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Phil Frost


Sabbath 12

Open Heart Ascension
Street Spirituality
by Roberta Fallon

Phil Frost, "SOALMBSEVEN," at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Feb. 23-Apr. 28, 2002, Broad and Cherry Streets, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102.

Obsessive, earnest and touched by the garage grunge esthetic, Phil Frost's paintings and assemblages broadcast an urgent message of spirituality. Frost's 15 altar-like works -- jumbles of flattened found objects and tag-sale discards subdued by a beautiful, lacy veil of "whiteout" correction fluid -- are like monkish illuminations writ large. They reward close reading with unexpected calm and solace.

The self-taught, 29-year-old Frost, in his first solo museum exhibition (titled with a glyph that appears in one of the works and translates, to this critic's eye, as "psalm seven"), began as a street artist wheat-pasting drawings to the sides of buildings in Lower Manhattan. His art was embraced by the young, urban skateboard crowd who also championed graffiti artists Steve Powers and Barry McGee. Frost, like his friends McGee and Powers, has made a successful transition to exhibiting indoors, including three solo exhibits at New York's Jack Shainman Gallery. And he continues to work outside the gallery on undertakings like the 1999 "Neo-Grafitti Project" for Tokion magazine and album covers for DJ Shadow and Sick of It All.

"I'm not religious . . . but I'm spiritual," says the artist, who dedicated his exhibition to a long list of friends, supporters and influences that included his mom, "all colors, sounds, flowers, plants, fruits, vegetables, roots, barks and water (for sustaining life)" and "my Heavenly Father, Lord and inner LIGHT of all beings."

In addition to his deep, pantheistic spirituality, Frost uses childhood memories and music, dance and all things old in his work. And whether it's baseball and sticks, dance-influenced arabesques or fugue-like build-ups of patterns, Frost shares his loves with you -- no hiding, no posturing, no irony. It's refreshing to be in the presence of such unabashed openness.

The artist listens to the classical piano music of Estonian composer Arvo Part when he works, music characterized as "deeply spiritual" and "full of a painful beauty." Sometimes he listens to the same song over and over for hours at a time. "ECM's new series is the most touching one," he says.

"When I was younger, I never played baseball but I was interested," is his comment about the many baseball references that crop up in his works. He likes baseball's "choreography" and the "arabesque" of the baseball swing. "Now I'm inspired by dance impressario Pina Bausch. I've seen her a couple of times. It makes me think about painting a lot."

Frost started doodling with a whiteout pen sometime in 1993 or 1994 while he was working as a clerk. He likes the pen's directness -- it's more like a drawing tool. The pen also leaves a smooth, enamel finish and a crisp, stencil-like edge which suits his freehand patterns (no stencils).

The artist acknowledges that his work has a certain graphic-design quality, but he's unhappy if it gets labeled decorative. The repeat patterns are a point of departure for him. As PAFA curator Alex Baker says of Frost's vocabulary of lacey, "open heart" shapes, they "encapsulate his conception of devotion -- an opening up of one's heart, a surrender of the self to a higher purpose."

Baker, an urban anthropologist by training and skateboard hobbyist by avocation, brought Frost to Philadelphia for this exhibition. His ties to the artist -- and to Powers and McGee -- go back to several shows he curated previously at Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art, including "Sticker Shock" (1999), "Wall Power" (2000) and "East Meets West" (2001).

Like an acolyte on a mission, Frost continues to seek out resonant discards to anoint. Lately he's into marble, teaching himself how to carve using a Dremel, a kind of electric drill. His hieroglyphics would look fine on old, broken marble steps or fireplace mantles. Next up for the artist is a show in Los Angeles in September at Michael Solway's Gallery 2211.

ROBERTA FALLON is an artist who writes about art for Philadelphia Weekly.