2016 was a deadly year in terms of losing what seemed like an unprecedented number of major cultural icons. One major loss to those of certain musical and stylistic inclinations was David Bowie, who died in January of liver cancer.
Philadelphians always had a special fondness for the singer. He was well represented on local radio playlists, and Bowie reciprocated that fondness, including recording some of his most influential music in Philadelphia (much of the Young Americans album was recorded here at Sigma Sound Studios). So, Philadelphians felt a special sense of loss when the iconic musician died. This year, some dedicated admirers put together a citywide “Philly Loves Bowie Week,” celebrating the man and his work, and marking the first anniversary of his death.
One of the most notable events is the Bowie-themed art exhibition that opened on January 6, 2016 at Old City's Ruckus Gallery. As curated by Patti Brett — Doobie’s stalwart owner/bartender, an original "Sigma kid" and longtime Starman superfan — the show gathers work from dozens of local artists to celebrate Bowie and his trendsetting iconography through an astonishingly wide range of quality portraits.
Man of a thousand faces
The portraits, which comprise the bulk of the exhibition, display a remarkable range of styles, mirroring Bowie’s own penchant for going through chameleonic changes of personae. Some of the pieces are purely sentimental, such as a sculpture by Susan Moloney entitled “Legend,” a wooden heart-shaped piece with a small portrait of an androgynous Bowie in its center. A more traditional portrait is Sara Captain’s “David (the centre of it all)” with Bowie in his Young American phase. Together, these more representational pieces provide a comprehensive showcase of the dramatic shifts Bowie’s image took on over the years.
Perhaps the most impressive piece is one of the few not created by a local artist, but on loan just for this exhibition: an elegant painting by Rory Kurtz which depicts Bowie as Hamlet regarding a bejeweled skull. The painting was commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine. It is absolutely lovely, clearly symbolic of the special sheen Bowie brought to even his most somber characterizations.
Some of the show’s more abstract works explore various Bowie-esque themes prevalent throughout his career. One example of this is Qori Moorhaul’s “Spaced Men,” a painting that recalls Jackson Pollack and explores the notion of an outsider, or an alien, and how he perceives the world, a theme Bowie returned to repeatedly throughout his career.
The exhibition, which also includes a few artifacts (such as a guitar signed by Bowie, which will be raffled off in a fundraiser for the Children's Hospital of Philadelpha), is a wonderful example of not only our city’s love for this special artist, but also a testament to his wide-ranging influence on our popular culture. The range of artistic skill on display is impressive, but more important and profound is the depth of thought and understanding of Bowie’s themes and motifs.
As a part of Philadelphia’s celebration of David Bowie’s life and art, the Ruckus exhibition is exciting, but as an artistic exploration of the meaning and impact of one of the most significant rock artists, it is indispensible.