Approach Deep Space Gallery (77 Cornelison St.) from the south, and you’ll probably pass the ancient, crumbling Parodi Cigar Factory building. Should you pause in front of the warehouse, you’ll notice that the entire first floor, once barren, has been blessed with spray paint. Some of the same artists who’ve tagged the exterior of the building have also contributed pieces to “Walls To Smalls,” a show that extends our local fascination — and continued legitimation — of outdoor art. Deep Space has always championed our most prolific local street artists, and “Walls To Smalls,” which opened only a few weeks after a city-authorized Mural Festival and will run through July 25, brings their work indoors.
This is nothing new for Deep Space, which has set up shop in one of the most heavily redecorated areas of the city. The post-industrial blocks west of Grand have been marinated in street art: murals, abstract paintings on bricked-up windows, handsome tags in museum-orderly array on the cinderblock walls of Fairmont Ave. factories, slapdash graffiti on the concrete dividers across the street. Deep Space often feels like a reflection of the peculiar energy of its immediate environs, and “Walls To Smalls” captures and successfully miniaturizes a scene that feels, with each new mural, like a movement. If you want a crash course in regional street art, or if you just want to get a better handle on what’s happening on the bridges, Turnpike underpasses, apartment-building walls, and corrugated iron loading dock doors all over town, this show has got you covered.
That’s because the interior of Deep Space is presently looking a lot like the exterior of Jersey City. Even if you don’t know these artist’s names, there’s a very good chance you’ll recognize the characteristic elements of their work: Mustart’s combination of floating eyeballs and impersonal tower blocks, 4SAKN’s thick, black angled lines and curved fields of brilliant aerosol, DISTORT’s near-Medieval anguish and austerity, Clarence Rich’s box-like, rainbow bismuth-inspired recesses. This is all part of the landscape of the city now, as deeply integrated in the visual experience of Jersey City as brickface, aluminum siding, traffic cones, and drywall. JAHRU, who participated, as many of these artists did, in the Mural Festival, contributes a pair of small oil paintings of faces that seem to be breaking apart into fractals; RU8ICON1, who had a solo show at Deep Space in 2019, adds four not-dissimilar canvases of figures represented as if seen through shattered glass. The distinctive, driving rhythms of Hudson County streetscapes, the peril experienced by the body as it interacts with the urban environment, the aggressive color and recontextualization characteristic of hip-hop — this is the state of street art in Jersey City at the moment, even if the art here isn’t done at the scale of the murals, and even if it isn’t, technically, out on the street.
It’s also a promising sign that some of the best and most energetic work in a show that consistently foregrounds its liveliness wasn’t contributed by the usual names. BlusterOne’s subway scenes in acrylic and magic marker toss their human figures on orange seats and uncomfortable wooden benches; some of his characters are nothing but an amalgam of thick red lines in a human shape. His representations of dislocation, facelessness, and physical soreness is painfully trenchant and deeply sad. The black and white facial-feature jumbles in oil marker by Duel RIS stare off in all directions, with brows, tongues, and lips all overlapping, or touching. It’s a crowd condensed into a small, framed piece of paper, humanity pressed together on a busy corner, waiting for a stoplight to change. Some of the pieces here are cartoons with recurring gonzo characters who stand for their creators, which is another long-standing hip-hop tradition. Sometimes this gets a bit cutesy — Chris Rwk’s friendly, waving robot, heart in hand, feels a bit too eager to please and ready to be merchandised. BARC the Dog, on the other hand, is blue and toothy and more than a bit recalcitrant. He manifests both as a handcuffed miscreant with balled fists and his mind on larceny, and as a resin statue that leads with a serrated grimace.
What’s common to all of these pieces is the desire by the artists to capture the emotional experience of life in the city, and that particular amalgam of self-assertion and powerlessness that urbanites share. If faces look distressed and shattered but a sense of swagger comes through anyway; if the landmarks seem imposing, but also oddly inviting; if the textures are simultaneously rough and butter-smooth; if everybody depicted seems to be staring, but nobody is looking at you directly; well, you live here, don’t you? No doubt you’re familiar with the tone, and the attitude, and maybe some of the characters and colors, too. Murals are imposing beasts: they shout loud enough for the entire block to hear. They do not, however, always get across the subtlety of the artist’s storytelling. Sometimes the message gets lost amid the rumble of the traffic. Sometimes it helps to go small.