PHILADELPHIA — I was recently in Philadelphia on a four-day sojourn with my wife, Marie, and our 20-pound beagle, Hammer. Philly has changed a lot since Marie and I were undergraduate students at University of the Arts in the early 1990s. Then, I had a sawed-off shotgun pointed at my chest during a robbery in broad daylight, had two cars stolen, and was chased through the streets by a pack of skinheads. Now, it’s full of boutique hotels, fancy restaurants, and gentrifying neighborhoods. The city is bike-friendly, and everyone seems to have a dog. It’s wonderful.
Currently, the city has some great museum and gallery exhibitions on view. Philly is roughly two hours by car or train from New York, and I encourage everyone to visit. Here is a brief list of shows I recommend checking out:
Mario Ybarra, Jr.: Books of Drawings, Beyond our Dreams, Blame Our Dads, Brains On Drugs, Better off Dead
The Fabric Workshop and Museum (1214 Arch Street), through November 2
Mario Ybarra, Jr., is an artist who grew up in Wilmington, CA, near the Port of Los Angeles in Southern California. He has been an Artist-In-Residence at Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) for a couple of years. His current exhibition is based on his experiences with “B.O.D.,” the graffiti crew he ran with as a teenager. (“B.O.D.” is an acronym that can stand for anything, from Better off Dead to Brains on Drugs.)
Drawing is central to his work. From sketchbooks and baseball hats to bomber jackets, wallpaper and sneakers, he leaves no surface uncovered. His vocabulary includes pie-eyed skulls, car tires, nude dancing girls, fat wrestlers, and bulls-eyes. It’s done in sketchy lines, paint spatters, and neon drips. The work has the look and feel of a teenage boy’s unmade bed. What makes his work stand out is the installation: He has designed three makeshift galleries to present his art, that when combined, take the shape of a large industrial shipping container. As an artist, I am drawn to the imperfections of his work. He embraces the mistakes like the crack in the Liberty Bell.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Time Produced Non Better
Fleisher/Ollman Gallery (1216 Arch Street, 5A), through December 7
After my recent visit to Fleisher/Ollman Gallery to see the Eugene Von Bruenchenhein exhibition, I have decided to make him my Higher Power. Von Bruenchenhein, an insomniac baker, was a self-taught artist that made most of his work at his kitchen table in his modest home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This show features a selection of his visionary landscapes, fever-brained still-life paintings, nudie pin-up photographs of his wife, Marie, and ceramic vessels. The reason I love his work is that it seems to have been created by some deep need residing within the artist.
My favorite work in the exhibition is a slideshow that features color pictures of Marie. According to the gallery:
“ … the slides were found in the house and were never printed in Von Bruenchenhein’s lifetime, nor was there any indication that they were meant to be shown (the artist did not make efforts to exhibit his work outside of his home in general). We believe the photos were meant for the artist’s and Marie’s eyes only.”
KAWS @ PAFA
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (118 North Broad Street), through August 2014
KAWS @ PAFA is a head-on collision between a young pop-culture fanatic and art history. At first, I was not sure what to make of the car-crash-cum-exhibition. As I walked through the museum, I could not stop thinking of the stomach-in-your-throat scene in Pulp Fiction in which Vincent Vega drives an adrenaline shot into Mia Wallace’s lifeless heart. That association is the best analogy I can summon to describe what I felt seeing his colorful cartoon imagery alongside sober examples of historical painting.
To be honest, I am not a big fan of KAWS work. That said, I was absolutely transfixed seeing his work alongside Benjamin West, Thomas Eakins, and Horace Pipin. His flat, vibrant tondo paintings, which hang in the grand hallway that leads to the building’s rotunda, pack a visual punch to the solar plexus. In another gallery, KAWS creates a mirror image of the permanent collection on the opposing wall by hanging a series of his work salon style. The pairing is startling, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. KAWS @ PAFA raises interesting questions. How does PAFA make its permanent collection relevant to contemporary audiences? How does a contemporary artist come to terms with art history?
The New Barnes
Barnes Foundation Art Collection in Philadelphia (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway), continuing
Dr. Albert C. Barnes established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.” To view his art collection requires physical and mental stamina. I have never seen so much great artwork in such a modest space. Paul Cezanne’s “Card Players,” check. Henri Matisse’s “Dance,” check. Henri Rousseau’s “Past and Present,” check. American Sea Chest from the 1840s, check. It’s overwhelming. To get an idea of what you will encounter, one gallery will house paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries, as well as embroidery scissors, pewter vases, and wooden chests from America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Themes run the entire gamut of human experience: torture, titillation, repose, contemplation, ecstasy. It’s hard to wrap my head around it.
The collection inspires wonder as much as fatigue. I’ve never seen so many visitors crashed out on gallery benches. What makes the viewing experience possible is the manner in which the work is displayed. Each wall is covered with symmetrical arrangement of paintings and other objects. The one theme unifying the collection is his democracy of vision: Fine art, industrial objects, utilitarian tools, and textiles receive equal treatment. No one sits in the back of the bus. An object from the Congo deserves to play on the same team as an oil painting by Dutch master Frans Hals.
It’s hard to pick out a favorite room, much less a favorite individual piece. I did love seeing a Wesphalian oil painting from the 1400s depicting the “Healing of Lazarus” alongside a watercolor by Cézanne and a still life of peonies by William Glackens. Beneath this trio of paintings sits a display cabinet that houses a selection of historic African sculptures. On the floor stand a pair limestone carvings by Jacques Lipschitz. If I had to make rhyme or reason of the installation, I would be lying. I had no idea what was going on.
At times, I felt bludgeoned by the sheer number of works on view. Many times, I wanted to walk out of a gallery to rest my eyes, but then, in my peripheral vision, I’d detect a tiny Daumier painting, no bigger than a postcard, or a modest Bonnard above a doorway, and I’d feel compelled to stop and look. It was in one of these instances that I came across Courbet’s 1864 painting “Woman With White Stockings.” It’s a frank depiction of a young woman as she removes a pair of long stockings from her pale, supple calves. In the midst of all this art, I was offered a delicious moment of titillation as she spreads her legs. Richard Kern doesn’t hold a candle to Courbet’s soft-core objectification of the female nude.
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