Ancient History of the Distant Future, now at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), has the incendiary potential of Thanksgiving dinner with the family.
PAFA curator Jodi Throckmorton has assembled a multigenerational clan consisting of esteemed pieces from the museum’s permanent collection and contemporary works from the arts group KADIST in its first Philly-based collaboration (Throckmorton teams with KADIST curator Joseph del Pesco). Will the works sit in uncomfortable silence? Engage in stiffly polite conversation? Quarrel? Or enjoy each other’s company? Like dinner guests who aren’t part of the family, we can relax and see what happens.
Scale the Historic Landmark Building staircase and look for the big pink hand clasping a red doughnut. This is Alex Da Corte’s mobile phone photograph Street View (Hoagiefest) (2019), installed as a mural surrounding Thomas Birch’s seascape Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie (c. 1814). The doughnut, iced with Wawa logos, rises over the War of 1812 like a huge sugary sun.
Where the present hangs with the past
Da Corte’s photo and Birch’s painting seem a strange pair, but consider their bond, fealty for home. Birch’s patriotism is displayed in stars and stripes fluttering from American ships, and Da Corte celebrates an event indelibly linked to Philadelphia and Independence Day. One quibble, though: doughnuts? As a Camden native and a University of the Arts graduate, Da Corte must know that Wawa is all about the coffee.
The encounter is more sobering between Minerva Cuevas’s The End (2016) and William Trost Richards’s Old Ocean’s Gray and Melancholy Waters (1885). The paintings could be the first and last frames in a time-lapse film about despoiled seas. Despite its title, Melancholy Waters is a serene seaside at sunset. Cuevas’s work is far sadder: an oily patch obscures a quarter of The End, dripping off the canvas in gooey black folds. The artist dipped the painting in chapopote, sort of a liquefied tar, and produced an effect that’s all too familiar along 21st-century coastlines.
Hall of mirrors
Some of the contemporary works are self-contained, at once recounting and commenting on the past. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s multimedia installation Double-Take: Leader of the Syrian Revolution Commanding a Charge (2014) involves digital prints, an 11-minute video, and a story, voiced by the artist. It seems a wealthy Syrian purchased a home in the English countryside. A great admirer of Britain, the Syrian nevertheless wanted to incorporate his heritage into the manor, which was decorated with traditional British art. So he commissioned a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Officer of the Chasseurs Commanding a Charge (1812) with one change: the focal point, a French officer on horseback, was replaced with a Syrian sultan who’d led the Great Syrian Revolt against the French early in the 20th century. So Double-Take is actually a triple-take: Hamdan interpreting the Syrian’s interpretation of Géricault’s original.
Similarly, Enrique Chagoya’s Return to Goya’s Caprichos (1999) is a late 20th-century callback to Los Caprichos (1797-98), 80 etchings in which Francisco Goya expressed contempt for the whims (caprichos) of Spanish society. Chagoya depicts 1990s themes in Goya’s style, as in De que mal morirá?/Of What Ill Will He Die? which depicts Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary whose every illness set off a death watch. Other caprichos feature Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky, a Ku Klux Klansman, and Jerry Falwell with his nemesis, the gay Teletubby Tinky Winky.
Nothing to see here
Carla Zaccagnini’s contribution looks unfinished. For Elements of Beauty (2012/2014), she taped off 29 blank quadrangles on the gallery wall, implying the presence of works damaged a century ago by British women demonstrating for equality, including the vote. An audio guide provides information on the missing works. Elements of Beauty takes its name from suffragist Mary Richardson, who, after slashing Diego Velasquez’s Venus at Her Mirror in London’s National Gallery, said, “Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.”
Matthew Buckingham is also interested in disappearing art, but instead of a knife his weapon is nature, which in a half-million years is predicted to erase the American presidents carved into Mount Rushmore, a South Dakota peak Native Americans call The Six Grandfathers. Buckingham’s The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa in the Year 502,002 C.E. (2002) consists of a timeline and digital print spanning 66.5 million years, from the formation of the Black Hills (Paha Sapa in Siouhan), through centuries of betrayal, displacement, and genocide inflicted on Native peoples by European explorers and American expansionists. Six Grandfathers culminates in a time when wind, rain, and erosion will have reduced Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt to featureless orbs.
With Ancient History of the Distant Future, PAFA transforms itself into a meta museum, opening the grand doors to influences unknown at the institution’s 1805 founding. With the advantage of hindsight, contemporary artists can consider their elders’ work, the context in which it was created, and all that’s happened since. Not long from now, their work will join the ongoing archive, to be considered by artists not yet born. And the conversation will continue about what art is, where it belongs, and how we respond to it across time.
What, When, Where
Ancient History of the Distant Future. Through February 2, 2020, at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Historic Landmark Building, 118-128 North Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 972-7600 or pafa.org.
PAFA's Historic Landmark Building is accessible through a street-level elevator in the rear of the building. Staff or security will greet visitors and assist them in accessing the museum's front lobby and passenger elevator. An accessible and family-friendly restroom is located on the second floor. Wheelchairs are available to borrow at no charge on a first-come basis at the front desk. Large-print materials are provided at the front desk. Tours for those with special needs are available. Personal-care attendants are admitted without charge, and service animals are welcome.