Editor’s Note: Brendan S. Carroll is a longtime resident of Jersey City, New Jersey, and we asked him to give us a glimpse of the city’s art community and what it entails. This is the guide he submitted.
“Even if you build [an art scene], they won’t come. You have to bring it to them.”
The editor asked me to write about New Jersey’s art scene, its challenges and advantages. I chose to concentrate on Jersey City.
This post has caused me serious agita. How do I write a story about Jersey City’s art scene without sounding like a used car salesman?
I was born and raised in New Jersey. (A toilet flushes.) That’s my story. As I wrote and rewrote this post, I could not stop thinking about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window. Jimmy Stewart plays a wheelchair bound photographer that peeps on his neighbors from his apartment window. He creates elaborate stories of each resident. Curiosity quickly turns to obsession. Their lives become more important than his. After all, the residents can walk and talk and fuck; he is rooted to his wheelchair, confined and impotent.
Jimmy Stewart’s conflict (voyeur vs. participant) in Rear Window is the perfect analogy for being an artist in Jersey City.
Like Jersey City, Jimmy’s apartment is close to the action, but not close enough. He can see what is going on around him but he cannot do anything about it from the confines of his home.
Like Jersey City, Jimmy is struggling. He has a bum leg. He can’t move. Right now, Jersey City’s art scene is struggling too.
Currently, the city has no museum, music venue or bookstore. A city of 250,000 people cannot support one bookstore. The Hanging Tower, a 52-story luxury tower designed by Rem Koolhaas, that was supposed to transform the city’s arts district is dead in the water.
Jimmy is in the shit. But he has fire. Despite his circumstances, he wants to catch a killer. Artists in Jersey City have fire too. Despite the Jersey City albatross each artist carries around his neck, they make strong work, strong enough to be seen in any venue in New York or abroad.
When I started writing this piece, I felt like my back was up against the wall. The opening sequence was full of bombast. (Need to purchase a kidney on the black market? Expect your elected officials to urinate in public and resist arrest? Then Jersey City is the place for you.) After sharing my first draft to the editor, I have reevaluated my approach to the story. I was spurred on by his pointed comments and questions.
Some US cities have up-and-coming art scenes. Jersey City is not one of them. There is no infrastructure to nurture, sustain and attract artists on a professional level.
Despite the drawbacks, many artists choose to live in Jersey City. Why? It’s cheap. (You can buy a 13-room Victorian house on a tree-lined street for a quarter of the price you’d pay in Brooklyn.) And it’s close — Williamsburg, Brooklyn close. PATH rapid transit offers 24-hour service to Manhattan and World Trade Center.
Jersey City-based artists work in isolated pockets scattered around the city. Circles usually run no larger than two to four people. Of the many creative people I know in the city, I have chosen to write about 10 artists. If I had to pick one unifying theme in their work it would be the dollar store. (Dreams cost 99-cents.) The price-point retailers can be found on nearly every street in Jersey City. Though ugly and generic, the dollar store is egalitarian and accessible to the entire community. It is a head-on collision between novelties and cooking supplies, hygiene products and holiday fare, decorations and canned goods. Religious icons double as home décor. Baby dolls double as salt and pepper shakers.
The dollar store carries no pretense. It is what it is. No frills.
Here is my list.
* * *
Miller is an artist, curator and independent publisher in the spirit of P.T. Barnum. A few years ago, Miller showed me a short film recording he made earlier in the day. The opening shot revealed a bright pink field, iridescent. Very Rothko. Not recognizable. Intrigued by the rich variations color, I continued to watch. Slowly, the camera pulled back to reveal the nature of the colorful mass: vomit. Some poor bastard puked his guts onto the street beside a sewer. Miller said he stumbled upon the color field as he walked over to my house. The anecdote is gross, but telling. Miller is not only able to find visually appealing subjects in banal situations, but he is also able to frame them in such a way that invites potential viewers into his world.
Rappleye is a painter whose vision of the natural world hinges on madness. The major theme driving his work is conflict: the battle between life and death, chaos and order, hybridization and purity. The hallmarks of his work include attention to detail, craftsmanship, carnality and fuchsia. New work explodes off the canvas with the controlled aggression of a veteran prizefighter.
Some artists seek fame and fortune. Seder is not one of them. If you want to find him, go to that dollar store. He’ll be in an aisle, rummaging through toys, pet supplies, or hair care products. His art is a distillation of cheap crap found in every corner of Jersey City. What other people disregard (unicorns, ugly babies, religious night lights), he champions.
If you ever wanted to be privy to the interior dialogue of a strong intelligent woman as she shoots poison darts from her eyes, Wilson is the artist for you. She makes drawings and handmade books that incorporate handwritten text. The stars of the show are an effusive band of mischievous girls in sundresses.
Murphy either debases Catholic icons to the lower depths of dime store trash or she elevates dime store trash to the celestial echelons of Catholic icons. I am not sure which it is. Check for yourself. New Jersey City University is hosting a 10-year survey of her work later this fall.
Sayre creates black-and-white and color portraits — frontal views, mostly centered in the frame, posed against a minimal background — that offer little clues about the sitter’s identity or the time and place the picture was taken. The portraits remind me of the victims of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng Prison. He makes other stuff too.
Lee creates paintings as addictive as cotton candy. But to view her paints as confectionery alone would rob you of a rewarding visual experience. Her visual vocabulary includes a troupe of abstract and recognizable forms that writhe and explode above veils of shimmering blues and hot pinks. If the work suggests wild celebration, it should. Lee browses the section for party supplies in dollar stores for inspiration and materials. With a virtuoso handling of mediums, Lee is in total command of her vision.
Have you ever felt the need to unburden a buried secret or resentment? Come to Lucky Laundromat to meet Skvirsky. She is inviting local residents — both old and new — to share their personal stories and reflections about the ramifications of gentrification on the neighborhood. Stories will be archived via video, drawing and photography.
You know the feeling when you walk into a motel room for the first time? (There’s probably a load of cum on the fire retardant carpet or polyester bedspread.) Kumagai’s paintings and vinyl-based works elicit a similar sensation. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had one of them hand-held soft vaginas beside his workstation. Currently, he trolls Skype and AIM, an instant messaging program, to find eligible suitors for his portraiture series.
Sex workers are maligned in our society and culture, and they are often the victims of violent crime. Since 2000, Leddy has explored the lives of this vilified group. Recently, she partnered with sex workers to design wearable platform shoes that can be used for self-expression or protection.
The Benefits of Jersey City
It’s cheap — you get more space for your money. Want to buy a brownstone, a row home, or sprawling Victorian house? Come here. Compared to the hustle-and-bustle of New York, Jersey City offers its artists solitude and contemplation. You will find no hordes of young, beautiful and vibrant people roaming its sidewalks and streets. If someone is missing part of leg or foot, he’s in Jersey City.
Jersey City has tons of vacant lots, old garages, empty warehouses — and even an elevated railway line long abandoned — that are waiting to be utilized.
Jersey City is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States. In many ways, Jersey City resembles Queens, but it’s cheaper and more compact.
No rigid gallery system focusing attention on a select number of artists.
No gallery system focusing attention on artists.
Jersey City is located in New Jersey. Certain people living in New York hate the state, i.e., recent arrivals from Any Town, USA. I have often found that native New Yorkers do not share this bias.
Curators, artists, critics or collectors won’t knock on your door anytime soon. Curators can knock out 5 to 10 studio visits in one shot in New York. Jersey City does not provide this convenience. As mentioned above, artists work in isolated groups in various parts of the city. Some activity here, some activity there, but none of it close together
Also, the State of New Jersey just slashed funding for the arts. And the funding that is made available to artists is often inaccessible. The Jersey City Museum closed down.
There are no effective art councils to connect, serve, or support artists and related organizations. No 3rd Ward. No Factory Fresh. Nothing.
Feel free to add your suggestions and comments about Jersey City’s art scene in the comments below.