Winter in Philadelphia used to be a fairly sleepy season, perhaps enlivened by a January show at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art. But this year, Winter is the new Spring, with Philadelphia art spaces awash in high energy and a sense of beginnings. Herewith, a brief sampling.
Surreality at the PMA
With contemporary art proving itself more polymorphously perverse than ever, who can doubt that some kind of neo-Surrealism is the spirit of the day? Not the Philadelphia Museum of Art, of course, which has filled itself with waxed mustaches, lobster telephones and such for its retrospective of Salvador Dal. The museum has sold more than 195,000 tickets in the show's first 34 days, so it's no surprise that one experience for the visitor is high-volume congestion.
But no matter, the curators have done a great job in re-proving Dals relevance, from the shock and awe of his early Surrealist imagery to his later public grandstanding (notable via his pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in Queens). Dal was a performance artist before the term was coined, and his unrepentant showmanship paved the way for artists from Paul McCarthy to Matthew Barney.
Also at the PMA is "Quack, Quack, Quack," Mar. 19-June 26, 2005, a survey of the often humorous prints used to sell patent medicines. The shows unusual title refers to a remark by Benjamin Franklin, indicating his feelings about a medical commission report studying theories of animal magnetism.
With 75 prints by a range of artists, including Honore Daumier, Maxfield Parrish and William Hogarth, and its 252-page catalogue, the show, curated by Ars Medica specialist William H. Helfand with PMA's John Ittmann, has more gravitas than its title would indicate. This is Helfand's fifth exhibit in an ongoing "Ars Medica" series.
And on Apr. 9, "At the Window: Etchings by Edward Hopper" opens with 26 prints from the PMA collection. Made in 1915-1920 before the artist turned his attention to painting, the etchings show Hopper -- a self-taught etcher -- working out his ideas about solitary figures in urban settings.
Visceral Le Va at the ICA
Postminimalist sculptor Barry Le Va's retrospective, dubbed "Accumulated Vision," fills the entire Institute of Contemporary Art, including an audio piece in the Project Ramp between the first and second floors. Organized by senior curator Ingrid Schaffner, the show is hard-edged, abstract and intellectual. But because the artist's sculptural materials are so immediate and reverberant, the whole packs a kind of visceral punch.
Le Va's classic Cleaved Wall (1969-70), a wall with a dozen meat cleavers chopped into it in a neat row -- does anyone still remember the Greenbergian notion of cleaving the picture plane? -- plus his forest of cylinder sections on the floor and, especially, the many pounds of broken glass in zigzag arrangements or thrown down over strips of felt present a world of implied violence that makes the body recoil.
At about that time, Artforum magazine made Le Va famous by printing black-and-white photos documenting the artist running back and forth in a gallery in a Body Art frenzy, smashing heedlessly into the walls until he had bloodied himself. A sound tape of this performance plays in the ICA show.
Le Va himself showed his good humor at the gallery walk-through prior to the opening, when a member of the press accidentally crunched some of the floor-strewn glass and the room grew hushed. The artist, clapping his hands, went over and proceeded to crunch some more glass himself, maybe hoping to help the person feel less embarrassed, maybe moved by a spontaneous desire to relive the original creative moment. It was hard to tell.
One ancillary event, held Mar. 17-18, was a symposium, titled "Resistance," with a lecture by Le Va and commentary by curators and writers from around the art world, including Chrissie Iles, Klaus Kertess, Greil Marcus, Schaffner and Robert Storr.
Next up at ICA, opening April 30, is a 20-year retrospective of works by Richard Pettibone and "Springtide," a group show of new work by Louise Bourgeois, Troy Brauntuch, Patty Chang, Berlinde De Bruyckere and Erick Swenson.
PAFA Turns 200
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts celebrates its 200th anniversary with the completion of a successful $50-million capital drive and the opening of the new Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building, a refurbished structure that adds classrooms and doubles the museum's gallery space. To start its third century, PAFA has reinstalled its permanent collection, which is strong in 18th- and 19th-century American paintings, in chronological groupings in the buildings second floor galleries. The walls of the skylighted spaces have been painted in pale shades of green, yellow and violet. The new arrangement looks great and should be an hit with out-of-towners on the American history tour -- or anyone wanting an introduction to early American art.
PAFA may not be known for its holdings in modern or contemporary American art. But with an acquisitions budget from recent auctions of European master works (selling Cabanel's The Birth of Venus for $750,000, for instance), the museum has begun to beef up its collection. Among recent purchases have been two Leon Golub paintings, Threnody II (1987) and Seated Boxer II (1960), an early Elizabeth Murray split-canvas painting titled Breaking (1980), sculptures by Betye Saar, Elizabeth Catlett and H.C. Westermann and works by Philadelphia artists like Bruce Pollock, Charles Burns, Jane Irish, Virgil Marti and others.
The museum's toe in the door of contemporary art has been its project space, the Morris Gallery, organized by PAFA contemporary art curator Alex Baker. Baker has an affinity with the alternative culture scene and since his arrival at the museum several years ago (he was previously assistant curator at the ICA) his programming has focused on up-and-comers like Phil Frost, Monique Van Genderen, Eamon Ore-Giron and Philadelphia's own Astrid Bowlby and Quentin Morris.
A skylit alcove on the first floor of the museum's Furness building, the Morris Gallery has elegant, antique proportions that make it an interesting foil for edgy contemporary art. Right now, the saturated colors and hot, surreal paintings of Ore-Giron, who was born in Arizona, give the gallery a bit of desert sizzle.
The Ore-Giron show has a bit of cross-town harmony, too, with the Dal blockbuster exhibition at the PMA. In the next year or two, curator Baker has a great lineup for the Morris: Korean artist Do Ho Suh (a show planned in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum); photographer Vik Muniz; photographer Nan Goldin; local video artist Nadia Hironaka; and Elizabeth Leister, a former Philadelphia video artist who now lives in Los Angeles.
Baker's big coup, financed by the Pew Trusts Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, is a museum-spanning project this October by Brooklyn artist Ellen Harvey. "Mirror," as her installation is called, uses video, wall drawings and mirrors to comment on the Academy's collection of Old Masters. The great contemporary programming and the commitment to new acquisitions points to a new, and welcome, risk-taking mindset at PAFA.
"Experiments with Truth" at the FWM
This winter the Fabric Workshop and Museum transformed itself into a multiplex video venue for its Third World-focused "Experiments with Truth," organized by Mark Nash, one of the collaborators on Documenta 11 in 2002. The FWM's architectural transformation, accomplished by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Lyn Rice of Open Office, is perhaps the high point of the exhibition. The new design creates a network of viewing chambers branching off dark hallways that are wallpapered with black acoustical padding. The padded walls dampen the sound and the dark ambiance creates an elegaic pathway through the somber show about colonialism, war and its aftermath.
The mostly non-narrative videos by international artists like Isaac Julien and the Turner Prize-nominated team of Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell are pleasing enough but offer no new content -- or truth -- about Western and non-Western cultures. Following this show, which ended Mar. 12, is a multimedia installation by Matthew Ritchie, opening April 1 with a reception and talk by the artist at 6 pm. Ritchie, an FWM resident artist, will show his newest work, an animated two-screen projection titled Information Climate (2004) that is co-produced at the FWM, along with drawings, paintings, a floor puzzle and an interactive craps game.
The Philadelphia gallery scene has been juicy of late with better art and stronger sales even in the alternative spaces. Cooperative gallery Vox Populi and alternative commercial gallery Spector continue to lead with cutting-edge work by artists of Pew Fellowship stature.
Justin Witte, recently at Vox, is a 2004 Pew fellow whose prints and paintings have a loose narrative about lumberjacks, tigers and implied rituals in the suburban woods. Vox runs a video lounge and a room for out-of-town artists, both of which have hosted rising stars like Nils Carsten, Guy Ben-Ner and Jonathan Berger.
Spector's April exhibition brings local and national favorite Jim Houser's word- and cartoon-fueled paintings in for his fifth solo exhibition. Spector, which discovered the self-taught Houser, also helped launch the career of Randall Sellers, a drawing artist whose fantasy miniature cities won the heart of Los Angeles dealer Richard Heller.
Among the more established galleries, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia's showcase for established artists like Jennifer Bartlett and Tom Chimes, hosts a show of paintings and drawings by the late Alice Neel, including several that were featured in the retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum in 2000.
Larry Becker Contemporary Art is featuring Merrill Wagner's large abstractions painted with subdued colors on thin, industrial steel panels. Wagner's exquisite craftsmanship and Zen-like devotion to surface, color and materials make the demure works loveable as a cozy flannel shirt.
Gallery Joe, the town's major center for drawings, is showing Mary Judge's large "Spolvero" drawings, including one wall-work thats ten feet tall. Spolvero, the ancient technique of pouncing pigment on sheets of paper pricked with the outline of the drawing, is magical, manic and biomorphic in Judge's hands. Next up at Joe, opening Mar. 26, is local talent Rob Matthews, whose photo-based pencil drawings using himself as model riff on the darker aspects of the Bible.
Finally, looming large on the horizon is Pandemonium, a sound project by Janet Cardiff and her husband George Bures Miller, opening in May in the Eastern State Penitentiary, a spooky, Dickens-era prison that now doubles as an art space. The project, organized by independent curator Julie Courtney, is funded by the PEI.
ROBERTA FALLON writes about art for Philadelphia Weekly and for a weblog she co-authors with Libby Rosof.