State of Philadelphia
How we're not doing everything we can?
By Matthew Herzog
‘People are fucking nuts!’ A woman yelled from the end of the BSL Spring Garden platform this past First Friday. My eyes glazed. My lips rose, and I nodded in return.
Shortly after, I was standing in the 990 building thinking about what she said. There was something inconsistent with why I nodded to her and why I couldn’t do the same to what was before me. Maybe inconsistent is the wrong term. Certainly a significant and missed opportunity; her phrase was not reflected in the Art.
What is nuts, strange, and out of the ordinary is present in the atmosphere of Philadelphia. Our scene is no less an electric hum. Is that Dior I smell? Nope, just Irish Spring off the black market. Is it Patchouli? Nah, bed sweat and Shea Butter. Yet despite this, the depth of radical artistic vigor - to the same degree as an unapologetic human experience - has become hard to find in a community that delivers less than such.
There is a void between the world as it evolves and our artistic descriptions of it. Conservative realist paintings are like south Philly German cockroaches, as prevalent in number as they are free of purpose. Repetitive formalism and watered⎼down abstract expressionism spills into our Old City gutters as haphazard as the methods artists use to make them. In our regurgitation of Dada there are notes of subversion sans the angry depth of the World War that first inspired it.
I’ve seen intellectualism where passionless illustrations of truth is believed the same as empowering it. There is derivative minimalism where a box inside a box has more supposed worth than an actual box and passive political activism where inept text meets trite imagery.
And to be more direct, there’s a severe lack of representation for people of color. We have incredible organizations like Art Sanctuary, the Black Writers Museum, Asian Arts Initiative, Taller Puertorriqueño, and the African American Museum. Yet galleries still feel like an homogeneous orgy and most institutions/collectives have the diversity statistics of Trump’s Administration.
*I’m including Velvet Glove in this*
Understanding the function of Art and its reflective qualities of the community that produces it is a long and difficult philosophical, most likely paradoxical, undertaking. It will likely never reach conclusion as discovery may be the point - making sense of what doesn’t, making sense of what’s too often in flux. (Recommended reading: Artblog Article, Endless Art by Hammam Aldouri)
However, many times when Philadelphia Art comes close to commentary or the genuine reality of our experiences, it's often an aloof implication by cheeky humor. I hear the defense, we use surrealist notions of oddity in art to reflect oddity in the world. Though what I really see is a loogie of ambivalence spat in the face of social responsibility. Screeching in your birthday suit doth not a successful performance make. Patchwork Jomar textile can’t hold the weight of your confusing, sorry communalist, manifesto.
I could naively theorize this extends from our contemporary juncture. That the News, having blown aside technical speech for post-apocalyptic drawl, has rained an artistic malaise upon our community. That would explain why many of us threw out our televisions, heaps and piles on the curb, organized like outdated totems against a mandated panic. Who wants to listen to more political mouthpieces, making us feel trapped in an endless production of nonsense?
I could theorize that Tech culture produced outlets tempering creativity. Options like Instagram came so we might tailor to friends, museums (The land of all that’ve made it?), Jerry Saltz, ICA, CraneArts, Fleisher and @therealhennessey. But becoming siloed by personalized content doesn't digitize us over the rainbow. There are no grass roots in the Ethernet field only insulated choirs that whisper to themselves. Although our voice can travel farther than any point in human history, so can glamorized and appropriated adversity by corporate salesman, capitalist advertising, and exploitative sentimentality.
Where are the ancestors of Yoko Ono, Vito Acconci, Barbara Kruger, the Black Renaissance of the 1970s? People that made you understand, not hope you’re photographed standing nearby. If we have ample space to host the social ignorance of our predecessors, we have more than enough room to produce bad ass artistic powerhouses.
To catch some semblance of breath, I’ll shift perspectives.
Art isn’t a person but it may as well be. They are stand-ins. Manifestations of belief, history, or personal trials. Walking around a gallery can be a survey of human experience as much as a display of human boredom.
Though, as the mantra says, there is more diversity within groups than between. With this I can only hope there is more untapped potential to each piece of work on the walls than there is in the wall that separates them.
Empathy toward Art can be sensibly compassionate. It doesn’t need; only we define what is obligated and what is capable. It is a singularly beneficial relationship that links us to the Artist, to the material, to the content and so on. To experience Art is to draw an empathetic line from one to another, from ourselves to our presumptive and conflicted imagination.
I can not deny your story if the image of your voice is fraught with authentic sensibility and compulsion, if your use of nudity (Beth Heinly) not only challenges mediocrity it convinces me to do the same.
Certainly, successful Art is not always in vogue, not always seen in an overloaded Art scene, not always shown in an Art scene overloaded by the same things. I am likely missing an absorbent amount of incredibly palpable pieces. Yet what I see rarely provokes me, claiming, ‘I am. Now you are too.’
Art doesn’t care if I walk away, swipe up, or write about it. It’s my will to do so. And for that to happen, for Art to be relevant, to have social function, to escape itself and infect me, it needs radical vulnerability, a radical compassion. I need to be altered. I feel therefore I am myself in your context.
But there are rising highlights worth noting. I mentioned one not a moment ago. Beth Heinly with her nude performances; beguiling entanglements that make me feel I’m a child while an adult yells ‘Pigeon fucker!’ at me. Here’s another: Moor Mother as her band camp describes: ‘Low fi/dark rap/chill step/ blk girl blues/witch rap/coffee shop riot gurl songs/southern girl dittys/black ghost songs’ Here’s another: Black Oak House (Catherine Pancake and Miriam Stewart) in West Philly hosting performances, discussions, and critiques with gender non-binary, trans, queer, POC, artists who are also survivors of rape. And another: ICA exhibitions from the last 5 years. (Myths of the Marble, Jason Rhodes, Barbara Kasten, Nicole Eisenmen, Alex Da Corte, Ruffneck Constructivists)
In the last decade alone, artist-run galleries/organizations have carved spaces into the cultural and urban landscape of Philadelphia. Hands have passed, certainly with a few corpses keeping a rigamortis grip, but by in large we’ve been charged with defining what we are and what standard we want to create.
I’ve seen the knee-melting print capabilities of Peter Haarz, the busiest person in the developing Art scene, Jerry Kaba. These are prunings from the world herb that give me that broth of youthful bolts. I ignore my confliction to its consumerist notes, sure. I mean, you gotta work to work, never mind to eat. You gotta earn to afford a voice. That’s the thing with the Humanities, there’s no money, but if we portray the trees that currency came from, maybe we’ll attract it. I get it.
Some say Philadelphia is a collection of lost-boys, match-stick girls, latch-key kids with misfit toys, defined as tragic by some, free by few, no less a comedy of errors. We change definitions, create languages, driven by ambition even at the risk of dereliction.
Fuck, I severely, sincerely, wholeheartedly believe we are not underground nor outside. We’re not just borrowing manufacturing buildings till they collapse. Pencil to pencil, dust to dust.
We’re a room of dancers in the dark, releasing the scent of fear and game intriguing creators of a particular hunger. The Pew Fellowships of 2017 are an incredible representations of this. Camae Ayewa & Rasheedah Phillips from Black Quantum Futurism, Performer/Choreographer Nichole Canuso and the NC Dance Company, & Visual Artist Wilmer Wilson IV.
Philadelphia is grit, rats, and accidents but our cumulative expectation hasn’t adequately drawn that nor set a path for us to surpass it. We’re fucking nuts, as applaudable as damnable. I’m just wondering when the objects that will outlive us, will begin telling the same story.