“Graffiti” and “ornament” might be contradictions—one seemingly spur-of-the-moment, the other carefully designed and constructed. But it’s that very dichotomy that fascinates in the current site-responsive exhibition Graffiti & Ornament at the Woodlands.
Beyond the graves
The Woodlands (in West Philadelphia) is the site of the Hamilton Mansion, America’s first Federal manor house. It was built in 1766 by William Hamilton (1745-1813), who then “modernized” it in the neoclassical style in the 1780s. Now it sits amid a much-visited Victorian cemetery that adds to the house’s grandeur and impact. Its 54 acres are a popular neighborhood setting for picnics, runners, and walkers (dog and human), and fair-weather outdoor offerings are plentiful (including last fall’s site-specific Fringe Festival production of Mary Rose.)
The buildings are now being revived, so executive director Jessica Baumert and her staff have begun to program indoor offerings—and art fits surprisingly well into the partially renovated interior. Last year they focused on Ben Leech’s drawings, an homage to 20th-century “starchitect” Paul Cret. Now, in concert with Past Present Projects, a group that puts contemporary art in historic spaces, they’ve mounted Graffiti & Ornament.
The exhibition was inspired by a 1876 graffiti inscription discovered carved on the building’s south portico. Working from that detail, independent curator Elizabeth Essner brought together two diverse artists—self-titled “ghetto potter” Roberto Lugo and sculptural glass/neon artist Leo Tecosky. Both men drew on their Philadelphia histories to create site-responsive works displayed in the mansion’s striking oval drawing and dining rooms.
Born in Kensington and now a professor at Tyler School of Art, Lugo (potter, activist, poet, and educator) began his career as a graffiti artist before discovering ceramics. His works tell the story of “my side of Philly,” and this pottery—whether large, small, glazed, or painted—narrates through both decoration and technique. In the dining room is Do you know how hard it is to get a black man through High School (2019), a five-foot, 400-pound painted and matte-glazed vessel (thrown on a wheel, amazingly) that follows the shape of Lugo’s body and echoes Jarring: What’s Within (2019), a life-sized clay self-portrait across the room.
Same Ole’ Crack (2019) is a large vessel adorned with portraits of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring (whom the artist reveres). Lugo’s references are as disparate as Greek amphorae, Victorian pottery, and Meaders face jugs, with urn forms that echo the funerary monuments seen through the venue’s windows. On the dining-room mantel is Dulce (2019), a small chocolate pot ornamented via a complex painting/glazing process and etched in sgraffito, the incised technique from which the word “graffiti” is derived.
Graffiti in glass
Tecosky, who lives and works in Brooklyn, teaches in studios and schools including Tyler. His pieces reflect a life of cultural exchange and travel, but here his inspiration is also family. In these works, whether they are monumental or intimate, the artist has been inspired by his grandmother Evelyn (“Ev”) Rose Tecosky (1925-2017), a lifelong Philadelphia resident whose name appears “tagged” in neon graffiti.
The drawing room houses Tecosky’s monumental Nostalgia Styles (2019), inspired by Ev’s collection of early-20th-century Depression glass. Suspended from a ten-foot-tall specially engineered frame are 28 glass pieces that range from pale lavender to deep purple, referencing the sought-after color of period amethyst glass. This construction sits in the room’s majestic bay window so that light sparkles through and creates shadows on the floor. The hanging pieces, varying in size and shape, are made from rods of black glass that Tecosky melts and manipulates. Blown glass arrows and stars are combined with traditional period cut-glass incising, but they evoke the contemporary movement of graffiti.
Past and present
Curator Essner thoughtfully juxtaposes smaller pieces to speak to the building itself. Tecosky’s glass and neon works are spaced throughout the exhibition. In the drawing room are Lugo’s three earthenware “portrait plates”—edged in mottled black with faces in the center—set on a black marble fireplace with grey rosettes, the present speaking clearly to the past. And in the dining room, you can look up and see Tecosky’s elegant Cameo in Pink (2019), a delicate Victorian-esque ceiling light fixture.
The Woodlands grounds have many paths and trails for easy walking, and free parking is always available along its winding roadways. Recent renovations have made portions of the mansion ADA-compliant. Graffiti & Ornament is installed on the wheelchair-accessible first floor, so all visitors are afforded a look at these unusual and compelling artworks created to “connect Philadelphia’s past to its present in unexpected ways.”
What, When, Where
Graffiti & Ornament. By Roberto Lugo and Leo Tecosky. Through April 28, 2019, at Hamilton Mansion at the Woodlands, 4000 Woodland Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 386-2181 or woodlandsphila.org.
The first floor of Hamilton Mansion is a wheelchair-accessible venue.