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Art Review: "The Empowering: A Social Justice Exhibition"

March 3, 2021 by Tris McCall

How much has America changed since the contested integration of the Little Rock schools in 1957? Not as much as we’d like. We’re still struggling with the same injustices and inequalities, carrying the burden of that same ugly history, still scrubbing at stains that won’t wash out. Photographs of the Little Rock Nine, and the angry reactions of their persecutors, remain sadly relevant to our national predicament. Jersey City painter Peter Delman has been grappling with the American story on his canvases for years, and his own frightening reinterpretation of the most famous Little Rock image, rendered by the artist in slate blue and bonfire red oils, now hangs in the Art150 Gallery at 150 Bay Street. It’s one of roughly one hundred pieces in “The Empowering: A Social Justice Exhibition” – an explicitly political show that asks visitors to take a hard look at America as it is, and question where we might be heading.

In better times, this attractive new gallery would be a mandatory stop for anybody interested in the current state of visual art in Jersey City. “The Empowering” includes many pieces from artists who’ve recently been shown around town. If it isn’t entirely accurate to call the participants in “Empowering” art stars, many of them are, at the very least, local arts notables: Andrea McKenna, whose burlap and driftwood tapestries haunted the Eonta Space a year ago, contributes one of her luminous portraits, the irrepressible Orlando Cuevas, superhero enthusiast, tucks a beleaguered Captain America into a gallery corner, and Theda Sandiford, whose incisive, discomfiting work seems to be everywhere lately, invites us to contemplate the experience of reclining on a sofa spiked with hundreds of razor-cut zip ties. Mollie Thonneson’s balanced, provocative arrangements of fabric scraps and beads are here, as are Robert Kosinski’s shattered images of human faces, as are two street shots from Dorie Dahlberg, whose pictures of our powder-keg nation have unsettling overtones of wartime photo journalism.

In other words, “The Empowering” deserves to be busy with visitors: it’s a state-of-the-scene show, a regional round-up, and a conversation about a country that we’ve been forced to think about more than we’d probably like to. Alas, for reasons we all know too well, the show and the gallery are open by appointment only, via EventBrite, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. There’s definitely something ironic about the inaccessibility of a show that demands more access, particularly for people who’ve been marginalized. But that’s certainly not the fault of the artists, or the curator Danielle Scott, whose aesthetic focus and sense of outrage are immediately palpable. This (virtual) Jersey City Friday, Scott will be showing “The Empowering” via Zoom, at 8 p.m., walking through the exhibition and talking about it with an interviewer. Video shows of art exhibitions are notoriously unrepresentative, but I’ll wager this is well worth a click.

Scott’s vision is pained. It’s also rather specific. “The Empowering” is loaded with portraits — some of historical figures, some of contemporary politicians who’ve been haunting our screens with regularity lately, and some of the recently slain, who’ve had the misfortune of being on the business end of police bullets. Miguel Cardenas’s well-titled “The Problem We All Live With,” makes room on a collage of stars and stripes for a defiant George Floyd, peering back through the bars in mute challenge, circled in white as if in a sniper’s sight. Ben Jones’s large wallpaper is busy with images of Trayvon Martin, some inverted, some scribbled-over, some straightforward and unmolested; he’s paired this with an audio collage of gunshots and snippets of Marvin Gaye’s protest-soul.

Other portraits play like de-escalations. Julie Marie Seibert’s meticulously hand-stitched images of Kamala Harris, Ilhan Omar, and Deb Haaland, captured in homey circles, soften the corners of public figures who are often presented to us in high-contrast pixels and harsh backlight. Agnieszka Wszolokwska gives us a faceless, but instantly recognizable, Ruth Bader Ginsburg in acrylics, soft-shouldered, thin-necked, and fragile, in front of a chalkboard choked with text. Many of the most effective images are the simplest and saddest, which is appropriate for a political show: Brad Terhune’s eight acrylic shadow-heads, untitled and anonymous, leaning against a gallery wall, Samon Onque’s battered boxer, facing down the barbed wire of the prison-industrial complex, Josephine Barreiro’s crouched, depleted, two-toed human, head buried in crossed arms, posing in front of an upside-down, black and white American flag. “Divided We Stand,” this piece is called; notably, the figure isn’t standing at all.

In a context so heavy with sociopolitical significance, even paintings that appear at first glance to be abstract expressionist works, like Mashell Black’s energetic canvases, begin to look like struggling figures. Are those broad, dark brushstrokes on a yolk-yellow field, or are they human beings, stretched and pulled by the metamorphic pressures of the last few years? I think they’re people, but then again I, like many other overstimulated Americans, have started to see political significance everywhere I look: that’s a consequence of the news cycle, and the rapid expansion of a surveillance state that makes me feel constantly on camera, watched by authorities, every keystroke recorded. My favorite work in this forceful show isn’t a portrait at all — it’s an open wooden dresser, each drawer lit from within, each sock-bed filled with hundreds of pins topped with colored, cut-out fingerprints. Playfully, Valerie Huhn’s sculpture literalizes the notion of a Bureau of Investigation. More pointedly, it’s a metaphor for the invasion of our most private spaces by police logic, the law enforcement apparatus, and our own quiet paranoia.

Art150 Gallery is operated by the town’s most famous arts organization, and one that has often been forced by circumstances to act as an advocacy group for creative people. It should surprise no one that Pro Arts’s maiden exhibition at Art150 is a political one. Although Pro Arts has been around for more than a quarter-century, they’ve never had a dedicated, public base of operations before. It’s appropriate that Pro Arts would find a home at 150 Bay Street, because no building in the Warehouse District has complied with the mandates of the Powerhouse Arts District ordinance any better. (Arguably, 150 Bay is the only building in the District to have complied with the spirit of the ordinance at all.) My guess is that this gallery will eventually serve as the anchor for the District that Pro Arts clearly intends it to be, and that it’ll be as well-trafficked as any arts space in Hudson County. Not yet, alas. But soon.


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