A city as a catalyst

The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents ‘New Grit: Art & Philly Now’

6 minute read
The threshold to the new gallery: Odili Donald Odita’s ‘Walls of Change.’ (Image courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.)
The threshold to the new gallery: Odili Donald Odita’s ‘Walls of Change.’ (Image courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.)

There’s a lot to see before you ever get to New Grit: Art & Philly Now, the inaugural contemporary exhibit in the heart of Philadelphia Museum of Art’s massive redesign conceived by Frank Gehry. Known as the core project, it has expanded space for art, reopened spaces not seen for decades, and created breathtaking new vistas for visitors.

Take the newest scenic route. Enter the museum at street level from Kelly Drive and stroll a daylit vaulted walkway spanning the building, a path not traversed by the public in 50 years. At its midpoint, ascend by a glass and stone staircase that rises in two seashell curves, arriving on the first floor, between new galleries for early American and contemporary art.

Changing walls

Odili Donald Odita’s Walls of Change (2021) serves as the threshold to the 10,000-square-foot gallery devoted to New Grit. An abstract herringbone of 65 colors wraps the corridor, which offers multiple points of entry and, on the outer wall, long hidden windows overlooking Rocky’s iconic skyline view. The tableau, and the location’s significance, inspired Odita as he worked on the mural last summer. He recognized it as a “backdrop…where regular people were coming to make their statements in Philadelphia and to the world.” Odita compared citizens’ use of the art museum steps to his use of paper or clay, a framework for “aesthetic activity and inquiry.”

The mural is one of five new commissions in New Grit, which “celebrates and champions the Philadelphia art scene,” said Erica Battle, associate curator of contemporary art. Battle was one of five on the curatorial team that combined expertise in contemporary art, craft, and decorative art; costume and textiles; and photography. Together, they created a list of 125 possible artists and narrowed it to 25, the only inviolable requirement being that those considered had somehow been influenced by the city.

Philadelphia is the prompt but not the theme, stressed Peter Barberie, curator of photographs. Artists may be natives, live or work here, have attended school or done a project here, or may simply have been inspired by this place. Works representing many media are arranged in loosely themed groups that flow one into the next.

Enter the cosmos

The bright entry passage enables visitors to vary their course, but those who begin at the beginning of New Grit first see works under the theme of “Cosmos,” evoking a sense of time, wonder, and the eternal. Pieces by Jane Irish, Mi-Kyoung Lee, and Howardena Pindell require visitors to “to stand and take the works in,” said Dilys Blum, senior curator of costume and textiles.

Pindell’s mixed-media works come closest to a literal depiction of the theme. Songlines: Cosmos (2017) is an irregular assemblage of canvas strips, neatly stitched together, resembling a well-magnified amoeba in the process of splitting. Its surface is studded with fabric Easter eggs, colored paper-punch dots, and translucent tokens, the kind used on bingo cards.

Irish’s ruminations on American involvement in the Vietnam War are depicted in three large works, including the mind-bending, masterfully rendered Resistance Ceiling, record (2019), a representation of a 1970 war protest from the perspective of one lying on the ground.

For Lee, art is as much about process as completion. For Thread Drawing (2015), she unspooled pink sewing thread and arranged it on the floor atop a circle of silk organza. It looks as if a ballerina has pirouetted out of her tutu. On a nearby wall, from twist and zip ties Lee cultivated a marsh of undulating grass in Yellow Forest 2 (2017).

Mapping the heart

Works gathered under the rubrics “Crossing Boundaries” and “Encounter and Exchange” represent similar ideas: negotiating interpersonal, cultural, and geographic divides.

Roberto Lugo’s art spans pottery, activism, and spoken word, all of which are evident in Do you know how hard it is to get a black man through high school? (2019). A Chinese export-style ceramic jar depicts Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teen fatally shot in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Missouri, igniting nationwide protests. In the gallery, it faces a life-size cast of the artist, Self-Portrait as Street (2019). The resemblance between the two is noticeable. “I wanted to express the feeling of seeing someone who looks like yourself whose life has been taken away,” Lugo said. “I wanted it to be life-sized to help the viewer find themselves confronted with my reality.”

Kukuli Velarde uses cultural symbols to comment on struggles between Indigenous Incans and Spanish Catholic colonizers in her native Peru. In religious festival banners and sculptures, Velarde infuses the trappings of conquest with an ironic, pre-Columbian perspective. A warrior astride his horse peers through a too-tiny mask, St. Barbara grins like a carnival character, a weary king balances on his throne, head propped on a fist, and cherubs give one another side-eye.

Daniel Traub photographs unknown places near and far. His Little North Road series (2009-14) plunges into the busy streets of Guangzhou China, a gateway for immigrants, while North Philadelphia (2008-13), reveals the quiet dignity of people in a neighborhood too often defined by sad statistics. Traub knows the area well; his mother, artist Lily Yeh, founded The Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia.

“A catalyst for creativity”

It’s impossible to document New Grit succinctly, except to say that the curators, who include Elizabeth Agro, curator of American modern and contemporary craft and decorative arts, and Kathryn B. Hiesinger, senior curator, European decorative arts, in addition to Barberie, Battle, and Blum, have made their point.

From photographers Eileen Neff and Micah Danges’s collaborative installation, to Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s multifaceted cinematic work Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic (2014), to Ken Lum’s fascinating series Necrology (2017/2021), which probes the effect of text presentation on the reception and interpretation of information, to dancer/choreographer Nichole Canuso’s interactive work The Garden: Invisible Branches (2020-21), in which preregistered audience participants are guided through galleries, New Grit overwhelmingly demonstrates that Philadelphia is, as Battle said, a “catalyst for creativity.”

Whether it’s outsider mentality, the underdog self-image, an acerbic outlook, rebellious roots, working-class pride, or something in the wooder, Philadelphia is an inspirational wellspring for creative souls who come within range. The rest of us get to enjoy the results.

Image description: A photo of long, wide hallway where Odili Donald Odita’s Walls of Change is installed. The floor-to-ceiling mural seems to have vertical pillars made of bright multicolored diamond shapes.

Image description: A photo of Roberto Lugo’s Do you know how hard it is to get a black man through high school? It’s a ceramic jar decorated in blue, red, and gold around Michael Brown’s face. He’s wearing a graduation cap.

What, When, Where

New Grit: Art & Philly Now. Through August 22, 2021, at the main building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. 215-763-8100 or philamuseum.org.

Covid safety: Currently, tickets must be reserved in advance online for timed entry to control the number of visitors. All staff and all visitors over age 2 must wear a face mask and practice social distancing. Hand sanitizer units are available throughout the building, and high-touch surfaces are cleaned throughout the day. Detailed information is available on the museum's website.

The PMA is a wheelchair-accessible building. Complete accessibility information is available here.

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