This is the Philadelphia seen by Regional Rail and Market-Frankford Line passengers—if they ever glance up from their phones. Jennifer Manzella: City Blocks, now on view at Arcadia University, reveals overgrown lots and embryonic vegetable gardens, shuttered businesses and corner stores just hanging on, empty shells next to traditional rowhomes next to jarring postmodern townhouses. Narrow streets and alleys, neighborhoods struggling and in transition, familiar yet unknown. The train moves on and they’re gone.
Manzella finds contemplative beauty in unnoticed places. This compact display of intaglio prints examines locations that aren’t on any visitor’s itinerary.
That is, except Manzella’s. The artist, who works mainly in relief and etched prints, traveled the city by bike and on foot, photographing neighborhoods hiding in plain sight: backsides of buildings, commercial dead zones, construction sites, ranks of aging brick homes, the industrial waterfront—places that aren’t what they used to be, and are uncertain of what they’re becoming.
Look and see
After etching her photographs onto copper plates smaller than Post-It Notes, the artist created prints, viewfinders into miniaturized worlds more interesting and picturesque than can be appreciated from a moving train.
In Under the El: Front and Master (2019), an open lot fans out before us. Across the way, a row of homes intersects a warehouse, forming an angled horizon. A dump truck noses up to the warehouse and the entire scene converges on a skyjack lift, platform extended into the air like a waiter hoisting a tray overhead.
Northern Liberties: Second and Poplar (2019) is a texture-rich tale of two city blocks. We’re on a path between a crumbling wall and the open grave of what was once a basement. Everything is in shade: shards of concrete underfoot, decaying stucco separating from bricks, dank vegetation slowly reclaiming the territory. But across the street it’s glowing: sunlit, intact buildings, where unseen residents trim and sweep and paint.
Installation imitates art
Whether by design or coincidence, viewing prints of Manzella’s unheralded locations requires as much intention as she needed to find them in the first place. City Blocks is presented in an area that’s both gallery and connecting corridor, a passageway structured for people on the move.
Illumination is limited and, understandably, not in full use on steamy summer mornings. Which makes perfect sense unless you’re trying to take in very small prints mounted in gray on an equally gray wall.
Which is why I’m not sure whether Broad Street: South Philly (2019) depicts the wallpaper-flecked interior of a collapsed dwelling or a faded outdoor advertisement. Squinting at what might be the ghost of a staircase, I opt for the wallpapered interior.
Signs of life
Ghosts are everywhere in Manzella’s prints. Though no people appear, a human presence is evident. In North of Girard: 7th and Jefferson (2019), a rail fence surrounds a green space, hinting at a future pocket park in a once-empty lot. The lot likely replaced a corner store, which no doubt supplanted something else.
In EAP Historic Landmark: 7th and Spring Garden (2019), we enter Edgar Allen Poe’s tidy backyard and envision not only the author but National Park Service rangers and tourists. In Bon Voyage: Old Kensington (2019), it’s a sailor, home from the sea. A rowboat sits by the back steps, as though the mariner sailed right up and stepped into the kitchen. Precisely because Manzella doesn’t show who lives here, she frees the imagination to see all the lives that have passed through.
City Blocks’s thoughtful, detailed depictions and understated display fly in the face of the world’s incessant visual noise, which demands attention but leaves no impression. Manzella’s images may not capture the eye immediately, but once they do, they’re hard to forget.
What, When, Where
Jennifer Manzella: City Blocks. Through September 8, 2019, at Arcadia University’s Rosedale Gallery, 450 South Easton Road, Glenside, PA. (215) 572-2131 or arcadia.edu.