West Philadelphia looking is good

Art in West Philadelphia is blooming with the early flowers of this super-heated spring, partially thanks to the mix of artists who are making a trip to the farmer’s market or the cafe turn into a bohemian rhapsody.

The gallery at the University City Arts League is offering up more lively, more sophisticated fare lately thanks to some new leadership. Fortieth Street Artists in Residence continues to percolate with an occasional good show and on-campus Penn-related galleries, often unengaged in the local wealth of the city art scene, are heading for homeplate.

Michael, Konrad, Reign Free, 2012, umbrella canopies, tarp, tent poles, zippers, velcro

At Fortieth Street AIR, which is always engaged with Philadelphia artists, the gallery this month, is graced by work from current resident-artist Michael Konrad. He is continuing his exploration of survival in the decaying urban ecosystem with an installation built around a tent and pennant festoons all made from recycled umbrella canopies. This is where dead umbrellas go to die!

Michael Konrad’s black pennants are the anti-matter of used car lot decorations

The tent itself is a beauty, with its pied harlequin pattern, which also gets high points for its craftsmanship. The pennants, normally bright and festive, are in black mourning–no doubt the most available color in umbrella detritus tossed onto city streets.
Konrad’s work is witty. A startling photograph of old tires jammed into a broken wall is printed on a grommeted tarp. I wonder what Mr. Destructo, Gordon Matta-Clark, would think. Another tarp printed with a brick wall combines with real bricks to create more visiual and material confusion while it comments on the crumbling walls around us and the will of people to survive in these surviving urban spaces.

Michael Konrad, A Temporary Fix, archival inkjet on grommeted Tyvek

For all that, there is a static quality to Konrad’s work, as if the impulse that makes him so carefully construct things holds him back from going wild. Perhaps this is why I like the pennants, which hang in variably spaced swags from the ceiling. They suggest the disappointment of living in a world without color.

Konrad isn’t the only artist thinking about umbrellas in West Philadelphia. Slought Foundation, another organization that got its start with support from the nearby university,  got populist with a pair of interactive performances at 40th and Walnut Streets,  by Chinese artists Huang Rui and Ko Siu Lan on March 16.  Huang’s,, the I Ching, involved umbrellas, time, and group participation. Here’s the writeup of the umbrella event on I wasn’t there (wish I had been), so I’m not going to describe it myself.  Ko also has a campus-wide signage project up to the end of April that explores how meaning gets lost in translation between languages and cultures. Wish I had a map! Documentation of the artists’ performances are up at the gallery through April 20.

Marina Borker, Crystal Ball, stained glass, slush glass

At the venerable University City Arts League, the show West Philly Abstraction, looks anything but old. Douglas Witmer, himself a West Philadelphia abstractionist and a pillar of the neighborhood’s art scene, curated the show with seven other West Philadelphia artists plus himself–all representatives of the neighborhood’s current demographics. Don’t let the neighborhood focus fool you into thinking this is a show to pass on. Here’s who else is in it: Todd Keyser, Caroline Letham Santa, Alice Oh, Marina Borker, Robert Goodman, Tremain Smith, and Paul King.

TremainSmith ThoughtWave20111
Tremain Smith, Thought-Wave, 2011, oil and wax on panel, 24 inches square
ToddKeyser Cave
Todd Keyser, Cave 01, ,2010, acrylic on Digital print, 22 x 30 inches

My personal take-home choices were Borker’s shifty stained glass objects and Smith’s encaustic paintings of geometries that suggest mysterious spaces. I also am still thinking about Todd Keyser, who is staging a fight between the photographic natural world and material–painted marks on photographic images. But I could have argued for a number of other works in the show.

Wendy Wolf, courtesy Green Line Cafe (Locust Street location)

Witmer is also a pillar of the neighborhood’s coffee scene, as part-owner of the three Green Line cafes, which are currently showing work by Thomasin Parnes (43rd & Baltimore), Wendy Wolf (Locust Street) and Justin Froehlich (Powelton). If you need to choose one to visit, choose Wolf.  The cafes have 18 exhibits a year in total.  Check the website for end dates.

Shelley Spector, World Wide Temperatures, Worldwide Temperatures, reclaimed fabric, thread and wood

At EKG/Breadboard, the closing event for Shelley Spector’s show Dreck Groove is a stitch-in, with everyone invited to bring their knitting, sewing, etc., while Spector demonstrates the high-tech sewing machine she has been using. The event  is Sunday March 25 from 1-3PM.
There’s more on the Penn Campus, and sometimes the Drexel Campus, too. I mention this especially because the ICA and Arthur Ross Gallery both have some work by Philadelphia artists in their spaces–and that’s something to celebrate.