The last time I pressed the flesh, it was March 6. That was a Jersey City Friday, there was fear in the air, and arts events happening all over town. It was a cold and rainy night, but we went out anyway: we’d arrive at a gallery, greet the artist and the owner, shake hands, and apply sanitizer liberally afterward. We were still acting on the popular assumption that the main form of transmission was unwashed hands. It occurred to me that what we were doing was a risk, but I couldn’t see the full measure of what was coming. I figured if I smeared us both in Purell, we’d be able to continue going to shows all spring.
By March 10, that assumption looked dubious. A week later, the doors to the galleries and clubs were closed, and reality began to bite. It occurred to all of us that that Jersey City Friday might be the last of its kind for a long time. I’ve tried to hang on to the memory of that night, and given the circumstances, it’s remained sharp in my mind — like my recollection of the contours of the calm on the morning before the planes hit the towers. I can pinpoint the exact locations of each painting on the wall at the Hamlet Manzueta retrospective show at the Art House; I remember the specific hors d’oeuvres they were serving in the atrium of the Majestic Condominiums; I can reconstitute my footwork as I tried to squeeze into a crowded Village West Gallery for a poetry reading. I remember the streetlight streaks in the puddles of rain on the Newark Avenue sidewalks. I remember the unmasked faces of my neighbors.
Mostly, though, I remember a show at the SMUSH Gallery in McGinley Square. “īîìïíinches” felt like it was primarily motivated by a desire to express an idiosyncratic personality — in this case, the personality of a woman named Myssi Robinson, who is a dancer as well as a painter and a weird-object-designer. Robinson struck me as quintessential Hudson County artist working in the local post-industrial style, gluing together paper and rope and painted what-is-its at funny, aesthetically-pleasing angles, sprinkling glitter liberally, but leaving plenty of serrated edges. SMUSH gave her the entire space to decorate, and she made the most of that latitude. She covered one wall with black-and-white triangles as ready for business as any saw-teeth; on another, she draped bunting made of yellow plastic sheets. Right in the middle of the room, Robinson hung a portal (her word) to another dimension, or at least an experience uncommon on a wet, cold Jersey City night. This was a circle of floor to ceiling plastic tubes with a mirror on top. We were invited to walk in to the ring of darkness, look up, and allow the artist to take our picture.
Estranged by distance, distorted by the quick change in perception, the occupant of the portal was confronted by an image of herself. Like so much of “īîìïíinches”, it seemed to be a playful comment on vanity — one made by a person accustomed to being watched. Many of the objects in the show, on closer inspection, evoked women’s fashion: a polka-dot pattern with a loop in the shape of a handbag handle, waves of plastic suggestive of a party dress, smeared smiley-faces, some scribbled over with nail polish, beaming back like girls’ reflections in the too-bright circles at the cosmetics counter. Myssi Robinson wrought a hat from photocopies and braided industrial rope, and cupped plastic mirrored squares in red netting. These all felt like shards of feminine experience, strips torn from Glamour and reassembled, the residue of the immense energy that self-presentation requires. Everything in the show was pretty but barbed, lively, smart, exciting and impertinent, like an outfit held together by the confidence of its wearer.
The immersive quality of the “īîìïíinches” show can’t be translated to the Internet. But Myssi Robinson, and Katelyn Halpern, the curator and owner of SMUSH, want you to see the artworks anyway. Halpern, who is always very theorized about everything she does, was skeptical of online presentation at first; she felt that the whole point of a space like SMUSH is in-person interaction. Necessity has forced her to adjust. “īîìïíinches” is, I think, the first online exhibit she’s ever put together, and I’m glad she’s done it. Taken one at a time in a slideshow, Myssi Robinson’s objects still have plenty of stories to tell. The voice may not be as loud as it would have been if you’d encountered it on the first of March, but you can still hear the artist talking, and I’m grateful to Katelyn Halpern for putting aside her reservations and giving Myssi Robinson the amplification.