In an ancient Indian story, six blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. One grasps the pachyderm’s tusk, and decides an elephant is like a pipe. Another hugs a leg and says an elephant is like a tree. A third fingers an ear: An elephant is like a fan. Still another grasps the tail: An elephant is like a rope. Six radically different impressions emerge, fragments which, pieced together, form a whole.
Woodmere Art Museum is taking the same approach with Philadelphia. In The Condition of Place, its annual juried exhibition, juror Odili Donald Odita selected 70 artists to “create a summation of the ways we can look at Philadelphia as a city.” Rendered in paint, plaster, video, fabric, and more, interpretations range from representational to abstract, and are as disparate as those of the elephant.
Lifers and immigrants
Mary Henderson observes crowds, and her images are familiar to any city-dweller. In her inkjet print Walnut Street (2016), a group stands in the sun, looking in different directions, not interacting. Are they waiting for a light to change or parade to pass by? Onlookers at a crime scene? We don’t know. In Clark Park (2016), Henderson sculpts plaster into a frieze of modern-day people relaxing on a hillside, a scene that echoes Romans reclining at table.
Maria Leguizamo arrived in Philadelphia last fall from Colombia to study at Tyler School of Art. Her contribution, Untitled (Table), (2015) was built from found objects. With legs of differing lengths, it stands poised uneasily between stability and toppling, much as its creator felt in a strange, new environment.
In Winter Hung to Dry (2004-16), Karyn Olivier stacked heavy clothes on a line, a remembrance of helping her grandmother hang laundry in Trinidad and later, Brooklyn. Something that many still do, and the installation certainly summons Olivier’s intended sense of absence and the past. To make it really resonate in Philadelphia, she might have added a few pairs of worn-out sneakers, hanging by their laces.
Tapping common experience
Filipe De Sousa’s video triptych Appropriate Memory (2016) consists of film loops of the Paris commune in the 19th century and Philadelphia’s 20th-century struggles with the radical group MOVE. With overlapping audio, subtitles, and a triple dip of film running concurrently, it is a lot to take in. Still, the comparison of citizens squaring off with the heavy-handed government is incomplete. Those in Philadelphia during the 1970s and 1980s will recall that MOVE’s confrontational conduct, along with gross mishandling by authorities of a standoff in 1985, victimized many people, including children living in the compound and people whose neighborhood was disrupted and ultimately, destroyed. Like the elephant, the piece describes part of the story, but not all.
Home (2016) is Lydia Hunn’s sculpture of tiny lead steps, the kind that can be seen leading to front doors across the city. True, they’re not the white marble risers that grace many homes, the ones house-proud Philadelphians once scrubbed on hands and knees, but like all front steps, they offer outdoor living space in tight row-home neighborhoods, good for catching breezes and gossip, and lead to respite at the end of a long day.
Assembling a picture from facets of reality
“I want to present an interesting story through the voices of the artists that are in the show,” explained Odita, a Tyler School of Art professor and abstract painter. “Hopefully people can really be excited by all these different facets of reality.”
Facets feature prominently in Odita’s art, which is also included in The Condition of Place. The colorful assemblies of diamond shapes suggest depth, movement, and a surprising range of moods. To avoid repetition, he hand-mixes colors, and changes the orientation and size of the facets, so that Surface Charge 2 (2014), on a light blue background, calms, while the bold edge-to-edge colors of Alive (2010) struts with the propulsive energy of Mummers.
Many works in The Condition of Place are decidedly conditioned by this place, which was the intention. In others, however, the connection is not obvious, whether due to abstract form, generic substance, or just a mismatch between artist and viewer. Some works will trigger recognition, memory, emotion, and others will be as foreign as Cobbs Creek is to Castor Gardens. That is the fun of Odita’s premise: seeing where viewer and artist attach, like magnets. Will it be at tusk or tail?