Sunday, August 28, 2011

Urbanism at PAFA

I finally saw PAFA's Urbanism show only a few days before it closes (Sept. 4). Urbanism: Reimagining the Lived Environment at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts showcases the work of five young artists that testify to Philadelphia's vibrancy as a city of urban art. What better time to engage with urbanist sensibilities than after Irene has challenged the fragility of our cities. This is the last week of the show, so go see it. Unfortunately, there is no published catalog. If you cannot justify the $15 tickets, consider the bonus of Eakins' Gross Clinic without anyone else in the space, the PAFA faculty show, the permanent American collections and, of course, the Furness masterpiece. Unfortunately for you, another great show, Abstract Expressionism and Its Discontents, just closed this weekend.

Back to Urbanism: Arden Bendler Browning takes the Richard Diebenkorn tradition of abstract landscapes and makes it spin. Although the works are very painterly, their execution on TYVEK and their casual hanging suggest possibilities that go beyond the museum walls (murals, street art, etc.). Browning is a grad of Carnegie Mellon and she completed her MFA at Tyler.

Amy Walsh, a PAFA graduate and Tyler professor, creates dialectical constructions. The assemblage of arbitrary materials create Duchampian frames with keyholes. Through the keyholes, neurotically fantastic architectural interiors await the viewer. This is a lot better than the recent photographic school that builds meticulously models, photographs them, and exhibits the photos.

The Dufala Brothers bring together a graphic meticulousness (Steven) and a sculptural conceptualism (Billy). Both brothers studied and teach at PAFA. They are probably the best known of the exhibition thanks to their multidisciplinary engagement with music, hipsterdom, but most importantly, trash. A body of their work arises from a collaboration with a dump in North Philadelphia that they have turned into an art co-op (with internship, installations, etc.) This is really exceptional stuff, unpretentious Philadelphian at its best, and first featured at Haverford College: PROBLEMY (and gallery talk). To read more about this promising collaborative, see Shaun Brady's "Disposable Heroes: The Dufala Brothers Turn Trash to Treasure and Back Again," in the Philadelphia City Paper (June 30, 2011). The photo above (City Paper, Neal Santos) shows the Dufala Brothers completing their dumpster-coffin for the PAFA show.

Finally, the work of Ben Peterson takes a very thin graphic stance towards representation but combines thematically strange illustrations. I must admit that Peterson's work is so demure that it didn't grab me too vigorously. I do like Peterson's surreal vision. It takes an illustrative graphic style that one might encounter in book illustration and explodes it into urban-striving scale.

All four artists make me extremely excited about the Philadelphia young art scene. I do believe that America's cultural capitals (NYC and LA) have set an agenda focused on Identity. Thanks to a long tradition of urbanism, Philadelphia offers the refreshing alternative of Urbanism.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States