Jersey City is short on manifestos. Our artists tend to make paintings and sculptures, not theories. As creative as they are, they’re not inclined to manufacture movements. Art here is audacious; artist’s statements are not.

Justin Rivenbark is an exception. Rootism — his invention — is both a style and a method. The North Carolina-born painter with a studio at MANA Contemporary treats mark-making as an emotional gesture. The Rootist artist attempts to step free from all systems of symbolic representation, including language and figuration. Instead, he follows where the line takes him, and no one line on the canvas is more important or more significant than any other. If he does this correctly, Rivenbark believes, the artist will create a map of his consciousness.

None of this would mean much if Rivenbark’s Rootist paintings weren’t good. But good they are: eye-catching, colorful, filled with odd angles, funny curves and bold juxtapositions of shape and hue. They’ll be on view all month at IMUR Gallery (67 Greene St.). “Rootism,” a solo show featuring works in acrylic on large canvases, opens on Thursday at 6 p.m.

As an outside observer and an appreciator of Rivenbark’s artistry, I find Rootism intriguing. Yet I’d never have guessed its tenets by looking at these pieces. To me, Rivenbark’s work is full of symbol and incident. In the Rootist paintings, I see lenses, faces, cars, skyscrapers, musical instruments, city plans, and other specific phenomena. Is this my prejudicial eye tipping the scales toward the kind of narrative coherence that writers tend to like? Am I imposing order on the productive chaos of the painter’s unconscious? Or is figuration harder to eliminate than the Rootist manifesto might indicate? We caught up with the painter for a pre-opening conversation about the work he does and the theory that underpins his dramatic acts of creation.

Tris McCall/Montreal Olympics: Justin, how and where did you come up with the concept of Rootism? When did you start applying it to the art you make?

Justin Rivenbark: The name originated in 2000. It’s from an assignment I did when I was taking an art history class in art school. We were literally asked to create an art movement. I don’t have the paper anymore and I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I named my movement Rootism.

TMC/JCT: What’s the “root” in Rootism, anyway?

JR: In 2007, when I made my first attempt at writing seriously about this process, I felt like the name was apt. The idea behind the theory is to utilize the information we can feel but cannot necessarily translate symbolically to tap into a shared experience that can be seen but not described. I liked to imagine this as a system of interconnected roots. That appealed very much to me. I also like the idea of the square root — the value that results when a number is multiplied by itself.
 To me, the process of Rootism feels like the act of mapping the present moment and creating a physical extension of yourself.

TMC/JCT: If you had to briefly sum up what Rootism means to you to someone who didn’t know anything about your work, what would you say?

JR: Rootism feels like a way that I can contribute to a larger understanding of who we are. It might not be regarded as important, and at times it feels incoherent. But the goal is to try to connect, as humanly as possible. To me that feels like an honest, worthwhile pursuit.

TMC/JCT: How are the paintings in the IMUR show examples of Rootist art?

JR: I would say the paintings are results of a process that is designed to allow the participant to express their phenomenal experience as subjectively as possible.

It’s one action repeated countless times: the physical act of making a mark driven by the feeling of the present moment. Out of that repeated process, an emergent visual system that is unique to the creator always appears when given enough information.

TMC/JCT: Were you one of those kids who was always drawing? Did you feel called to make art?

JR: I was definitely a kid who drew all the time, from as early as I can remember. It was always something I felt capable of doing, even if I was not the most talented. I have a lot of nostalgia, as I am sure lots of artists do, about those feelings, and I think it’s something I still consciously try to pursue.

I do feel called to make art. Or if not art, then called to create. But I think that calling has evolved as I have aged. I think I romanticized “the artist” much more when I was younger, and that seemed like a calling at the time. The way I approach art now seems like a much truer — if not nearly as exciting — pursuit.

TMC/JCT: The paintings themselves are exciting, though. How has the art, and your approach to it, changed as you’ve aged?

JR: I moved to Jersey in 2005 to pursue being an artist, whatever that meant at the time, but I quickly realized that I had not really ever defined what that meant to me. What does success mean? Why was I painting at all? What do I have to say that is of any value? It took me a long time to understand all the complexities behind those answers, and in 2007 I began making a concerted effort to start answering some of those questions honestly and earnestly.

Out of that pursuit to define myself, my ideologies, and my ambitions grew my first formal Rootist manifesto. I have since written two more iterations over the past fifteen years as I learn and discover more about my exploration.

Justin Rivenbark

TMC/JCT: As an artist — as a sensitive human being — you are aware of the symbols that surround you. How does a Rootist avoid expressing himself or herself through symbols, even unconsciously? It seems to me like that would be very difficult.

JR: We are so inundated with the need to define and describe symbols that I think it takes some conscious effort to engage with art from a place of feeling, not thinking. At least it does for me.

The prohibition of symbols was not always a part of Rootism. That only came about after I had reached complete stagnation with the theory. I went back to school to pursue a career in computer art. I was sitting in another art history class and I had what I suppose qualifies as a revelation. I realized that I couldn’t use symbols — like, at all — if I wanted to connect to the information I saw as fundamental. That practice of not using symbols had to be learned, because as you mention, symbols are ubiquitous. A huge part of the learning curve for Rootism was realizing how dominated by symbols my visual language was, and getting comfortable with the idea that information can be transmitted without using them.

TMC/JCT: The funny thing is that when I look at your paintings, I see landscapes, skyscrapers, cars, intersections, city plans. If I didn’t know better, and if I hadn’t engaged with your ideas, I’d think you were making a statement about the complexity and beauty of urban life. Is that just the mind making patterns even when patterns aren’t intended?

JR: I love that you say that about complexity and urban life because I have thought a lot about how my surroundings manifest in Rootism. I wonder, often, how my paintings would change over time if I moved to the desert.

TMC/JCT: Do you ever feel like your time in New Jersey has influenced the things you paint and the way you paint?

JR: I think Rootism taps into the reality that everything influences us, both internally and externally, and most times, we have no idea what those influences are or how they change us. But in the present moment, there is some felt experience that seems to encompass all those influences, and it shapes how we feel and approach the world around us.

I feel my whole life and my whole being in my Rootist works, but I could not point to any individual component and say it was influenced by any one thing or another. My wife and I have two children now, and I know know my experience of becoming and being a father has altered my work significantly. However, I could not point it out in the paintings themselves.

Justin Rivenbark

TMC/JCT: How did you come to MANA Contemporary? What has your experience there been like?

JR: I had heard about MANA from living in Jersey City but had never visited it. The first time I did was for one of their open studio events, and the moment I walked in, I felt intuitively that I was going to be a part of the space. I told my wife I felt it. I obviously thought it would be for my art, but I first started working there for an AI startup and ran a motion capture studio. I did that for one and a half years or so, and I was introduced to the space and got to experience all of the incredible talent. But I wasn’t actually doing any painting there.

In September 2021 I received a large-scale commission that required more space than my apartment in Jersey City Heights. I got my own studio in the basement of MANA. Being in that space has twice changed the course of my life, and it will always be a place that means a tremendous amount to me. I hope to continue to work there for as long as I can.

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,...