In the heart of Jersey City’s colorful and eclectic Little India neighborhood is a secret that is about to explode the art world. Mana Contemporary is more than a gallery, more than a studio, more than a sensation. It’s a burning impression on the mind, body, and heart -- an interior garden of sorts that stimulates the senses by creating sparks in a quiet, light, white space. Housed in a sprawling, abandoned, brick tobacco factory, the industrial exterior trimmed with concrete loading docks and the crunchy sound of aluminum garage doors rolling up and down serve as a gateway between the quotidian and the imagination.
From the deep warm belly of the earth, the boundless starry sky, or the walloping waves of the sea, Mana’s diverse collections seem to ask, “Where do we come from and when will we meet?” Let’s start on the sixth floor. A ramp with a fenestrated wall on one side and a series of large photographic panels of black sky and rising red sun that radiate heat leads to the Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation (ESKFF) Gallery. An avid art collector of American and international art, Kaminsky traveled the world selecting pieces that touched an emotion in her. Before entering, she shares a few words about what is inside:
“I have a personal feeling about the art and these artists. They are full of surprises. They are lush and wonderful with a hint of something wrong. I want to be tickled by art. I want to be astounded. I want to be brought back in again and again and see something different every time. Every one of these pieces does this for me. One piece reminds me of another and another in the collection. I love to make these connections.”
Once inside, I am drawn into a corner of the room that holds Kaoruko's "Aroma Mother Earth" (above), a tall screen print and sumi ink wash of a pregnant Japanese woman holding a bouquet of three peonies. As I move closer, I see all the details of pink and blue geometric patterns that come together in her open kimono exposing her breast and belly. The exterior of her kimono is a floral print tarnished by smoky soot. A very faint aqua-colored watermark of Japan’s geographical form stains her stomach. In her left hand are three peonies, a Japanese symbol of bravery often tattooed as body art. In medicinal folklore, the root of peonies was often used to suppress convulsions. Two cranes float along a gray plume in the air, and a third hovers closer to the ground, more like vultures rather than their iconic sign of peace. A year after Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, I recall the images of lives swallowed up in seconds, a landscape standing still, and an ancient culture shattered to pieces. Even though hopeful, there will be pain as a new Japan emerges.
Diagonally across from "Aroma Mother Earth" is another painting of a female figure, an untitled piece by Kim Dorland. This figure looks serene, seductively cast across a green hillside speckled with yellow daffodils. The paint is so thickly textured I can feel the clumpiness of the grass. Close-up, it’s easy to have more interest in the background and the figure fades. Dressed in a short red-and-white summer frock that resembles a picnic tablecloth, the girl seems comfortable and contemplative at the same time. Her legs are defined, but as you move farther up her body, the arms are not visible -- possibly located behind her back, or perhaps her sense of touch is completely severed. A streak of white light meets her cloudy gray gaze. This is the hint of something wrong.
The two rooms of ESKFF are filled with humor and melancholy, light and dark, real and imaginary creatures reflecting worlds of possibilities. I am amused by Ryan Mosley’s cameo painting, "Primitive Ancestry XIII," an oval side portrait of a figure that looks part human, part ape, with pygmy ears, a pronounced chin, pointy nose, and skin that has a shimmery, copper-like patina. It’s awkward and at the same time distinguished; aren’t we all?
Also on the sixth floor is Undivided Divided, a live art performance by internationally renowned Chinese choreographer Shen Wei Dance Arts. The room is prepped with large square canvases on the floor, on which semi-nude dancers move to music. Another visual layer is added by puddles of wet paint that the dancers spread on the canvas in circular, linear, and sweeping strokes, creating abstract art on the canvas and their bodies. Some of the dancers are placed inside glass cases, in which the walls also become covered in these intense colors that are free-form but simultaneously contained.
Mana Contemporary is a collaborative space that aims at uniting artists with curators, collectors with dealers, and art handlers with art viewers. It opened its doors in 2011 and continues to grow from within its own walls outward. It is a unique experience that gives visitors a chance to mingle with artists in their private studios to see works in progress as well as process, attend shows, lectures, view completed works in the gallery, and share an espresso in the café. Mana is a journey and destination. - Michelina Docimo
Mana Contemporary is at 888 Newwark Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey 07306
Ms. Docimo is a certified sustainable building adviser and writer. Her focus is on sustainable architecture, art, and design. Her writings have appeared in ARTES, D'Art International, and other venues.