Collaborative Art Hidden Behind Bloomfield Ave
Walking into Gallery U, Montclair’s contemporary art gallery on Glenridge Avenue, is an over-stimulating experience rife with unexpected familiarity. Most of the pieces set aside simplicity and adopt an entertaining complexity that causes the viewer to pause and enjoy. People come and go through the door, some buying paintings or sculptures, and some simply admiring the exhibit. A three-dimensional piece made of wire and wheels calls out for attention by the couches and CD player at the room’s far side. Cartoonish paintings of women with stinging neon green faces and violet hair provide a comic relief in the midst of the abstract surrounding artwork that have more existential undertones. Across the hallway is Universal Institute’s New Moon depicting countless moons over a dark blue space. It is easy to get lost in the detail of each piece, making it even easier to forget that there are still other rooms to view, including in the restroom.
In the back room, several depictions of the Mona Lisa are gathered, some with an oversized grin, surrounded by layer upon layer of paint and string. Repeated images are found in almost every corner of the gallery, with many of these pieces featuring common objects that are altered in unpredictable ways – some buried underneath transparent images of other objects, some shredded, some burned or exploded. Asian themes, Chinese calligraphy, and woodblock print stylized clouds are found throughout the entire gallery, an intellectually visual environment. Most of the art within the gallery is collaborative work, including sculptures and mixed media pieces by both new and well-known artists. Shared materials provide a sense of continuity throughout the gallery’s installations.
The gallery, an extension of Universal Institute, Inc., mainly serves people who have suffered brain and spinal cord trauma as a part of vocational therapy, a step in their trauma recovery. Some of the collaborative pieces designed by those undergoing therapy with UI, which are the most elaborate and color-splashed works in the gallery, are especially important to the philosophy of the gallery, because these works signify the potential and progress that can be achieved through art and therapy. Hope and accomplishment are commonly portrayed themes.
Those undergoing therapy at UI are eventually hired by the gallery. Employees learn to answer phones, ring up customers, and organize events in order to regain skills lost by their specific trauma.
The idea for Gallery U first started with Jerry Lasso, a former trauma victim who realized that people with disabilities are not as limited as they seem; they need a chance to relearn real world skills through vocational training, physical therapy, and art therapy. There are four Gallery U locations, two of which are in New Jersey. The efforts of Universal Institute have been so successful that the galleries have been internationally recognized.
Gallery U holds a variety of events, such as their annual fashion show, a Montclair State University-run poetry night, and other personal events like birthday parties. Artists can also hold events featuring exhibits of their own work at the gallery. Kathleen Heron, an employee and artist, explains that a very important goal of Gallery U is to provide the community with accessible art, each piece sold for under $500. All sale profits benefit employees and go towards art supplies for patients at Universal Institute, Inc., as well as the gallery.
The gallery overall is a surprising and wild experience tucked away behind Bloomfield Avenue with much to find beneath its layers of familiar media; the use of string, photographs, cardboard, metal, and gloss added to paint create rare presentations on canvas. Given the chance, people should take time to explore and feel at home in this unexpectedly therapeutic space and possibly bring something home too.
For more information, visit the gallery’s Facebook page.