Sacred Geometry is a new art show at City Hall. Curated by the 4th Street Arts & Music Festival organization, it will serve as a backdrop to a fund raising event, coinciding with the official opening of the show, later in the week. More evidence of Jersey City’s incongruity: the show may not be officially opened but was featured as part of JC Friday’s December edition, which due to the cold weather, distraction of the holidays and its proximity to the Mid-October Studio Tour & 4th Street Festival, has always been the most-low key of the quarterly city-wide art shin-digs. Oh yeah… we, also are all still reeling and otherwise inconvenienced by the Sandy aftermath. And… it rained… well rainy. To put it mildly, attendance was down. I was the sole person taking in the exhibit that evening.
City Hall art shows induce apprehension. Art needs to be experienced. Art needs to be seen. Thus, art must be accessible. Ergo, Art must be exhibited. Context may not be everything, but it is an inescapable factor in how any art is perceived. The lighting at City Hall is horrible, unflattering to the art. Can’t blame the old municipal building, or the fact City Council hasn’t formed a task force and appropriated funds to improve the aesthetics of its art display, nonetheless it is simply impossible to properly light the work. Presentation pitfalls are just one of the insurmountable distractions the context creates. The building it self is essentially unadorned, a housing of government offices and meeting rooms. Its purpose is to fulfill the utilitarian and make possible the practicable. In that sense, everything about the design of the building contradicts everything art intends to accomplish.
Why art? Don’t we ask ourselves, often subconsciously, this same question over and over whenever we look at art for the sake of looking at art. What does this work mean… what is it saying… how is it making me feel… do I like it… how good is it… how talented is the artist… we ask and answer these queries as we allow ourselves to be moved or taken in or ponder and sometimes the pondering results in not being moved, except to move on, to the next piece, or out of the setting and back to the joyous humdrum of existence. The posing and responding to the queries may be a simple enough answer to the why art question, but the series of questions that go through our minds when looking at art seems really just a way to justify art itself, to explain away the why.
Context mitigates the answers to these questions (and to the big Why Art mother of all subconscious queries). When interpreting meaning we take into account the context in which the art is presented. The museum offers what seems like a benign context, when in fact the authoritative setting infuses importance to the art in a museum, we need to know this work and the why art question answers itself – because the museum experience elevates the individual. Art in a museum forces us to augment our personal reaction with an understanding of the history of civilization – is the piece in the Impressionist Hall, or is it part of the Egyptian Wing – immediately affects how we experience it, adding an intellectual layers to initial, generally emotional, reaction. Art in a social setting, say a mural on public space, answers the why art question in a different way, universalizing the experience of art because everyone shares the public space. The intellectual layers aren’t dissipated, but shift from past to present. Why is it here now, just like we are?
What role does art have in terms of municipal government? I don’t know, but because the art is presented in this inescapable context, the why art question posed includes this inquiry. The show is entitled “Sacred Geometry,” so the context issue also includes the is this or is this not a violation of church and state, a natural and almost instantaneous concern for all Americans, no matter the conclusion one reaches. The harsh lighting of city hall is just one distraction in appreciating the art there. Because of the name of show, there are additional constitutional concerns to consider.
Art is on the city hall walls because our municipal representatives strive to make Jersey City ever more friendly to the arts. That is a good reason. It alleviates constitutional concerns of church and statement raised by the title of show by making freedom of expression the overriding concern.
Why shouldn’t the walls of the people’s hall be used for display art – isn’t that the purpose of art, to be seen? Why shouldn’t City Hall, like restaurants or the galleries in abandoned warehouses or lobbies of apartment buildings, be repurposed to present art, to give one of the city’s artists another shot at exposure?
Aside from context diminishing the effect of the art, there’s no reason at all. Having art in City Hall gladdens the heart and deepens civic pride. Yet, art inspiring civic pride is a little too close to propaganda for me to be totally fine with it, especially when the art itself does not address civic issues. I always feel an apprehension. It is innocent of the context, which seems even more pernicious because government has appropriated the art for its own purposes. So, not only is the art to a minor yet noticeable extent, mutated by the glare of the fluorescent lights, the however well-intended context further changes the meaning and our experience of the art exhibited.
Perhaps the curators could have mitigated these concerns by some labeling – the names of the pictures or the artist responsible were identified – or having a program, or some sign of an organizing principal, an explanation of the theme and what it proposes to accomplish, but aside from being hung in City Hall, no explanation was visible. The show opened on December 1st, so maybe the opening gala if there was one addressed these things, but this was the last JC Friday’s of the year, the exhibit featured in the brochure and everything, but to not even have the names of the artists and the title of the work on pieces of paper beneath the work, slighted the work.
The rotunda at our City Hall has been a periodical gallery for several years now, but the creative challenge of using the city hall context as an enhancement and not a detraction still alludes our local curators. Which is frustrating, because there are some superb pieces in this show, which consisted mainly paintings with a smattering of sculpture. I just couldn’t help but feel it deserved better, because was fully capable of overcoming the context if not the lighting. Yet, I’m not sure if by it I mean the show as much as I mean the individual pieces. Looking at the pix I took, which aren’t half-bad if I do say so me-self, this was actually some of the strongest art of recent vintage. The context may have counter-acted the sum of the parts, but some of the parts themselves were impressive, even in city hall.