The Impulsive Traveler: An art weekend in Philadelphia

By Robert DiGiacomo
Sunday, March 14, 2010

If only my art history class had been as engaging as a series of exhibits and installations now on display in Philadelphia, I might have gotten that elusive A.

To take in "A Love Letter for You," a series of 50 murals painted on the rooftops and walls of a Philly neighborhood, I recently hopped on an elevated train to get a premium view. At the Moore College of Art & Design, I found myself surrounded by images of giant black bugs climbing all over a gallery-size installation, part of "Philagrafika 2010," a citywide festival that takes a multimedia approach to celebrating contemporary printmaking. And at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I sank into the huge "pouf" -- a custom-made round sofa -- in the vibrant red salon that's part of the museum's more traditional exhibit, "Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris." From this perch, the masterpieces by the great modernist and his contemporaries, stacked as high as 20 feet up on the wall, definitely commanded my attention.

Take it from this B student of art history: It all makes for an educational, entertaining and literally transporting weekend in the City of Brotherly Love.

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Start with "A Love Letter," which marks a homecoming of sorts for New York-based Steve Powers, who grew up in Philadelphia and first expressed his ambitions as a graffiti artist with the tag "Espo." Having channeled his talent into a successful career that has encompassed a Fulbright scholarship and gallery shows in New York, Powers wanted to give something back to his home town.

The result is a project for the city's Mural Arts Program that runs from 46th to 63rd streets, on buildings adjacent to the Market-Frankford line. The murals, which strut across the tops of businesses, churches and typical Philly rowhouses, offer a witty and often touching narrative of a guy's pursuit of a girl. Done in a style resembling old-school painted signs, the murals offer messages ranging from the lighthearted -- "We share defeats, we share receipts and we share the sheets" -- to the poignant: "Miss you too much not to love you."

Although you can see the works by downloading a map, buying a subway token and boarding the el in Center City, I think they're best experienced via a weekly tour given on Saturday. My guide, Jean, provided our group of 10 with details about the project and shouted out commands to look left, right, up or down as the train clattered along its route through West Philly.

If you go on your own, stop at 52nd Street on the westbound train to see a half-dozen murals from the platform, and eastbound at 60th and 56th for more good vantage points. Be careful if you exit the stations west of 46th Street, where the West Philadelphia neighborhood becomes more hardscrabble.

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For an even more varied graphic trip, I made several stops at Philagrafika, the first of what's meant to be a triennial show presenting printmaking on paper, on film and through installations. The ambitious undertaking is on exhibit at 88 venues, including five that have collaborated on the core exhibition, dubbed "The Graphic Unconscious."

Among those five locations are Moore College, home of the aforementioned bugs, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, whose ornate, Victorian-era building is the unlikely setting for a stop-motion video by the Indonesian collective Tromarama. The film clip, like many of the works shown at "Philagrafika," seeks to expand the definition of prints. It was made with a series of woodcuts used in traditional printmaking that have been "turned" at a rapid pace to animate the piece, which is set to a rock tune. The clip is much more entertaining than anything you might see on MTV, if it still showed videos.

Another major component of "Philagrafika" is "Out of Print," in which five contemporary artists have been matched with five of the city's institutions, where they have used the historic collections to make a new work. At the Rosenbach Museum & Library, for example, contemporary artist Enrique Chagoya has put a new spin on a 19th-century print called "The Head Ache." Chagoya substitutes the face of Barack Obama for the man in the George Cruikshank original as a commentary on today's health-care debate, which has been enough to make anyone reach for the aspirin.

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