One window at a time, Philadelphia is being transformed. Where once graffiti reigned as the dominant art form, a different vision now confronts those who by chance or design find themselves encountering some very different marks on the city’s facade.
Stripped of the anonymity provided by dull, weathered plywood, four previously vacant storefront windows in Philadelphia now have individual identities which challenge the predictability of the city streetscape. The first group of the 12 Artfront sites to be completed this year, these new incarnations defy the quotidian nature of their urban environment and invite observers to both redefine their concepts of art and to participate in the ongoing metamorphosis of the city
The Artfront Partnership, brainchild of independent curator Marsha Moss, was developed four years ago to revitalize the Center City streets of Philadelphia. Conceived as a way of integrating the resources of the arts and business communities, the project has expanded the non-traditional exhibition opportunities for regional artists and architects and provided new venues in which the public can experience art. Storefronts that had been shuttered and viewed as sources of embarrassment and urban blight have become the sites of installations that generate bold visual images and ideas. This year, the first sites to be reinvented are located across from the new Convention Center so that visitors and native passersby alike will have a more edifying visual experience than that provided by the adjacent adult entertainment establishments.
Temporary by design (most Artfronts have a life span of between two months and a year, depending on how soon the space is leased to a tenant), the installations are frequently experimental and defy traditional categorization. In so doing, they inhabit a “transition zone” where public and private, elite and egalitarian, and conventional and cutting-edge establish a tentative balance. Moss sees the works as “challenging as art, and also part of the ‘real’ world.” Whereas traditional sculpture is object-oriented, she defines Artfronts as “‘places’ which are ‘artworks.'” These then become capable of changing the physical nature of the space itself, and in so doing, alter the observer’s perceptions of the larger urban environment.
Although public art proliferates in Philadelphia, the spirit of Artfront distinguishes it from permanently sited sculptures and murals. The most successful installations share an urban sensibility, a focus on the use of space, and the ability to communicate to a diverse audience. Since having a strong “street presence” is important, all the works effectuate both a day and a night persona, making each into essentially two distinct but mutually supportive presentations. The tangible aspects of the works, frequently constructed of offbeat, inexpensive, or everyday materials, provide the framework during the day, but light itself becomes the viable element at night. This creates a new, evanescent and often surreal presence for the artworks themselves, and also reflects the concept of the “night life” of the city which is invisible during the day, but which dominates at night. In fact, the juxtaposition of the lit installations with the streetlights and neon advertisements provides another thread, weaving the art into its locale.
“Post and Beam”, by Jeffry Faust and Ray Young, was motivated by the “plethora of poles, posts, and pillars” to be found in the city, but parodies the architectural concept of post-and-beam construction. These pillars, slanted and angled to provide a sense of dynamism, support not wooden beams, but rather “beams” of light fashioned out of frosted acetate. Appearing solid during the day, this illusion evaporates at night as contained beams of colored light intermingle with both force and control.
Providing sharp contrast to this formalism is cdavid hall-cottrill’s Flight of the Windeyes. Inspired by the derivation of the word “window,” (“wind” and “eye”), hall-cottrill offers a habitat of floating windows and airborne eyes swaying inside a tunnel-like pulsating parachute. He invites the viewer to enter a fantasy world where Dr. Seuss would be comfortable rubbing elbows with Salvador Dali during the day, but where at night pulsing strobe lights accentuate a huge glass eyeball glaring demonically in the back. Interested in wordplays and layers of meaning, he presents imagery that blurs the distinction between seeing and being seen.
The majority of the Artfront installations are concerned with visual elements, but Michael Resnic and Peter Morano make their window, “Hailstorm”, a multisensory experience. Eschewing mystery, Resnic and Morano expose the complex wooden infrastructure beneath a landscape where ping-pong balls shoot frenetically from the back into the plate glass window in front. The forced perspective, emphasized by angled roads and billboards, draws the viewer’s eye into the distant landscape and the approaching storm, but the waist-level height of the “road” reveals how the balls actually roll back to return to the machine which ejects them. The balls hitting the window sound remarkably like hailstones. At night, an eerie glow emphasizes the foreboding quidity of the scene.
Completing the tableau is James Stills’s “To Know”. An artist who normally focuses on the body, Stills met the self-imposed challenge of “making a window about the body that was civic-minded” by suspending a photograph of the palms of two hands behind a Plexiglas map of Philadelphia. The words “To Know” are printed on the window itself. He sees a connection between the lines of a map and the lines on hands and wants people to know the city like the palm of their hand.
Moss sees Artfront as “demystifying art by placing it in an informal setting, face to face with the public.” Ultimately, the impact these installations have on the city rests on the impact they have on the individual viewer. The artists reflect many of their perceptions of the city in their work, but it is the viewer who becomes the key element as his or her own reflection momentarily inhabits each piece. One woman looking at Stills’s window during the day muttered, “To know? To know what?” At night, mesmerized by the flashing strobe light of Windeyes a man asked, “What’s that? A new club?” Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. And anyone can join