From trippy, cartoon paintings at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) to a 1970s-inspired black light special at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), it's a rock and roll summer at new exhibitions all over Philadelphia.
You, baby, nobody but you
Tom Friedman's work sneaks up on you and reverberates with ideas about identity and space and perception. The Massachusetts-based Friedman, 36, has recently gained acclaim for quirky sculptures marked both by a fanatic attention to detail (an exact, life-size replica of a fly) and an obsession with kindergarten materials (toothpicks, Play-Doh, construction paper). Friedman just completed a residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM), where he produced a new work (his first using assistants and fabricators) and was the subject of an exhibition (June 1-Aug. 25, 2001).
At his opening, Friedman gave a dead-serious lecture on his work that belied its sometimes-comic nature (his oeuvre does include, for instance, a tiny ball of fecal material displayed on a pedestal). When he's not poking fun at the art world or the artist's role, Friedman likes to focus on the concept of self -- in particular, his self. For the Fabric Workshop, Friedman made a 40 x 52 inch self-portrait by taking 256 identical passport photographs, cutting each one into quarter-inch squares (33,072 in all) and reassembling the lot into a composite image.
The finished work, a blurry countenance from a distance, still has a certain affinity with the gridded portraits of Chuck Close. Up close, the cut-and-paste photomontage looks like thousands of reflections in the eye of a fly.
The new work, untitled as are all of the pieces in the show, is a sure sell. Price? $65,000. Friedman will continue his collaboration with the FWM, perhaps trying something in fabric next time.
Dukes of Earl
Over at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), two separate exhibitions force a comparison between the cerebral Postmodernist esthetic and one that emphasizes working outside the traditional gallery system. Upstairs, the ICA has "Architectural Unconscious," a pairing of photographs by James Casebere and sculpture by Glen Seator (in a show originating at the Addison Gallery of American Art). The work is neat, theoretical and feels -- a little dry.
Downstairs it's another story in "East Meets West: 'Folk' and Fantasy from the Coasts," a show that mixes work by three Philadelphia artists (Joy Feasley, Jim Houser and Clare Rojas) and three San Franciscans (Chris Johanson, Scott Hewicker and the late Margaret Kilgallen) (Both shows run May 11-July 29, 2001). "East Meets West" is frisky populism at its 21st-century best, irreverent, kid-macho and human-centric. If you're betting on an art revolution any time soon, put your money on the downstairs crew.
Rojas's paintings, done in gouache on panel, are charming evocations of kitschy teenage angst. Kilgallen and Houser both combine motifs from commercial sign lettering with stylized, cartoony imagery in multi-part works that sprawl across the walls. Kilgallen's installation, "Main Drag," is a vertiginous mountain of words.
Houser, who in addition to being a self-taught artist is clearly something of a cartoonist and wordsmith as well, demands to be read as much as seen. In between his paintings of snakes, apes and octopi, Houser has written existential story fragments on the wall. "Thus, a sense of calm washed over the pack as the largest took command," reads one. Free associative riffs, they provide the spark that takes it to another level.
Virgil Marti's installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), on view June 15-Sept. 2, 2001, takes you back to the '70s -- that's the 1970s of the Brady Bunch and the 1870s of the Victorians. In his first solo museum outing, Marti (who was a 1995 Pew Fellow and won a 1997 Tiffany Foundation award) has designed a psychedelic environment where a Kon-tiki Garden of Eden meets the beautiful flames of hell, all depicted in flocked-velvet wallpaper with Day-Glo colors and black lighting.
Marti, whose work is all about taste, acculturation and class, has devised a range of wallpaper motifs that reference the "high art" decorative elements of the Academy's 1876 Frank Furness -- Furness stars, a Furness-inspired mushroom repeat pattern, and even the hellish flames of a Furness fireplace design.
But the spirit of the room belongs to Marti. It's part soft-edged contemplation cave and part make-out room in the basement. It's cool kitsch -- and hot cinema lobby -- for public display and for private thought -- and loaded no matter how you look at it.
Marti is partial to velvets and other sumptuous materials. Last year he upholstered a 30-foot long wooden bench in a Philadelphia regional transit waiting room, equipping it with plump, tasseled throw pillows. This year, his "Bully" wallpaper -- images of schoolyard tyrants that Holly Solomon Gallery used in its booth at the 2000 Armory Show in New York -- is featured on collectors' edition Altoids boxes.
Marti has long been fascinated with consumer esthetics and with home design of the 1970s. His complete embrace of the decorative seems a perfect match with Furness' obsessive architectural decoration. The piece is a true 21st-century dream garden.
"Philadelphia Selections 4: Brave/Smart," May 31-July 27, 2001, a nine-artist exhibition at the Moore College of Art and Design guest-curated by New York artist and writer Emma Amos, mixes so many different esthetics (folk, conceptual, decorative, hard edge, biomorphic, figurative, Surrealist, installation) that it should be a mess. Instead, it's a United Nations of art, all bubbly and inclusive.
Amos selected works from the gallery's 1,500-artist slide registry. Her choices included four Pew fellows along with some newer faces. All the works share an open and playful sensibility, and many talk across genre-divides with unmistakable kinship.
Take, for example, Jonas dos Santos's irreverent ". com series" and Ann Chabandour's cast bronze mythic critters. Dos Santos's drawings, pin-pricked, threaded and full of glitter, are all low craft and high concept. But they have a whimsical resonance with Chabandour's "high" art bronzes. There's iconoclasm afoot in both. Other surprising affinities crop up throughout the show.
Amos, a Rutgers professor of art known for political art that decries discrimination and exclusivity, spoke her sermon of inclusion at a slide lecture at the opening. The smart show argues her case persuasively.
Vox Populi, Philadelphia's intrepid alternative gallery known for its great young artists -- and hard luck with landlords resulting in frequent relocations -- recently decamped from its Old City quarters into swell new digs downstairs from the Fabric Workshop. Vox's first effort in the new, gloriously finished space was a high energy show called "Not Yet Housebroken," June 8-July 1, 2001. It featured lots of loopy sculpture.
Bill Lohre's hairy-legged Baby, which looks like a Star Wars wannabe, and Michael Krumrine's cast glass deer with faux antlers were the best and most appealing. Nadia Hironaka's faux vent in the wall is rife with secrets and surveillance.
Among Vox's many painters, Iva Gueorguieva's lush, Guston-esque cartoon work, with lots of hairy body parts, was a winner -- dark and sunny and full of great color. And Nancy Lewis's "stretchy cat" in heaven painted on the wall is funny and sweet.
Several of the Vox crowd also show up this month in "La La Land," a dreamy-themed exhibition at Temple University curated by Vox'er Nancy Lewis. This big show also features long-time Philadelphia favorites Sarah McEneaney and Eileen Neff, both of whose work has cut wistful swathes through the art world here for years.
Rather closer to nightmare than dream, the city's most amazing exhibition space, the 1820's-era Eastern State Penitentiary, opened its season with two new installations, one by artist Lily Yeh working with the inmates of Graterford Correctional Institution and the other by artist Ilan Sandler.
Yeh's project, 13 painted and audio portraits of Graterford inmates, each laid out in a separate cell, is noisy, cacophonous and full of sad stories of regret, anger and hope. Sandler's piece, Arrest, combines words and sculpture in a work that runs the length of another cellblock. It's a quiet contemplation of the impact of his sister's murder on himself and the surviving family. These chilling installations hold their own in the crumbling magnificence of the ruined prison.
ROBERTA FALLON is an artist who writes for Philadelphia Weekly and Art on Paper magazine.