These aren’t the kind of floral paintings you’ll find hanging in the lobby of most motels or for sale at your local department store.
At first glance, you might not even realize that some of the Rob Ventura pieces that currently line the walls at Proto Gallery in Hoboken depict flowers at all. They’re filled with abstract shapes, wild brushstrokes and deep, dark hues of red, orange, purple and black.
Plus, they all share something unusual: Each painting is named after a poisonous flower.
Welcome to “False Indigo,” a show of 17 oil-on-canvas paintings by Ventura, a 28-year-old artist who has been living and working in Hoboken for the last four years. It’s his first solo exhibition at Proto, a contemporary art gallery located in the city’s old Neumann Leather building.
Ventura calls himself an abstract painter, but for this exhibit — which is free and runs through July 29 — he wanted “some kind of subject matter to the paintings.”
“Flowers are part of the natural world,” he explains. “But I thought flowers and florals are pretty abstract. They are reminiscent of the gestures of abstract painting.”
And why did he pick toxic ones?
“It sounds sexier,” Ventura says with a smile. “They’re flowers, but they’re also kind of punk rock. They’re a little grungy. They’ve got some edge to them.”
Ventura was raised in Berkeley Heights but did undergrad work at Boston College. Originally, his focus was on music, playing bass guitar in rock and funk bands. But there was a problem.
“It was really hard to play music on campus,” he recalls. “It was loud and there wasn’t really a lot of practice space.”
So Ventura added an arts major and eventually received a master’s degree in art from Boston University.
“I liked the fact that art was more self-directed,” he says. “I could do it on my own. I didn’t have to get together a group of people to play.”
Since then, Ventura has been active in the New York art scene and has had solo shows in other places, such as one in Jersey City last summer.
But his home base is Proto, where he has rented studio space the last few years.
Sculptor Nick De Pirro opened the gallery four years ago in a large brick building that once housed the Neumann Leather factory in downtown Hoboken. The goal was to bring a New York-styled commercial gallery to the other side of the Hudson River.
“I thought it would be nice to have this kind of thing on the Jersey side but still be linked to New York,” De Pirro remembers. “Sort of create an orbit for Jersey artists.”
Originally, the gallery hosted only group exhibitions. But in recent months, Proto has added solo shows to the mix. Ventura’s is the third.
De Pirro says “False Indigo” is a vehicle for Ventura’s “really aggressive painting style.”
“The paint has a lot of action,” De Pirro says. “And what I like about the show is: You have big colorful canvasses that also have a conceptual framework. It’s not just the color. It’s not just a canvas. He has an underlying intelligence to it that keeps me interested in it.”
Ventura also used an interesting process to craft the paintings in the show. First, Ventura explains, he took images from Vincent Van Gogh’s series of flower paintings and put them into Photoshop, “digitally manipulating them to create a new composition.” He then projected the images onto his canvases and painted over the projections.
“It hard to see the reference,” Ventura says of the Van Gogh influence. “They kind of become their own thing.”
All of it stems from Ventura’s love of pop art — including artists like Roy Lichtenstein, who often appropriated the work of comic books and other artists to create new pieces.
“I like working with preexisting imagery,” Ventura says. “It’s kind of a jump-off point.”
Once the paintings were done, Ventura looked through images of poisonous flowers and assigned the pieces titles based on the flowers they most resembled.
“False Indigo,” the show’s title painting — and one of the larger pieces on display — is named after the Baptisia australias, a toxic blue-purple flower found in the Midwest that was once used by Native Americans and Europeans to dye clothes. Hence its nickname, “false indigo.”
The exhibit is also a showcase for a new branch of Ventura’s catalogue: sculpture. There are seven ceramic pieces in the middle of the room — jagged works that look almost like coral.
They are the first sculptural work Ventura has done since his college undergrad days.
“I was kind of experimenting,” he says. “I wasn’t planning on putting ceramics into the show. But I made a couple of pieces and I really liked them. They’re nice complements to the paintings.”
The ceramics also have a theme — but not flowers. Each sculpture is named after a fossil.
While “False Indigo” takes up Proto’s first floor, the second floor is currently home to “Soft Reboot,” an exhibit Ventura curated featuring pieces from 25 artists who have been involved with the gallery over its first four years.
Proto is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. It’s by appointment only on weekdays.
“We want to continue to do group shows upstairs whenever we can,” says De Pirro, the gallery’s owner. “We want that community to orbit around our space. It’s bringing back the history of the last four years in this building.”
Adds Ventura: “We have a really good active crew of young, emerging artists. It’s kind of the real deal.”