“Dancing in the Dark (Part 1)” is a bit of a make-up exhibition for Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art, the downtown alternative gallery that last winter opened its new street-front gallery and offices at 591 Broad St. in Newark.

The 50 works of art here are from 18 artists who had enrolled two years ago in the center’s “Emerge2002” fellowship program, which teaches career skills to artists just beginning their professional lives. This exhibition had been scheduled for a date the galley didn’t make because its new space wan not yet ready.

The rehabbed Chock-full o’Nuts store certainly makes a better art gallery then Aljira’s previous incarnation on the third floor of a former bank just around the corner. Flooded with light from its glass-fronted street entrance and big enough to accommodate a 10-foot-tall collage of photos with pins by Nancy Goldenberg (“talflower”), Aljira can be much more of a presence in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center neighborhood. And the fresh artists in this show are getting a mush classier presentation.

The downtown district needs the kind of diversity of opinions and aesthetics that an alternative art gallery can represent. “Dancing in the Dark” is a kind of survey of ambitious, determined artists, some young and some not so, but all at the beginning of their professional careers. There is a lot of sincere chest-beating in this show, a lot of identity-formation and exploration, which all young contemporaries have to do. But the artists are disarmingly human in the way they do this, not at all slick or impenetrable.

Some of the most charming pieces are the simplest. Manhattan artist Elise Engler shows three strips pf paper, each a foot wide and 3 to 5 feet long, on which she draws an everyday container and then each of the dozens of things she found within, all in colored pencil on a tiny scale. Engler is a cartographer, part of a broad spectrum of contemporary Conceptualists with some technique. Below a refrigerator, for example, she has drawn keys, Redi-Whip cans, magnets, and on and on.

Josh Jordan, a New Yorker from Ohio, catalogues too. He shows 33 torn bits of sketching paper sporting wonderful, anime-influenced pencil drawings of “The L Girls—33 of the Most Beautiful Girls I saw Riding the L Train.” Timothy Hutchings is showing an HDTV shipping box cut and painted to look like its contents (“Widescreen”) – without any contents.

Then there’s simplicity of conception that looks devilishly complex in its execution. New Yorker Robert Walden takes a road map and cuts out the land with an X-Acto blade to leave a net of paper roads, each little wider than a thread (“Untitled: Folded Landscape”). Brooklyn-based Nicole Agbay Cherubini examines the gap between growing up in an Italian-American household that she describes as “Kitschy” and “over-decorated” and being a fine artist in the pure milieu of New York’s art world. Cherubini shows a couple of C-prints on aluminum, one of a girl in blue jeans lying on a couch with what looks like a Renaissance Madonna tattooed on her bare back. On the floor in front of the color prints is a strange fetish object, made of ceramic, wood, fake gold and silver jewelry, chains, fur and gilt, that represents all the décor excess of Cherubini’s youth – it’s called “G-Pot with Gem and Fur.” Think of it as Michelangelo’s ashtray.

There is art here that is engaged with other art, such as Michael Eade’s egg tempra and gold-leaf “Volcano”, Patty Cateura’s whimsical acrylics in high-contrast color and Gema Alava-Cristomo’s all-but-invisible “Tres Nudos (Three Knots).” But a brittle intimacy is more common.

Photographer Megan Maloy looks right out at you from some of her prints, as do members of her family. It’s hard to read what is staged and what is not in Maloy’s work, especially since the family portraits (“Grandma and Maggie,” “My Mother’s Family Portrait”) seem very dry in feeling, and the posed ones (Maloy on a motel room bed with a beer in one hand and a Gothic-looking guy in a T-shirt behind her) deliberately chosen to contrast. But the stark, pristine, and dogmatic quality of the pictures, with their true-to-documentary feel, is meant to force the shape of life into art.

Take Kew Gardens artist Mike Child’s “Newark Floats,” a large acrylic painting that looks at first like a plaid pattern painting until you realize you recognize the façade of an International Style building levitating in the middle of the picture field, like the insurance towers and office complexes nearby. Or Jim Costanza’s “Datemap 2001.2,” a digital photocollage documenting the anti-war movement that briefly flowered before the Iraq invasion, drawing on photos of demonstrations by the artist himself as well as images on Web sites like (www.bushwacking.net).

It isn’t like these points of view are going to shout down the movie marquees and talk show hosts of commercial culture. But every big city should some stage for alternative expression, some venue where emerging visual artists can strut unsanctioned points of view. It’s not about the artists themselves exactly, but about the city, about its own voice and what it sounds like.

©2003 The Star-Ledger