Jersey City gallery displays vivid images of transgender subjects
Friday, August 25, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff


The woman gazes at you through dark eyes, her eyebrows in feline arches. Her eyes are set off by flaring dark blue makeup and gold highlights, a thick mane of brown hair surrounds her face. If the perfect skin and pouty lips don't get your attention, then her body will: painted a shimmering blue with yellow stars stenciled across it, even more noticeable for her bare nipples framed by a gold-fringed magenta blouse.

By the way, she's a man.

"Portrait of a Lady" is the ironic title of a display of color photographs by Jersey City resident H.D. Martinez, whose subjects are actually transsexuals in various stages of transformation into women.

In the text accompanying his portfolio of a dozen images from the exhibit, Martinez explains that his fascination began with a move to Jackson Heights, Queens, about 10 years ago, where he became acquainted with the Latino gay community. He followed transsexual performers around, documenting them whenever he could. Those images, plus shots taken on a trip to Rio de Janeiro, comprise the Jersey City show.

Some of the images, like that of the heavily made-up man, go to the glam extremes of transgenders. Others, like the ones of Rio streetwalkers, show a plainer though no less garish view, with bright red lips and white pancake makeup.

Oddly enough, one of the more striking images shows a transwoman not so much made up as simply transformed. Her face explodes into a broad smile, reacting to something being said by a person out of the frame to the right. A hand reaches up from that side, pointing to the far wall, where one sees a poster for Wonder Woman. The subject leans forward, her large breasts threatening to spill out of her dress. If you didn't know the context of the photography, you'd swear you were looking at a woman.

Just as notable as the images are the venue where they're displayed, a converted garage behind a large, vine-draped house on a stately tree-lined street off Kennedy Boulevard, just blocks from Journal Square.

Lauri Bortz and Mark Dagley publish art books and the occasional CD via their Abaton Book Co. Three years ago, Bortz said, they set off to transform the garage to a small gallery, showing works during the warmer months. "All of our friends are artists," said Bortz. "We always wanted a gallery. Once we got the house, we didn't have a car, so it made perfect sense."

During artists' receptions, the couple make use of their plant-festooned back yard, which abuts Lincoln Park. The gallery theme overflows into their house, where early 21st-century avant garde books and artwork are displayed in early 20th-century rooms. The look is funky yet homey, a far cry from the city's arts district some two miles away. The place is definitely worth seeking out.

"People from downtown Jersey City don't know this neighborhood is here," Bortz said. "They think the world ends at Grove Street."

2006  The Star Ledger
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