Breaking arts news: North Carolina has annexed a bit of Philadelphia.
If you're passing through the City of Brotherly Love this holiday season, work a visit to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) into your itinerary. A quartet of North Carolina artists participates in a nationally high-profile show called here. through New Year's Eve. Installations by Stacy Lynn Waddell (Chapel Hill) and Harrison Haynes (Durham), a film by Glenda Wharton (Winston-Salem) and a hands-on kunstkammer from the Elsewhere Collaborative (Greensboro) hook into the very open exhibition theme of place as subjective and real.
Here. has a six-headed curatorial group including Teka Selman, who is assistant director of the brand-new MFA program in experimental and documentary arts at Duke University. Each curator chose several artists from his or her geographical area (Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Phoenix, Detroit and Kansas City, in addition to the Triangle).
None of Selman's selections is as grounded in an actual physical location as the Elsewhere Collaborative's "Cabinet of Wonders," visible through the glass front of PAFA from the Broad Street sidewalk. Co-directed by George Scheer and Stephanie Sherman, Elsewhere is a hulking storefront in downtown Greensboro that was Scheer's grandmother's surplus and thrift store for more than a half-century. She passed away in 1997 and the store was boarded up. When Scheer and Sherman discovered the nearly infinite—and infinitely idiosyncratic—inventory still in the moldering building in 2003, their art-student radar went off the charts. Now Elsewhere is a nonprofit center hosting more than 30 resident artists each year to manipulate the old fabric, toys, office supplies and bric-a-brac into installations and projects in varieties of media.
Roughly the size of a luggage cart, Elsewhere's touchable "Cabinet" exemplifies the cross of theory and whimsy that makes the collective's Greensboro haunt so magical. All sorts of old materials serve as drawers and doors on one of the cabinet's faces. Lift a beaten leather book cover to reveal a tiny music box in a blue, starlit alcove with the typewritten title "Rejected Lullaby, 1959, discovered in the Irving Berlin archive by Daniel Fishkin, 2007." A backlit tank and respirator labeled "Genuine Elsewhereian Air"—recalling Marcel Duchamp's glass vial of Parisian air—is within an old "OK Motor Oil" tin box with a cut, hinged front. Slide out a cardboard drawer to take the "NC Adventure Tour: A Collection of Treasures"—an arrangement of seed pods, washers, gravel and arcane, unidentifiable objects, all meticulously labeled with the names of the Greensboro streets on which they were found.
There's a manic childishness to the cabinet's tiny contents that is akin to a flashback sequence of a Tim Burton protagonist's formative moments. But Elsewhere's fancy is also a critique of rationality and a protest or resistance against a conceptual colonialism that equates naming and understanding with control. The 20 minutes you'll spend gleefully exploring the cabinet's nooks and crannies may not only be the best minutes of your December but might also convert you into a flâneur, able to summon curiosity and awe to reanimate place—and yourself—from under a deadening determinism.
Stacy Lynn Waddell's installation, "Aarkaydea," originates from two more explicitly colonial spectacles in Philadelphia—the nation's first zoo in 1874 and the World's Fair and Centennial Exposition two years later—and resonated with the since-cleared Occupy Philadelphia encampment a block away in Dilworth Plaza. Small framed works done in Waddell's familiar media of burned and branded paper, watercolor and gold leaf are clustered along a section of wall and a pillar by a second-floor glass wall of the academy, so "Aarkaydea" is brightly sunlit for much of the day. The wall and pillar are covered floor to ceiling with bright, photographic wallpaper of a tropical beach, repeating four times with abrupt visible seams. There's no masking of artifice here.
Around 20 individually framed works hang on the wall, including some Audubon birds in gold leaf and a dense clustering of cursive "B" branding to comprise silhouettes. Most of these works connect with the installation's two key events and show how otherness has to be captured, killed and displayed in order to be co-opted or drained of resources by a conquering force.
The most significant of the works is a re-creation of Robert Scott Duncanson's 1853 anti-slavery painting "Uncle Tom and Little Eva." Beneath a gold leaf sky, a golden Eva with diamond-studded hair sits with a burned-paper Tom in a scorched tropical landscape. Waddell implicates the arbitrary assignation of value to materials like gold and diamonds, as well as how real the effects of their economies are for the oppressed labor force that has to extract these materials on a mass scale. Little Eva gets to gleam while Uncle Tom smolders.
Glenda Wharton's 26-minute film "The Zo" might be the most technically impressive artifact in the entire show. Animated from more than 5,000 multilayered drawings done over a half-decade, its anthropomorphic figures and reciprocating flicker combine with Ian Melchinger's haunting score to create an affecting, shadowy interior realm. But any "how did she do that?" wonder is quickly eclipsed by the horror of the protagonist's predicament. No dark is so dark as a psychological dark. A young girl cowers in the corners and shadows of a liminal house, by turns assaulted and ignored by protean monsters forming the "Zo." In her gallery text, Wharton notes that she is the young girl living the nightmare. While making the drawings for the film, she realized that the house was her childhood house. This is a place entirely determined by what happened to her there. The dark complexities of half-forgotten childhood fears grew monstrous in her subconscious, compelling her to return to confront them.
The Zo changes form almost constantly—insectoid or bird-like one moment, a toothed shoe or toy in the next. Sometimes the Zo is a terrifying figure with a bat's ears and a huge, fanged mouth. Other times it wriggles about as an almost cute, anglerfish-like monster that seems more a pet or companion than a threat. Its ever-changing form and deeds capture the conflicted, instantaneous life of an abused child, who suffers at the hands of those who care for her.
Of the four North Carolina artists at PAFA, Harrison Haynes presents the most straightforward connection to the theme. In his video installation "LRLL RLRR," a notation that represents the paradiddle drumbeat, Haynes offers music as a potential current of understanding between nodes of geographical and cultural difference.
Two individual listening stations face each other across a gallery space. You sit in front of a monitor and put on headphones. On-screen you see a drummer with his (Haynes) or her (Casey Cook) back to you. The other drummer is out of focus, facing you at about the position of the other listening station in the gallery.
Haynes and Cook maintain a dull, standard beat for a while. You stare at the back of either his orange, or her blue, T-shirt. Then the drumming changes rhythm and tempo as the musicians go out of synch with each other, phasing like an early Steve Reich piece. As the sonic interference emerges, the image of the other drummer's back fades in, and they swap places on your screen. Haynes' message comes through clearly: Life, regardless of place, is more interesting when it gets messy, when there's interference. Music is a space in which multiplicity is not just coherent but intensely desirable.
The rest of here. is kind of all over the place. Sue Chenowith, from Phoenix, presents flayed, interpenetrated memory-maps, and Detroit's Scott Hocking shows ritualistic, paleontological photographs; both are high points. A vast cardboard installation by Kansas City's Whoop De Doo public access channel collective is not, although one at least gets a little high off the paint fumes in the group's trash environment.
In addition to Hocking's work, here. offers many compelling photography projects. Phoenix-based Aaron Rothman's series "Idle Speculation" takes a photograph of a patch of weeds by the airport as a source image. Then, in six poster-size images, Rothman fragments, inverts and reconfigures the image, rendering it progressively more mottled as the original tangle of grass and wildflowers recedes into visual noise. The last image in the series has succumbed so completely to Rothman's process that it looks like speckled concrete.
Philadelphia photographer Tim Portlock also presents a six-image series of manipulated photographs that recalls Anthony Goicolea's work (some of which was exhibited at the North Carolina Museum of Art last summer and reviewed in these pages). Portlock virtualizes actual spaces such as the Municipal Services Building across the street from PAFA into unpeopled, post-apocalyptic urban landscapes. Against poisonous orange sunsets, spires rise out of abandoned wastelands, topped by a heroic figure that recalls William Penn's statue on Philadelphia City Hall. Crisply rendered stray dogs run in a pack between graphitized warehouses with pixilated roofs.
Although it's hard to imagine almost any artifact as lacking an expression of place, here. is rarely undermined by its general theme. Rather, it affords sharp curators like Selman the chance to showcase a variety of compelling artists who connect PAFA visitors back to their hometowns and origins. And these four North Carolina artists more than hold their own.