Through December 10th
By Em Kettner
During more than 40 years of business, the Fleisher/Ollman gallery has served as a safe house for outsiders, promoting the work of folk, self-taught, and primitive artists. Things That Do exemplifies this fostering of voices in the undercurrent. Impressive for the substantial collection displayed, the show features work from disparate contributors: various West African artisans, the anonymous “Philadelphia Wireman,” and self-taught Nebraska folk artist Emery Blagdon. The uniform wrapping strategies employed throughout these objects recall ritualistic or physical transformation: cocooned insects undergoing metamorphosis; a cast binding a broken bone; mummification to ensure safe passage from this world to the next.
The work is arranged in adjacent constellations: clusters of Wireman composites are placed next to a group of African idols sitting safely under glass on wall plinths, and Emery Blagdon’s wire forms hang freely to punctuate these lines with a more invasive sculptural presence. The ubiquity of wire and metal makes it easy to form connections among all the artworks.
The African power objects on display act as a gateway into the related American work. The collection is an accumulation of deceptively readable items. The craftspeople incorporate somewhat traditional modes of adornment: abstract forms and figurative idols are carved from wood, iron, or bone and – like holy relics – encrusted with shells, shiny buttons, and mirror shards. One bone item, covered in red buttons and situated about eye level, has embedded in its crevices a dusty mirror that reflects the viewer in a macabre portrait of mortality. A series of iron animal-headed staffs probably intended to ensure good crop or livestock occupy the center of one room, while fertility idols wrapped in twine and surrounded by wooden female figurines are encased in glass nearby.
It’s unclear in the more representational idols whether the wrapping of objects serves as a motif for adornment or restraint: in one sculpture, a bound figure stands with a padlock in his mouth; in another, the figure faces the wall, his back laden with locks. One of the most striking of these figures sits alone in a case with its chest cavity open, and a little bean – perhaps an emblem for the heart – is exposed. It’s difficult to infer how these idols exert power over what seem to be burdens, but they remain poetically resilient in their rusting metal bodies.
A few dozen Wireman sculptures pepper the gallery space, appearing as bejeweled bugs, petrified as if to divert predatory attention. Formed by an unknown obsessive Philadelphia local, the enigmatic bundles consistently bring mundane items together with thin metal wire. Close inspection reveals batteries, toothpicks, nails, buttons, paint tubes, broken glass, and newspaper clippings fit snugly into the wire cages. The pieces are frozen in a permanent armature: skeletal structures for some fetal-stage beings. Some objects are broken and wrapped, leaving ambiguous whether the wire causes or stymies further decomposition.
Several pieces directly mimic the form of the smallest African object: a little man bound in twine, with a nail leaving a threaded trail from his navel to its endpoint hammered into the figure’s head. This image of a nurtured self-mutilation resonates with Wireman’s body of work, the components of which evolve into little creatures, even taking on humanoid torsos or facial features. It is curious that these fist-sized cocoons do capture something distinctively human, and I wondered at the Kafkaesque dilemma at hand (given both their arrested state and stunted metamorphosis): are these ribcage forms protecting fragile organs or restraining the soul?
Emery Blagdon’s mobiles are taken from a larger installation that was originally housed in the farmer-artist’s shed. Described in its entirety as a “healing machine,” the parts in Fleisher/Ollman take on a mystical quality in the context of the African and Wireman idols. Many of Blagdon’s objects are composed of discarded items that echo those found in the other artists’ pieces: wire, rusted metal, wooden popsicle sticks, and rolled scraps of magazine. At first they seem a bit ornamental and crafty as the lightweight, delicate forms take shape as flowers, houses, or cogs in some abandoned appliance. But it would be unfair to deem Blagdon’s work representational decoration. His wire layers overlap to form a complex network of patterns that evoke Celtic knots in the Book of Kells or mazes of prayer laid out with gold and silver inks in the Qur’an. The mobiles turned and swayed slowly when I circled close, and I felt a sense of unholy trespass when I stood between an object and its shadow.
One alcove in the gallery is dedicated solely to a larger grouping of Blagdon’s totem constructions, which hangs from a metal grid in the center of the ceiling. That particular piece seemed like a fragment divorced from its native environment (I pictured a courtyard like Isaiah Zagar’s South Street Magic Garden), one overflowing with fragile mobiles that would rattle every time someone passed. It was here, though, while walking the perimeter of this structure that I began to appreciate Emery’s original intention to create a transcendental healing machine. Spotlights illuminate the arrangement and throw shadows up the three surrounding walls, but the gentle muted light filtering through the veiled gallery window seems to hint at a more appropriate atmosphere. One can imagine navigating a dense wire thicket barely penetrable by light. Perhaps Blagdon’s promised healing occurs here: immersed in the fractured wire web, one’s original form may dissolve back into an unknown, greater whole.
One could say the gallery acts as another protective shell imploring us to look at and treasure these unassuming balls of wire and button-encrusted bones. But the support system that cradles these objects so dearly, even imbuing them with the attributes we learn to call “art,” may also remove the original and variant healing powers that make these items so ethereal. Locked behind glass and centered under bright lights, it’s easy to forget their primal functions in favor of their aesthetic values. It is an atmosphere of stasis, and the title, “things that do” contains arguably too active a verb for the show it describes. Maybe the doing has simply shifted from the objects to those curators compelled to continue the accretion process, and who thus have recognized overlapping ideologies that bind distinct works together. Or perhaps the action of both artists and curators has always been a preemptive shielding and swaddling to quell the threat of harsh exterior forces and ensure perpetual incubation. The collection offers fresh associative insights, and though it presents an illusion of immobility, one can still sense forms shifting beneath their wrappings.
Em Kettner is an artist and recent graduate of the painting & drawing department at the University of the Arts.She was named for her mother’s favorite poet and her father’s favorite mother.