Saturday, September 28, 2013

Activated Alley

Murals and street art pop up like pop-art wildflowers in our urban garden of Jersey City. Art Activates brings the mural to a more narrow and often unseen cranny of our fair city – Alleys. Anne McTernan, Associate Director, Jersey City Arts School, wants to “bring art where it wasn’t before because art improves our quality of life.”

In other words, places you wouldn’t notice now become, she says: “a delight to the eye.”

Website: “Currently Art Activates has successfully focused the engaging power of public art to remediate the embankment alley between Monmouth and Cole Streets in downtown Jersey City.”

Remediate… to remedy, to reverse damage… the embankment runs east/west on 6th street, a vestige of America’s glorious railroad legacy and while the fate of these trestles is still uncertain, they form an alley that is between the stone wall of the embankment and the northern walls of the sheds and garages aligning the perimeters of the backyards of the 5th street buildings, which are residential or otherwise community buildings. These southern walls were the ones remediated with muralizing.

Art elevates, the individual and the society. Art Activates has actually elevated an alley into an inspiring and compelling stroll. When you get a chance, next time you need to get to or from Mammoth to or from Coles and you’re half way between 5th and 6th street, take this alleyway walk, which I have done.

The murals do not have intentional relationships.  The commissioned artists painted their work at different times, their styles and worldviews varied drastically. Nor were any instructions given, other than here is the space, do with it what you will. Art Activates website: “Local artists have been tasked to compose murals inspired by their community and surroundings.”

Yet, while individually each work is compelling, together they produce a cumulative experience – they pleasantly provoke. They also all amuse – much of that amusement may be attributable the unexpected appearance of art in this unlikely, least traversed path of our concrete jungle – but not all, all the works reveal a sense of humor peculiar to each individual artist.

Let’s start the walk on Monmouth and head towards Coles Street.

Mr. Mustart – I don’t believe that’s his birth name – sets a wonderful tone for the activated alley. The colors have a realistic tone – not too bright, not too flat – and the perspective combines realistic details – flapping gulls, eyes, clouds –with abstract expressionism undertones – those clouds drip like protoplasm – or maybe it is protoplasm – the red sky shifts into yellows, blues, black.  The depiction is like a dream, surreal, vivid yet meaning and clarity always slipping away.



As a young child, Matt Cap was left alone by his parents with stacks of Gary Larson and R. Crumb comic books as his only baby sitter. Or so it seems.  His work is hilarious yet touching,  wry observations about the human condition  that utilize an Anthropomorphic world that is familiar and referential.

 A worm in an apple, the apple on stilts, shark in the water, cat in the foreground, seagulls – a trippy day at the edge of the pier. Alley invokes urban, concealed but the embankment alley has ivy climbing on the stone trestle wall, gardens and patches of lawn in the backyard areas; nature doesn’t overwhelm but it is well represented. Nature leads to more nature and Matt Cap’s painting is a window into an alternative nature, one invented by a rich imagination.

The other murals were painting directly on the surface, because of the poor quality of this particular wall, Cap’s diorama was painted on three panels, which were then nailed to the wall.


You see them around, never this size.

Norm Kirby, who has appeared in Dislocations, is an illustrator and sometime street artist, generally known for his minimalist yet emotive squiggles. Here he went nearly maximalist with this vivid and larger than life skunk portrait.  Kirby’s off-kilter feel never detracts from the warmth of his depictions.

 What is surrealism other than juxtaposition that prompts new insights on the part on the viewer. The alleyway images seem to comment on the alley setting, regardless of the focus of the portrayal.

 Skunks are not strangers to the alleyway. Are we seeing the skunk from a fly or ant eye view, as a stinky giant? Maybe it’s as large as its stench.  The other alley murals are colorful and generally more complex. This simple Pepe Le Pew stands in contrast, yet is no less surreal.


The largest mural is this bright, vast pictorial of house cats acting all tribe of the tiger on their branches, cute as cats innately are, yet a distinct atmosphere of menace accompanies these cats – which are larger than life size but not quite Kirby Skunk proportions – it’s like Jungle Book and you know a back yard is a jungle to the stray cat looking for food or feline companionship.

Are we seeing these cats as baby sparrows might when peeking out their nest? The beauty of nature can be deadly any second. Be in awe of the predator,  but make a peep and you may be dinner.

This mural is a co-production by Thomas Carlson and Blair Urban, the only duet in the series.



The passage after the backyard jungle world of house cats, but before  a day-glo Eden is sudden  abstract explosion of bolts and colors. The lush, Matisse-esque hues are now gone, as are the nature reference. It’s a burst of static, refreshing and energizing, pulsating with the shock of transition within this mural universe.  The obvious reference is Keith Haring, but the nod to the master is only a starting point for this neo-psychedelic, abrupt reminder that we are not in a natural habitat, we are in an urban alley, but one now catching chromatic lighting on the wall.


Then we come to a caddy-corner mural of love where we encounter refuges from the Yellow Submarine.  Sex is the nature in man – so said Camille Paglia ( man meaning human kind) Given the context of the Embankment alley, the impulse encouraged is for men and women to act naturally.

An Adam and Eve with no apple eating to mar their healthy lust and the only fig leaf is Love – not the emotion, the word – hilariously V covers the man’s (meaning the guy) naughty bits, creaking a funny sight-gag (V for Viagra). In the corner, an eye drips tears – I  wonder if they’re tears of joy of this cheerful celebration of heterosexuality or just the tears of sorrow that romantic love even in that joyfully erotic stage can never avoid or maybe this degree of dazzle is so intense you cannot see these colors for without your eyes tearing up.

I love the exaggerations of the human form – the man’s biceps have biceps, the woman’s rump seem to jiggle like dual beach balls (the cheeks have heart tattoos) – the impossible augmentations make us laugh at the physical imperfection we all have. The cartoon-like figures mix the most apparent influences – a marriage of R. Crumb and Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam at which Peter Max presided.  This wall’s exterior – perpendicular to other murals in the embankment alley  gallery – seems to have needed patching up over the years, creating an uneven texture of plywood, cinderblock and bricks. As you look at the vibrant and upbeat images, this rough under-surface – as imperfect as our bodies – you wonder if this happy, romantic nudity may not be entirely free of the rot to which our humanity  and our emotions are often equally prone.  Allegories aside, if there was any wall in need of beautification, this may have been in.



 Dazzling neon lemon, lime, tangerine and other citrusy shades  gives way to a  more natural and lush primitivism African, Mayan and Keith Haring radiate together in this abstract collage dominated by what could be a mask or a face emblazoned on a Zulu shield. This swatch of expressionism transitions us from the neon Eden to an aboriginal reality, dark and passionate,   luring us away from the pastel placidness of an imagined ideal to a more emotive truth, the heart of darkness civilization will never fully conceal. What is the nature of that heart – what is the source of that darkness? – why Captain Kurtz, nature itself and our true selves are closer to that nature than our plastic western society dares to admit, although primitive cultures find that very same nature to be a cause for respect, fear and revelry.
Beginning with the  Bruno Nadalin abstract collage of primitive-inspired images, this last section of the Embankment Alley mural decorates the walls of All Iron Works,  leading welder and provider of metallurgy art in Jersey City.


When visiting the Embankment Alley murals, make sure to check other All Iron Works sculpture exhibiton Coles.

 Then the eye, against a yellow as the sun field, with green vines and red flowers, particularly ornate petals,  sprouting along the perimeter. Art watching you as you look at the art.  A side entrance to Iron Works separates the primitive but the all-seeing eye of father sky.

The flowery vines flow along the cinderblock of this workshop, connecting to a single flower – simple portrayal, a lone image just like the skunk (which is third from the start and this is third before the end) – and the yellow of the petals echo the yellow atmosphere within which the all-seeing eye of father sky hovers.

The eye, against a yellow as the sun field, with green vines and red flowers, particularly ornate petals,  sprouting along the perimeter. Art watching you as you look at the art.  A side entrance to Iron Works separates the primitive but the all-seeing eye of father sky. The flowery vines flow along the cinderblock of this workshop, connecting to a single flower – simple portrayal, a lone image just like the skunk (which is third from the start and this is third before the end) – and the yellow of the petals echo the yellow atmosphere in which the all-seeing eye of father sky floats.


Emilio Florentine

No mere floral portraiture this. A moment is captured. The roots of the flower dangle towards the bottom of the image, the petals while not quite wilting are starting to shed. This flower was just picked  so we can appreciate its beauty with all our senses but the act of picking the flower has killed it. Death will now come soon to this flower, but it is not yet dead. It is here for us, it is here for art. But momentarily freezing beauty is not the only purpose of the artist here, the moment of mortality also captured (in the Japanese tradition, chrysanthemums, which this flower resembles, are sent to the funerals of suicides). Beauty may always be in the eye of the beholder but beholding that beauty is the first step towards the death of that same beauty.



More flowers – roses this time, or so they seem, more romantic and humor. A two head Dalmatian surrounded by this rose embellished dream. Cerberus guarding the gates of hell – the hell being the spark-spewing torches of the blacksmith on the other side of the wall – but this hell is not hell at all, it’s a childlike world of fun and love. Another distortion of nature – instead of the river Styx and brimstone, we get a verdant background, and a loyal dog happy and yapping, tongue lapping out of his snout and wagging his tale as the rose garden blossoms.

This may not be a two headed dog at all (there are also two sets of front paws). There’s a heart medallion dangling off his collar and the heart is broken in two. The dog may be looking in both directions, looking at Monmouth and back at Coles, wondering which master to follow. The couple who own him have broken up, custody is being decided. Who wants him more? Who loves him more now that their love is gone. Are there still tears? Are they still shouting? Or has all the fighting ended, the breaking of hearts accepted, and now it’s time to decide who loves the loyal companion animal most. He doesn’t really understand what is happening, why the heart on his neck is broken and why his owners are not enjoying the rose garden like they did last summer. He doesn’t know who will take him, who he loves most or the fact this will be the last time he gets to play among the roses.

Maybe he’s Cerberus after all,  guarding the hell he will soon find himself in.

An iron Age (it may be bronze age, but I need iron for the rest of this metaphor to work) chariot, heading towards the street, completes the embankment stroll, reflecting the All Iron Works early stage of technology. Written history begins, western civilization has the illusion of taming nature. Our journey through our primal past ebbs away, we are only a few feet and millennia away from that pinnacle of the western world, New Jersey, Jersey City, Coles Street. Athena? Aphrodite? Diana? Is she fleeing Cerberus (does this mean Hades got the dog?)

The blacks and white and a green just as dark as night dominate, a stark contrast to the brightness of the opening expressionist work on Monmouth and the lush and neon tones we see as we headed towards this nexus of nature and man’s domination by domesticating horses and inventing the wheel and soon combining those two events into the chariot, a Helen of Troy to leads us – to war or to peace or to prosperity or just back to Coles Street.

At the end of our Embankment Alley journey, we follow the warrior goddess in her chariot and bring back to the city the secrets art has taught us,  and just like ourselves, our city will never be the same again.

Take the shortcut and give yourself over to the wonder.


A new Alley project is starting near 3rd street. The first step is to clear the alley of debris. Get involved. Get Activated. Bring art to where it has not been before. Find out how, contact Anne or visit Art Activates Website.

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