Philadelphia artists shine at Whitney Biennial

From Dona Nelsons two-sided painting series, Red and Green Noses, 2013. Its acrylic and painted string on canvas. PHOTO: Courtesy of Dona Nelson
From Dona Nelsons two-sided painting series, Red and Green Noses, 2013. Its acrylic and painted string on canvas. PHOTO: Courtesy of Dona Nelson
Posted: February 26, 2014

On March 7, Philadelphia video artist Joshua Mosley will have his first show ever in New York.

He's making quite an entrance: His work will be part of the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2014 Biennial, the prestigious survey exhibition that runs through May 25.

He's not the only one. While Philadelphia has, over the years, sent a handful of works up I-95 to Manhattan for contemporary American art's big dance, this year's exhibition includes an unusually strong Philadelphia presence.

The show features work by Philadelphia's Ken Lum, Dona Nelson, and Terry Adkins (Adkins died at age 60 on Feb. 7, the week he was completing his work for the exhibition). Two of its three curators also have local ties: Anthony Elms is associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), and Michelle Grabner, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been a visiting critic at the University of Pennsylvania's art program for several years.

Elms said the inclusion of artists from cities like Philadelphia is no coincidence: He and the other curators wanted to look beyond traditional New York art circles, and recognize artists who have previously been overlooked.

"Getting people to think more broadly in terms of where artists live, and how you can make a living, is important," Elms said. "What pulls the attention of the art magazines is just one of many art-making communities that are out there, and we need to pay attention to the broader landscape."

Along the way, it's bringing plenty of attention to Elms and the ICA, as well.

This is Elms' highest-profile gig to date. There will be no shortage of art critics, who have not always been kind in reviewing previous Biennials.

Elms is prepared.

"Not everyone will like my take," he said. "But my role as a curator is to try to make people interested in things they might not be prepared to be interested in."

Over the last year, he said, he made hundreds of studio visits and spoke with even more artists, in this region and across the country. Ultimately, he selected 24. They included Adkins, who built a work to be cantilevered out of the gallery wall; Zoe Leonard, who's constructing a camera obscura in the museum; and Joseph Grigely, who's working with ephemera from archives of the late critic Gregory Battcock.

Elms said he was drawn to artists who straddle multiple genres.

Adkins, known for merging music and sculpture, installation and performance, fit the bill. The artist used abstractions and assemblages of found objects to evoke connections to historical figures such as Sojourner Truth, John Coltrane, or W.E.B. Du Bois, activating his works with live performances of music and poetry.

"My quest is to use abstract means, to educate the public about these figures through ways that are not image-based or narrative-based, but to challenge them to think abstractly in relating to the stories of the lives of the people concerned," he said in an interview with the website

Of the other Philadelphia artists being recognized, all acknowledge the impact of this city on their work in ways that are subtle but profound.

Take Dona Nelson: The professor at Temple's Tyler School of Art lived in New York for years before relocating to Philadelphia and, in 2006, settling in Lansdale.

"Moving there really freed up my work," she said.

Her richly layered "two-sided paintings" - painted from both sides of the canvas, stitched with thread, hosed down, and reworked over and over again - benefited from the fact that she had room to work and access to the outdoors.

These days, Nelson stores her paintings within and outside of her large studio and returns to them over the course of years, allowing them to become visual representations of the passage of time.

"My most productive period is in the summer. I leave paintings outside. I'll leave them in big storms. I'll forget them sometimes, look out my kitchen window, and there's a huge painting out there and it's pouring rain," she said. Leaves and dirt get stuck in the paint.

"Usually, the painting gets improved."

Nelson's contribution to the Biennial exhibition catalog is a conversation with another Biennial artist, Louise Fishman (who is, incidentally, a native Philadelphian and Tyler graduate; also included in the exhibition are Penn alumnus Jacolby Satterwhite, and University of the Arts graduates Dan Walsh and Dave McKenzie).

Mosley said the Biennial is one indication that, while Philadelphia's artistic community is still satisfyingly intimate, it's beginning to yield more broadly recognized talent.

"We've seen that potential in Philadelphia for artists to be connected to the city they're living in and show within and outside Philadelphia," he said. "There seem to be several artists succeeding at that right now, and I don't remember that 15 years ago in the same way."

Through a Pew Fellowship in the Arts grant and a teaching job at Penn, Mosley has been able to dedicate the last three years to his video project. He built a replica of a tennis court from France's Ch√Ęteau de Fontainebleau, down to the slate-tiled floor, then made a stop-motion animation of a tennis match that could have been played in 1907, and seen as if filmed by a dance cinematographer more interested in the play of light on the floor than in the score of the game.

While Mosley's work is grounded in history, that of his colleague at Penn, Ken Lum, is often more grounded in place. In the case of this exhibition, that place is the New World Plaza, a Vietnamese strip mall at Washington Avenue and Sixth Street in South Philadelphia, not far from Lum's home.

"I've caught events there, in the parking lot, where you have Vietnamese veterans saluting and carrying their guns, flying the South Vietnamese flag. There's obviously a profound sadness to it, because the country doesn't exist really."

His work for the Whitney is a 17-foot-tall replica of the New World Plaza's sign (built in pieces, to be assembled with an Allen key "like Ikea furniture"). But instead of advertising shops and eateries, each panel contains a reference to a place, person or event from the Vietnam War.

"It's not the conventional presentation of the narrative of war," Lum said. "It's vibrant, it's colorful, pulsing with energy."

How those references will be received among museum crowds 100 miles north of New World Plaza, Lum can't predict. The Biennial has been a springboard for some artists in the past, but not for all.

"I went into art as a long game, not a short game," Lum said. "I hope it doesn't flop. If nothing happens from this, I will continue to make my art."



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