Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

by Edward Carey

Showing until September 4

Urbanism at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts presents the work of five Philadelphiaartists and makes sense, though the work flows together so smoothly that an aberrant element might actually be beneficial.

The Dufala Brothers continue their signature style of stretching, slicing, morphing and melding objects from our world into clever commentaries on consumerism.  The sculpture 20 Yard dumpster coffin imagines either a mass grave for humans or makes an attempt to sanctify the burial place of materials and objects that have been deemed worthless.  Either scenario resonates equally disturbing in a culture that values commodities above life, yet disposes of both so readily.  Another imposing work is Heap, a massive site-specific wall drawing in graphite that depicts the kind of industrial materials that would likely fill the dumpster coffin.  The drawing is a compelling development in the work of the Dufalas, which primarily consists of altered everyday objects that have been repurposed as absurd sculptures.  That this superb, painstaking drawing will have to be erased gives it all the more presence in the moment of beholding and speaks to the cycle of creation and destruction central to our industrial way of life.

Arden Bendler Browning’s large scale paintings of fractured, swirling cityscapes vibrate with the energy of a wind storm and picture what some may have imagined May 21st 2011 to look like.  Her paintings are un-stretched and executed on Tyvek, a construction product, providing a sly material nod to her imagery.  Though they fit into a popular style of all-over, urban-inspired, semi-abstract landscapes, they have a strong personal voice that makes them stand out within the genre.  Her painting, Leftovers, is particularly compelling in its use of blank spaces.  Leaving several portions of the surface open and uncluttered allows for pauses in the imagery.  These pauses act as empty lots, pieces of space waiting to be built upon and filled in.

Ben Peterson’s exquisitely detailed works on paper describe a mashed-up space both architecturally and culturally.  His landscapes are filled with clever particularities that allude to references both personal and universal.  In Gung Ho, the East/West culture clash is especially poignant as asphalt buckles and curls to form waves reminiscent of Hokusai, while yoga mats sit unoccupied next to exercise balls morphed from paper lanterns.  Peterson’s paintings feel perfectly American in their insistence of blending influences, ingeniously repurposing objects and spaces, and pushing on and over the failures of past infrastructures to create new ways of existing.  One can imagine the sculpture of the Dufala brothers being extracted from one of Peterson’s scenarios or vice versa.

Amy Walsh’s site-specific installation features five of her pint-sized diorama constructions embedded within a human scale barrier.  Through peepholes that bring to mind Duchamp’s Etant Donnes and its architectural viewfinder, one can behold five different cityscapes or interiors in various states of construction and or decay.  Walsh’s interiors are beautifully crafted like all the work in the show, and the delight of savoring the detail keeps one lingering at each viewpoint.  A strong aspect of the installation is the inclusion of two additional peepholes at either end of the barrier allowing the viewer access to the construction of the illusions, making their crafting that much more fascinating and impressive.

“Urbanism” is an appropriate show to have on display as PAFA embarks on the creation of Lenfest Plaza on Cherry Street.  The artworks inside speak directly to the construction happening outside in both hailing from the same material world and depicting the possibilities of spaces constantly shifted by human hands.  Though the city exists as a manmade landscape, a curious note of the show is the conspicuous lack of the figure in any of the works.  This is particularly surprising for a show at the Academy, a school with such a long-standing figurative tradition.  The scarcity of human presence makes the role of the viewer that much more integral.  The other visitors to the gallery become immediately implicated in the works, just by being in proximity.

If artists are receptors to the cultural zeitgeist, are we collectively imagining a post- apocalyptic cityscape, where only the remnants of our once-bustling civilization remain? Let’s hope not.

Ted Carey is an artist based in Philadelphia. He is a graduate of University of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently employed as an art handler.