You may find yourself…at the Icebox

I heard about the three-person photo show at the Icebox from the curator, Jocelyn Firth, who sent along three intriguing images by Ian Baguskas, John Francis Peters and Thomas Prior to whet the appetite. The photos were people, landscape and architecture shots, one showing two young girls in a clear plastic bubble floating on a river at a water park; one a closeup of sand with foot prints in it; and one an image of a tall building belching smoke from a fire. The theme was travel and discovery and the work seemed not like your normal travel photographs. Philadelphia is a big photography town and I didn’t know the artists and it seems somehow the right move to put on an ambitious photo show in our premier alternative space.

John Francis Peters
John Francis Peters. Red Tourism at the CCP conference site 1935, Zunyi 2007. chromira c-print. 29×36″

But wait, I thought, a photo show in the huge, high-ceilinged concrete box that is the Icebox–how could that work? I wondered if the photos would get swallowed whole in a space that is fabulous for sculpture and installation but can be difficult for small wall works. I’m happy to report that the show looks great and the medium-sized photographs — some framed and some floating on the walls without glass or visible framing — hold the space beautifully. Partly it’s the large number of works — around 50 in all, split among the three artists. Partly it’s the subjects: all three artists have good eyes for drama, color and the unexpected moment. And partly it’s the scale of the works — large enough to pull you in from across the room and interesting enough to keep you there once you’re up close.

John Francis Peters, 30, who lives in upstate New York, traveled to China where he took photos in Guizhou province, a place where the contradictions of old and new, communism and capitalism live side by side. Peters’ photos focus on people who are ribbon-bedecked for celebrations or, my favorite, a woman security guard dressed in a uniform and posing with a statue of Chairman Mao. Because the focus is so much on the people the travel photo genre is subverted and the result is far edgier — and meatier — than National Geographic.

Thomas Prior
Thomas Prior. Hotel Fire, Nevada, 2008. chromira c-print 30×37″

My favorite photos were those by the Brooklyn-based Thomas Prior, 29, whose travels while working for a fashion photographer took him and his camera to locales from Las Vegas to France. His capture of three house or building fires unintentionally evokes both the nightly news — fires, fires everywhere — and the weird and compelling beauty of tragedy. These serendipitous “right place at the right time” photos don’t have the flavor of journalism — they make the flames and black or white smoke beautiful, highlighting them, in one case, against a beautiful blue sky, and in another, showcased like a dramatic foil for a massive hotel that looms like a canyon wall and anchors the bottom half of the shot.

Thomas Prior
Thomas Prior. Dogs, Utah, 2003. chromira c-print 30×40″

Prior is a great snapshot shooter–and I mean that as a compliment. These photos, and one of two dogs playing or fighting in the show are outstanding. The curve of the earth in the dog photo and the snow flakes falling imbues the whole thing with a snow globe affect that’s magical and dreamy. The artist also has an affinity for the dramatic–and knows some special affects to make it happen. His shot of a smoking barbeque grill in a New Jersey backyard stopped me in my tracks. How did that windswept cloud of white in the grill occur…and why? Firth told me the artist threw gunpowder on the coals — something only a special effects person, or someone drawn to photograph such things would ever consider doing.

Thomas Prior. Barbeque, New Jersey, 2005. chromira c-print. 30x37"
Thomas Prior. Barbeque, New Jersey, 2005. chromira c-print. 30×37″

Ian Baguskas’ photos are beautiful and respectful scenes of nature up close or from afar. Mostly, the works document the land and not people but one work by the Brooklyn artist (and son of Philadelphia painter Eugene Baguskas)stood out as a description of a place — and as a portrait of two people in the space. The photo made me love it at first sight.

Ian Baguskas
Ian Baguskas. Chaps, Sea Lion Caves, Oregon, 2006. chromira c-print. 20×25″

Everyone’s probably been at some kind of lookout with a coin-operated binoculars ready to spring to attention when fed with money. These two tourists, probably motorcycle riders judging from their leather and chaps, are nestled together in the lookout and the composition with its balance and its piercing, holy light just beyond the viewing box is stunning in simplicity and grace.

I emailed curator Jocelyn Firth to find out more about the show before I went and here’s what she said about who she is and how the show came to be. I’m very excited that there’s a new young talented and ambitious curator in town. She’s got a vision and she worked amazingly hard to bring this sophisticated show into being.

Roberta: I’m intrigued with the idea of the show but want to know more, like your connection to the artists.
Jocelyn: Ian Baguskas and I went to Friends Select together. He even took me to his senior prom almost 12 years ago. But we hadn’t seen one another for at least a decade when we started talking about doing a project together. John Francis Peters and I met through longtime friend and local artist Molly Mullahy. Thomas Prior, Baguskas and Peters were all living and working in Brooklyn at the time, and became somewhat of an artist collective or photography support group, if you will.

Roberta: Are you a Philadelphia artist/curator?
Jocelyn: I was born and raised in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and went to Friends Select on the Parkway. So I have always had the best of both worlds, city and suburb.

This exhibition represents my curatorial debut in Philadelphia. In 2005, I received a post graduate diploma in Modern and contemporary art from Christie’s and Cambridge in London.

After that I teamed up with two girlfriends from my course and we started The Jill Project, representing artists in Moscow, London, Philadelphia, and Geneva. Together, we put on the ‘Bodylicous’ in Geneva in March, 2006. For the last year and a half, I’ve been working at Freeman’s auction. I’m so excited to be getting back into curating, and in my home town nonetheless.

John Francis Peters, Thomas Prior, Jocelyn Firth, Ian Baguskas
Picture of the artists and curator at the opening reception. From left to right:
John Francis Peters, Thomas Prior, Jocelyn Firth, Ian Baguskas. Photo by Christopher Gabello

R: How did the show come about?
J: In August, 2006 I was co-curating Molly Mullahy’s exhibition ‘The Flock: Birds To Go’ at Esque Eyewear in Old City. I went over to her apartment one day to work on the show, and on a small wall leading into the lounge was this crisp, striking photograph of a mangy dog drinking from a big puddle with a multi colored, dilapidated shack in the background. The entire scene was perfectly reflected in the puddle – total mirror image, and the piece was captivating. I asked her who the artist was and she casually said: ‘Oh, that’s JP.’ It turned out to be a work from a series that John Francis Peters did on the aftermath of a Hurricane in Granada. I gave her my card to give him at a party in NY she was going to that weekend. Peters emailed me the next week. We met in September, 2006 at the Soho Grand in NY, and over two really tall iced teas, Peters’ portfolio and test prints; the idea for a show in Philly was born. When I learned that he was working closely with Ian Baguskas and Thomas Prior, and we all got together to layout ideas, it was clear that it would make an incredible group show.

R: Why the Icebox?
J: I had the opportunity to work with Lewis Wexler on a design sale at Freeman’s in May, 2007. We met one afternoon about my exhibition, and he suggested the Crane Arts Ice Box for the venue. After putting in a call on my behalf, it turned out that they had an opening from February to March, 2008. I went down to meet Nick (Kripal) and Chris (Davison), presented the proposal, and here we are 8 months later.

The space, massive as it is, is really the perfect venue to show these three series. There will be 48 prints in total ranging in size from 20 x 24 to 40 x 50. Peters has 20 prints from his trip to China, Baguskas has 15 from his travels through the US, and Prior has roughly 13 – he is deciding on 2 possible additions – from his travels all around the world with fashion photographer Luis Sanchis (who he worked with for the better part of 8 years).

This project is two years in the making, and I’m so excited to finally be showing these artists to our vibrant and evolving arts community.

The show’s up through March 16th, 2008, at The Ice Box, located at 1400 N American St. Philadelphia, PA. The hours of exhibition are Wednesday through Sunday 12 – 6pm.