It is very hard to improve on the beauty of a brick wall. Like an apple, like the view from the Palisade, like “Back in Black” or “O.P.P.,” there’s an aesthetic unity to brick that feels primal, elemental. Brick has a distinctive color, heft, and texture; when lain in rows, it has a rhythm, Stone, too, is gorgeous: it carries history, and a sense of permanence. To those who will listen, a stone structure speaks eloquently about the hard labor it took to put it together. Construction in concrete demands sweat and muscle, and has its own dignity. Iron and steel, oil, girders and supports, and columns that lift up public works — these are all part of the language of the built urban environment.
This weekend, local artists will attempt to alter the town’s visual lexicon. The Jersey City Mural Festival, which takes place on Saturday and Sunday, promises to add thirty new murals to a city that is already busy with murals. Many of the artists participating in the Mural Festival are extremely talented. Some have recently shown work in our best local galleries. They’ve demonstrated their skill and their mastery of street art and classical techniques alike. There is no doubt that the murals that are made this weekend will be nicely done.
Nevertheless, I have a question for the muralists — here and elsewhere. Are you sure that what you are adding is better than what you are subtracting? Is what you have to say important enough, or urgent enough, that you’re ready to sideline, the work of another creator? Because every single thing you encounter in the urban space was designed by an artist. Everything you see is street art already. Every restraining wall, every support, every bridge, every tunnel was conceived by an architect, an urban planner, a landscaper or a streetscaper, and anchored to the soil by industrial artisans. These people were not inferior artists to contemporary painters. The enduring utility of what they created speaks to their skill and their vision, and the characteristic look of Hudson County testifies to their deep understanding of aesthetics.
In a tweet celebrating the Mural Festival, Ward E councilman James Solomon called the the Coles Street Underpass an eyesore. I am sure he spoke for many who look at the space under the roadway and see nothing but dirt, darkness, and oil slicks. Yet I have traveled under the bridge on my bicycle hundreds of times, and I cannot believe that I’m alone in my estimation of what I see there. I’m willing to stake whatever credibility I have as a critic on my absolute certainty that the Underpass is awesome in the literal sense of the word. The play of daylight on walls, the union of concrete and metal, the cadences of the great columns that hold up the highway, the slanting roof of road that pours cars and trucks into the tunnel, the faded industrial blues and weathered cream-colored whites, the rich orange-red of rust and brick: it all delighted my eyes the first time I saw it, years ago, and it continues to delight me every time I ride through.
I won’t push it by calling it a cathedral; it’s not that. But it does share some of the grandeur and consequentiality of intention and design that is characteristic of places of worship. To those of a certain urban disposition, it does elicit a reverent response. DISTORT, one of the muralists participating in the festival, may be one of those people: his paintings often explore the connections between sacred architecture and the aesthetic of mid-20th century public works. I believe that all good artists are, by nature, sensitive to the beauty of what they see here — the peculiar poetry of the city landscape as it was made, years ago, by those who were commissioned to refashion it for the benefit of the public.
Today we are in the midst of a different kind of refashioning. Jersey City is no longer the factory town it was. Most of the people here are looking toward the future, not the past, and the city demands a visual signature that reflects and validates that reorientation. The Jersey City mural program has been a motor for that change, and it’s raised the profiles of many area artists who deserve the attention and rewards they’ve gotten. Yet in spring 2021, it is worth asking whether a further acceleration of the program is warranted — whether the city’s aggressive incentivization of the mural program is adding much to the look of the town. We’re not a railyard or smokestack city anymore, but we aren’t a comic book, either. The prevailing aesthetic here remains post-industrial in spirit, and that’s reflected in the best art, music, architecture, and urban design that we make. Public officials and real estate marketers are keen to downplay that part of our identity, but it’s still very much with us, and erasing those signifiers threatens to alienate us from who, and what, we are.
Muralists and mural enthusiasts: I don’t write this to rain on anybody’s parade. I hope the festival is a success, and I hope you are amply rewarded for your talents. But before you whitewash that wall, please give some thought to what you’re taking away.