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by Tom Csaszar
|The best recent art in Philadelphia is connected to a past, but one slightly askew from the one we remember: energetic abstractions informed by conceptual coolness, personal emotions recast as public topographies, and domestic and social observations told in an obsessive stutter of visual images. Even the art brought to Philadelphia from elsewhere seems to fall into these categories. The feeling is often that of picking up a story from where you left off, but after the particulars have been lost, only the outlines of plot and the emotional tenor of your responses to the characters remain.
The Galleries at Moore College of Art gave the first U.S. look at 30 years of work by Valie Export, a seminal performance artist from Austria (Jan. 18-Feb. 27, 2000). Some of the works now seem tied to concerns of performance and body work of 20 years ago, too in tune with their time to keep their punch. However many of her conceptual photographs maintain an interesting charge by jamming together the personal and the social -- especially when they do so with subtle visual statements rather than edgy euro-punk consumerist critique.
Two shows up in early February further blurred the boundaries between the personal, the social and the environmental in stranger and more low-key ways. The Institute of Contemporary Art's "Against Design," Feb. 5-Apr. 6, 2000, brings together works by 10 international artists in a show curated by Steven Beyer, former assistant artistic director at the Fabric Workshop. The exhibition includes works by Jorge Pardo, Tobias Rehberger, Joe Scanlan and the Atelier van Lieshout.
The Temple Gallery/Old City addresses concerns related to the designed environment from the other end of the looking glass in "Utopiaries: Fictions for Cultivated Space," Feb. 4-Mar. 11, 2000. Eight Philadelphia artists, including Stacey Levy and Mark Campbell, rather than making the public expressive of private concerns, take personal observations and render them in a visual language of social and environmental narratives.
Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts is showing drawings and reconstructed models of architect Lebbeus Woods, Jan. 19-Mar. 4, 2000. Rarely seen, these works provide a glimpse into the world of a man who looked at public design as laden with emotional and visionary tones, textures and responses. Woods' plans make menacing futuristic ruins of public spaces, inverting some of the views implied by artists in "Against Design" and "Utopiaries."
More conventional designs, at least in the present company, by local architectural firms, including Venturi, Scott Brown and Friday Architects are up at Drexel College's Design Arts Gallery, Feb. 7-Mar. 2, 2000, which is a few blocks from Penn's ICA.
Several other shows were particularly interesting for what they reveal about the current range of visual art in Philadelphia. "Treasure Island," Jan 7-Feb. 18, 2000, curated by Richard Torchia for Locks Gallery, brought together the works of eight etablished Philadelphia artists. But this exhibition features older works that weren't shown at the time of their making, or are from new series of works that take off in previously unseen directions.
Emily Brown, whose landscapes were recently seen at the Fan Gallery and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows small paintings of toy figures against white backdrops, which make them sit or hover in that strange overhead perspective from which we often view a child's world. Nancy Hellebrand Blood, known for her carefully observed images of shallow or two dimensional worlds, is showing blurred multilayered and multitextured foliage, which initially seems to lack a point as well as a focus. After prolonged observation the viewer is able to sort out the levels of background and foreground that give her work an odd obsessive edge and immediacy.
"Treasure Island" is, of course, a metaphor for discovery, and the works in the show have clear affinities. They are all centered around mapping and the dramas of places and objects carefully observed, but observed with a polite obsession in the familiar seen slightly askew -- not creepily transformed into the bizarre.
At Gallery Joe, the exhibition "Land" by sculptor Stephen Cartwright, Feb. 4-Mar. 11, 2000, presents the first solo show by an artist who has shown previously in group shows in Philadelphia and New York. Cartwright, like the artists of "Utopiaries," works on either side of the line between private and public fictions. But Cartwright addresses the implied distinctions of this boundary through information about his body expanded into meteorological or geological metaphors.
The Fleisher Challenge Exhibits, administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a Philadelphia secret that deserves to be better known -- and more widely imitated. For 22 years the program has presented, in groups of three, artists who have frequently turned out to be influential. Most remarkably, it has covered a wide range of styles and viewpoints, from the conventional to those that question prevailing wisdom. The third exhibition of this season, Feb. 11-Mar. 12, 2000, brings together three installation artists. The freshness of the works by Sarah Biemiller, Astrid Bowlby and Andrea Cooper springs from their concern with texture, scale and reference to the quotidian, albeit the quirky side of the everyday.
The Schmidt Dean Gallery's exhibition of the paintings by Brian Ruttenberg, Jan. 21-Feb. 26, 2000, presented the oddity of a kind of abstraction that seems simultaneously familiar and off-putting. His pictures are divided between a white, elliptical trajectory surrounding a floating center and a chunky, dense colorful periphery. The effect is like a nervous tic turned into a dance movement, expanding in the center into broader motions, and in the periphery returning to a twitching thump.
Larry Becker Gallery is showing Bill Walton's sculptures and drawings from his "Quarter Turn Series," Feb. 4-Mar. 25, 2000. Walton's wall and floor pieces from this series are chunks of reality, slightly altered to present an equally personal and metaphysical comment on material events. Walton's works deal with a sense of place through perceptions that are emotionally subtle, yet distinct.
And finally, Nexus' "Ohm" (Jan. 7-Feb. 27) brought together the lyrical and the mechanical in the works of three artists, Chris Garvin, Mathew Lewis and Matt Owens. Owens's Volumeone is a gallery recreation of his web site, which presents an interactive combination of sounds and images with no text. Lewis's Procedural Drawing Machine produces odd little black and white drawings via a printer, which are one of a kind but generated from software. Although they question the line between intention and mechanism, they offer only sparse visual appeal and sensation. Garvin's work is less technical in means. Eight slide images project an environment around the viewer, each image a personal icon of an event, traumatic or mundane.
And finally, one last show is of particular interest. The Painted Bride Art Center, long a supporter of art that challenges propositions about what and who is central to culture and likewise where the periphery of art is located, is celebrating its 30th anniversary with "Then and Now," a show of 25 gallery veterans. The artists include James Brantley, Gerry Givnish, Mei-Ling Hom, Lily Yeh and Isaiah Zagar.
A trip to the City of Brotherly Love --- or as the travel bureau pundits now dub it "The City that Loves You Back" -- well rewards art lovers. If you just have a couple hours, a visit to Locks, Becker, Nexus, Temple/Old City, and Gallery Joe, all in the same area, give a brief but broad look at some of the most interesting contemporary works of Philadelphia. However, all of the venues mentioned here are well worth the time and travel. They each illustrate in their own way that visual statements now seem to be offering us more as they move beyond some of the narcissistic rants and the hyper-personal conceptualism of the last two decades.
TOM CSASZAR is an artist and writer based in Philadelphia. He is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner and a frequent contributor to Sculpture magazine.