By Diana Jih
Apart from being well-timed, Mat Tomezsko’s exhibition, Danger Danger Danger Danger, at the first First Friday at Danger! Danger!, marked this DIY gallery as the perfect site for celebrating the currents of the West Philly arts scene. Sound checks deep in the cellar and the smell of snacks help guide you into the gallery space after hiking up and tumbling down a tunnel stairway and ducking under graffitied ceilings. The best-lit slice of pizza I’ve ever seen, a cup of wine, and Tomezsko’s portraits greet you as you round the corner from the stairs to meet your friends inside.
Many viewers experience an instant of recognition when confronted with Tomeszko’s portraits of mostly West Philly locals. Some guests even know the subjects—“hey, that’s Adam’s roommate”—not surprisingly, as Tomezsko explained to me that many of them were photographed from a previous concert in the same space. Seated in a backseat, previously removed from a van, on the side of the room where the portraits now hang, Tomezsko took photos of attendees to one of the many DIY concerts that Danger! Danger! and neighboring Younglove’s frequently host. He turned those photos into the bulk of the vibrant portraits he now returns to Danger! Danger! That First Friday, the gallery and its neighbor invited guests to participate in a video documentary of the show and its subsequent concert, featuring several local bands and pals of the space. This zeitgeist-ey evening stuffed as much West Philly community spirit into two appealingly ramshackle basements as possible. The exhibition was West Philly, captured in time-capsule.
Integral to the honesty and strength of the portraits is Tomezsko’s embrace of the materials—spray paint, oil, and acrylic on found particle board. He describes their use as a “commitment to an idea” of the community, which provides him with subjects and materials from the street.
In pieces like “Storm Cloud Handlebar,” with unhidden chunks of particle board shining through, or “Hipster Chick,” which simply features wood framed by one white stripe, he highlights the canvas and its scars.
“Rainbow Child,” one of the few subjects Tomezsko sought out from the neighborhood instead of finding at the space, reveals the particle board surface as one of the colorful stripes in the background. You can see why he chose such a vivid subject – dress and features hold their own against the most rainbow-spectacular of backgrounds in this grouping of portraits. The other pieces appear more subdued to match their grittier, though still multi-hued, color schemes. In a room full of West Philly individuals, the colors of the pieces pull from the crowd and pop off the wall. This parallels Tomezsko’s extraction of subjects and materials from the community, which he gives right back with a blatant honesty that he hopes comes off as both “upbeat” and “silly.”
As a newcomer to the neighborhood and prior to chatting with Tomezsko, I wall-flowered between boxes of free-flowing Franzia and delicious soft pretzels, and wondered if pieces named “Boy with a Wolf Shirt” and “Vegan Cheeseburger” might not be jabbing at the crowd. However, the bareness of the materials and ultimate treatment of the hipster glasses, wolf shirt, and their wearers allow the viewer to feel less self-conscious and also happier about letting these timely urban distinctions try to define a place. Tomezsko believes that both the wood he finds and the community he finds himself in are “not things you need to fix-up” to make beautiful. Although there are elements of solemnity in the observation of all the subjects, owing to their mostly diverted gazes, this attitude feels most pervasive in two portraits from New Orleans, “Kids Grow Up Gone.” He adds them partially to “remind us that not everywhere is here,” while treating them with the same tender documentation without “judgment.”
Tomezsko said that both the wood he finds and the community he finds himself in are “not things you need to fix-up” to make beautiful. His raw exposure of West Philly gritterati in these times echoes Patti Smith’s poloroids of friends and lovers in the time when they were all just kids.
The spray and acrylic paint, along with the stenciling, serendipitously spill over from the “system of painting” Tomezsko is currently exploring in his still-under-wraps street art projects. I look forward to seeing these and other West Philly projects all over the city. However, I’m also excited to return to Danger! Danger!, where Tomezsko and other artists will now have second and third First Fridays to come.