Begin Where You Are at the Icebox – A great chunky Philadelphia roundup

Roberta gets reminded of a previous show when she sees Begin Where You Are, a generous gift to the Philadelphia community. -- the artblog editors

In 2002, Jeremiah Misfeldt curated an emerging artist show,  Greater Philadelphia, which happened at around the same time as MoMA-PS1’s inaugural Greater New York and was clearly a response — take that New York.  Jeremiah was then acting Exhibition Coordinator at Moore College of Art and Design, and the show was in both the Paley and Levy Galleries at Moore. Greater Philadelphia was excellent — big, rowdy, and unexpected. And it affirmed for me what I had been seeing in the alternative gallery scene, that Philly earth was shifting and some new critical mass of young artists was changing the scene.

text about a show from 2002 in Philadelphia
Postcard from Greater Philadelphia, 2002, courtesy of Jeremiah Misfeldt

A show that takes the pulse of the Philadelphia art scene

I bring this short-lived and now much forgotten show to your attention because Begin Where You Are at the Icebox Project Space, while not intended as a chutzpah-fueled challenge to New York, reminds me of Greater Philadelphia — a celebration of talent and an announcement of excellence among us and more to come.  As one of a very small number of curated roundups that we’ve had over the years it’s the closest thing to a Philadelphia Biennial to arise since 2002. I’ve always said there should be a Philadelphia Biennial and I still think that. I hope Begin begins that discussion anew. Someone should seriously underwrite a Biennial, or Annual, or Triennial right now and keep it going.

A clean, beautiful aesthetic

gallery installation with high walls, sculpture and 1 painting on the wall
Installation shot of 12 ft. walls. Quentin Morris (rear wall), Paul Swenbeck (floor, front) Linda Yun (floor, rear)

Begin is a show with a clean aesthetic.  It’s austere. Work hangs in an Icebox made labyrinthian with 12 ft. high partition walls that create sight-lines like a giant house of cards or dominoes ready to go over.  The aesthetic is pleasing to the eye — each piece is hung like a chunk unto itself, a soloist in the choir with plenty of room to sing out its part.


Whimsy is always welcome

black paper sculpture on a pedestal.
Linda Yun, “soft warm stars and silent thunder,” 2014, paper, flour, 28x47x39.5″

There’s some humor and whimsy, which is good.  My favorite piece, by Linda Yun, is the poetically-titled “soft warm stars and silent thunder” 2014, a stack of black paper on which white flour has been carefully daubed to evoke a chocolate-cake slice of the midnight sky. Truly beautiful and satisfying is the combination of kitchen matter with art matter and thoughts about nature and the universe. It can make you laugh and ponder.

Emphasis on craftsmanship

gallery with paintings, video on the wall and painting on the floor
Begin Where You Art Installation. Micah Danges (floor), Tyler Kline, Sarah Gamble (rear wall), Kevin Finklea, Virgil Marti (right wall)

Everything seems highly crafted in this exhibit, which might not represent the entirety of Philadelphia emerging art, but maybe it’s not far off either — we do have 5 art schools here and many of the artists are graduates — and art schools still emphasize the well crafted over the messy.  And perhaps the path from Jason Rhoades leads inevitably back to craftsmanship.

white sculpture on a white wall
Dechemia, “Across” 2014, Hydrocal plaster, paper, 18x38x2″
big black round painting on a wall
Quentin Morris, July 2012, silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, 72×27″

From Quentin Morris’s pristine and inky black portholes on the walls to Dechemia’s equally pristine white chunks of Hydrocal plaster and Virgil Marti’s chrome-plated anti-mirrors the crafting is gorgeous and considered, and the concepts range from spiritual to socio-critical.


Room for the untamed art

painting of human face under a veil
Sarah Gamble “Prince” 2014 oil on canvas 18×18″

While there are some more untamed works in the mix, somehow, they still look like they’ve been readied for the museum. Sarah Gamble’s paintings, for example, are mining a fantasmagoric shamanistic lode, yet “Prince” and “70s Collage” sit and stare from the walls like well-behaved children.

Eric Abaka "i'm having my cake and i'm eating cake, 2012 video, 7 minutes (left wall), Virgil Marti, "Vesper," 2010, Urethane, MDF, plywood and chrome plating, 72x41.5x4"
Eric Abaka “i’m having my cake and i’m eating cake, 2012 video, 7 minutes (left wall), Virgil Marti, “Vesper,” 2010, Urethane, MDF, plywood and chrome plating, 72×41.5×4″

Eric Abaka’s performance video “I’m having my cake and I’m eating cake,” 2012, likewise, creates an aura of polite conversation.  But the candy-colored portrait mash-up that seems to be of a woman putting on makeup in a slowly-degenerating pixel lava lamp seems a tour de force diminished. I don’t know if size is the issue.  Every work in the exhibit is pretty much mid-sized. Maybe a great big zinger would create some chaos in this box of elegant bon bons.

The show by the numbers

Paul Swenbeck, Untitled 2014, ceramic 30x36x20"
Paul Swenbeck, Untitled 2014, ceramic 30x36x20″

Let’s do the numbers as they say on the radio.  Three curators, Anna Neighbor, Timothy Belknap and Ryan McCartney, organized Begin. Thirty-two artists are included in the roundup, however some of them are performance artists and don’t have work in the show.

photograph very high on wall, woman looking up
Eileen Neff, “Twin Peaks” 2012, C-print mounted on plexi, 26x84x1″

Twenty-three artists are in the show (including, and this is very Philadelphia) two collaborative teams–Dechemia and Kocot + Hatton). Nine artists included have commercial gallery representation (in 7 galleries, 2 of them New York galleries). Twelve artists are not represented.  Nine women are in the show, two of them in the collaborative teams, and 16 men (2 in collaborative team).

a black and with painting and a white sculpture on a wall
Shanna Waddell, “Death Angel,” 2013, 64x45x2″ (left), Dechemia “Flower,” 2012, Hydrocal plaster, paper, 33x33x2″

The walls, which Ryan McCartney told me are 5″ thick and 12 ft. high, will be recycled after their run in the icebox. In case you are wondering, Eileen Neff’s color photo, “Twin Peaks,” is placed 20 ft. high on the Icebox wall — at the ceiling, actually.  The picture’s siting is due to the artist’s requirement that it hang at ceiling level. When asked by the curators if it was ok that the piece be hung 20 ft. high, the artist responded in the affirmative, and according to curator McCartney, she is delighted with the result.

Curating imbued with generosity for an art scene that’s also generous

There are many excellent works in Begin Where You Are, a sweet kiss on the cheek to Philadelphia art and artists. The curators did a fantastic job of including a very broad range of artists and showing their works with great dignity.  There’s a spirit of generosity in Begin that embodies the curators love of the community. Begin also encapsulates the Philly art scene, which is small when you come right down to it, and filled with artists who have big hearts. Begin ends Sept. 13. Get out there and see it, Philadelphia!

Ancillary programming for Begin Where You Are includes these two remaining FREE performance evenings.
Saturday, 9/06, 7pm Kris Harzinski & Will Haughery, Meg Foley
Saturday, 9/13, 5pm Elisa Gabor, Meg Foley