Brooklyn painter Adam Cvijanovic came to Philadelphia recently to install "Ideal City," a show of his work, in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art's project space, the Morris Gallery. The exhibition is on view Feb. 21-Apr. 25, 2004.
Cvijanovic, who has been exhibiting since the mid-1980s and is now represented by Bellwether Gallery in Brooklyn, is gaining increasing praise for large-scale, deftly done illustrational landscapes and other scenes, ranging from cowboys in the West to a beach thronged with young people (he was also featured in the traveling "On the Wall" exhibition organized last year by RISD Museum's Judith Tannenbaum). For his exhibition in Philadelphia, he was inspired by local history to produce two frescoes about the city's most famous utopian thinkers -- the Quakers and MOVE, the controversial "back to nature" commune.
Utopias are by definition doomed to failure. And the Quakers and MOVE never really achieved their respective goals of universal peace and a return to nature. So Cvijanovic's walk through Philadelphia history is a sad one. It's also more overtly political than most work by the artist.
One of Cvijanovic's murals presents the Quaker ideal, via a version of The Peaceable Kingdom, painted by Edward Hicks in ca. 1833 and now in the museum collection. Cvijanovic has removed the happy animals from the Hicks scene, leaving a placid landscape of mountains and lake. He put the animals in several smaller paintings that hang in a row on the adjoining wall.
The other second mural shows a sun-drenched Philadelphia street of small row houses and tidy porches -- Osage Avenue -- that was the site of a notorious and deadly conflict between Philadelphia authorities and the MOVE commune in 1985. The 1985 confrontation ended up with 11 people dead, most of them children, and two entire city blocks destroyed by fire.
Cvijanovic's painting of Osage Avenue, as bleached as an old color photograph, is an unreal vista, depopulated, and cobbled together from photographs of a block that no longer exists. On an adjoining wall is a row of smaller paintings of the fiery conflagration that consumed the neighborhood.
I spoke with Cvijanovic while he was installing the paintings and asked him why he picked this inflammatory bit of history to work with, since it is something that many Philadelphians would just as soon forget.
What follows is an excerpt from our talk, which took place on Feb. 18, 2004.
Q.: There are no people in your big Osage Avenue painting and you've taken the animals and the angel out of the Hicks painting. But I guess that's what your work generally is. . . landscapes without people?
A.: No, actually the last one I did had lots of people. It was a landscape of spring break. . . it was like a frieze with sky, sand and people.
Q.: Did you do a body count in the beach scene? How many people?
A.: I didn't, but there must have been over a thousand.
Q.: Tell me your source material.
A.: My sources are a complete mix. I try to internalize the material. So, by the time I'm painting the finished work I'm working from nothing, no photos or anything.
Q.: I like how the Osage Avenue painting reaches out and enfolds you.
A.: That was the idea. There's this painting by Piero della Francesca, Vision of an Ideal City. It's a panorama like that.
Q.: It's interesting you mention Piero because your palette is chalky and white like his.
A.: They're very fresco-y paintings. It's totally intentional. There's a degree that the paints do that, too.
Q.: OK, so what are the paints? I hear from Alex [Baker, PAFA curator who invited Cvijanovic to do the piece] you use a combination of latex house paint and acrylic paint. Isn't that like mixing apples and oranges?
A.: No, it's more like apples and apples. It works. I use mostly latex house paint. I'm particular. Benjamin Moore is what I tend to get. And I paint on Tyvek [a lightweight plastic made by Dupont]. It looks good on the wall; it comes off. There are a couple of murals I've put up several places. I can add panels to them if I need to. They're like mobile frescoes.
Q.: Did you ever do a mural outdoors?
A.: I did something outdoors at Socrates Sculpture Park. It was a vinyl print of houses in a subdivision that we installed on a v-shaped wall that we built. People could walk into it, so it riffed on the idea of movie backdrops and theater sets. People would have their pictures taken in front of it. It was funny. This image of a suburban subdivision in industrial Long Island City.
Q.: Let's look at the Hicks.
A.: The Hicks will be cut into the wall. It will look like it's recessed.
Q.: Like it's embedded in the institution.
Q.: Have you seen the original?
A.: Yes! It's upstairs. Again, it's the unreachable utopia. The painting of Osage Avenue is much more complicated, riffing on the grid. Philadelphia's a grid and was founded on a vision of what it could be. There's a civic sense. But in general, utopianism also has a strand that's separatist.
Hicks' utopia is an unspoiled utopia. It's about perfect nature. The MOVE people wanted to return to nature, literally. Osage Avenue was originally built as a kind of urban utopia, but it was utopia on the cheap.
What makes it interesting is that you can see the decisions by homeowners to do things, like get aluminum siding, or strip away a lot. It's all the same but the differences are amazing. Only two houses in the middle were not changed.
These two blocks burned down.
The purpose is to make a full size painting of a real event in a place that will remember it. It's like a ghost street and it'll be gone in two months.
Q.: Do you know much about MOVE? The group still exists -- what do you think it would think of this?
A.: I don't know a lot about them. They follow a cult practice, with intense indoctrination, total lack of personal boundaries and authoritarian leaders at the top.
Q.: Where did you get your source material?
A.: I found the photos at the Temple University archive, filed under "MOVE." But it wasn't too useful, because I was interested in the ideal and there were relatively few photos of the street before the bombing, so it became like forensic detective work.
Q.: Tell me about the Hicks animals.
A.: I painted them on one larger panel and then cut them up into smaller paintings. There are 11 animals. Like there were 11 people who died in the fire.
I changed the way I painted the Hicks because of scaling up. It's like a Hudson River painting to me. It looks like Cold Spring Mountain to me.
Q.: Do you work on both paintings simultaneously?
A.: I work back and forth on the two. I got a lot done in the studio. The whole center section was done in New York. I didn't do the last house on each side until I got here.
Q.: You are self-taught?
A.: I taught myself to paint. I've been painting all my life. I did a lot as a kid.
Q.: You showed in New York in the 1980s.
A.: In the 1980s I usually did big oils. I really do like scale.
Q.: What did you paint?
A.: It was all kinds of different things but not so different. I gravitate towards narration, history, the dynamics of people. There's a lot about the dynamics of people in these paintings.
In a funny way, it hasn't changed much. Except I toned down the drama.
This is a very deadpan painting. If you don't know what happened, it becomes very ordinary. That's something I've learned.
Q.: Do you ever use assistants? I've seen outdoor murals smaller than this with more than one person working.
A.: No, I worked this all myself. My hand is important. It really is a painting. There are lots of decisions about my hand and brushstrokes...
Q.: Do you ever work in oil any more?
A.: All the time. The small ones are oil. I'll do large scale oils some day but it'll have to be for a reason.
Q.: What is that little string and ring in the middle of the painting? I can't keep my eye off it.
A.: That's my snap line. Normally you project an image this size but because of the architecture [of the Morris Gallery] I had to chalk line the whole damn thing. The verticals are my level. Just like Piero used to do. I've done architecture a lot but I cheated. I have five vanishing points. The street is narrower and the plane would be 15 feet shorter. I pulled it apart. There's one set of perspective on the left on another on the right. But it looks right.
I've been doing a lot of that. I just know perspective very well so I know how to do it.
Q.: There's a lot of detail here, like the bricks.
A.: Yeah, there are a lot of bricks. But I liked the idea of rebuilding the block. It made me want to build it brick by brick. But I think me and bricks are done after this.
Q.: Do you live in a brick house?
A.: Yes, I live in a brick house in Brooklyn. There's brownstone outside but it's a brick house. And my studio is a brick building in Chinatown.
Q.: I want to take a couple pictures.
A.: You know, these things love the camera. You can't take a bad picture. It must be because of the matte paint. Oil paintings are a nightmare to photograph.