One way to think about street art: It’s art you can’t escape. If you don’t like what’s on television or your computer screen, you can switch to something more agreeable. Pictures at an exhibition, good or bad, are only apprehended briefly before the viewer moves on to the next one. But if somebody paints a giant mural on a building across the street from you, you’re living with that image every time you go outside. Your only recourse is to move away.
Thus, street art attracts a certain kind of artist: one confident enough in his or her (though it’s usually his) expressive voice to permanently alter the urban landscape. True to type, the art we get from muralists tends to be big and boisterous, full of bright color and eye-catching shape, imposing and sometimes provocative. Because there is no off button on a mural, the conversation between artist and audience is a bit one-sided.
The conventional argument in favor of huge, attention-grabbing street art — that it is the spontaneous creative expression of folk artists who would otherwise be silenced or go unrecognized — has become a tough one to sustain. Municipal governments have set up institutional programs in support of muralists, and moved, sometimes aggressively, to partner with artists to cover old walls with new images. Many of the breakout stars of street art are as meticulously trained as any new landscape painter would be. Galleries have, with increasing frequency, brought these artists in from the cold.
The Morris Museum threw a spotlight on street art recently, pairing its 2019 retrospective of Trenton portraitist Mel Leipzig, a hero of Mercer County street artists, with an exhibition of paintings rendered in aerosol on makeshift walls. Now the same museum offers “On and Off the Streets: Urban Art New Jersey,” an exciting but uneven exhibition of the work of 11 Garden State artists who straddle the ever-shrinking divide between free outdoor expression and professional studio-based practice.
The show, which runs through Feb. 27, intervenes in the controversies surrounding street art in 2021 — a style that, even as it proliferates, is at a crossroads. Is street art the direct descendant of graffiti, or is it better understood as a wealthy and well-connected cousin? Is this civil disobedience gone respectable, still potent as protest, even as it makes peace with the establishment? Or was it always destined to be a tool of politicians determined to add some cool and color — and property value — to otherwise grey post-industrial cities?
“On and Off the Streets” is guest curated by an articulate and dedicated advocate of street art: Lois Stavsky, whose writing has appeared on the street art blog Vandalog and elsewhere. Stavsky knows the landscape. She has attracted some of the most celebrated names in New Jersey street art to the Morris Museum, and invited these artists to create mural-sized paintings on temporary walls.
These bigger works are supplemented by studio pieces that aren’t necessarily rendered in spray paint; they include acrylics and mixed-media on canvas, sculptures, and some pieces that defy simple classification. New Brunswick artist RH Doaz, for instance, decorates his wall-perched wooden boxes with carved images of birds. Not all the artists translate the vitality of their large pieces to their smaller ones, but those who do, like Flemington’s LUV1, demonstrate how the kinetic energy learnt from a lifetime of street action can be harnessed to create explosive canvases.
Several of Stavsky’s invitees have brought their best outdoor practices to this indoor gallery. Aerosol virtuoso Mr. Mustart’s swirls of rich color and smoke-like wisps of white paint impart depth, motion and a sense of swiftly unfolding cataclysm to his main piece. His frequent collaborator, the quintessential Jersey street artist Clarence Rich, is here, too. Rich’s characteristic receding triangles and squares — inspired by the reflection of light off of bismuth crystals but redolent of tunnels and urban architecture — feels particularly arresting in the pristine environs of a suburban museum. Rich, who has emerged as one of New Jersey’s most original painters, also distinguishes himself with his human-scale paintings, attentive to detail, color and the facial expressions of his subjects.
Mustart, Rich, Doaz, and the excellent Ecuador-born, Newark-based Layqa Nuna Yawar, who contributes an uncharacteristically bland likeness of the Sacagawea dollar to this show, foreground their restlessness, their imagination and their experimental sensibilities. It’s nice to think that this show will expose their work to gallery-goers and art appreciators who wouldn’t ordinarily tarry in the alleys and Turnpike underpasses of Garden State cities.
Yet for a show dedicated to a populist style, Stavsky’s roster feels ridiculously tight — and even cliquey. More than half of the artists in “On and Off the Streets” are associated with the municipal project that has thrown hundreds of murals of wildly varying quality on the walls of Jersey City over the past decade. Will Power, whose wrinkled-nosed, afroed, ambivalent young basketballer presides over the show like an arbiter of street authenticity, is the Jersey City Mural Arts Program’s graffiti and street art advisor. Catherine Hart, whose cheerful but undistinguished piece in pastels greets visitors to the Morris Museum galleries, is co-director of the Jersey City Mural Arts Youth Program. Emilio Florentine is one of the curators of the Mural Arts Program, and his pollinating flowers and curved gold chains, shown here without much variation from Florentine standard, are all over Jersey City.
These artists have earned their street bona fides: Will Power is a Hudson County spray-paint legend, and his style is an influence on hundreds of aerosol-wielding kids who have never dreamed of a gallery show. Florentine is famous for decorating the interiors of abandoned buildings. Yet they are also participants in a government initiative that counts the reduction of graffiti among its stated objectives — and which has been used by authorities to market the city to developers and investors. Mustart and Rich have contributed murals to the project, as have Doaz and the two-man team known as RORSHACH, which includes Robert Ramone, curator of Newark’s street art locus Abington Walls.
It isn’t exactly fair to say that these artists constitute a new establishment, because the old one hasn’t gone anywhere. Nevertheless, “On and Off the Streets” reminds us of just how political, and official, the world of street art has become.
The coherence of the show is also undermined by the presence of an installation of pieces by the late Jerry Gant, a Newark muralist, sculptor and street artist of deserved renown. The roomful of Gant is meant to establish continuity between modern Garden State street artists and their immediate predecessors. Instead, it seems to come from an entirely different tradition of public art. Gant could work large when he wanted to, and often did. But many of his best and most communicative works were small-scale stencils of shadowed bodies, painted jackets, pointed sketches of faces seized by struggle, and wire sculptures with tensile strength. His pieces remind us that street artists do not need to take over the entire side of a building in order to make their presence felt or enter into a dialogue with passersby.
His work is also continuous with the aesthetic of hip-hop — resourcefulness, recontextualization, high contrast, boldness of intention expressed through clear, vigorous lines and rough splashes of color, murk and mystery and, above all, a sense of storytelling irony — that has gone curiously missing from much subsequent street art.
The work of Cedar Grove artist Joe Iurato feels formally related to Gant’s aesthetic. Iurato, too, uses stencils, favors clean, thick lines, tells tales and isn’t afraid to get small to address his viewer in the vastness of our urban canyons. His painting is impressive, balanced, clever and technically excellent, but it doesn’t always create emotional ripples beyond the big immediate splash it engenders.
For “On and Off the Streets,” he has given us a girl with a hat askew and aerosol paint in hand, key hanging around her neck, peeking around the side of a gray wall with an open padlock hanging from a hook. This is appropriate to the context, certainly, but it’s also cutesy, and right on the nose. It’s also a bit of spray-paint mythologizing that might have made sense in 1985, but which is no longer supported by the facts on the ground.
As “On and Off the Streets” shows, our best-known street artists aren’t working surreptitiously. They’re not kids coming like thieves in the night. More often, they’re experienced artists with commissions from government and corporate entities to fulfill.
Clients like those aren’t interested in nuance. They will continue to push these artists to be bolder, louder, bossier, more dominating and eye-catching. They will ask for it bigger and grabbier, more reductive, more conducive to the demands of marketing. The task for street artists is to recognize where and who they now are, and how the times have changed — and modify the volume and tone accordingly.
“On and Off the Streets: Urban Art New Jersey” runs through Feb. 27. Visit morrismuseum.org.
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