Ghost City #1, 2011

Mount Airy Contemporary Artists Space

By Jeffrey Bussmann

Through November 19

Just off Germantown Avenue, a few steps beyond Mount Airy Art Garage, sits Mount Airy Contemporary Artists Space (MACAS).  You would be forgiven for missing it on any regular day, but on opening night there was a sandwich board with balloons to direct visitors in the direction of this refurbished carriage house set back from the line of residences.  The artist-run space, founded by Colin and Andrea Keefe, serves as their studio upstairs and a gallery on the ground level.  Their refurbishment of the building could be described as minimal rustic.  Oddly, the show I encountered there, though it was distinct from the type of work often appearing in a barn-like art space, hung comfortably within this setting.  MACAS differs drastically from the galleries that can be found mere blocks away on Germantown Avenue, which share that same hint of stale taste wafting from most of Philadelphia’s Old City galleries.

The artists in Staged—Allison Kaufman, Tim Portlock, Jennifer Williams, and Kimberly Witham—are Career Program Development fellows at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA).  I had previously seen work by each of them, alongside other current CFEVA fellows, this summer at a much more expansive show held in the Ice Box at Crane Arts.  The grouping of these select four, each represented by a handful of pieces, yields a tight, brisk, and enjoyable dash of a show.  The exhibition title derives its name from their use of staged artifice, a choice that hints at layers of meaning tucked just beneath the surface, or at times hidden in plain sight.  The transparent staginess in the work, I think, breeds an air of absurdity about the subject matter, which in turn produces its own dryly comic effect.

The theater of the absurd shines in Allison Kaufman’s Trust Falls, an installation of five short video loops.   Her interactions with a series of anonymous middle-aged men play like a more wholesome version of Laurel Nakadate, but the banal quality of their activities still induces viewer squirminess.  Watching the way she and the men awkwardly regard each other, it is easy to see how forced the set-ups are.  The two videos on the right of the sequence seem not so abnormal save that they are acted out by strangers (something we might not know if not told in the gallery notes): in one a man braids her hair, and in another she shaves the face of a different man.  Then there is a centrally placed video which sharply separates these mundane tasks from the weirder ones.  She and a bearded, burly man attempt to recline in a hammock together—something normal enough were they a loving couple. Inevitably, it leads to slapstick mishap as the two try to maintain balance while also doing their best to mitigate the uncomfortable intimacy of the situation by minimizing bodily contact.  From there, to the left are two odd scenes in which Kaufman catches a man in trust falls as well as leads another in a mirror game.  It becomes clear how each of the five videos depicts a trust game (direct or implied).  Kaufman’s premise of acting them out with a stranger is a jarring critique of just how staged a routine activity performed with a loved one can be, something often forgotten through familiarity-inducing repetition.

Kimberly Witham offers four photographs from the series Deertown that plunk a stag into found commercial images of luxuriously furnished homes.  These works are photo-composites, quite different from her strikingly beautiful, and occasionally tongue in cheek, still lifes of recently deceased animals posed with fruit and homewares.  The deer vacillates between stages of life and death (or the suspended animation of taxidermy), muddied by the suggestion that it might only be asleep.  In one image the deer reclines in eternal rest, but the domestic setting of a plush couch and pillows makes it appear to be deep in slumber.  Can a deer dream?  If it could I think it is safe to assume that it would envision a wooded setting rather than the interior of a house that mimics nature with forest greens, a potted plant, and leaf-print carpet.  In another photograph a deer looks alertly at the camera while resting on a poster bed, giving the effect of a proscenium; upon closer inspection a bloodied snout and underbelly are visible.  A hunter’s disembodied hand peeking from behind the curtain is what actually props up the deer’s head.  We are watching a puppet play, comedy of the darkest order, rather than nature morte.

MACAS does not have the space to comfortably display the larger versions of Jennifer Williams’s Flo pieces.  I hold these photo collages akin to a kind of alternative urban mapping, documenting a city neighborhood by its cast-offs and scraps.  The air of cartography is reinforced by the scale play in the overlapped objects, and the extreme flatness of Photo-tex, the sticky-backed photographic paper on which she prints and then adheres directly to the wall.  Williams incorporates site-specific visual puns: for example, in a room where there were exposed ducts, she created a rogue duct, snaking through her piece.  In the MACAS gallery electrical wires are visibly stapled to the ceiling beams.  It is from here that Flo[#9] sprouts, a tangled mess of oversized extension cords that threatens to lasso visitors exiting the gallery door.  Tracing where the maze of cords leads becomes a spectator game.  Her two paper-mounted works, with their horizontal orientation, burst with a frantic ebullience; they show impossibly spindly stacks of furniture that only a cartoon character could reasonably ascend.

Undeniably cinematic, Tim Portlock’s Ghost City prints are the largest and most visually commanding pieces in the show.  He rides the zeitgeist of zombie apocalypse narratives that have propagated throughout popular media of the mid-aughts to the present.  By taking buildings that he knows (and perhaps other Philadelphia residents will recognize) and resituating them in a desolate setting, Portlock presses the reset button on an established urban landscape.  It might be the biggest leap to say that Portlock’s works become comedic, but looking at his arrangement of disjointed row homes around a hexagonal plaza, I see someone having fun with his own chaotic scrambling of urban planning.  It would be a nightmare to navigate those streets.  Then again, there is not a living soul in sight.

If another current emerges from putting these four artists together, it is spatial relationships: how we relate to other people, the natural world, the urban setting and everyday objects in it.  They tip us off to an underlying strangeness in ritual human activity by steering one thing amiss in an otherwise normal setting.  So is everything in our lives “staged”?  We are put in the uncomfortable position of being made aware of things that are unconsciously present, but far from the top of our minds.

Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is currently researching Brazilian cultural organizations for his master’s thesis in Arts Administration at Drexel University.  He also writes for his blog Post-Nonprofalyptic.