Through Saturday, Feb 27, 2016
By Gordon Stillman
On First Fridays, I usually skip the Old City galleries and visit the artist-run galleries at 319 N 11th Street––Automat, Vox Populi, Marginal Utiltiy, etc. My friends are there and the shows are generally more interesting because they are experimental–sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
February’s First Friday marked my first visit to the Snyderman-Works Gallery and my first visit to an Old City gallery in several months. The new assistant director of the gallery, Leigh Werrell, has curated Personal Space, a show that brings to Old City many artists whose work I have seen in Philadelphia’s artist-run galleries. This is exciting for, among other reasons, connecting relatively separate art worlds in Philadelphia and enlivening an Old City art scene that can feel old and safe.
I first approached Tiffany Tate’s Waking One, a large manipulated photograph depicting a lush forest from above with a cutout of another image superimposed overtop, one with a view looking up through a forest canopy to a cliff with people looking down. The piece perhaps best embodies the curatorial philosophy of the show: to look up, down, and through dense foliage to find others who are looking for you. You find those close to you first (about half the participants in the show, and the curator, attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) and then find others working in the same jungle, but maybe looking or working in different directions or mediums. When you find each other, it makes sense, even if you cannot fully express why at first.
Tate’s photograph gives me a sense of vertigo, and the uneasiness that maybe I am being looked at––whether by the spectators in the photo, or through another portal I am not yet aware of. It unsettles my personal space. From this large, flat image, I move on to some of the smallest works in the show: Philippa Beardsley’s paintings. They contain references to stealing (Kiss and Thief) and looking (She’s Here and Portal and Kiss) but bring you close through their size and seductive textures. They bring intimacy and sympathy to the private, sometimes beautiful, sometimes unsavory things we do.
Virginia Fleming’s Is That Yours or Mine? along with her other paintings provide a more explicit, and yet more surreal, exploration of personal space. While seemingly calling out at the viewer through the titles of the works, her figures show how porous the notion of self can be—shifting depending on the space and people around us who also imprint themselves onto our being.
When the show considers the larger spaces that help us define who we are, it becomes less focused. Matt Colaizzo’s work falls flat in the show simply because it is not displayed in a way that maximizes its aesthetic impact; his show, Locality at Napoleon, displayed similar work in an environment that allowed the work to reverberate, punctuating the space, and providing the viewer an intimate relation with the work. Stuart Shils’s photographs of Philadelphia seem all wrong, like they should have been presented as notations to fill a book or have turned into a painting, not mounted as finished photographs. Instead they show a digital pictorialism, achieving a soft painterly quality through the digital residue of highly compressed .jpg files that falls apart into a chunky mess when approached closely enough to see what the photographs actually depict.
The show’s implicit critique also urges all of us to open up our personal space to others—to welcome others into our spaces. Too often the art worlds, whether in Philadelphia or elsewhere, seem isolated from one another (for example, the Old City galleries and the artist-run spaces), and Snyderman-Works is bringing these people together. In addition to hosting a great panel of artists to discuss the changing art scenes in Philadelphia, the show included a diverse set of works from photographs and paintings to SaraNoa Mark’s paperworks and Matt R. Phillips’s marquetry.
The hanging of Personal Space seems safe––well behaved to appeal to potential buyers and collectors––and overhung––which reflects the palpable excitement about art in Philadelphia that the show exudes. The gallery has stepped well outside of its comfort zone for this show, taking a risk. Bringing in so many emerging artists and exhibiting work that varies widely from what the gallery normally exhibits demonstrates a commitment to Philadelphia and should remind everyone that not only making art, but showing art, is a labor of love.
Gordon Stillman is an artist living in Philadelphia, primarily working in photography. He recently received his MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and currently teaches at Lincoln University and Rowan University.