Guest Curator: Adelina Vlas, Assistant Curator for Modern and Contemporary Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art
In November 2009, I was invited to curate the eighth iteration of “A Closer Look”, a group exhibition featuring the work of three to five artists who had previously been juried into the “Works on Paper” shows organized by Arcadia University Art Gallery. The process of selection started with a review of the pool of eligible artists consisting of approximately 150 names and reaching back to 1990. The next step narrowed down this list to 40 artists, each of whom were asked to submit a portfolio for review. Fifteen artists were subsequently selected for studio visits and of those, three artists and a duo were invited to participate in the current exhibition.
Although some of the artistic practices represented in this exhibition share similar traits, they have been selected on the basis of their individual strengths. As a way of engaging with the particulars of the “Closer Look” scenario, the artists have been asked either to respond to the gallery as a site and to the group exhibition as a context, or simply to use this opportunity to continue current investigations in their practices through new work. The result is an exhibition that attempts to provide a venue for these practices to be alone while together, in dialogue with each other while at the same time maintaining their distinctive identities. The title of the series, “A Closer Look”, also proposes a way of engaging with the works on view as they reveal their complexities upon closer examination.
Conceived especially for this exhibition, a wall relief and floor sculpture by Dechemia (John Gibbons and Isobel Sollenberger) continues the duo’s investigation of forms, materials, and iconography. The sources of inspiration for their works are two American symbols, Marilyn Monroe and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, poised here in a spectral opposition that is open to multiple readings. The image of Marilyn Monroe is based on a photograph of the actress in a bathing suit reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Taken in 1954 in Long Island, New York, by Eve Arnold, the original photograph surprises the viewer by presenting Marilyn not exclusively as a sex symbol but as a woman with an inner life and intellectual ambitions. Titled Flower of the Mountain, the wall relief confronts the floor sculpture with the gaze of the figure looking down at it. Conjuring up historical connotations as well as the pool’s status in the national consciousness as a place where people gather to exercise their freedom of expression, Dechemia’s poured plaster work, pigmented here with ink, becomes a divining mirror for Marilyn’s downcast gaze, replacing the book from the original photograph with a more mystical surface and mysterious readings.
For this exhibition, Brent Wahl has created new works that are a continuation of his photographic series using urban and domestic debris. By manipulating the scale of his prints and the density of debris depicted, he creates abstract compositions with a narrative a subtext that refers not only to his studio explorations but also to the world outside, turning the refuse into visually compelling arrangements. The images in the work untitled, debris site #4 (garden) were made over an extended period of time using multiple exposures. Here, Wahl tries to piece back together those materials in compositions that would allow them to become part of a whole. The repetition that results, almost in an organic way, speaks of the temporality involved in this act of reconstruction.
On closer examination, one can identify debris from the artist’s garden, which accumulated over many years and surfaced during several seasons of planting and cultivation. The horizontal display, deliberately chosen by the artist, encourages a very particular viewing experience, one that allows for a reading emphasizing the temporal aspect of the process as well as the connection with the studio set-up. In the larger print, untitled, debris site # 6 (Lincoln Drive), Wahl creates a composition in which the leftovers of a celebration are still recognizable even if the compositional arrangement veers towards abstraction. As they refer directly to the urban context, both public and domestic, these images are imbued with a criticality that speaks of the reality of a city in a state of constant transformation.
Two of Sebastian Leclercq’s four works included here address directly the context of the exhibition while continuing to expand the boundaries of his drawing practice. Characterized by an interest in subverting notions of knowledge and perception, Leclercq’s work is charged with a critical playfulness that reveals itself on closer study. The subtle narratives embedded in compositions such as Expert Collaborator and Indecision Process hint at the activity of making art in response to a group show while at the same time taking the opportunity to investigate new formats. From a distance, Expert Collaborator appears to be made of superimposed, lined sheets of paper spilling out of four multi-colored binders. A closer look reveals that the seemingly multiple sheets are actually one single drawing connected to the four binders. Indecision Process is emblematic of Leclercq’s subversion of the grid as both a support and background for drawing. Here, the lines lose their directionality and, instead of completing the grid, they merge together in a tangled structure that frames the center of the drawing where they form new patterns and compositions. With his other two works, the artist tests our impulses to confirm, through touching and browsing, that what we are looking at are precise recreations of a lined Rhodia note pad (cover included), and 500 sheets of lined paper stacked together in a binder.
Continuing his engagement with language, signs, and everyday objects and phenomena, Josh Shaddock is represented by three works. The earliest of these, Alone Together—conceived prior to his inclusion in this show but completed for the occasion of “A Closer Look 8”—sets the tone for the dynamics of the exhibition. The other two works were created in direct response to the show. A photographic diptych, Alone Together, portrays two books by Norman Douglas, one titled Alone, photographed next to an identical copy, and the other titled Together, photographed by itself. Alone and Together are travel accounts of Douglas’s trips through Italy and Austria in the early 1920s, but here Shaddock uses them for the signifier value of their titles rather than that of their content. The playfulness of the new works exposes both the apprehension and the anticipation an artist feels when participating in a group show. While and, per se abrasively attempts to claim a sense of space around it, in this context, it references the origins of the term, “and per se and", meaning "and [the symbol which] by itself [is] and,” but modified to become “and by itself” or the solitary “and”
With its inverted parentheses, Everything Else alludes to the first line of Ad Reinhardt’s Lines of Words on Art: Statement (1958), “Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else”. Shaddock’s work relies, however, on the opposition of the two words “everything” (the totality) and “else” (the particular) to negate the function of the parentheses to contain and encompass, as well as to comment on the dynamics of group shows. Shaddock’s approach to the task of responding to the context of the exhibition manages to balance these anxious impulses with humor and intelligence. His presentation encompasses the spirit of this iteration of “A Closer Look” where distinctive practices open themselves to possible dialogues and where individual works hold their own in the company of each other.
—Adelina Vlas, March 2012
Dechemia is a Philadelphia-based duo consisting of John Gibbons and Isobel Sollenberger. Both artists graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1992 when they embarked on a career in music as members of the band Bardo Pond. In 2001, the pair returned to the studio to make visual art, experimenting with paper, poured plaster, and ink. Dechemia's work has been featured in group exhibitions in Chicago (at Seven Three Split) and in Philadelphia (at Basekamp, Space 1026, the Borowsky Gallery, and the Crane Building). In 2009 Dechemia presented a solo exhibition at Rebekah Templeton Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. Their work was selected by Jordan Kantor, Assistant Curator of Drawings, Museum of Modern Art, New York for “Works on Paper” (2004).
Sebastien Leclercq, a French-born artist, lives and works in Philadelphia. He was home-schooled on his family sailboat while traveling the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. He received a BFA in painting from the University of Washington (Seattle) and an MFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art (Boston). He has presented his work in group exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Delaware County Community College, and in Philadelphia at Little Berlin, Vox Populi, and the Fleisher Ollman Gallery, among other venues. Solo exhibitions of his work have been presented at Fountain Studios (Brooklyn, New York), Rebekah Templeton Contemporary Art (Philadelphia), and the Fleisher Art Memorial. His work was selected by João Ribas, Curator of Exhibitions, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts for “Works on Paper”(2009).
Josh Shaddock lives and works in New York City. He received a BFA in Art History from Tyler School of Art, Temple University (Elkins Park, Pennsylvania) and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York. His work has been featured in group exhibitions in Paris, Lisbon, Cologne, Bergenz (Austria), and Norwich (UK) and in the U.S. at venues in Los Angeles, Burbank, San Francisco (CCA Wattis Institute) and New York City (White Columns, Invisible Exports, BAM, and Murray Guy). In Philadelphia, his work has been featured in group exhibitions at Cereal Art and Fleisher OIllman Gallery. Team Gallery (New York City), and Small A Projects (Portland, Oregon), hosted solo exhibitons for Shaddock in 2009 and 2007, respectively. His work was selected by Jordan Kantor, Assistant Curator of Drawings, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for “Works on Paper” (2004).
Brent Wahl, a photographer, installation, and time-based media artist, lives and works in Philadelphia. He earned his BFA from Pratt Institute and his MFA, as well as Certificate in Time-Based Media, from the University of Pennsylvania. His work has been exhibited in group shows in London (Tate Modern and Oblong Gallery) and in the U.S. at venues in Portland (Maine), Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina), Cincinnati (Publico Gallery), Brooklyn (Dumbo Art Center) and in New York City (Guggenheim Museum and X-Initiative.) Group shows in Philadelphia include exhibitions at the Esther Kline Gallery, Temple Gallery, the Slought Foundation, and the ICA, among others. A member of Vox Populi, he has had four solo exhibitions there between 2007 and 2011. His work was selected by Cornelia Butler, Chief Curator of Drawings, Museum of Modern Art, New York for “Works on Paper" (2006).
Adelina Vlas is the assistant curator for modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She has a master’s degree in Art History and a curatorial diploma in Visual Culture from York University, as well as a master of arts in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art in London, where she co-curated the exhibitions Public Smog and Various Small Fires. Previously, Adelina has worked at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa, Ontario), where she concentrated on permanent collection displays. Since joining the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007, she has organized the contemporary art exhibitions in the Notations and Live Cinema series, including recent projects with younger-generation artists including Carlos Amorales, Mohamed Bourouissa, Martha Colburn, Tim Hyde, Jennifer Levonian, Joshua Mosley, and Tobias Zielony.
It's clear, in any case, that Vlas is drawn to carefully constructed minimal work that seems intended to defy easy explanation.