Tag Archives: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

See me, Here. me

My intent is not to go all political on you, dear reader. My purpose is to discuss placeness because, lord knows, we all need it. The Occupy Movement is only a few months old and, yet, the participants have found a place in our minds and hearts. They are, as are we, the unhappy 99% of humans who are negatively impacted by an unchecked capitalist system-on-steroids that is destroying the very way of life it was intended to empower. My recollection is that the wealthy 1% used to provide many structures and amenities for the rest of us, maybe to keep our eyes focused off what else they were doing. But there is no pretense now for those who are able to steal away with all the limited assets on the planet, right under our noses, leaving nothing. Thanks for nothing. Hey, 1%, remember history and what happened to people like you in the Russian Revolution or La Grande Revolution, or all other overthrown repressive regimes and robber-baron-run countries eventually? The Occupy people are, at this moment, polite.

Shifting gears a bit, arslocii recently went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to view an exhibit called Here. Intriguing topic for us, especially when the promo for the show starts with, “What is the role of “place” in art?” The intent was to explore the differences generated by regional influences and how those resultant expressions fit into the larger artworld, or, as they refer to it, Cultural Globalism. Funny, that many of the pieces in the show expressed a similar stance to the Occupiers’ own: representations, mostly explanations, of being “outsider.” And there were even artists in Here. who built makeshift shelters, so that we viewers started to confuse this prettied-up display with the real one happening two blocks away at Philadelphia City Hall. Being an artist myself, I can’t deny that the artists represented in Here. have genuine feelings or meaningful thoughts and, possibly, diplomas to prove that they paid their dues in art training programs in their specific regions of the country, but … I will answer the question of globalism versus regionalism – it all looks pretty much the same to me. It is more of the same “painted word,” even more so than what Tom Wolfe ridiculed nearly forty years ago. The artwork, as Wolfe writes, merely illustrates the text, “for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”

If I was spun around, blindfolded and set down in the gallery at Here., I would not be able to get any sense of place from it; no place as to where I am, no place as to where these works originated, and, certainly, no place within most of the works. Art, this art, whether regional or not, is not global, it is personal, the opposite of universal – to the point of masturbation, and – dare I say? – hooey. Generally, the artist statements are more well-fashioned than the works on display, and the works just seem like the necessary infill for the otherwise empty wall spaces between statements.

As with all things, there are exceptions; interestingly, the digital photographs by two separate artists – Scott Hocking and Tim Portlock – have a similar sensibility in their Photoshopped surrealistic prints.

These, the flattest, most illusionistic and unreal pieces in the exhibit have more placeness than all the others put in a bag and shaken, including videos, objects, paintings, constructions, installations, etc. Sadly, what we have mostly discovered is that art shows with themes such as this often display what the artist-participants would do for any venue and, rather, the statement is crafted to speak to the theme or grant.

The artists, Hocking and Portlock, have rendered post-apocalyptic visions of two decayed cities, Detroit and Philadelphia, places with a soulless soul that illustrate, as artwork is wont to do, a sense of location, loss and betrayal – plus beauty. The human condition. Much like the Occupy sitters have done in real time.

But here sits Here., and my mind wanders to outside the gallery. Where is the here here? So much of it in this show is terribly narrative, literal, uber-personal or inaccessible except for the spelled-out printed word on the walls. Art, at its very nature, should be place-making. But in this show, of all shows, which defines itself as a repository of place, Here. is mostly just a definer of place for “art,” as gallery. Nothing more. Better, it should be called I Am Here, because it seems just another extension of the usual Twitter/Facebook fascination with self than anything else. The Occupy movement has expressed itself as being here and being heard, and despite its message being a bit expansive and difficult to be slogan-ized (the point, I imagine), it has presence: physical, social and political. It is here and now and it tries to create a dialogue. Where is Here.?

P.S. As of last night, the Occupiers have been dispersed and, now, there is no here there either.

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A Brush with Placeness

For as long as anyone can remember, the little stretch of midtown Philadelphia real estate has been just one thing: the 1400 block of Cherry Street – a narrow byway of such little distinction, most people have thought it was just a sunless, easy-to-miss alleyway that runs alongside one of the finest buildings a city could possess, Frank Furness’ glorious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But, what a driver sees (there are few pedestrians, other than art students, who make their way down there) when zipping through that block is not the wonderful front of PAFA, but its nicely bricked but otherwise inconsequential and street-unfriendly north-side façade, and some back doors; and, across the street, a similarly semi-interesting side to another of the school’s buildings, the Hamilton. By block’s end, where Cherry meets 15th Street, there is a corner convenience store and a parking lot.

If ever there was a place so close to great art and, at the same time, a whisker’s distance from great architecture, that had so little presence and placeness as this street … well, we defy you to find one. Most people don’t know it’s there; it’s the kind of street you don’t even realize you’re on, and once past it, can’t quite remember having been on it. In a big city, it is one of those nonentity streets, a shortcut, a place where you might find a parking space. It’s not the road to nowhere – it is nowhere.

But, now, it is on the verge of becoming somewhere. Some locales are born with placeness, some achieve placeness and others have placeness thrust upon them. The 1400 block of Cherry Street falls into the latter category and, with the help of big bucks and an artist of American iconography, is destined to be transformed into, oddly, a destination.

If you walk on Cherry Street due east from the Academy, crossing Broad Street, you will more than likely bump into a burly construction worker helping to put the finishing touches on the new, hulking, even monstrous addition to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It is this massive taxpayer-funded project, with its gigantic main entrance staring right down Cherry Street, that kickstarted the idea of a plaza of some sort as a way to prettify the view for conventioneers, and at the same time create a connecting walkway between the two PAFA buildings, and at the same time devise a tourist-y locational conceit. The improved area would be seen as and deemed a conduit – feeding who? Doctors here for the orthodontists’ annual convocation? – to what’s being marketed now as Museum Mile, a jeweled cultural belt along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with the Barnes Foundation, Rodin Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art as the most glittering of the gems.

With money from H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest ­– a local multi-multi-millionaire whose stated goal is to spend down all his money, so that it and he hit zero at about the same time – and a design by the distinguished landscape-architecture firm Olin, all that was needed was a landmark. Enter Claes Oldenburg (sadly, sans Coosje van Bruggen). His outsized renderings of commonplace items – spoons and buttons, electrical plugs and garden spades – are brilliant objectifications of industrially-designed products, illuminating their art by eliminating their function, and, lately, honoring extinct or endangered items made in the 20th century, like typewriter erasers. (In fact, just a quarter-mile south of the officially-named Lenfest Plaza stands Oldenburg’s towering “Clothespin,” a 35-year-old work of note across from City Hall.)

So, the centerpiece of the plaza (groundbreaking for which occurred last week) is an apropos, if obvious, art-linked object: A giant paint brush, complete with humongous paint drip. Nicely, it will lean out from the plaza and be visible on Broad Street, like Lady Liberty’s torch – its red-paint coated bristles acting as the beacon, its long, thin body angling down like a finger pointing to and, ultimately, anchoring in the plaza. From there, Olin has designed a self-contained yet open-at-both-ends hard-surface fuselage, complete with a long and curving bench, tables and chairs, and congregating and activity areas. It is easy to picture it as the outdoor public space that the building-bound Academy has craved: a place for students to mill in between classes, a spot for performance art, a location for post-openings soirees, maybe even clothesline shows for starving young artists. It makes the institution seem less cloistered, and brings its esoteric doings – mysterious to a suspicious, generally culture-averse population – into the light and air.

But how it will be used – how the institution will permit it to be used – will determine if it attains a placeness. The city – indeed, every major city – is peppered with plazas that, despite good intentions, are arid, unfriendly dead zones, little- or unused, stark scapes that even pigeons avoid. Too much or too little sun, no place comfortable to sit, bad feng-shui, purposelessly sited as an ego trip for a politician or donor. (Olin, masterful as they are, have done a few of these themselves.) After all the money spent on this Lenfest Plaza, will the Academy permit its students to post notices on its surfaces, or to paint on its walls, or rally or party in it? Will outsiders – nearby office workers, those conventioneers, other tourists and city residents – feel welcome to be in it, comfortable to use it? Will it be a vital space or merely a decorated canyon?

To the point: Can you impose placeness on a place merely by making it into something that is supposed to have it? Can placeness be legislated and design-built? Or is it just something that, inexplicably, just is, all of its own, with a power that it simply has and imbues, and which no one can control? Why do young children eschew certain toys and prefer to play with the boxes they came in? How do plans fire imagination, and how does imagination find the very thing it needs in order to sing, or simply to find a resonance in? Oldenburg’s brush, like the 1400 block of Cherry Street, has two ends; will it point down, attracting simpatico souls to a place they recognize as something of their own and of themselves, or will it point them away from the plaza, propelling thoughts and gazes elsewhere?

We wish it luck, the Lenfest Plaza; we hope it “works.” It has big guns and good brains behind it, and the city can use it. But placeness is a funny thing – it may not be where you want it to be, but it is where you least expect it, and most need it, when you come upon it. And you know it when you feel it – the way a painter knows that that stroke of her brush is just the right one.

 

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