, that’s not it — that cringes like a beaten dog in the shadow of New York, and that’s the way I like it. What does vertical integration have to do with Jersey City, the city’s humble artist-run venues, and its residents?

Perhaps I just don’t like nice things. As I walked around the gallery, not one person spilled beer on my sneakers, or blew smoke in my face. Then again, Mana Contemporary is big, like 500,000 square feet going on one million. They are like the New York Yankees of the artist community, and I hate the Yankees. Its scale seems completely out of whack with the rest of the city’s artist community. It’s like Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn or the proposed NYU expansion in Greenwich Village. Am I a luddite? Do I hate progress, or change? Possibly.

Mana Contemporary — and its stable of New York artists — moves to Jersey City, and it’s a news story. By contrast, the artists who have chosen to live and work and manage artist-run venues in Jersey City for years and years and years remain overlooked or ignored by most media outlets. So many venues done and dusted, like Abaton Garage, The Garage, 58 Gallery and 111 First Street, to name a few.

Perhaps, my indignation reveals more about me, and my relationship to money, or lack thereof, than it does about Mana Contemporary, and its current show. In my gut, I see it as them buying their way to the top while the rest of the nobodies scrap and hustle and fight to make ends meet. Where’s The Batman when you need him?

The Originals is on view at Mana Contemporary (888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey) through October 19, 2012.

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