The Artist At Work: Joe Velez and the Singular Beauty of Humankind

For the longest time, there has been a fundamental and significant difference between the artistic landscape “over here,” meaning Jersey City, and “over there,” meaning New York. Artists who wanted to enjoy the mercy of the artistic playground tried Jersey City for a while before they moved on to the big, global and often cruel arts market that is New York City, where talent is often secondary and connections and personality are everything.

But talent, expertise, connections and personality in combination still allow you to reach that next, fiercely competitive level. The artistic exchange between Jersey City and New York has become a little more permeable thanks to gentrification, the financial crisis and a growing arts scene in Jersey City.

One artist about to make the jump is Jersey City native Joe Velez, now based in Hoboken. He will be curating the exhibit “The Artist at Work” for this weekend’s Jersey City Artists Studio Tour at the Tenmarc building on Communipaw Avenue. Twenty-one artists will be exhibiting 28 pieces in the show, depicting themselves and their act of creation.

Velez himself is versatile. He teaches, curates and creates, exploring art from any angle possible. Perception from different viewpoints enables a more comprehensive study of the craft. “While I think production is most fulfilling, teaching takes me outside of what I normally think and curating puts me in a position of constant learning,” he says.

For his show “The Artist at Work,” Velez hand-picked a group of visual artists from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Hoboken and Jersey City. “I’m very happy with the painters that agreed to show their art,” he says. His standards for selection reach far beyond technical performance. “When I look at their work, it has to communicate to me on a different level. There is something beyond the visual, if you know what I mean.”

Studying Velez’s artwork, that level beyond the visual, a gripping, subconscious communication, becomes clear quickly. His fondness for the female form has been expressed in numerous paintings. The dignity and respect with which he captures every woman and her distinctly individual beauty in an intimate moment makes you want to sit for him the minute you enter his studio.

Velez leaves a lot of breathing room for the models. He never intrudes on their personal space, as most of them are in fully or half nude poses. Of course, working from photographs allows that distance, but it still takes a level of trust that Velez seems to be able to earn so quickly by being free of any pretense and so very nuanced in his approach.

The same applies to his artwork, in which he shows honesty to the point of pain, meticulous snapshots of faces, skin irregularities and moods, presented with sensitivity. All those components in combination describe the singular beauty of humankind and an endless appreciation of femininity.

“I always painted figurative,” says Velez. “I’m very selective about working abstractly. Although it seems easy to do, I think it’s very difficult to be a good abstract painter. And I think there are very few people who are good at it.” While figurative art and total abstraction seem mutually exclusive, the first builds the foundation for the latter. The mastering of the detail in a realistic manner allows for the estrangement from the subject afterward. The abstraction always demands the figurative or other natural source as a foundation, with one of the most prominent examples being Pablo Picasso.

First swayed by painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and other progressive artists from the late 19th century, Picasso produced his first cubist paintings based on Cézanne’s idea that all depiction of nature can be reduced to three solids: cube, sphere and cone. With the painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” from 1907, Picasso created a radical picture, depicting a raw brothel scene with five prostitutes, violently painted women reminiscent of African tribal masks and his own new Cubist inventions. Picasso hereby created the first abstract art style.

Velez, born in 1978, started painting when he was in his early 20s. An autodidact, he constantly visited museums to learn and channel his verve for the visual depiction of life and/or death.

“I paid very close attention to details, that’s why one of my paintings took me four years to finish,” he says. “Susanna and The Elders” is a portrayal of the Flatiron building with strong surrealist notions. Half-naked, the female protagonist is sitting defenseless in the middle of a black and white marble floor, depicting the streets of New York, watched by two fully dressed elderly men.

“The painting is loosely based on a biblical story,” Velez explains. “Two men see a young woman bathing in the forest and feel attracted to her. I translate these looks men give to women in the street, which I myself find threatening, as the main statement this painting is making.”

Classic artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt and the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi have dedicated pieces to this biblical theme before, the style according to their particular period. Velez finds a contemporary translation for a subject that has been surviving centuries and has not lost its disturbing force.

But it wouldn’t be sufficient to reduce the magic of “Susanna and The Elders” to the themes of vulnerability and sexism in modern, Western societies. Many women can very well relate to these themes, but Velez’s artwork also demands an eye for detail. The mood is somber, but not of overwhelming tristesse, the colors vary between a palette of grey and brown tones — a fall day in New York City. The particular attraction of this painting is the combination of an ancient theme that shows surrealistic influences in style, and the contemporary setting that turn it into a Velez.

Protagonist Susanna, however, is lost. Until she is able to figure out how to handle her femininity and sexuality as it relates to the world of men, she will be sitting in front of the Flatiron Building, her mind and body exposed.

Some of us will sit there for a lifetime.

“The Artist at Work” opens during the Jersey City Artists Studio Tour kickoff on Friday, Oct. 12, at 6 pm at the Tenmarc building, 430 Communipaw Ave. Participating artists include Sofia Bachvarova, Robert Zeller, Colleen Gutwein, Joseph Ventura, Thomas John Carlson, Bonnie DeWitt, Kayt Hester, Lisa Ficarelli-Halpern, Jose Velez Sr., Michael Meadors, Jay Boucher, Tim Heins, Grigory Gurevich, Lyndsea Cherkasky, Ricardo Roig, Jen Bissu, Sarahrose Petrick, Doug Stoveken, Dorian Monsalve and Joe Velez.

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Photos courtesy of Joe Velez

media consultant for a UN-based NGO. She has been working as a freelance writer for German and U.S. outlets since 1994 and mainly covers international politics and the arts. She lives in Jersey City.