By Abby King
The Fleisher Wind Challenge is a finger on the pulse of the Philadelphia Art scene. Their brief and focused exhibits showcase nine artists deemed to make ‘exceptional’ artwork in this region. Wind Challenges have created a long lineage of culturally relevant exhibitions; a flipbook through some of the big names in the city. There is no complete archive I could find and trying to uncover winners not just from the last five years posed a challenge.
Since I’ve lived here, around six years or so, I have often found myself attending Wind Challenge openings. These events are slightly different affairs with better snacks and much more children running between sculptures. Their demographic matches the venue. Fleisher is, after all, a community art center. The marriage between neighborhood art hub and emerging contemporary art is a distinct one. Along with an archive I wouldn’t mind a history lesson on how this series became the name-maker it is. Maybe it’s just good taste and 39 years of solid curation.
The problem in writing about Fleisher, despite my need to understand the archival history behind the place, is to create a unifying article on what is really 3 tiny exhibitions shoved under one roof. Artists are provided their own tightly contained rooms so as if to limit an overlapping curatorial conversation. The Challenges refrain from a theme, art historical context, and social justice umbrella. They just show us “exceptional” work. A great compliment, yet somewhat empty when attempting to understand the thoughts behind their closed-door choices. In lieu of the Challenge’s mysterious ways, the work must stand for itself. So, in tandem, I’ll step off Fleisher’s back and look at this year’s artists.
The first to catch my eyes was an artist who doesn’t really live in Philly, Amy Ritter. Her previous body of work oozed sexualized self portraiture, awkward tableaus, and xerox copies. My favorite. Though, her Wind Challenge piece, Behind A Hedge II, is a more muted and subtle exploration of the above mentioned themes. An oversized gray scale photograph of her pouty face with crossed arms and folded legs sits on a field of gray rubble. The photographic facade is mounted onto thin faux wood, propped up with two by fours and cement blocks. The front side is a face making vague eye contact with the viewer. The back is a billboard built from trash, a quick architectural monument to the double wide. Ritter’s self portrait exposes her duality, a poetic-ism that lets materiality do the talking.
In her artist statement, Ritter says, “These materials relate back to my childhood of growing up in a mobile home in Eastern Pennsylvania. Once these homes are built they immediately begin to decay. The foundation is built upon concrete cinder blocks...” Ritter’s monument contains the spirit of wood paneling and gravel roads but without her words leading the way one could be lost in the transition from face to building. I wonder if she could give us what lies in between. I sent my question to Ritter asking how she sees the themes of body and home connection. She responded, “I don’t see the two as disparate themes I see them as synonymous. The home is built for the body and I see similarities such as the windows of a home are its eyes and the cinderblocks that hold it are its legs... the arms are acting as a metaphorical hedge as the primary barrier between our bodies/ homes.” Houses and limbs are barriers protecting us from the outside. It’s a depressing thought, thinking of our bodies decaying at the same rate as our mobile housing, each a temporary enclosure.
The next artist is actually the first you’d see in the Fleisher galleries, but because I tend to eat my favorite things first, I’ll admit there’s a hierarchy. In this scene you’ll find a menagerie of animals. A big ol’ Bison stands proud, a realistic face with an exposed behind. The front is covered in soft wool texture which swiftly transitions to precise wood armature. In this the artists strips the naturalistic to a 3-d art skeleton. Artist, Emily White, is a master of her craft, displaying sculptures and realistic paintings that breathe life into portraits of animals, almost. In each of her pieces there’s one portion dedicated to a Trompe-l'œil tradition mashed up with a break from such. In the sculptures there is a stripping away to the armature and in the paintings White exposes the wood of a panel. These moves keep White’s work from descending into the land of kitsch. She seems to be saying, “be awed by my technique but not fooled into thinking I don’t know my art history.”
Thematically, White steers us to consider wildlife in the human industrialized shit show we’ve created. She gets us there not by smokestacks and oil spills but with subtlety like a tracking bracelet on a crane's foot. Though her intent is secondary to her technical talent, it’s nice to tease out environmental complacency in the details. As if sensing this, White gives some space to breath between pangs of guilt. She says, “I leave the play between the materials and subject open to interpretation, inviting audiences to reflect on the consequences of human industry and innovation on our natural world, and our relationship to it.”
In Fleisher’s furthest, smallest, and as one artist makes it, most cramped room in the exhibition, we find the work of Debbie Lerman. The way the show is hung is more problematic than her pieces. She presents Digital Quilt collages, a sculpture, painted fragmentations, and a mirrored amalgamation using all of the above. I am tired just typing that.
Focusing on a few, the digital quilt collages are fun jabs at consumption and nostalgia. I come from a line of great quilt makers (it didn’t continue) so seeing the hexagonal pattern reminds me of country stories laid out in fabric. Up close, Lerman’s quilts illustrate something more sinister than sweet. Instead of Uncle Bobby’s torn jeans and Aunt May’s old curtains, patterns are cut from images of money, ants, and pills. It isn’t all violent uneasy content. There are also unicorns, shoes, and crowns. An odd and lively mixture of symbols.
Where Lerman complicates this quilting-as-collage is when the figure steps in. A sculpture in the middle of the room brings quilt and figure together. Balanced on a clear table is the hollowed form of the body blanketed with a similar quilt pattern. A mirror underneath continues her discussion of self reflection. Lerman explains, “(it) looks a person sleeping under a bright, beautiful quilt in a traditional Amish pattern called "Sunshine and Shadow." But the images on the quilt are cut out from a Cosmopolitan Magazine and show the perfect body parts, clothes, make-up, and accessories that girls and women are bombarded with all the time and that can make us feel like curling up and hiding.” You’ve definitely got a point there, Debbie. Even brief encounters with the magazine racks at Acme make me tired.
The name of Lerman’s show is, "Uncovering", an apt title when not much is left to the imagination. Thematically, the quilts serve as symbols for, “things we tend to try to cover up and not talk about.” Some pieces are more poetic examples of covering/uncovering. Such as a piece nestled in a corner, a straightforward break from the noise. The figure lays across the canvas, their private parts covered by a mirror. Rather than patterns or chopped up bodies, there is our simple reflection in place of a male’s private parts. I can’t quite put my finger on why it fits so perfectly, but it does.
This iteration of the Wind Challenge shows Fleisher’s continued dedication to provocative and thoughtful contemporary artwork. By continuing to support local contemporary artists the center is propping up the Philadelphia art community while simultaneously exposing the neighborhood to fresh art practices. Debbie Lerman, Emily White and Amy Ritter are now alumnae of this tradition. Here’s hoping for a complete history of the Challenge for it’s 40th birthday next year. Hint, hint.