By Dan Bischoff
The new summer show of paintings and photography at the Jersey City Museum is so diverse as to be almost a parody of the city's artistic community something traditional mixed with something new, all leavened with a pinch of Latino spice.
The museum had planned a summer show of sculptor Lillian Ball's twisted New Jersey backyard accessories-the interior cast of a hot tub in polyurethane,loopy pool-side furniture, etc. -but when funding for that show fell through, curator Alejandro Anreus hastily assembled a show of paintings and recent photographs from the museum's slide registry lake several other nonprofit venues for the visual arts in the state, Jersey City routinely accepts submissions from local artists and keeps colored slides of their work on file for curators to review. There are now well over 360 artists on the museum's registry.
Certainly the best-known of the three artists Anreus has selected is Valeri Larko, who has been doing meticulous cityscapes of industrial sites around Newark in oils for many years and has shown in virtually every significant nonprofit space in New Jersey over the course of her career. Larko is something of a self-styled Canaletto of the Meadowlands, with a penchant for detailed, atmospheric vistas under harshly lit blue skies.
Her "Power Plant, South Kearny, NJ" (1997) could be seen as a serenely Venetian view of Jersey's Grand Canal, bridged not by sighs but by railway trestles.
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"Valeri continues an established New Jersey tradition of unflinching landscapes, very much in feeling with artists like Peter Homitzky," Anreussays. "Like his work, Larko's is abstract and formal, an essential ingredient of this kind of painting."
Formal it is, but Larko's work is also down home. Her "Catholic Cemetery, Newark" (1999) is a painting of the Budweiser brewery near Newark Airport with a crucifix and tombstones in the near foreground. One headstone carries the name "Larko." At first you think it's a memento mori signature-a Romantic joke- but Larko says she first noticed the view when she buried her father there, so the reference is actually a reportorial "fact."
Literal truth is definitely the foundation of Larko's work. Anreus says she begins each ,painting on the site and returns near the end of her working process to "retune" the picture. She gathers stories about her locations, which are selected mostly from abandoned factories, British-born painter Rackstraw Downes does long, low paintings of New Jersey scenes, too, and has made something of a success of it lately, but where his scenes seemed selected for their banality, Larko's seem filled with a sense of place.
The other painter in Jersey City, MexicanAmerican Henry Sanchez, has a sense of place too, but it's a place the American mind rarely wanders. Sanchez is showing five life-size oils of Mexican wrestlers in their professional getups, most painted on intense, color-saturated backgrounds that make the figures float in indeterminate space, like advertising cutout.
Wrestling seems to resonate in our culture right now, thanks perhaps to the governor of Minnesota. Sanchez's "The Nominal Candidate" shows a masked wrestler
standing behind a blank sandwich board, as if willing to accept whatever slogan best fits his character. But in Mexico, (wrestling has been a populist political game for years. A character named "SuperBarrio" routinely tours poor areas in Mexico City, righting wrongs and distributing small sums (while advertising the games).
You wouldn't want to overinterpret these relatively simple images. But their iconic presence- only one figure here, "No, l," is a mask-less portrait- is kinda goofy, and engagingly human. "No, Si... Si, No" is a mirrored double portrait of a wrestler whose kneepads read "Yes" and "No" in Spanish, and the double figure hovers in the painting's space like two sides of a parentheses - a toy-like, irrepressible symbol of human ambiguity.
"From the Slide Registry" also includes a series of photos taken by Maria Lau, an emerging artist of Cuban descent who lives and works in Jersey City, on a recent trip back to the island. Lau's photos, displayed in two rows on opposite sides of the gallery, don't show to particular advantage here, overwhelmed as they are by Sanchez's broadly conceived 7x5 foot canvases and Larko's naggingly familiar local details. While a few might be standard journalism feature pictures - "Flower Girl," for example - most have some technical innovation or staged, conceptual gloss, like
"Bicicleta" (a black-and-white infrared print) or "Man in Door."