There's Still Time to Catch PAFA's Take on City Life

By Darren White
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 17, 2011

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“Heap”: It's just that—a massive wall drawing by the Dufala brothers now on display at PAFA.

Photo by Darren White

Walking through Urbanism: Reimagining the Lived Environment will reacquaint you with some of the things you may hate about the city—nosey neighbors, pollution, massive traffic jams on the Ben Franklin Parkway—but ultimately will present you with the intoxicating, colorful commotions that keep you firmly within its grasp. 

Viewers are greeted by four massive works by Arden Bendler Browning, which act as wonderful introductions to the show. Full of movement and dynamic combinations of color and shape, Browning’s paintings are filled with a loud, chaotic energy that evokes morning traffic. Staring at “Leftover” is like watching fleets of cars pass like lightening on I-95. The paintings are full of speed and pandemonium that drag you from lane to lane, street sign to street sign. It’s like an assault on the senses, until you sit back and digest them as a collection of works and that chaos dissolves into normalcy, just like getting acquainted with a new city.

The exhibition’s resident celebrities are the Dufala brothers, Steven and Billy Blaise, who are known for their comedic yet intelligent visual statements on rampant wastefulness. Their contribution is no deviation from that mission but takes a less riotous approach, checking some of their more crude visual one-liners at the door. This isn’t to say the work doesn’t have the rebellious, street-wise sensibility we’ve come to expect of our Jersey boys. The wall drawing “Heap,” filled with tech junk, computers and machine belts, stands erect at the end of “Twenty Yard Dumpster Coffin,” a Dumpster lined with faux-satin fabric and decorated with chintzy gold filigree. “Heap” acts as the perfect tombstone to the Dumpster; filled with soft, overflowing golden light, the Dumpster is a heavenly final resting place for what Steven calls “the ghostly trash” that spills from it and lands onto the giant “Heap.” What could have been two individually quirky pieces become a contemplative, almost spooky commentary on the effects of consumption. A third piece, “Long Sneaker Foot Print,” sits behind the Dumpster and takes a humorous look at sidewalk cement doodles.

Ben Peterson is another jokester with a message. His large-scale ink drawings display seemingly idyllic architectural landscapes disturbed by the various absurdities of city life. “City on a Hill” depicts your classic McMansion in a field, supported by the incongruous steel scaffolding, being impaled by a fallen tree—a statement of the instability of the foundations that make up our existence within the landscape. “Baggage Claim” shows a pagoda-like structure falling victim to a bevy of suitcases attached to its side, like the family SUV before a road trip. The drawings have razor-sharp precision and are full of color, but they take a backseat to some of the louder, more out-spoken works in the show.

The sleeper hit of this exhibition, though, comes from Amy Walsh, PAFA alumna and an instructor at the Academy as well as at Temple University. Walsh’s mixed-media sculptures, constructed together as one massive architectural form near the entry of the gallery, are viewed through five small eyeholes that play upon our society’s voyeuristic tendencies. Her installation requires the viewer to act in order to simply view, providing a level of physical engagement often absent in the contemporary gallery experience. Walking past the exterior of the installation, composed from scraps of cardboard, wood and plastic, the work becomes incredibly evocative, recalling childhood expeditions through tiny crawl spaces and dusty attics. Or, at darker moments, it conjures up images of abandoned buildings being explored after blackness has blanketed the city.

Through Sept. 4. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Fisher Brooks Gallery, Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building, 118 N. Broad St. 215.972.7625.

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