Pox Populi

pmap.jpgAllium and I made the pilgrimage to the new Perelman building at the Philadelphia Art Museum when it first opened. Meant as a research and teaching center, the expanded building also houses collections that the Philadelphia Museum of Art previously has not had room to display. Most of the new facility is open the public, including a library; some archives are open to scholars only.

We both were horrified by our initiation into the Perelman experience — and yes, I’m going to get the horror over fast by writing this post first — but delighted as we moved onto other galleries. The Perelman’s well worth a visit. But first, the chaff. Wheat comes later.

The first gallery Allium and I entered at the Perelman was light and beautiful, with sun streaming through glorious arched art deco windows onto a gleaming hardwood floor. It took a full thirty seconds for the contents of the room to register, and for the two of us to lock eyes in astonished dismay. Gallery: simple, sleek, gorgeous. Content: laughable. Take a little tour with us and see what you think.


What is art, anyway? Smack in the middle of the floor is this circle of stones. It’s from 1985; it’s called “Limestone”. The curator describes this work as “a ring, a universal form reminiscent of ancient ritual practice” . . . “[A]rranged directly on the floor with no clear boundaries”.

The only thing worse than the ‘art’ in this gallery was the curation. Personally, I prefer my curation to enlighten. Do I really have to be told that this thing is “a ring”? And what, exactly, is meant by claiming that it’s “a universal form reminiscent of ancient ritual practice”? Is that all a “ring” represents? (I think not!) Is this just a sloppy attempt by a curator to remind us that rings are symbolic and therefore expected to resonate within our little museum-going psyches?

Or could this possibly be an embarrassed curator’s attempt to get a quick and dirty description out of the way as fast as possible? Or is it evidence of the dispair of a museum employee expected to say something about nothing?

And what’s with the “arranged directly on the floor with no clear boundaries”? Doesn’t a circle describe a boundary? What does that say about your “ancient ritual practice”? Well, you’ll have to figure it out for yourself; the curation here is as lightweight as it gets — oh, wait a minute, just like the collection itself!

Imagine my shock, though, in discovering, 22 years too late, that my baby was an artistic genius! My own toddler made a circle ring identical to this one in the dirt of our northern farm land, all by herself. The very same year! Of course, there wasn’t any limestone handy — just plebeian rocks. Maybe that’s the difference . . .

knot.jpgBut let’s move on. We have here, on the left, a giant “Knot” from 1993, made of plaster, iron, and pigment. At least we get a little more information on this one — it’s a reference to a European folktale about a rat-king, and meant to evoke emeshed rat-tails. Let the curator speak: “Knot’s elegant form commands the space around it with uncanny authority, yet at the same time remains freighted with the eeriness of its origins.”

Oh? At the risk of playing the semanticist, “its origins” are plaster, iron and pigment. Perhaps the curator refers to the inspirational folktale? Even so, this hardly strikes me as eerie — it resembles, most of all, the button knots on Chinese garments — ‘elegant’, yes, symmetrical, ubiquitious, and ordinary. Or, in this case, gigantic and ordinary.

Personally, I admire anyone who wrestles with iron, but I can see this made up of the enticing fat black ducting tubes at Home Depot — maybe with a nice walnut base for home installation?

rainbow-spikes.jpgMoving on, we spy a forest of rainbow spikes. Charming, indeed, yet with a fine sinister quality, if you consider them installed in a playground where dozens of little children might impale themselves. “Splotch demonstrates a newfound exuberance of color and shape” says the curator. “Newfound exuberance”? Was it lost?

“[P]roduced with the aid of computer technology”, continues our guide. Have you longed to see the charts on your spreadsheet application in 3-D? This is your time; here is your place.

bulbs.jpgIn a corner, light bulbs in ceramic sockets. Lit. Whooee. They’re from 1992; “untitled (petit palais)” [sic]. Witty! It’s untitled and titled! (Or should I have said “brilliant”?) I have an artistically gifted brother-in-law (an adult, not a toddler); if I saw this in the corner of his loft, I’d be quite tickled. He’s a amusing lad; I expect this kind of thing of him.

clothes-chair.jpgHere’s “Clothesline Amerigo for my father”, from 1963. This one asks the question: Does a ludicrous title and supporting curation make it art? That’s a chair dangling from a rope on the right and a patchwork of wood, steel, and iron pieces variously standing and dangling all over the rest of it.

The curator claims that “the title conflates the experiences of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci . . . with those of the artist’s own father”. Right. There’s a junk shop in our town that regularly produces sculptures like this; a number of citizens have been working for years to get the owner to clean up his front yard. Maybe that’s an homage to Vespucci, too. Did Vespucci have a junk collection? Use a clothesline? Dangle a chair?

That’s enough of this gallery. I saw the stuff, I photographed it, I wrote about it. I’ve now suffered quite enough for art.

Snarky, I know. But I felt dirty after spending time in this gallery. Even so, there’s a subversive part of me that is secretly thrilled that these ‘artists’ were paid for what look like fun DIY projects. But another part of me is sick that the museum wrote the checks.

Allium and I marched bravely on to modern design, and felt better for it.

Perelman photo from Flickr

2 replies on “Pox Populi”

Philadelphia has nothing on so-called “Brit Art”. Ugh. Your review made me smile, which is more than can be said of the “art” contained therein. I, too, am torn between admiration at the chutzpah of the artists who have been paid for this and chagrin over the misspent museum funds.

On a personal note, Mr.Roth & myself hope that you and Allium are well & happy.

Yours & etc.,
Mrs. Lily Roth

Thank you, dear Lily, for your comment, and my apologies for inadvertently letting it languish in an incorrectly queue on a mail server I did not know existed.

Ah, “Brit Art” — if only!

Our best to you and Conrad — we will be in touch shortly.

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