"Everythin$ Is OK" at the NJCU Visual Art Gallery
"Everythin$ Is OK" at the NJCU Visual Art Gallery

The newest on-campus resident at NJCU is a goldfish. It swims, blithely, in a small tank affixed to the wall of the Visual Arts Gallery (100 Culver Street). Nedko Bucev, conceptual artist on a mission, assures us that the water that runs through its little gills is filtered and thoroughly purified. But pointed like twin pistols at the globe are a pair of cylinders of industrial contaminants: white lead and black manganese. Should the thin glass crack and the chemicals reach the water, that’d be curtains for the goldfish. The animal lacks the capacity to realize that it is living under the gun. Are we any different?

Barring an earthquake, the fish ought to be fine. You and I may not be as lucky. Our innards may be as corroded as the mottled water pipes of “The Lead Drinkers” that rise, sickly in their PVC sheaths, from the Visual Arts Gallery floor. That’s a grim thing to contemplate, but with the cheekily titled “Everythin$ Is OK,” Bucev and gallery director Midori Yoshimoto are pulling no punches.

Water pollution has been a near-obsession at the University galleries over the last twelve months. “Too Much,” a group show, included it in its roundup of the perils of overconsumption, and “Surface Tension,” a terrific show by Newark artist Amanda Thackray, wagged a finger at institutional litterbugs who cast their plastic into the sea. Bucev’s show lacks the poise of “Surface Tension” and the varied perspectives of “Too Much,” but in its single-mindedness, its intensity, its occasional crudeness, and its absolute refusal to allow anybody to leave the room without getting the point, it’s the most powerful show of the trio.

The goldfish isn’t the only imperiled living thing in the exhibition. The artist exposed ten identical plants to water taken from different cities and filmed the results — and if you’ve got the stomach for it, you can fire up an iPad and watch, in time-lapse, half of those plants wither and die. He’s mounted ten brackets on the gallery wall; four contain healthy shoots, and six are empty. It’s hard to ask for a bolder illustration of cruelty, inequity, and indifference. Which of us get to thrive, and which of us are choked at the root by contamination?

Much depends, the show argues, on our street address. Bucev names names. He calls out particular towns (Hackensack is scolded for its pipes) and inefficient systems that work against healthy hydraulics. “Polychlorinated Biphenyl’s Travelogue” pinpoints a pollutant-heavy stretch of the Hudson River at Nyack, maps its contours, and festoons the massive image with QR codes should you wish to learn more about how you’re being poisoned.

Two things save “Everythin$ Is OK” from the science fair. First, there’s the fierceness of Nedko Bucev himself, whose outrage burns like a roman candle straight through the show, and eventually becomes part of the art. Bucev is no Mr. Wizard, diagnostically assessing the water table and encouraging productive change; no, this is Jeremiah in the pit, threatening the lives of innocent goldfish and pleasant-looking houseplants in order to get your attention. This is a highly emotional show, and the main emotion it expresses is sheer desperation at human folly.

The other distinguishing quality of “Everythin$ Is OK” is the medium that the artist has chosen. Water is beautiful. It’s both reflective and transparent; it’s got texture and weight, it pools and swirls, it drips, streaks, and eddies. When it’s muddy, the sediment carries a story, and when it’s clear, it gleams like a gemstone. Bucev decants toxic water into drop earrings and glass bottle-amulets, and gets them to shimmer, dangerously, in the gallery light. His aggressive juxtapositions of clean and filthy liquid are political statements, but they’re also studies of refraction, gradation, and hue. “Left and Right Hand Water Glasses” is a condemnation of the policies that pump healthier water to Cherry Hill than inner city Newark. It’s also a lovely object to behold.

In all of these pieces, Bucev foregrounds his respect for water — its life-giving properties, its eternal qualities, and the force it generates. Sometimes, he seems terrified of it, scared of what it’s become in an industrial era. “Hydrant Games,” a silkscreen print, captures the rough silhouettes of kids playing on the street. Water fans out from the bottom of the frame in jagged pink streaks, piercing the bodies of the children, distorting and elongating them, as if they’d been seized by a blast and flung backward. We barely need to be told that the paint used to make the silkscreen is contaminated with lead. In Bucev’s world (which is, unfortunately, the world we all share), danger runs hot from every tap.

We’re disinclined to think about any of this. Unlike Nedko Bucev, we don’t want to view our water bill as abstract art or turn it into a tattoo. Buvic puts all his cards on the water table, and there’s good evidence in “Everythin$ Is OK” that his preoccupation is driving him a bit mad. In “W Side Effect,” a digital photo of the artist’s hands, he traces a W on his palm, and wonders in the curator’s note whether toxins have altered his body. The artist meticulously logs his exposure to tap water and worries about the encroachment of mercury (which he finds beautiful) on his skin. Lest he be accused of paranoia, he’s documented his research in a digital flipbook, footnoted everything, and included links to scholarly articles that are not too sanguine about the future of the human habitat. Unlike the goldfish, Bucev is aware of what he’s facing. But just like the fish — and like the rest of us — he’s got nowhere to go.

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,...