One of the most popular art museums in Mexico City isn’t really an art museum at all. Casa Azul, pride of the beautiful, walkable Coyoacán neighborhood, was once the home of the painter Frida Kahlo — and since Kahlo’s mobility was limited, it was also her studio. Her paints, brushes, easels and models are still set up in a workspace adjacent to the Kahlo bedroom. Does seeing the place where Kahlo made her art draw us closer to understanding her allusive, visually complicated paintings? Millions of visitors think so. Or maybe they’re so smitten by Kahlo’s work that they’re looking to surround themselves with her canvases, her books and personal possessions, and the traces of a life artfully lived, without interference or crosstalk from other voices.

Enter an artist’s studio, and that’s what you’re going to get: an intimate encounter with that artist’s aesthetic. Casa Azul in Coyoacán is a kind of shrine. It delivers communion with the artist that can’t be realized in a more traditional museum setting where Kahlo’s paintings must share space with works from dozens of other artists. Visitors are asked to see the Kahlo’s life as inseparable from the art she made. What she did, where she looked, what she touched — it’s all relevant to the story. It’s a very modern idea of what an artist is: someone whose personality is just as important, if not more important, than her arrangement of pigment on canvas.

Santiago Cohen

Frida Kahlo died seventy years ago. Yet her spirit was on the move on Saturday at the first Art Crawl in Jersey City Heights. Sometimes this was made explicit by artists and hosts. The storytelling painter Santiago Cohen hung a portrait of Kahlo inside his open studio; the shopkeepers at the Sure Things vintage store (561 Palisade Ave.) propped a Kahlo art book up near the cash register. Mostly, it was implied by the Crawl’s Casa Azul-like suggestion that the best way to know the artists of a particular neighborhood is to get up in their business — enter their studios and living spaces, view work complete and incomplete, and step across the threshold that separates the public sphere from the private. This was the original logic of the Jersey City Artist Studio Tour, and the more the Crawl resembles JCAST, the better it works.

Santiago Cohen

Before Saturday, all local Crawling had happened Downtown. Most activity at prior Crawls took place at studio buildings like 150 Bay Street in the Powerhouse Arts District and Elevator on Hamilton Park. Earlier this year, 14C director Robinson Holloway announced that the Crawl would be visiting neighborhoods in other wards. The Heights event made good on that promise. Yet there’s a difference between operating a self-guided art walk in a part of the city filled with galleries and studios and one where exhibition space is in short supply. Getting from one attraction to the next on a Downtown Crawl was often a matter of walking a few feet. In Jersey City Heights, journeying between Crawl stops required a little more locomotion.

There weren’t too many of them. 14C presented Crawlers with their pick of four individual artist studios and three modest-scale shows in retail establishments on Palisade Avenue. Three of the artists opened their doors to spaces of creation on residential streets; the fourth, former Ferris High School art teacher and city Cultural Affairs chief Orlando Cuevas, invited visitors to Studio 357, the small exhibition space he maintains with his wife in the detached front room of his Palisade Avenue home. Cuevas has a long and storied tenure in the Jersey City scene: he was one of the Artfux, a group of disruptors whose combination of impertinence, satire, and emotional effulgence set the tone for underground art in Hudson County in the 1990s. 

Orlando Cuevas

Time has taught him subtlety, but he’s never stopped being provocative. His vision of the city, expressed in paintings, sculptures, and prints of apartment blocks, tenements, and the Powerhouse, feels at once older, seedier, and more boisterous than the representations of urban life we’ve lately seen from Downtown artists. Cuevas is critical, but he isn’t dystopian. His Jersey City is bustling, energetic, irregular, throwing elbows at the viewer at funny angles. It’s a city in need of some TLC, but one fundamentally appealing and loaded with personality. At 357, he supplemented his images of the city with paintings of playing cards, including a few where the pips didn’t match the number on the face. A game of chance is going on, but it’s not exactly on the level. You’re invited to sit down and play anyway.

Farsad Labbauf

Cuevas’s interest in Pop Art and brilliant color found a parallel in the capacious Hugo Lofts home studio of Farsad Labbauf. The oil painter, who, in another lifetime, presented work at the Jersey City Museum, has bitten the psychedelic fruit that altered the consciousness of Snow White in the Disney animated classic. In big, visually arresting paintings, Labbauf returns to the distinctive figure of Snow White, birds perched on her fingers, apple of discord in hand, lips and eyebrows made of skeins of dots, body assembled from extended ellipses. He’s also found room in some of his canvases for viral particles and gas pumps, floating about the princess’s face and body as she smiles, oblivious to the danger posed by modern wicked witchcraft. Precarity is also present in Gale Sasson’s little showroom, stuffed from floor to ceiling with lovingly made ceramic statuettes of endangered animals.

Gale Sasson

These were all doors well worth opening. But the centerpiece of the Heights event — and the fullest justification of the Art Crawl/JCAST immersive method —was Cohen’s studio. The painter, sculptor, illustrator and graphic novelist has presented work in many local shows, but because of the narrative quality of his pieces, it’s best to see as many at once as you can. I admit I’ve mis-assessed Cohen’s paintings and missed the resonances that happen when the artist’s pieces have room to speak to each other. In his own studio, Cohen is free to fill a high wall with hundreds of pages of an autobiographical comic book, and in the relaxed atmosphere of a Crawl, visitors have the time to stand on the studio floor and experience the story, day by day and frame by aching frame. There’s space for a parade of skeletal statues, some twice the size of a human, tables and shelves for books, and easelsful of paintings. Themes get reinforced: the dislocation of the immigrant experience, the vibrancy of Mexican tradition and culture, the velocity of change, heritage and parenthood, happiness and doom, the ever-lurking threat of violence.

Could Santiago Cohen create something that speaks univocally in a gallery or a museum? Probably, but he’d have to be given an entire retrospective. And even if he was, there’s no way to approximate the telling details that accumulate when a creative person spends a decade or more working in the same space: a wall of personal photographs, a heap of half-realized (but telling) artworks, a CD collection in one corner, pictures of inspirations pinned to another corner for motivation. At Cohen’s studio, there was no obstruction whatsoever for the artist’s voice. The reverberations were palpable in the antechamber; they rattled the floor of the studio; they chased us down the block.

Melissa Buesing

The Heights crawl could have used another stop or two like Cohen’s, or even like Labbauf’s. Instead, the balance of the art walk brought Crawlers to stores where art played second fiddle to merchandise. This was the opposite of the totalizing experience of visiting the artist’s studio. At the Lucky Honey Bee gift shop (487 Palisade Ave.), store owner Melissa Buesing’s understated photographs rested on a shelf as if they were a line of votive candles. It’s hard to blame the businesses for this: they’ve got objects and services to sell, and only so much shelf space to dedicate to an Art Crawl.

Sure Things split the difference more skillfully, and presented MD Khan’s “Wallflowers,” a tight, balanced show of pressed flower pieces complemented by floral arrangements by the artist. Khan, a first-time exhibitor, has an eye for color combinations, a feel for the power of negative space, and a palpable love of all things flowering. Sure Things isn’t an art gallery, but the business owners are doing a credible imitation of one, and they’re sharing space with Khan in a manner that makes it clear that they see his work as something more than merely decorative. They’re down with the program, in other words: they know what all of this Crawling is about. We’ll see if 14C can keep up the momentum when the Crawl moves to Bergen-Lafayette on June 22.

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,...