Full Structure: an Interview with Ryan McCartney and Tim Belknap

by Daniel Gerwin


Ryan McCartney and Tim Belknap became Co-Directors of the Icebox in May, a fitting recognition of their innovative programming at the Icebox over the past year and a half.  In 2012 they curated 2012 Philadelphia Pickup Truck Expo and Refuse Reuse: Language for the Common Landfill (which is also now a book), and in 2013 they have so far curated Winter Down and distant landscapes: peepdyedcrevicehotpinkridge.  Title Magazine asked them to talk about their unique approach to the Icebox.
DG: You are now co-directors of exhibitions at the Icebox, and I have to say that in the four years I’ve lived in Philly, you are the ones who’ve best figured out how to handle that space.  A lot of art goes there to die, but you’ve found ways to make the Icebox actually enliven exhibitions.  Could you explain how you think about the site?


TB: Ryan and I had both installed and lit several shows in the Icebox prior to our curatorial involvement, and I think it comes down to how much time we’ve spent in there, walking from corner to corner as audience members, artists, and generally curious fellows.


RM: The Icebox was originally built as a walk-in freezer, so the walls and ceiling are 6+ inches of styrofoam with a cosmetic layer of stucco on top.  Anytime there’s an involved suspension, someone has to get into a 4’ space above the ceiling to create an anchoring structure. Being the “little guy” between the two of us, I’ve logged quite a few hours crawling around up there, and it’s not glamorous.


When we talk about shows over a period of time, we start constructing something hypothetical and go back and forth implementing huge changes or making ridiculous suppositions. Because we’re both very spatial thinkers there are never any drawings, just a lot of hypothetical build up and tear down, but we’re both always visualizing full structure and when it’s time to build we just go and do it.  We built the entire Winter Down show in four days. That was all the time we had.


DG:  Winter Down was an unexpected and ingenious use of the space, and the Claire Ashley show, distant landscapes: peepdyedcrevicehotpinkridge, also took advantage of the Icebox exceptionally well.  How did you arrive at your approach for Winter Down, and how did you think about the space for Claire’s show?


RM: With the exception of Claire, our shows have been collaborative pieces between the two of us, where we ask additional people to come and be part of it too. For Winter Down we knew what we wanted to see as far as the space and the construction, but we also wanted to show work that we believed in and felt was underrepresented here in town. Most of the work in that show dealt with a spatial irony that mirrored the constructed installation but also spoke of a real desire for understanding. Growing tired of the Icebox and Philly as an art mall or social scene, we decided to build a bridge so that if you wanted to see the show you committed to crossing over in order to enter. When you reached that intimate space, I think there was some excellent work that deserved your time.  I was also quite happy with that installation as a sculpture: I think it worked well as some sort of large obelisk.


TB: Winter Down was conceived in late November 2012, with only two months to organize and construct the exhibition. Granted, we had been looking at works by other artists and the actual curation of the show probably started many months before, but the idea of a suspension bridge leading to a 10’ x 10’ room arose out of several arduous talks about sculpture, painting, and the almost mischievous sense of art that the Barnes Foundation has.


RM:  With the Barnes, there’s the whole “hand from the grave” effect: his desire to shape the way one views his collection seems like a bizarre science fiction, an eternal projection into the future. Curating and installing Winter Down, we tried to balance Albert Barnes’s love of art and cohesion with a respect for the discrete works, so that the links between them were a bit slower and not as much about shape, color, etc. I think that’s where the spatial ironies I mentioned come into play, and that’s what linked all of the elements together so that one of Beth Livensperger’s paintings could have a conversation with the other works in the room, the room itself, the bridge, and the volume of the Icebox.


TB:  Ryan’s reference to the “science fiction of Barnes” always leads me to a Star Wars comparison of George Lucas and Barnes.  The original episodes 4-6 (obviously the best) were forged out of Lucas’s efforts to overcome the limits of what was possible at that time.  The next three episodes (Barnes post-death) start to lose focus and make decisions for the wrong reasons, and now we have Barnes on the Parkway and Stars Wars in Disneyland.  An over-emphasis on Barnes’s genius has led viewers away from investigating the spatial relationships among variously sized works on a wall and toward just experiencing it as entertainment. It was important that the Winter Down audience pick up that folded gallery map and contemplate the arrangement.  As Ryan mentioned, our intention to gently slow the viewing experience played a big role in our use of both the bridge and the salon-style hanging, but I think it extended beyond the 10’ x 10’ room we built, and was as much about the surrounding vacant space and its distinctive sounds.  Mike Stifel’s pneumatic work was an important part of the aural experience, and we had many concerns about his work taking the show in the wrong direction.  We didn’t want his work to come off simply as special effects.


RM: Mike’s impeccable craft and Tim’s timing in the programming of the main switch kept it from going wrong. It felt like a heartbeat kicking in when everything got moving.


DG: The room you created had a focusing effect, like looking through a microscope. It makes for an interesting contrast with the Claire Ashley show, which was also unlike anything I’ve seen in the Icebox, but at the opposite end of the spectrum from Winter Down.  How would you compare those two? And did you play a role in determining Claire’s installation, or did she make all those decisions herself?


RM:  Claire certainly has the ability to fill the Icebox, but we spent a great deal of time discussing installation and she saw an opportunity to use her work differently than she had before, by piling pieces on top of one another, re-orienting, and creating a greater landscape. So her show makes perfect sense with what we’ve done, and Anna Trier and Meredith Weber (a.k.a. the Happy Collaborationists) were totally on board with addressing the entire show as a single piece, and their involvement with performance is something we’re looking at more. If you missed Jeff Huckleberry at the opening, you missed something rare.


DG: Do you think 2012 Philadelphia Pickup Truck Expo and Refuse Reuse used the Icebox in similar ways?


TB: It was funny to see the trucks inside a white space, presented as a pedestal or a piece of art.  Having 14 pickups parked in there really pulled the ceiling down and highlighted the economy of space in the same way a grocery store parking lot does. It was probably the smallest the Icebox has ever felt to me.


RM:  There were some great pieces in the truck show. Matt Giel produced a camera obscura that projected into his truck cab, Shaun Baer’s death metal conversion was a great use of the truck, and Second State Press won everyone over by rolling their truck all night to produce free prints under the weight of the vehicle.


If there was one thing we agreed on in the beginning, it was that we were going to use the volume of the Icebox in ways we had not experienced before. Refuse Reuse created a low, flat plane, and also deliberately employed differences in temperature as part of the installation. The writing lab (in the Grey Area) was warm and comfortable: we played music, had fires going, tried to provide food and drinks (I made soup), while the Icebox was kept cold and became a sort of morgue filled with discarded artifacts.  Turning that show into a book was also a conscious flattening of volume into a manual, re-packaging the process into a stream of consciousness of 37 participants randomizing a random sample of the city’s waste through personal interpretation. I love the writing that came out of that.


DG: What are your ideas for the Icebox this coming year? It must get more difficult to reinvent the space after you’ve done so much.


RM: We’re coming up on a year since we started doing this. I think it’s about a certain ambition, and that’s not going to change. We have to plan around a lot of existing things on the schedule, so for a while we’ll be focusing on programming, especially performance and movement. We’re really interested in work that creates some sort of communal belief: that everyone wants to see it completed or take part in it. We’ll be posting an open call for video in the Icebox soon. The space has the capacity for a continuous projected image at 20’ x 90’, and we’re very excited to utilize that.


We want to see better, more challenging, adventurous things. We’re willing to stick our necks out and gamble with failure. I want more life in my world, and that’s how I look at it. I’m sure we’ll host or show some unsuccessful things, but they will definitely not be disengaged. Doing something for love or life mandates a striving for quality, and we’re both very proud of how we perceive that to be taken by visitors so far.


Daniel Gerwin is a painter living in Philadelphia.  His work can currently be seen in Telling Details, at The Center for Emerging Visual Artists, and In Front of Strangers, I Sing at the Woodmere Art Museum.

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