It is arguable that Clarence Rich is the best known visual artist in Jersey City, even if most of the people who’ve seen and appreciated his work wouldn’t recognize his name. In a town of hundreds of muralists and spray-paint taggers of middling quality and questionable imagination, he’s the real deal — a street artist with a definable style, a visual signature, and a forceful, conversational aesthetic that lends itself well to wall painting. He’s also tireless. Rich’s work is all over town: under bridges and on brickfaces and in vacant lots, and staring back at pedestrians from between the holes in chain link fences. Once your eye acclimatizes itself to his faded pinks, robin’s-egg blues, his urgent black squiggles and curlicues, his receding, hallway-like squares and bismuth-inspired nesting shapes, and his wide-eyed oddball characters, you’ll start seeing Rich’s painting everywhere. He’s decorated some of the city’s most remote corners, working on surfaces that other outdoor artists wouldn’t touch. Not for nothing was his graffiti crew called Alone in Deep Space: Rich’s work feels like a solitary pursuit, governed neither by commercial considerations nor the demands of social commentary, influenced by the rhythms and tones of the city, full of strange reverberations, hanging questions, and tunnels into the darkness.
These days, Rich is literally alone in Deep Space: the art space, not the astronomical locale. “Ghost in the Painting,” a solo show, is currently on view at the Bergen-Lafayette gallery (77 Cornelison St.) that shares a name and an attitude with the artist’s old collective. Though those who follow the arts in Jersey City have learned never to be surprised by the mercurial Rich, this is still a show as notable for what it isn’t as for what it is. There’s very little aerosol in “Ghost in the Painting” — instead, the artist works almost exclusively in acrylic on smaller canvases. And while some of these pieces match the concentric squares and triangles with pearlescent PSV paper that amplifies their bismuth shimmer, the subject of the show is no more abstract than the art in the classical galleries at the Met. Rich has turned his paintbrush toward portraits of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods.
Gods and monsters to be exact; mythological beasts and residue of ancient cultures. These are paintings of three dimensional artworks and other attempts by the ancients to capture the divine and preserve the spirit. That means renderings in acrylic of mummies and sarcophagi, a bas-relief battle, statues from the Parthenon and at least one noble looking cat, a suitable object of veneration with its severe expression and its white fur saturated with prismatic light. His slumped-shouldered Medusa, snakes heaped on her scalp like a knotted skein of sailor’s rope, looks almost apologetic by comparison. Many of Rich’s deities seem overwhelmed by their own power, like Mars, whose face, blunt as a battering ram, is offset by a helmet several times its size and the great black shadows it casts. The River God’s scowl is shrouded in gloom, Zeus’s chin recesses at the inquisitive advance of his wife Hera, and a grape-clutching Dionysius is awash in gay color but lost in private reflection. Even Cerberus seems reluctant to pounce, crouched on haunches at the feet of a wearied Hades. Symbols reoccur from painting to painting: the inverted triangle and the pyramid, the prism-cast rainbow, hieroglyphics, headdresses. Some of these are world-historical, and some, like the bismuth patterns that pop up in these mythological scenes, are plainly Rich’s own obsession.
What’s going on here? Why has one of our foremost street painters, a student of modernity in general and hip-hop in particular, cast his eye back centuries? One explanation is that Clarence Rich is simply spending more time in museums, and he’s painting the things he’s seeing there that inspire him. He’s always been one of the most expressive portraitists in town, and even his cartoons, when looked at correctly, reveal classical undertones. Like many spray-paint wizards before him, he might be keen to show disbelievers his skill at representational painting and his genuine appreciation of old stuff. “Ghost in the Painting” becomes a kind of handshake with the establishment — a show meant to signify a street artist’s rapprochement with the canon.
No doubt Clarence Rich does respect the masters. But this simple interpretation of “Ghost in the Painting” does not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, Rich is interested in some of the same things that generations of rappers have been: how power is channeled and expressed by the creator, and subversion of sessile authority. Pointedly, Rich presents us with a painting of “Head of a Youth,” the famous Hellistic bust with a savage fracture line just above the bridge of its nose. (The artist paints one of his signature triangles right where the Youth’s right eye would have been.) His Greek musclemen have heads and limbs severed, gesturing mutely toward a future they’d be physically unable to see. The statue on the far left of “Parthenon Marbles” looks despondent about it all. Mummies clutch their stomachs, tip back their heads, and let their jaws hang open like hungry men waiting for a husk of bread that will never come. Nike, symbol of victory, rears decapitated from the shadow and with a wing down. These are portraits of futility: deities and their subjects frozen in time, realized in stone, immobile, coasting toward oblivion on mythological reputations. In the time of ghosts, the old Gods are falling to pieces.
As the pantheons have receded, the modern creator steps into the void. Clarence Rich is free to stain the patriarchs in whatever flamboyant colors he chooses, and to impress the canvas with his signet, reappropriating these classical images according to his own personal and idiosyncratic sense of order. This might be the most hip-hop gesture he’s ever made in a career full of them. Rich deepens the sadness and the vague and unanswerable disapproval on the faces of the subjects. He clearly has more compassion for supernatural women than he does for the boys from Olympus, but he gives us a blindfolded Goddess of Fortune nonetheless, impassive and armless, unprepared for the future. Many of Rich’s subjects have their eyes occluded, obstructed, or oriented away from the viewer, like ornery Anubis and wary Horus. King Tut, in a telling contrast, stares straight ahead in fear, apprehensive about taking a scepter off authority he’s unprepared to wield. In sum, this show is a view of the museum as a graveyard of religious iconography and religions themselves — a place where deities are mummified right along with the kings who ruled in their names. What’s left are the ghosts, howling through the underpasses, power stations, and abandoned buildings of the city. Their existence is a spectral one, but their priests and prophets still live.