Artists as Curators and Leaders: Mana Contemporary Upends the Art World Status Quo

  • Installation view of “Mana Exposition” at Mana Contemporary. Courtesy Mana Contemporary.

When his Gowanus, Brooklyn studio was consumed by Hurricane Sandy, artist Ray Smith got a call from friend and fellow artist Eugene Lemay—who is also president and founder of the two million-square-foot artists’ haven that is Mana Contemporary. The pair had met at the opening of the Jersey City complex in 2011 and a year and a half later Lemay and his team rescued some 80 artworks from Smith’s waterlogged studio, and transported them to Mana where they dried out, underwent restoration, and ultimately formed the artist’s solo exhibition there in March 2013. As was the case with Smith, and many other artists affected by Sandy, Mana keeps artists at the fore.

A cluster of 1920s-era factories and warehouses, Mana Contemporary has become an inclusive campus of exhibition spaces, artist studios, storage facilities, a print shop, a foundry, and anything else an artist could wish for, while serving simultaneously as an art destination just outside of New York City. “We are creating a community that bridges the gap between artist and audience by displaying the process behind the work,” Lemay recently told Artsy. “Collectors, dealers, curators, and general visitors are able to connect more deeply with the art, and artists are inspired to collaborate and exchange ideas. We are also changing the art world status quo by giving the artists leadership roles.” Another artist, Yigal Ozeri, is the cofounder of Mana.

This message (or rather, mission) is a realized and resounding force, particularly now, with the first “Mana Exposition,” curated by none other than Mr. Smith. As curator of this inaugural edition of what is planned to be a series of shows—each one seeking to present art in a relaxed setting and directly engage the artists represented—Smith turned to his friends (fellow artists) to take the spotlight under his reign. Titled “ALL THE BEST ARTISTS ARE MY FRIENDS (Part I),” the exhibition is an extensive survey that incorporates sculpture, photography, painting, and everything in between, from artists that range from young and emerging talents to household names, including many who have studios at Mana.

With exhibition design by architect Richard Meier, the show finds its footing in a new 50,000 square-foot space, where the traditional white cube and its bounds have been swapped out for natural light, a glass windowpane exterior, and an open layout, guided by freestanding walls. The exhibition’s physical reach is refreshing—something one could not find within New York’s city limits. From Rhys Gaetano’s giant foam and plexiglass disco ball, to Rita Ackermann’s fantastic diptych of cool blue forms that toe the line between figuration and abstraction, the show is a delightful, inclusive melange of color, material, and artistic prowess.

In one space a low pedestal is covered with small Ai Weiwei vessels, while nearby an expansive canvas by Sante D’Orazio dominates the far wall—a dynamic optical composition made from film stills from vintage pornographic movies. On the other side of a bisecting wall, an Alex Katz flower painting overlooks Aleksandar Duravcevic’s perfectly shaped, crushed-glass star that sits on the floor, and further down the gallery Ozeri’s photorealistic silkscreens face a steel kinetic sculpture by Raul Mourão (captured here). Smith included a work of his own—an oil-on-wood painting of a boxer that is all arms and legs—and works by Lemay, including a dark, enveloping meditation on nature that begins as a digital print and spills onto the floor into a pile of black granite. Another highlight is Z Behl’s monumental, harlequinesque Pied Piper, which when seen from behind reveals a secret funhouse behind plexiglass, where the artist has staged live performances of children playing the flute. 

Mana Contemporary holds promise of becoming the next major art destination easily accessed from New York, and it sets itself apart through this dedication to the artist. In the coming years the complex will expand and develop infrastructure to accommodate a large audience. Ray Smith may have said it best, “At a time when so much emphasis is placed on the monetary value of artists’ work, Mana focuses on the real value, which is the artists themselves.”

Casey Lesser

“Mana Exposition” is on view at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, through Aug. 1st, 2014.

Follow Mana Contemporary on Artsy.

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