Queries, or queer eyes, as the show’s organizer, Blaise Tobia, pronounced the title when I visited, gathers human-centric works — mostly photographic — that take you on an exploration of the world. It’s a quirky trip, led by five able and idiosyncratic artist-explorers. And as Tobia says in his curator’s statement …”these works function…in a way that I wish more art functioned — playful, but by no means trivial; evocative rather than didactic; formally astute but not self-satisfied.”
Photos of two personal collections — toy soldiers and toy cars — by Thomas Gartside mark one highlight. Presented in a gridsof images, the soldiers read as a class picture of a small combat unit after some particularly nasty battle. Who knew that toy soldiers’ facial features were so individuated?
Gartside’s car photos — also presented in a grid — evoke macho car commercials, with cars highlighted on the open road in that great American dream of driving into the sunset. Some of them are parked on mountaintops suggesting happy camping and fishing trips — stability, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness. Toys have always been things to dream with and these two groups of photos allow you to think about how those dreams begin in childhood and often get smashed later in life.
Blaise Tobia’s photos are great examples of how language can be our ally or foil. Tobia, who teaches at Drexel, has a great eye for the small moments of urban existence. Here, he’s got works that are as loose and fresh as snapshots and that betoken a journey through many cities, camera ready for the odd bit. Here, the odd bits are signage– more specifically signage using language in which words become something funny or odd — something that will make you smile.
Humor is idiosyncratic, but language humor (puns, malapropisms, etc) generally strike home. My first guffaw came in the toast photo, obviously taken in the toast-obsessed UK. The toast-heavy menu seems like a prop from a Monty Python movie — you can imagine the skit. The photo of the dead-earnest sign reminded me of my own introduction in Dublin to the then-staple of Irish cuisine, beans on toast, which was an incomprehensible combination to me but a winning combination for many.
Two other photos by Tobia fit together like photographic haikus — REALITY scene with the small parking lot in mid day sun presumably somewhere deep in the American West and the DESPAIR scene with two dispirited men flanking an ominous-looking open portal. Funny yes and gates-of-hell spooky.
Rounding out the show are John Woodin’s elegiac photos of forlorn looking post-Katrina New Orleans houses; Virginia Maksymowicz’s small plaster sculptures made with plaster left over from larger casting projects; and mixed-media prints of a scribble-scrabble stick figure by Dan Loewenstein. They all suggest human vulnerability — especially the tiny child’s hand by Maksymowicz — cast from a mold of a real baby’s hand. The little appendage sitting alone on a small high pedestal is heart-breaking).
All in all, the show is great to look at and ponder; the space (Art on the Avenue Gallery, 3808 Lancaster Ave) is lovely and large; and the whole package is a wonderful introduction to what hopefully will be a new arts corridor to rival Frankford Ave, which it resembles with its funky mix of run-down industrial, commercial and residential space.
The other stop I made on Lancaster Ave was at Projects Gallery (3820), group show downstairs organized by Randy Dalton of “Do Blue” fame; upstairs the installation by Carolyn Healy and John Phillips. The space is a work in progress, a big house (and one-time church) being slowly rehabbed. And the raw unsheetrocked-walls and beamed ceiling of the second-floor space is perfect for Healy-Phillips’ ghostly immersive sound, light and sculptural piece. This installation (like Tobia’s signage photos) has to do with language, and perception.
The audio is a distorted voice reading from Joyce’s language-connundrum Finnegan’s Wake; which perfectly merges with the floating sculptural letters suspended on monofilament and floating in the room. The video, which is abstract and mesmerizing, casts its moving otherworldly light over the space like virtual mercury, sliding up and down the monofilament and licking at the hanging object in persistent waves of light. It’s a totally mesmerizing piece and one that seems alive with movement, although the only moving part is virtual — the video image. It’s a piece to linger in and let your senses imbibe.
The group show in the first floor and the basement is worth a look, and don’t miss the dramatic toy installation by Dalton and a collaborator (whose name I forget — please put it in the comments someone) in what used to be an old oven — it’s a great little spectacle! This exhibit, Queries and the Healy-Phillips installation are part of Look! on Lancaster Ave., a collaboration of the city, Drexel University, the University City District and the People’s Emergency Center. It’s all about bringing new energy to the post-industrial corridor through the use of art — a great idea. Check the Look! website for more art action on the Avenue.