The sediment of intellectual labor is rich in Philadelphia. It pools in the histories of its various geographic, philosophical and scientific societies and in the archives of the city’s institutions of higher education. While the contributors to this bedrock are many, there just might be an entire layer, carbon dating to somewhere between 1950-1970, dedicated to the scholarship of University of Pennsylvania anthropologist, nature writer and philosopher Loren Eiseley (1907-1977). During his lifetime, he was awarded 36 honorary degrees, published 18 books and won awards from the Boston Science Museum to the U.S. Humane Society. Visions of Loren Eiseley, a group show curated by Philadelphia Traction Company member artist Jeff Dentz, aims to celebrate Eiseley’s work, while transforming a little slice of urban fabric along the way.
Cruise up to the corner of 41st Street and Haverford Avenue in West Philly, and you can’t miss this unusual exhibition: a series of 11 black-and-white posters wheat-pasted over the boarded-up windows of a warehouse. “We didn’t want to advertise for ourselves too much,” says Dentz, referring to the warehouse-cum-gallery where the shared workspace known as Traction Company houses its metal, moulding and printmaking workshops. “But we wanted to show the neighborhood that this was a creative center, a place where we’re working out ideas about art.” To this end, Dentz asked five local artists to create works on paper in reaction to Eiseley’s writing on science, evolution and the role of humans in the larger ecosystem. Dentz had Eiseley on the mind, and for an outdoor show, paying homage to a naturalist seemed only natural.
The resulting imagery—photocopied and enlarged from the original woodcuts, drawings and collages—reads like illustrations of a meandering book club discussion. As in any discussion, themes, trends and areas of shared interest come to the fore. Water is prevalent in many of the prints; mountains, too. In other cases, solitary figures dominate landscapes. For Dentz, who has two pieces in the exhibition, the apparition of people is a development he attributes directly to Eiseley. “Previous to reading his stuff, a lot of my work was landscapes,” he says. He had a hard time figuring out how to incorporate human beings into his work, but after he read Eiseley, it all seemed to come together. “He was talking about how humans were interacting with the changing landscape,” recalls Dentz. “Loren Eiseley was writing about observing, being a human and trying to see what’s going on. There’s a lot in his books about being a human and watching the world change.”
Indeed, things have changed around the block on which the exhibition sits. Visions of Loren Eiseley may lie only a handful of streets from the University of Pennsylvania, where Eiseley taught, but it seems like another world. Rather than meticulously painted porches and streets teeming with college students, a tract of Philadelphia Housing Authority sub-divisions stretches out across the street, and Traction Company’s boarded-up appearance only serves to accent the scene of urban grit. But to travel afield would not have been out of character for Eiseley, who train-hopped and hoboed his way through the Great Depression. Observation and contemplation were tenets of Eiseley’s approach to the world, and Dentz hopes people will pause to wonder at Visions. “Everyone’s looking at the sidewalk and each other and the cars. This gives you something else to look at,” says Dentz.
He’s low-key about the exhibition, which faces wind, rain and crippling August heat. In fact, the works take form around this particularly Eiselian paradox: Just as Eiseley rendered existential questions accessible to regular people, the artists in Visions adapt philosophical meditations on the environment to a street art vernacular, using wheat pastes to make sketches of nature in the urban jungle.
Closing reception is Thurs., Aug. 23, 6 to 9pm. Exhibition runs through Aug. 31. Traction Company, 4100 Haverford Ave. 610.608.7779. tractioncompany.com
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PW's Holiday Guide 2014