Everybody has seen sneakers dangling from phone wires by tied-together shoelaces, but no consensus on their meaning has ever been reached. Do they indicate a place to buy drugs? Are they a marker of gang territory? A tribute to a lost child? Do they signify that someone nearby has graduated college or gotten married? Less romantically, do people toss sneakers because other people have tossed sneakers, and we’re an imitative species? Like many things that have entered the urban visual vernacular, it’s become an ambiguous gesture — part of the landscape of the city, like bodega storefronts and traffic cones.

Some of the kicks in “From the Feet Up: 50 Years of Beats and Sneaks” at MANA Contemporary (888 Newark Ave.) do hang from a black wire. Others are handled with delicacy usually reserved for crown jewels or medical equipment. Creator Sean Williams has enshrined pairs of prize sneakers in clear and pristine plastic cases and bolted them to the wall. Everything in the small gallery is bathed in bright supermarket-commercial light. At first glance, you might think that Jersey City’s premier art space has opened a Foot Locker.

As usual with MANA, it’s more complicated than that. “From the Feet Up,” which’ll be on view this Sunday during the art center’s latest open house (Apr. 30, noon — 6 p.m.) is part history lesson, part kids’ science museum exhibit, part reliquary, and part chronicle of a personal obsession. (There’s an opening party for the show tonight, but it’s a ticketed event; my advice is to see the show when there isn’t any charge, or, if you’re really crazy about sneakers, attend both.) Williams presents pairs common and rare, some familiar, some innovative, some sustainably manufactured, and some wild amalgamations of rubber, foam, canvas, and fluorescent dye that feel like they must have felled a rainforest to mass-produce. The collection is a march backward through history that traces the explosion of the sneaker market in the 1980s and begins with humbler, more functional beaters in 1973.

The date is significant. Half a century ago, while spinning at back-to-school party, DJ Kool Herc used a pair of turntables to indefinitely extend the break sections of funk records. Was this the birth of hip-hop? Or was it simply the origination of an element of a nascent style that hadn't yet coalesced? Either way, it was a Big Bang that shook the musical universe down to its atoms. Through “From the Feet Up,” Williams becomes the latest footwear enthusiast to draw the connection between the global takeover of rap music and the explosion of an industry now worth over seventy billion dollars. To his credit, Williams also cites the influence of sports stars, who, in the wake of Michael Jordan’s watershed shoe deal with Nike, queued up to endorse or create sneaker lines of their own. But this show is about spitters, not ballers. That’s a point the curator reinforces through shoe-related quotes, painted on a red wall in bright yellow letters, drawn from the world-famous lyrics of veteran emcees: Phife’s New Balance, DMC and his Adidas, Raekwon and his sporting-goods store liturgy, and so on.

MANA Contemporary is rhyming along. They’ve matched rap-saturated Williams’s show with accompanying exhibits, all of which will be on view on the ground floor, that commemorate hip-hop’s fiftieth birthday. “Wildstyle” director Charlie Ahearn presents a sparkling wall-full of silk screened paintings, made at MANA Contemporary, of famous scenes and personalities from early hip-hop history. Al Díaz, Eric Felisbret, and Mariah Fox present a segment of their timeline of the history of one of the cornerstones of hip-hop culture: graffiti. “Laced Up,” a documentary about sneaker collectors, runs as a supplement, and perhaps a counterpoint, to “From the Feet Up.”

Silkscreen by Charlie Ahearn

The museum-ification of hip-hop has been happening for years, and it’s likely to accelerate as participants and fans alike get older and look to build monuments to where they've been. Given the centrality of hip-hop to the American experience over the past five decades, it's a reasonable thing to do. Yet these exhibits, and others like them, focus on the early days of rap music: the period when it was still possible to argue that hip-hop was a disruptive art form. In 2023, it's hard to think of anything more mainstream than hip-hop or the athletic shoe industry. The hysteria around sneaker drops and the proprietary behavior of collectors shares as much with OCD and cryptocurrency speculation as it does with art — something that the nonconformist hip-hop artist Serengeti pointed out on his brilliant 2021 album “Ajai.” It's a little jarring to see an unambivalent celebration of a price-inflated consumer product in the same space that recently showed us pained, soulful, culturally critical works by Hugo Crosthwaite and Vincent Valdez, and an excoriating video installation by Derrick Belcham.

The relaxed and populist tone of the sneaker show extends to the exhibition in the back galleries of the first floor. “Out of Character,” a show curated by Willy Hartland and Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery, concentrates on sketches, oddball cartoons, casual encounters and quick-hit visual jokes. Like the alternative comic books that inspired many of these pieces, the exhibition has a pop-apocalyptic tone that’s more invigorating than scary. But to get to the heart of “Out of Character,” it’s necessary to walk past “Blue Shirts,” a whirring blender of a sculpture by Brooklyn artist Greg Barsamian. This piece, tall as a human being, rotates under a strobelight and appears to morph as it whirls around: ivy grows through the collar of a shirt, and a bird hatches from an egg and flies away. This is motion images without the aid of film: a flipbook in three-dimensions, and a merry-go-round for the mind. It’s vertiginous to look out, and more than a bit frightening, but it’s so hypnotic that it’s hard not to get lost in its dark magic. It’s a singular work that lives up to the high standard set by MANA Contemporary in 2022, and reason enough to attend the open house.

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Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...