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Beyond Center City: Artists with everything (but money)

Art Safari to Kensington

7 minute read
Rochelle Dinkin's 'Beginning Promises' at Highwire: Who knew?
Rochelle Dinkin's 'Beginning Promises' at Highwire: Who knew?
Some two dozen for-profit contemporary galleries operate in downtown Philadelphia. So why travel to galleries beyond Center City or Old City to see new work by little-known artists? Are we really missing out on something?

Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon, founders of the intelligent and jargonless theartblog.org, think we are. They created the Art Safari to literally take people to galleries that are newer, more raw, less known and geographically distant from established ones. Each safari has covered different territory (e.g., South Philly), and on each, artists were videoed discussing their shows. The videos are posted on theartblog's website for those aficionados who will scrunch in and out of a van only to glimpse white rhinos in the wilds of Kenya.

Nine of us joined Rosof and Fallon on the fourth and last of the scheduled safaris, which took place on June's First Friday. It included stops at Pterodactyl in Port Richmond as well as Fjord Project Space, Part Time Studios, Highwire and the Crane Arts Building in Kensington, this last being the only one I'd visited before.

A few surprises

I already knew that many artists were living and working in these neighborhoods. I expected the scene to be young and daring, which it was.

Among my many surprises were: how many artists were involved in communal projects; how many were curating shows; the extent of their educational credentials; and how many locally trained artists living in these neighborhoods were showing their work in art meccas like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles because, as one artist told me, Philadelphia's downtown galleries are hard to crack.

I was also surprised that these outlying galleries weren't being run primarily as business ventures. As their mission statements put it, they want "to revive the enjoyment and practice of creating art for personal fulfillment" and "to bring people together through the arts" (Pterodactyl), and "to support alternative discourses in the contemporary art dialogue" (Fjord).

Financial survival

Pterodactyl doesn't make money, according to co-owner Catherine Dentino, who has a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and an MFA in arts and cultural management from the Pratt Institute. It uses space that she and Paul Yavarone Jr. don't need for Fireball, their digital printing business. As long as Fireball is financially viable, so is Pterodactyl.

Thus they can present whatever they please, "preferring to err," Dentino said, "on the side of the offensive." The current show, "Unconventional Narrative," didn't seem to fit that definition (although we didn't actually see all of the exhibited art).

Sculptor Joseph Leroux curated the show, which included his own work and that of two friends, painter Kyle Coffin and video artist Clark McLean Graham. Leroux (who holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and currently teaches at Moore College of Art) explained how he sought to create something provocative by juxtaposing his, Coffin's and Graham's work.

What he hoped to achieve by these interactions, he said, were "areas of excitement"; his favorite example was his own painted six-foot-long, two-man crosscut saw hanging alongside a small, yearbook-like portrait of a male teenager painted by Coffin. "The portrait is not dangerous," Leroux said, "but putting it next to the saw slaps the viewer around."

I liked Leroux's own work, especially his brick-like blocks faced with brightly colored recycled street signs that he uses in different kinds of constructions. I was less convinced by the integration of the three artists, but I was impressed with Leroux's desire to do more than "make works look pretty on the wall," which is how he described the limited objectives of most gallery owners.

His interest, he said, was in determining the intellectual basis of the show. That got me thinking about how little power artists generally wield in choosing what they show and how they're shown, and ultimately how vulnerable they are.

Living together


Fjord, like Pterodactyl, doesn't need to make money, and its artists are also exploring the power of curating exhibitions. Its eight members rent a house together, and they have turned their street-level space into the exhibition area that is Fjord.

According to Caroline Claflin, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and current MFA candidate at Penn, all of them share an interest in discovering new art and in curating shows.

"Spectator Sport," which is only Fjord's second exhibition, is a collection of art video curated by filmmaker Claflin and painter Sean Robert FitzGerald. Their favorite work is a 23-minute performance by Tonetta, a YouTube drag star from Toronto who accompanies his own sexually explicit songs with highly amusing body moves.

Tonetta has been making this kind of video for 26 years, long before YouTube made self-flaunting so popular. He also gets taken off YouTube regularly, thus certifying his social unacceptability.

According to the curators' written statement about the show, this collection of video "presents the audience with the challenge of accountability." I flunked this particular challenge, having no idea at all what it meant.

Turning trucks into art

The highlight of my evening was an art-for-the-sake-of-fun-and-camaraderie show at the Crane, where Timothy Belknap and Ryan McCartney organized the 2012 Pickup Truck Expo. Seizing on a gap in rentals at the Icebox— the Crane's huge exhibition space— they invited artist friends to turn 16 work vehicles into art.

The actual show took place between 6 and 10 p.m. on Saturday, and the artists were required to create their installation in the 24 hours preceding the opening. We drove up in our Art Safari van as pickup trucks were arriving.

Artist drivers were asked to make a tire print on a large white piece of paper, which was eventually exhibited in the entryway to the show.

Full party mode

I was sufficiently intrigued to return Saturday night to see the finished show and found the Icebox in full party mode. Zach Lindenberger and Jen McTague, founders of Second Street Press— a communal printmaking workshop based in the Crane— made prints for everyone by pushing their pickup onto little platforms holding paper and inked woodcuts.

Kaci Crooks Vecchio of The Sculpture Gym blanketed a 1997 Ford Ranger in contoured crocheted panels; her husband, Chris, whose works deal with people's relationship with technology, created an under-the-hood sculpture that sparked, strobed and exploded. The Vecchios pulled their disparate skills together with a question and answer: "Got an electrical problem? Put on a sweater!"

Ryan McCartney turned the cargo bed of his own pickup into a gallery. Wooden racks held 24 paintings made in the previous 24 hours by McCartney and five other artists: Rebecca Saylor Sack, John Roebas, Dustin Campbell, Christopher Davison and Fabian Lopez.

Paintings for $74.99

Their instant paintings were offered for sale at the non-art-world price of $74.99; prospective buyers could get on the truck to view them, but the paintings were hard to see, since they were both wet and sideways in the racks. I bought one anyway.

McCartney's very simple installation suggested a whole string of things: the scrappiness of an artist's existence; the need for settings where work can be properly exhibited; the commercialism of traditional galleries; and the pressure on artists to make quickly what sells well.

A few days later, I collected my painting of a pickup truck cab at Chris Davison's studio in the Crane. Davison has an MFA from Tyler, teaches courses at both Tyler and the University of the Arts, and is represented by Fred Torres Collaborations in New York and Mark Moore Gallery in Los Angeles. On his wall was a large figural painting, mostly in blue, on which white and orange circular forms were floating. He called it a work in progress, but it was already beautiful.♦


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What, When, Where

Art Safari, www.theartblog.org. Pterodactyl, 3237 Amber St. pterodactylphiladelphia.org. Fjord Project Space, 2419 Frankford Ave. www.FJORDspace.com. Highwire, 2040 Frankford Ave. highwiregallery.com. Part Time Studios, 2031 Frankford Ave. (215) 948 2242 or parttimestudios.com. Crane Arts Building, 1401 N. American St. cranearts.com.

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