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A Few Rounds in Philadelphia’s Hard-Knuckle Art Scene

by Brendan S. Carroll on November 15, 2011

AP PHOTO: In March 1971, Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali in their heavyweight title fight at New York's Madison Square Garden

Smokin’ Joe Frazier, dead at 67.

Frazier, a former heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medalist of the world, succumbed to liver cancer at his home in Philadelphia on November 7, 2011.

Frazier was the classic Philadelphia fighter. Like a runaway locomotive, he never stopped going forward. He’d take two punches to give one. Neither the biggest nor most talented boxer, he had heart, and an indomitable left hook — his money punch. It floored Muhammad Ali in the 15th round of their first fight in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. Frazier paid a heavy price to get inside, but he was fearless.

Though Frazier handed Ali his first defeat, he lived in his shadow the rest of his life. Whereas Ali showed up to his fights with a flamboyant entourage, Frazer clocked in with a lunch pail.

What does Frazier have to do with art?

Like Smokin’ Joe, Philadelphia artists embody their hard-knuckle hometown, utilizing a no-nonsense approach to work. They make do, go forward, and never stop.

Two of my favorite Philadelphia-based artists are Eugene Baguskas and Gerald Nichols.Both artists investigate the American landscape, but to different ends. Baguskas paints idyllic scenes populated by cows, moose, hawks, geese and fish. To dismiss his work as naïve would be easy, but unwise. His elegiac pastoral scenes are driven by sophisticated brushwork and complex spatial arrangements. Nichols’s work addresses the degradation and virtue of nature. His view is complex and far from bucolic. Often, he combines plywood constructions, found objects and paint. He’s the bastard child of Joseph Cornell and Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers.

If the work sounds unsexy, it is.

If you want glitterati, go to New York City.

To be fair, I wanted glitterati when I lived in Philly (1992–1998). As an art school student, I plotted my escape as soon as I arrived. At the time, Philadelphia appeared small, closed-off with an academic albatross wrapped around its turkey neck. By 10pm, the city was a no-man’s land. It would be you, a bad guy and a patch of tumbleweeds blowing down the street. After six years, I left.

Philly wasn’t the problem; I was.

Over the years, I’ve returned several times to see what’s going on. Each successive visit revealed a new crop of artists and artist-run galleries. This past weekend I traveled to the City of Brotherly Love to attend First Fridays.

Started in 1991 by a group of galleries as a collaborative open house evening, First Fridays is one of Philly’s most vital, signature cultural events. Its nucleus is Old City, a neighborhood known for its loft spaces and warehouses. Picture Soho in the 1970s, but smaller and without the glamour and glitz.

Of the 40-plus galleries, I few gems stood out.

Tim Kerr (installation shot) at Space 1026. (Photo by author for Hyperallergic)

Tim Kerr & Friends: Our Schedule Is Change @ Space 1026 (site)

Two highlights included Kerr and Jim Houser. Like Raymond Pettibon (but with pretty colors), Kerr’s practice utilizes drawing and text. His subjects range from Brendan Behan to Tommie Smith, Jim Thorpe to Gil Scott Heron. He will not win any prizes for skill or professionalism. To be fair, I don’t think he cares. His collection of crudely drawn portraits of American icons is beguiling. Most are made on sheets of cardboard and old maps. Houser is an artist I usually avoid. Tonight was different. I felt compelled to look at his arrangement of paintings, objects and assorted ephemera. Between his collections of small canvases, hung a tiny birdhouse. To me, Houser filters the graphic sensibility of skateboarding through Pennsylvanian Dutch folk art.

in and out of the studio: Drawings by Emily Brown. Photo Will_Brown

Emily Brown: In and out of the studio at Gallery Joe (site)

In the front gallery hangs a series large Sumi ink wash drawings of landscapes. In the vault (side room) is an installation, which suggests Brown’s home studio. Drawings, photographs and prints align the walls. Among the various pictures, one caught my eye: a pen and ink drawing of an awkward woman sitting beside a Christmas tree. A glass showcase contains a jar of pencils, Day of the Dead figurines and tea cozies, to name a few. Located in the center of the room is a large wooden desk, which serves as the artist’s workstation and library. To me, the vault said: “Pull up some rug and stay awhile.”

Hadieh Shafie, "21680 Pages" (2011), Ink/ acrylic and Paper with printed & hand written Farsi Text, 48 x 48 x 3.5 inches.

Hadieh Shafie: Ketabeh Eshghe  (trans. Book of Love) at Pentimenti Gallery (site)

Shafie wraps thousands of vibrant scrolls into compressed cylinders, which she places into wooden frames. Each scroll is inscribed with the Farsi word: eshghe (translation “love”). From afar, the pieces resemble color field paintings. Up close, the perception changes as the compressed cylinders rise and fall across the surface like a lunar landscape. To me, they combine both geometric abstraction and Tibetan Mandalas. Picture Mark Rothko getting freaky in some mountain dugout deep in the Himalayas.

The Dufala Brothers, "Hair Burger' (2010), Graphite on Paper (screen capture by author)

Here and Now: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs by Ten Philadelphia Artists at Philadelphia Museum of Art (site)

The exhibition celebrates ten Philadelphia artists, ranging in age from 25 to 50, who are currently making art on paper. Each artist is represented by a small group of works. Artists of note include Daniel Heyman, Serena Perrone and Steven and Billy Dufala.

Heyman painted the portraits of Iraqi detainees as they recounted their stories of abuse. The portraits are straightforward, without sentimentality. Mostly, we see the head and shoulders of a subject as they sit in a nondescript location. Excerpts of their testimony whirls around the composition. I look forward to seeing what he makes down the road.

Perrone combines painting, drawing, and printmaking, to construct fantastic landscapes. Forlorn little girls ponder seascapes, which are cluttered with colonial era battleships. Volcanoes disgorge as much poetry as fire, smoke, and ash. Technically, she is a virtuoso.

Brothers Dufala have several works in the show. My favorites were three small graphite drawings that depict an ice cream cone, hamburger and pork chop. Like Philadelphia, something seemed off about these pictures. The burger looked hairy, as did the ice cream and pork chop. That’s when it hit me. Each subject is composed of interwoven locks of human hair. Both beautiful and gross, their drawings gave me goose bumps.

Rogier van der Weyden, "The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning" (1460), Oil on panel, 71 x 73 3/8 inches

Permanent Collection Highlights

Rogier van der Weyden’s painting “The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning” (1460). Look for the tears staining the cheeks of the Virgin Mother as she sinks into the arms of St. John the Evangelist. Jan van Eyck’s painting “Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata.” Tiny painting. Cinematic scale. Exquisite detail. Watch Frankie bleed. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Ecce Homo.” Christ surrounded by the fiends from George Miller’s film The Road Warrior.

Saigon Electric, publicity shot, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival @ International House (site)

Part of my reason to visit Philly was to attend the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival at the International House. The film to see is Saigon Electric, directed by Stephane Gauger. According to Gauger, he wanted to make a youth movie about hip-hop and b-boys in contemporary Vietnam. He succeeds. Think Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo meets Breaking Away, with beats provided by Nas. Keep an eye out for first-time actor Quynh Hoa.

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