At Curious Matter, Home is Where the Art Is
This is not the first confession I have made in my life, and it will not be the last. I had never visited the art gallery Curious Matter before September 2011. To date, they have organized 13 exhibitions that have featured more than 200 artists from Jersey City, New York, and abroad. Raymond E. Mingst and Arthur Bruso run the gallery, which opened in 2007.
When I lived on Belmont Avenue, I was less than two miles away from the gallery, and never visited it, not once. I always intended to go, but never did.
I had to move 10 miles and an hour’s travel time away to finally see the gallery. The irony is not lost on me.
Curious Matter is located on 272 Fifth Street in the Harsimus Cove section of Downtown Jersey City. Red-brick row homes dot the tree-lined streets, and the air is often filled with the sound of bells from nearby Catholic churches. Dames Coffee and Espresso Bar, which is located around the corner, serves delicious lattes.
After more than five years in business, Curious Matter has established itself as an integral member of Jersey City’s Downtown art scene. The community is undergoing a renaissance of late, with longtime heavyweight 58 Gallery continuing to organize exhibitions and performances, and Jersey City Art School and _gaia continuing to attract and nurture emerging artists. The most recent upstart is WOOLPUNKstudios, a gallery that opened on Newark Avenue near Brunswick Street. Curious Matter, despite its diminutive size and staff, is thriving. The fact that it is run from the parlor room of a private residence only adds to its allure.
The Parlor Room
Bruso and Mingst operate Curious Matter out of the parlor room of their row home, which is accessible via a steep stone staircase. To walk into the parlor room is to travel back to 19th- century Jersey City, when the building was first constructed. With a keen appreciation of history, they have preserved the room’s Italianate style. The first things I noticed were the hardwood floors, the crown molding, a stone fireplace, and the beautiful chandelier from Murano, Italy.
In many ways, Bruso and Mingst have returned the parlor room to what would have been its function in Victorian days – a room set aside for special occasions, visitors and entertainment. While the work they show is contemporary, they use the space in a very traditional manner, which seems particularly appropriate considering their house is located in a historic district.
The room itself, at 144 square feet, is a 12-foot square. Size, however, is not a limiting factor.
“We make the most of every inch,” says Mingst. “The doors from the foyer into the parlor have small shelves for our catalogs and publications. A door from the parlor to the rest of the building has been fitted with a panel for additional exhibition space.”
When I dropped by in September, Bruso’s suite of 25 photographs was on view. The exhibition, Falling City, presented derelict apartment houses, passersby on the hustle, and morning hangover. Many of the photographs rested on a small temporary ledge, no more than two inches deep, which ran the length of the north and east walls. The remaining photographs hung from wire on a small section of wall space adjacent to the fireplace.
A bouquet of pink flowers, exhibition statement and exhibition catalog rested on the mantelpiece. A well-situated mirror within a gold frame, which Mingst purchased at a Brooklyn Salvation Army years ago, helps the room breathe.
The architectural details here would shame many contemporary gallerists. Most exhibition venues in Chelsea or the Lower East Side resemble antiseptic white cubes. The idea behind the austere construction is that contemporary art is best served with the least distractions. The outside world should disappear, or at least be far removed.
Mingst and Bruso do not fear the hullabaloo of the world beyond the parlor room, and find no reason to protect the art from it. To them, the details of the parlor room serve their exhibitions. Their insight that the history of a room could play into their exhibitions occurred during a trip abroad.
“Before we curated Naming the Animals [a previous show], Arthur and I had visited La Specola in Florence. It’s an absolutely thrilling museum of natural history that maintains a collection that dates back to the 1700s,” says Mingst. “From the creaking wooden floors to the centuries-old display cabinets with taxidermy and anatomical wax figures, everything about the museum speaks to its place in history.”
Naming the Animals, which was a partnership between Curious Matter and Proteus Gowanus in Brooklyn, included artists from Australia, Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom, in addition to artists from the immediate area. Artists were asked to explore man’s impulse to classify the world around us. Richard Haymes contributed a Gothic woodwork cabinet that housed religious tchotchkes, jewels and jewelry fittings, a fish tank thermometer, a page from an Italian children’s primer, and a hair net, to name just a few items. Lasse Antonsen’s artwork included taxidermy that featured three kingfishers. Colette Male’s sculptures, which referenced sailors’ ivory carvings from the 1500s, comprised seashells, coral, plaster, and resin, and resembled a hybrid creature.
If the parlor room is beginning to sound like a cabinet of curiosities, it should.
Variations on a Theme
A cabinet of curiosities, known in German as Kunst-und Wunderkammer, displays an encyclopedic collection of all kinds of objects of dissimilar origin. Whether the objects on view were manmade or natural, the collection was a reflection of intellectual rigor and inquisitiveness. It would not be an anomaly to find taxidermy birds paired beside clock automata or botanical specimens from an exotic location.
“Cabinets of curiosity vividly evidence the desire to understand the world around us,” says Mingst. “The physical manifestation of the pursuit for knowledge is what captivates me as an artist. I often think of the art I produce as a collection of relics and notes.”
Bruso echoes Mingst’s enthusiasm.
“As a visual person, I am interested in visual objects,” he says. “As a youth, I was interested in science and collected all kinds of things: shells, rocks, butterflies, bones, and anything that was out of the ordinary.”
The world of nature is not the only aspect of cabinets of curiosities that inspire Bruso.
“I also grew up in an Italian-Catholic family which had all of the statues, prints, reliquaries, beads, prayer books and candles associated with the religion.
“I developed an interest in the macabre, the occult, tarot, symbolism and the creepy and fantastic,” he adds. “This is the aspect of cabinets of curiosities that attracts me.”
Art Galleries at Home
Like many of the galleries in Jersey City, Curious Matter is a do-it-yourself affair. But what separates Curious Matter from other exhibition venues in town is its parlor location. “Our approach parallels attitudes held by Alfred Stieglitz in relation to his Gallery 291,” says Mingst. “We’re an exhibition space, but also a place of inquiry and ideas.”
Gallery 291 was located on 291 Fifth Avenue, near Herald Square in New York City. It opened in 1905. Stieglitz rented a studio apartment to show photography, which was an unrecognized art form at the time. From this small residential studio, he would exhibit the avant garde work of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. This living space helped introduce modern art to American audiences.
Over the years, Jersey City has had a string of in-home exhibition venues. Elen Sviland operated 919 Gallery from her spacious industrial loft at 150 Bay Street and during the gallery’s tenure hosted acclaimed artist Miru Kim. Farah Nuradeen used to manage an informal art gallery from her Downtown garden apartment on Jersey Avenue.
Curious Matter is not the first exhibition venue Mingst has run from a private residence. Cabinet Gallery, an earlier incarnation of Curious Matter, was housed in an SRO (single room occupancy) on East 9th Street in Manhattan’s East Village.
Mingst, at the time, had been creating temporary art in remote locations in Far Rockaway, Fire Island, and Pennsylvania. His materials were sand, snow, dirt and sticks. A shovel was his primary tool. Due to the transient nature of the work, he began to consider documenting his projects. This shift led him to consider the collection, presentation, and stewardship of objects as well as to reflect on ideas about preservation and adoration. The Cabinet Gallery was the articulation of those interests. Earlier in his career as an artist, Mingst realized the potential of domestic living quarters to operate as exhibition venues.
“The very first shows I put together were renegade presentations in art school,” he says. “I would simply commandeer rooms and hallways and install work, then create flyers and put them up around campus,” he adds. “Creating art and exhibiting have always been linked for me.”
The Cabinet Gallery, in addition to being a home and exhibition venue, was where Mingst met Bruso. Bruso, at the time, was organizing shows at La Mamma La Galleria, an exhibition venue near the Bowery. Both artists were exploring new directions in their practice; they identified similar intent and began to collaborate on projects. Museology, cabinets of curiosities and religious iconography were among their intersecting interests.
The Jersey City Scene
Jersey City is a source of bewilderment for many New Yorkers, especially its artist types. New York has the infrastructure to support, nurture and sustain the arts. Jersey City simply does not.
Mention Jersey City to a curator based in New York, and his or her eyes glaze over. Despite their longtime status as New Yorkers, Mingst and Bruso do not suffer anti-Jersey bias. They love Jersey City, and its hidden treasures. New Yorkers cannot claim these treasures, no matter how hard they try.
“Folks get baffled too easily sometimes,” says Mingst. “The Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre with its Wonder Morton Organ is located in Jersey City.” He notes another icon that Jersey City has that New York does not: “Proximity to the Pulaski Skyway, not to drive, just to look at.”
“Then there’s that maple syrup smell that wafts through some mornings, and too, there’s seeing the sunset from the ShopRite parking lot on Marin Boulevard,” he adds.
Bruso’s appreciation of Jersey City, on the other hand, is more pragmatic.
“In New York, my studio was the surface of my bed. And Jersey City has a quicker ride to Manhattan than Brooklyn does.” He adds another pro: “the ability to keep chickens.”
But Jersey City is not the easiest place to run an art gallery or institution. Ask the former employees from the Jersey City Museum or Cooke Contemporary – they can tell you. Money is always an issue. Making ends meet is a constant struggle. Despite these challenges, Bruso and Mingst remain undaunted.
“We’re sustained by our commitment, which is bigger than any bank account,” says Mingst. The gallery also receives support from Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit service organization. “Most galleries and museums complain about their attendance. Very few people visited the Institute of Contemporary Art until the Mapplethorpe controversy blew up,” says Bruso. “When I was exhibitions director, gallery sitters were always disappointed at the sparse attendance of the shows.”
But neither Bruso nor Mingst wallow in despair.
“There are many ways of increasing attendance. The founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology would stand outside and play the accordion to bring attention to his space. Neither Raymond nor I can play the accordion…”
Mingst interjects: “But I play Billie Holiday 78s on the portable victrola I bring out with Le Bouquiniste [their new mobile kiosk of art books and zines].”
Kidding aside, Bruso and Mingst acknowledge and accept the challenges of running an art space in Jersey City. They also focus on what Jersey City does have: self-reliance and determination.
“Jersey City has a large and active artist population. Yet there’s a lack of exhibition venues, which I know is frustrating,” says Bruso. “But what these challenges have created is a healthy do-it-yourself ethic. The artists are creating opportunities for themselves all the time.”
The best action Curious Matter can take to promote the gallery does not include gimmicks, and they know this.
“We can hand out business cards and direct people to our website. And talk and talk about our gallery,” Bruso remarks. “The best thing we can do is present amazing exhibitions that people talk about, and this we do.” How would Mingst describe the overall experience of running Curious Matter? “You’re more likely to have a diverse audience here, not merely art world insiders,” he says. “We get a very savvy crowd, a more colorful mix than any Thursday in Chelsea.”
Taking it to the Streets
Curious Matter is not content to sit and wait for the audience to come to them. These guys are men of action and refinement. If people cannot attend the gallery, they bring the gallery to them, literally.
Le Bouquiniste, the mobile kiosk, is their most recent project. It features books, prints, broadsides, chapbooks, and zines, all of which are published by small and independent presses. Inspired as much by the booksellers of Paris as Fourth Avenue in New York, Le Bouquiniste is a special project of Curious Matter, created to expand the audience and scope of work the gallery presents.
“We figured not everyone is inclined to visit a gallery, but if we were right out on the street,” Mingst says, “there’d be no way to avoid us.”
Curious Matter, is located at 272 Fifth St., and is open by appointment. For more information, call 201-659-5771 or visit their website.
This article appeared in the the 2011 Winter issue of NEW magazine (now JCI Magazine). @ Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.
Photos by Christopher Lane, © Jersey City Independent
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