Right now, Philadelphia’s streets, historic locations, and galleries are enlivened by artworks investigating revolution and highlighting the importance of close looking.
Abstraction for a "new order"
Artspace 1241 recently hosted Forms of Resistance, a two-person exhibition of paintings by Philadelphia's Tim McFarlane and Washington, D.C.-based Miguel Rodriguez. Both artists fashion abstract, nonrepresentational work using their well-honed finesse with materials and formal properties of artmaking to push the boundaries of the status quo.
McFarlane notes that “we are in uncharted waters,” given our current sociopolitical moment. For this abstract painter, figuring out how to respond to a “new order” means renegotiating the potentialities of painting now. Both artists stretch and explore their media and compositions with collage, new materials, and elementary printmaking techniques, layering or obliterating parts of the canvas with opaque paint. The resulting images propose a language similar to the way that new layers may build up over graffiti or wheatpasted posters in a public space. A mark or image may be obstructed and painted over, as in some of McFarlane’s works, but it remains ever in the background, as McFarlane says — “still trying to reassert itself.”
The revolution will be strolled
Reasserting and insisting on new stories and narratives in familiar public spaces is exactly what the 13 artists in Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition do. This exhibition, on view through July 4, features 13 works of art in several locations in Old City, Society Hill, and along the Delaware River. The artists explore revolution, a natural theme for this city — especially given the new Museum of the American Revolution, which encourages visitors to bring keen inquiry back into their own neighborhoods, lives, and ways of being after visiting.
Revolutionary was curated by streetsdept.com founder and editor Conrad Benner at the request of Visit Philadelphia. The 13 works by 13 artists are all installed in surprising and thoughtful locations such as the Betsy Ross House, Elfreth's Alley, Moshulu, La Colombe, and other places that invite immersive interaction with the work, the location, and the surrounding neighborhood.
Within two hours, I visited Zoë Cohen’s large-scale projected portraits of female labor heroes in the lobby of the National Museum of American Jewish History; Shawn Theodore’s portrait of a young black woman wearing a white head wrap, installed in Bladen’s Court off of Elfreth's Alle; Nick Cassway’s printed wallpaper in the window of the Arden Theatre Company; and Carlos Lopez Rosa’s painted machete, titled Abriendo Camino, in the Betsy Ross House.
This exhibition is an example of how Visit Philadelphia has, over the last two years, found ways to underscore the dynamic stories of Philadelphia's historic district, bringing visitors and locals into renewed engagement with the area. It certainly worked for me; I continued on to the Clay Studio, a Betsy Ross House tour, and more. More important, though, is the way this exhibition, alongside McFarlane’s and Rodriguez’s paintings, ignites reflection about our civic and national moment and our public art.
Asking us to notice
This all seems germane in the wake of New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech explaining the removal of that city’s Confederate monuments. Considering the meaning and impact of art in the public sphere is something Revolutionary invites us to do. Benner said, “When I think of revolution, I think it all starts with people — looking at the world with a critical eye.”
Take Shawn Theodore’s photograph in Bladen’s Court. It’s impossible to know who the person in the photograph is; she could be contemporary and one of the many people Theodore regularly photographs in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. But, given the location of this image, an alley and cartway built in the early 1750s, combined with the fact that this young woman is of African descent, I can only think of her in relation to history. By the late 1760s, 15 percent of Philadelphia’s households owned enslaved people, and Bladen’s Court also sits three or so blocks from where the London Coffee House, a well-known site for auctioning enslaved people, was located. Titled A Reminder, this image acts as both memorial and reminder of lives and stories always with us but so often untold. The young women in this stunning portrait looks directly at us, and we look back. How could we not?
Other works also teach us about important, perhaps previously unknown, narratives. Zoë Cohen’s oversized, projected watercolor portraits of heroic women depict people who worked for change, some of whom remain anonymous, identified only as “Cloakmakers Union Member on Strike, 1916.” As mentioned, the faces of these women are projected in the lobby of the National Museum of American Jewish History, across from films of elegant performances by Barbra Streisand. Cohen’s women deserve admiration equal to that we lavish upon Streisand, or maybe more — as, surely, their sacrifices are the foundation for winning the labor rights so many of us now enjoy.
Revolutionary asks us to notice, to shift our attention and point of view. Carlos Lopez Rosa’s painted machete, installed at the Betsy Ross House, confirms this. Here, the artist painted on the blade of a machete a sharply realistic portrait of Nina Gualinga, an Ecuadorian Indigenous leader and environmentalist. I would have never known about Gualinga if not for Rosa’s work; placing her image on a tool and symbol of revolution such as a machete, in the home of our much-mythologized First Seamstress, asks us to expand and notice our understanding of the histories we know and the ones we don’t.
To read Andee Hochman's essay about another outdoor exhibition, click here.