Street artist Jerkface vividly transforms Montclair wall
The mayhem on Glenridge Avenue began building the morning of Aug. 22 when a lone figure, standing in a driving rain, contemplated a slate-gray wall framed by a cracked parking lot, sagging power lines, a street lamp, an exhaust vent and a gas meter and saw in it the catalysts for art.
Over the following four days the street artist who calls himself Jerkface brought his jumbled imaginings to an unremarkable space in Montclair and made everything around it come to life.
First came 20 chalked dots laid out in a grid to provide scale. Swiftly then, the characters, familiar (or were they?) started nearly popping off the wall in bright spray paint, a mashup of animated cartoon characters reaching across generations.
Mischief was at play here.
SpongeBob Square-Pants has Homer Simpson’s mouth. Homer is wearing Charlie Brown’s zigzag streaked shirt. Kermit the Frog, masked like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, smiles over everyone while off in a corner somebody has stuck Mickey Mouse’s white-buttoned red shorts and oversized yellow shoes on a flustered Bugs Bunny.
“Purposefully chaotic,” said David Genova, the man who owns the wall that is likely to become more famous than the two-story building that goes with it. The building houses the Clubhouse, a chic event and party space owned by Genova’s company, Greenwood Development. Greenwood also owns the Wellmont Theater among other properties in Montclair.
Genova is 38 and part of a Montclair circle of Jerkface fans who follow and collect his work. But it was the artist’s idea, Genova said, to bring his growing legend from New York City to Montclair with this uncommissioned rendering.
“A mutual friend reached out and said he was looking for a wall in New Jersey,” Genova said. “He chose the wall. It all originated with him.”
Jerkface, who grew up in New York, has catapulted to international renown in the last five years with exhibitions stretching around the globe, from London to Hong Kong. His work may be audacious — it goes for five, sometimes six figures, Genova said — but just about everything else about him remains a mystery. Genova doesn’t know his name. Neither does Ria Asmaeil, whose shop in Upper Montclair has framed pieces for the Jerkface connoisseurs in Montclair.
“There’s this kind of group of fans who surround him, who, if they know his name, won’t say it,” Asmaeil said. “They will not even say what he looks like.” His fever for anonymity, she said, is rooted in the origins of street art itself, which grew out of “vandalism art” and a need to stay hidden and anonymous.
As the Glenridge Avenue mural emerged, passers-by stopped, Genova said, first curious, then captivated by the sight of a man, often working on a scissor lift that helped him reach the mural’s farthest reaches. (The mural is about 70 feet wide and, at its tallest point, 18 feet high.) Jerkface had a small sketch in hand as the project began, Genova said, but quickly abandoned it and worked freestyle.
His face obscured by a black Gator Mask, wearing black athletic clothes and working through 90-degree days until after sunset each night, he attracted a steady audience. Each night people, still in their doboks and fresh from a workout at Glen Ridge Taekwon-do across the parking lot, stopped to point in the dusk at the fusion of characters who were quickly announcing themselves on the street. In the two weeks since, the mural has drawn myriad interpretations, creating an I Spy game — especially fitting in that one of the characters peeking out just a bit is the black-hatted protagonist from Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy.
Montclair has seen a growing number of murals in recent years, but a cult aura has quickly taken shape around this new otherworld created by Jerkface.
This past Sunday, Zane Riester and his 9-year-old daughter, Ella, stood side by side, arms on their hips in deep analyzing mode and calling out the pieces of the mural that hit home with them. Ella had taken a spray-painting class, and was doubly impressed by the work.
“There’s Snoopy,” Ella said, before her dad added that Snoopy had the sleepy eyes of Brian Griffin, the dog from Family Guy. A digitized Mike Tyson from the 1980s boxing video game caught Zane’s attention. Over Tyson’s left shoulder was a Ghostbuster ghost, appropriately coming out of an oven hood’s exhaust vent.
Father and daughter looked in wonder, too, at Oscar the Grouch, cheerfully sticking out from the green trash bin. Genova said that the bin had not been moved to that spot to accommodate the painting. Rather, he said, Jerkface worked the mural around the bin to make it mesh.
Somehow, every element of the surroundings seems now to amplify the mural, even conspiring with it to give the street new dimension. The back of the old Pathmark store of Lackawanna Plaza across the street. A leaning utility pole. Two HVAC units on a rooftop landing. They all have a part.
People looking for deep meaning in the work would likely not find it, Genova said, keeping his interpretation simple, with a tinge of nostalgia. The Care Bear with the Wu-Tang emblem on his chest bridges two distinct times in his life. The Tyson image, he said, brings him back to the camaraderie he shared with old friends.
Guests entering his house in Montclair, he said, are greeted by one of Jerkface’s Homer Simpson/SpongeBob paintings, morphed in a kind of infinite wave pool.
“It is bright and happy,” he said. “You can’t look at it and not smile.”