Clarence Rich and Mustart go together like beats and rhymes. Mustart supplies the gorgeous melting shapes in sherbet-colored aerosol; Rich answers with hard-edged, hallway-like designs inspired by the crystals of a chemically complex metal. A Mustart piece is often populated by gonzo characters pulled from popular media and marinated in bright paint; Clarence Rich brings us portraits of ordinary city people with expressions of pain, defiance, and desire. Put these two visual lyricists together and the backtalk is deafening. At an outstanding pre-pandemic show at PRIME Gallery, they actually shared canvases, commenting on each other’s work, riffing, teasing, carrying the dialogue from work to work and keeping the viewer deliciously on edge. Frames couldn’t confine them. Some art shows are content to illuminate. Shows with works by Rich or Mustart?, those shows radiate.
Yet they’ve never done anything quite as fissile as “Polygon,” the show now pulsating at the Commuter Gallery at the Journal Square PATH Station. This exhibition, lovingly curated by Levitate, is Mustart and Rich (but especially Mustart) in full flower, slinging around color and image with admirable swagger. It’s the sort of art show that leaves you feeling like you’ve been to a paint party at a midnight rave, and if you’re in desperate need of some elevation after a long day in the gray of the city — or if you just want all of your synapses lit up like the pixels of an arcade game —you are strongly encouraged to visit.
Mustart and Rich are joined at the Commuter Gallery by two fellow straphangers: the sharp-eyed street artist 4SAKN, who affixes his serrated-edged images to actual handsaws and hangs them on the wall, and imaginative TF Dutchman, the town’s modest master of stained glass, who has fashioned a tableful of winsome desk lamps fit for a fairy tale. These magic mushrooms pop up beneath a pair of pendants the size of cookie tins (and just as inviting) and glass-boxed aerosol renderings of the irascible little urchin who tokes his way through his pieces. TF Dutchman is a glass-cutter deeply aware of hip-hop and graffiti; 4SAKN is a provocateur attuned to the elegance of urban poetry and determined to inscribe his own feelings and visions on the streetscape he inhabits. Both complementary players fit into “Polygon” beautifully. The subversive undertones of 4SAKN’s work amplify Rich’s own not-so-subtly oppositional voice. The translucent quality of Mustart’s aerosol skies meet their match in the actual translucence of the Dutchman’s cut glass.
But this show belongs to Mustart and Rich, who, by now, have their tag team act down pat. Mustart’s pieces in “Polygon” are often big and busy with detail, loaded with the signifiers that those who pay attention to local street art have come to know: the bees and the blossoms, the surfers and street signs, the eyeballs ejected from some unseen face and streaking through the nimbus of aerosol like comets, the smiley faces and scribbles, numbers and symbols and skulls, birds in silhouette, graffiti tags smothered by fields of color and dripping paint. Words pop through the mist, sometimes in English, and sometimes in foreign languages, sometimes in near-illegible script, and sometimes fading into alleyway steam like neon light in the rain.
Though these canvases can be overwhelming, it pays to try to decipher Mustart’s riddles. Even if you don’t catch all of the references, the text tucked into the paintings achieves emotional resonance. In “Together Forever,” for instance, the letters are barely a breath hovering behind closed flowers that punch at the sky. Yet they race the pulse anyway. The symbols, signs, and numerals in “Going True Changes” feel like the deep code written by the master programmers behind the urban environment: temperatures and tenement names, directions, advertisements, sigils of power. The painter brings out the city as a polyglot place, but if you can find the right frequency, it’s a strangely univocal one, too. Chaotic as the built environment may seem, in Mustart’s hands, it tells a coherent story.
Cheekily, he calls some of his new work Abstract Expressionism. It’s nothing of the sort. Non-figurative pieces like “Sublime,” with its billowing, perfectly balanced clouds of blue against a tequila sunrise backdrop, are full of meticulous visual gestures and carefully contoured lines and shapes. The artist’s name gives his game away — he’s one of those guys who must make art, and who considers voluminous self-expression obligatory. And just when his maximalism and his certainty threaten to become exhausting, he hits the viewer with a perfect cake slice of gauzy aerosol on a modest little panel, as if to say that he can.
Clarence Rich has brought some large paintings to Journal Square, too. But this inveterate underpass decorator also knows how to work small. As those who caught that Gallery Prime show know, he’s an assiduous student of facial expressions. He knows exactly what a minor furrow in the brow or a millimeter downturn of a lip or a tiny narrowing of an eyelid communicates. Consequently, he’s become the most rewarding portraitist in New Jersey to follow. Others may capture a likeness with greater fidelity to the source, but no one channels the emotion of a subject with more depth or sensitivity. His series of “Blue Black Girl” paintings at “Polygon” are showstoppers in an exhibition that rarely pauses. Next to his great paintings of rectangular recesses, these feel like postage stamps. Yet the weariness in the girls’ eyes and the impertinence in their stares is enough of an accusation to halt any visitor in his tracks.
An aside: on the way to the Commuter Gallery, Downtowners are likely to pass one of the town’s most remarkable pieces of street art. It’s a tribute to a dead girl, and it’s painted on all four sides of a Turnpike pylon that stands at the intersection of Seventh Street and Newark Avenue. The memorial is a collaboration between Mustart, Clarence Rich, and Distort, the other local muralist who has given this town so much of its visual character. Mustart enlivens the pillar with cirrus shapes and streaks of brilliant aerosol; Rich digs an illusory hole into the concrete with one of his receding corridors. They work together seamlessly, finding places where their visions intersect, and the result is a quiet but gorgeous, humble little monument in the shadow of the highway. The piece could not have been done by visitors. It has the private feel of interior decoration — handmade posters hung on the wall of a bedroom — and its presence beneath the Interstate is testament to something that followers of Mustart and Rich (and Distort) already know. From railroad trestles to commuter havens to gallery walls, this whole town is their house.