Philadelphia: Kilimnik Installations, Homage to the Blues
Philadelphia: Kilimnik Installations, Homage to the Blues
Though New Yorkers jestingly call it the sixth borough, Philadelphia has a cultural scene all its own. I viewed recently some of the best exhibitions on display in the city, including a career-spanning survey of Karen Kilimnik’s work at the ICA, a show at Larry Becker Fine Art of paintings all in black, the Locks Gallery’s historical survey of abstract painting, and an exhibition at Pageant Soloveev that channels the spirit of the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith.
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania
Through Aug. 5
The first career-spanning survey in the U.S. of Philadelphia native Karen Kilimniks work benefits from an appropriately dramatic opening. The Institute of Contemporary Arts 5,000-square-foot main gallery, with its 30-foot ceiling, is empty except for two very different installations. To the left of the entrance is Kilimnik’s 1989 breakout The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers, a cluttered arrangement of photocopied images, clothing, drawings, and other objects that reverently obsesses over the glamour, danger, and mod kitsch of the 1960s television show. The work earned Kilimnik acclaim for the “scatter” style of her installations when it was first shown.
In contrast, toward the back of the towering space, a freestanding structure houses a sampling of Kilimnik’s more recent painting (along with a few older photographs and drawings). The amateurishly painted works crib scenes of animals, women, and children, among other subjects, from Childe Hassam, Joshua Reynolds, and other familiar painters. The works are hung salon-style against a backdrop of red patterned wallpaper, and the whole enclosure is treated as an installation with the descriptive title The Red Room in the Modern Artchitecture (2007).
From there, the retrospective branches out to encompass early drawings, which resemble journal entries of a fashion magazine-obsessed high school student, and more installations, including I Don't Like Mondays, the Boomtown Rats, Shooting Spree, or Schoolyard Massacre (1991), a schoolyard shooting gallery with a pop soundtrack. On the second floor, a gallery is devoted to Kilimnik’s choppy videos and several artist books, while another includes her recent ballet-themed video set in a fairy-tale white tent—The Bluebird in the Folly (2006).
The swaggering teen angst of the artist’s early work might seem at odds with the more genteel imagery she has pursued since turning to painting in the 1990s, but the exhibition draws attention to the continuity between her bodies of work. It’s not difficult to see how hand-copied pictures of models and celebrities relate to work meticulously done with the loose technique of a Sunday painter, or how glamorous teenage fantasies transition into period daydreams of saccharine beauty. The great strength of this show is that it feels like a single, albeit scattered, installation.
Larry Becker Contemporary Art
Through May 19
The backstory behind a group of new paintings and works on paper by Quentin Morris at Larry Becker Contemporary Art could easily be the most intriguing part of the exhibition. Born in 1945, Morris continues to live and work in his childhood home in South Philadelphia. He graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1967, and shortly thereafter began working entirely in black. He cites everything from color theory to spirituality to a determination to undermine the color’s negative cultural associations as the reasons why he hasn’t stopped.
Morris’s practice has, however, gone through several permutations in the past several decades. His paintings and drawings have taken shape on different materials, though for a while they were exclusively on found objects. He has also employed a laundry list of black media—printing ink, roof coating, spray paint, acrylic polymer—to create the fluctuating sheens, textures, and surface effects that add layers of detail to individual works.
It is the play between abstraction and physicality that makes the nine paintings and five drawings in the current exhibition so interesting. The paintings are 72-inch circles of unstretched canvas drenched with pigment, each suggesting a black hole unexpectedly rich with small gestures. Some contain shimmering clouds of mica-infused acrylic, others drip-painted curves. Untitled (July 2006) shows a matte black surface interrupted by faint gridlines; stepping back for a second, however, it’s clear that the grid resulted from preexisting folds in the canvas rather than any expressionistic impulse.
Beginning a work, Morris cuts a circle from the canvas, wets it and then irons it, before soaking it with pigment. When the material dries, it inevitably warps, and imperfections show through. These marks and other evidence of Morris’s process give the works a tactile quality that adds to their appeal. These abstractions seem like the result of a series of labor-intensive experiments—an alchemical process that Morris constantly reinvents.
“Post Painterly Abstraction”
Through May 30
The life-cycle of abstract painting seems to come full circle every few years, and with artists such as Mark Grotjahn and Turner prizewinner Tomma Abts getting a lot of attention recently, all signs point to another comeback. The timing works well for a new group show at the venerable Locks Gallery titled “Post Painterly Abstraction.” Named after a 1964 exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg, the term originally described the work of many painters who left behind Abstract Expressionism’s allover gestural forms in favor of more minimal, open compositions. The exhibition follows this idea from the 1960s to the present through a neatly focused group of eight artists.
I recently had the chance to preview the first half of the exhibition and found a few surprises included in the show. Pasadena Lifesavers Red Series #3 (1969-70), an early minimal painting by Judy Chicago, presents four light-colored rings painted on clear acrylic. The geometry of the rings and their calculated colors seem oddly subtle for the artist, who only four years later would begin work on her sprawling installation The Dinner Party (1974-79).
The exhibition also features a floor installation by Polly Apfelbaum, Big Bubbles (2000). Based on figures from the “Powerpuff Girls” cartoon, it seems remarkably distant from its pop-culture origins in this context. The work is joined by other recent pieces by Andy Collins, Odili Donald Odita, and Stuart Netsky, as well as older work from Edna Andrade, Paul Feeley, and David Row. They all plot the influence of better-known subcategories of “post painterly abstraction,” such as Color Field, Hard-Edge, and Finish Fetish painting. The term may be outmoded today, but then again, the same could have been said for abstract painting itself just a few years ago, which gives the show one of the most interesting curatorial premises in Philly this spring.
“Belted Bronze: Recital in Eight Dominions, Terry Adkins after Bessie Smith”
Through June 18
Part homage and part occult incantation, Terry Adkinss exhibition at Pageant Soloveev celebrates and, indeed, channels the spirit of the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. Known for addressing personages in African-American history as well as biographical topics with assemblage-style installations, Adkins constructed much of the work in the current show on site, using materials ranging from found brass figures to ostrich feathers and Botanica candles.
Split into two rooms, the first section of the exhibition contains several pieces that cryptically evoke vaudeville, minstrelsy, and other forms of early-20th-century entertainment that tied into African-American culture. In Matinee (2007), one of the show's standout pieces, a chrome stand holds a salvaged brass wheel from which a series of wooden coat hangers dangle at varying heights. Although the coat hangers are notably empty, containing none of the costumes they are presumably meant to hold, each one is engraved with the name of a song sung by Smith. The work seems to substitute the titles of songs Smith bequeathed to the present for the absence of the singer.
If the first room of the exhibition refers back to Smith’s era, the next room, dominated by a large installation, seems designed to bring her into ours. An orange and white parachute is unfurled overhead, while a second, green parachute billows down from its center. Cinched with strands of pearls, the hanging parachute resembles a series of empty cocktail dresses waiting to be inhabited by a body descended from the sky. Underneath this canopy, the artist has constructed a stage-like alter. Between parted curtains, a table set with a silver punch bowl and 64 cups sits below a vocal chart showing the wave lengths of a musical scale painted in white on a black background.
As a whole, Adkins’s shrine provides a maze of material that not only invokes its muse, but also draws the history that Smith embodies into the present. Exploring the show, one is certain that Adkins is channeling the dead for our benefit.