Fair’s fair and Purveegiin’s fine

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You’ve heard of concept-driven art. Well, just in case you wondered, “Art Philadelphia,” the indoor art fair at the Convention Center last weekend, was frame-driven.

Putting the gilt before the art is not my idea of serious. But, to paraphrase, “It’s the sales, stupid,” and, like it or not, there seemed to be lots of happy shoppers in the hall the day I went.

Two Philadelphia galleries I consider serious — Seraphin and Sande Webster — participated. I never made it to Webster, but when I spotted Tony Seraphin at his booth, he was almost too busy to talk. Works were flying off the chain links. Of course, Seraphin was showing Ab-Ex painter Grace Hartigan and Leon Golub in addition to locals Paul Cava, Sandra Flood and Phoebe Adams, all heavy hitters apparently mowing down the competition.

The always-quotable Seraphin said it was a shot in the dark to throw in his lot with the fair. “When I first walked in (and saw the rest of the exhibitors) I thought ‘I’m out of here,’” said Seraphin. But he stayed and told me he had sold a lot (a Victor Vazquez portfolio, a Sandra Flood painting (see image) , a couple of Hartleys). “I just hope they do a little editing of who’s in here next year,” was his parting shot.

My real reason for being there was to meet Mongolian artist Batsaihan Purveegiin. Purveegiin, 37, emailed me about some great story he had to tell me. (I’d written about the artist in 2000 for the Weekly but I had not met him.)

The artist’s got a gallery now, Gallery 911 at Revsin Custom Picture Framing on 9th and Arch. When I arrived, he was sitting in the gallery’s booth, dressed in his grandfather’s Mongolian costume and working on a new, cut-paper piece (see horse image).

You have to know the artist’s back story to understand how amazing it is that he’s got a gallery, something that seems so normal but for him is revolutionary.

Purveegiin came to New York in 1991– on scholarship — to study at the Art Students League. He had trouble with English and got into some financial and maybe political trouble, too. (Details are a little unclear, something about protesting his country’s actions at the NY consulate. His country is known for human rights violations. See State Department report.) What followed was a bout of depression, loss of scholarship, then homelessness, and, the corker, imprisonment for 19 months in various INS detention centers. He was released by a sympathetic judge who found that if he was deported he would be in danger in his homeland. The case is pending.

The artist arrived in Philadelphia in 1999, lived in St. John’s Hospice for men and was helped by a number of homeless advocacy groups. For the last two years, he’s lived in an apartment and made a living for himself by selling his art. His Philadelphia gallery debut was in a Coalition Ingenue exhibit in 2000 at Project Home.

Purveegiin’s new story is that he’s become an activist on behalf of Mongolian orphans. He is raising money through sales of a children’s book, “The Baby Horse, a Smart Rabbit and an Angry Gray Wolf,” based on a Mongolian folk tale. The book, which is spiral-bound and sells for $12, was published with the help of Journey Home, a homeless advocacy group. Purveegiin says there are 6,000 homeless street children in Ulaan Bator, Mongolia’s capitol city. It’s a hard number to verify, but child homelessness is a fact in Mongolia (see that state department report).

The book, available at Gallery 911, is a kind of Mongolian “Brer Rabbit.” The artist’s watercolor illustrations are sweet and based on traditional Mongolian folk art — mountains in the background, lots of stylized animals.

Because Purveegiin has found friends and people he can trust in Philadelphia, he now incorporates things like the Love statue and the Philadelphia skyline in his cut-paper drawings (see image). It makes you smile to see Liberty Place given the same treatment as a Mongolian snow lion.

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