Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Philadelphia Fabric Workshop Exhibit

Fabric Workshop presents monumental works by Pae White, Mark Bradford, Jennifer Steinkamp

Pae White´s "Summer XX." The phrase "Hasta la muerte," "until death," is spelled out on a wall in yarn. The room is so suffused with brilliant red one feels surrounded in a mist of it. CARLOS AVENDAÑO

Pae White's "Summer XX." The phrase "Hasta la muerte,"
"until death," is spelled out on a wall in yarn. The room
is so suffused with brilliant red one feels surrounded in a
mist of it

When the Fabric Workshop and Museum moved to Arch Street to make way for the expansion of the Convention Center, it gained some cavernous, loftlike spaces on the upper floors of its building that lend themselves to monumental installation projects.

In the current art climate, there seem to be many artists who like to work this way. But how many can effectively fill a shoebox-proportioned room that's 130 feet long? Pae White can and does, with a mesmerizing construction of red yarn called Summer XX.

White is one of three Los Angeles artists being featured at the Workshop through late spring. The others are Mark Bradford, who fills another large gallery with a mural-like installation called Geppetto, and Jennifer Steinkamp, who needs far less space for her projected animations, but whose impact is nonetheless substantial.

White's piece, inspired by graffiti near her studio in East Los Angeles, is a tribute to a recently deceased mentor. It emerges from the Spanish phrase Hasta la muerte — "until death" — which is spelled out on one long wall in yarn, in blocky, emblematic letters.

Threads project from these emblems across to the opposite wall, where they're anchored high up, just under the ceiling. Walking under this three-dimensional maze of threads, one feels enveloped by it, not only physically but also optically and psychologically. The room is so suffused with brilliant red that one feels surrounded in a mist of it.

Another subtle touch: The wall containing the emblems is painted a dark color, apparently gray. Yet a greenish halo hovers around the concentrated red of the letter-emblems, a bit of optical magic that the modernist painter Josef Albers demonstrated many times over in his Homage to the Square paintings.

One doesn't feel that White is working on this scale just to fill up the space. The installation wouldn't work if it were diminished; it needs this much volume to create the visual and spatial effects that give it psychological punch.

Mark Bradford also uses most of an entire wall for his collage mural called Geppetto, yet here one feels that the underlying concept isn't sufficiently weighty to support so much acreage.

The piece is made of about 2,000 sheets of newsprint that have been "canceled" by overprinting with ink, whose tone ranges from gray to black. The sheets, pasted directly to the wall, overlap in a mosaic arrangement. Bradford has left a long irregular section of wall uncovered; I concede that the symbolism of this escapes me.

Visually, Geppetto is an abstract version of Whistler's famous Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. Metaphorically, as the title's reference to the Pinocchio fable (Bradford also based an earlier piece on the story), it offers other allusions, something about paternalism, perhaps. There aren't enough clues here to lead to a core truth.

Bradford's short video Niagara, projected on an adjacent wall, is similarly problematic, although it's more engaging visually. A black man in yellow shorts, seen from behind, sashays down a Los Angeles sidewalk. After you see this a few times, you require an explanation, especially about the title.

As your Workshop minder might explain, the man is a prostitute who promenades down this sidewalk daily on his way to a local park, his "place of business." "Niagara" refers to his undulating gait, which reminded Bradford of the way Marilyn Monroe wobbled away from the camera in a memorable scene from the 1953 film Niagara.

So, it's a bit of street theater, life imitating art.

Jennifer Steinkamp's two animations, Fly to Mars and Moth, likewise develop simple ideas, but in a way that produces exceptional lyricism and a Zen-like meditative calm.

In Mars, we watch a small flowering tree proceed through the seasons. It blossoms, leafs out, then turns color, although the branches never go completely bare. All the time the branches sway back and forth, up and down, as if pushed by an invisible wind. The crown of the tree surges, then relaxes, like waves as they approach a beach.

Moth comprises four projections, each one depicting lengths of tattered cloths of contrasting colors rhythmically billowing and slumping like sheets on a clothesline. The motion is continuous, entirely natural, and amazingly dimensional for a flat projection. As with the tree, watching these projections soothes and almost hypnotizes.

There's a coda to this show that you shouldn't miss. Down the block in the New Temporary Contemporary, the Workshop has juxtaposed Bradford's Niagara with a brief video by Philadelphia artist Carlos Avendaño called Brenda.

In this pairing, the context for Niagara shifts to emphasize the theme of sexual identity, and consequently becomes more understandable. This is because Brenda features drag queens on the street at night; it's a beautiful, all-too-brief slice of unconventional life, captured by Avendaño with touching intimacy. Los Angeles artistsalso feature prominently in a new exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art called "First Among Equals." It purports to be about how artists collaborate and contribute to each other's work, submerging their identities temporarily to achieve a larger purpose.

The problem is that, with one exception, the art used to demonstrate this concept not only isn't very compelling, it also reveals very little evidence of communal enterprise. Absent the elaborate and somewhat strained didactic foundation, nothing that the show desires to convey is readily evident.

What we seem to have here is an intellectual premise desperately searching for visual evidence to support it.

The exception is a projected video by the Philadelphia group Extra Extra (Philadelphians account for half the participating artists and groups) that takes visitors on a tour of a virtual museum. Each visitor controls his or her "tour" through body movements such as walking in place, lifting a knee, or kicking to the side.

One becomes so preoccupied with the movements that it's hard to focus on what the tour reveals, if anything. The significance of this piece is the steadily advancing state of digital technology and how artists are adapting it.

Larger than life

Work by three California artists remains on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St., and the New Temporary Contemporary, 1222 Arch St., through late spring. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and noon to 5 Saturdays and Sundays. Admission $3. 215-561-8888 or www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.

“First Among Equals” continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 36th and Sansom Streets, through Aug. 12. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 11 to 6 Thursdays and Fridays, and 11 to 5 Sundays. Free. 215-898-7108 or www.icaphila.org