The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
One of the smallest galleries in Philadelphia – Napoleon – has teamed up with one of the largest work spaces – the Traction Company – for Citywide Philly, a Knight Arts grantee, to present a pair of exhibits that bridge the two wildly different spaces with a pairing of objects and replicas.
While Napoleon’s two-person artist teams focus on a poem celebrating the work of Picasso in “As first as exactly,” Traction Company turns its attention inward as it recreates its entire facility in miniature (including the current Napoleon show) with the massively meta “SubTraction.”
Nestled into the back corner of Traction Company, whose location is typically utilized for work and not for show, the members of Napoleon tackle a text by Gertrude Stein that mimics the Cubist perspectives of Picasso’s paintings. The words are disjointed and repetitive, and early in the poem it is interesting to note that Stein invokes the name of Napoleon, presciently highlighting a tiny artist collective’s show in the distant future.
Taking an opposing approach to both painting and writing, the pieces produced in pairs by Napoleon are notably object-based; the constructions are highly physical, especially when compared with the works that inform them. H. John Thompson and Jordan Rockford create a structure that resembles a house, complete with drywall, shutters and slatted blinds. Although small for an actual residence, it is nonetheless imposing as an artwork, and the two triangular sections of wall don’t quite fit together, leaving gaps big enough to see through. Using either the cracks or the windows, one can see mirrors inside, which reflect the backward text etched onto each. The words are also the title of the installation and the end of a stanza in Stein’s poem: “For this is so. Because.”
Following suit by imposing lines of poetry on the three-dimensional realm, Liza Coviello and Leslie Friedman’s tall, hanging mobile of toy airplanes, chains and larger-than-life Scrabble tiles also directly quotes Stein. Titled “Land,” the movement of the slowly spinning strands of letters mimics the barely noticeable growth of our green, photosynthetic cousins. A box of dirt and plant replicas sits firmly beneath the dangling bits with a wooden sign that reads “THE LAND,” just in case anyone was at all unsure.
An actual cube (appropriately named “Cube”) by Marc Blumthal and Alexis Nutini is an obvious nod to the namesake of Picasso’s breakthrough style. Its printed exterior pops with pixels like a publication while window frames and shutters draw on more of the source poem’s wandering imagery.
Lest we forget the ambitious, yet diminutive, project by Traction Company, let us pay its one-sixth replica space a visit inside Napoleon’s gallery. Purportedly taking some 4,600 hours of fabrication, the interior space directly copies the gigantic former trolley factory that now houses artist studios at 41st and Haverford.
Every detail of the cavernous creative locale is copied into an area that demands that most visitors duck to enter. The mystique of observing our surroundings shrunken to rodent-sized proportions is awe-inspiring enough, but the attention to detail in the model is truly flooring. Indeed, even the Napoleon artists’ work has been recreated for the mock-up, taking both Traction Company’s daily grind and Napoleon’s one-time exhibit literally to another level.
By including each in-progress sculpture, fan, trash can, light fixture, and clamp, the resident artisans from Traction Company thrust not only their own work into an entirely new perspective, but blow the viewers wildly out of proportion as well. This microcosmic show forces us to question not only art's role to us, but also our place in the art world, Philadelphia, and even this strange journey called life. Dare we step back like a voyeuristic beast towering over a tiny city, our beliefs are suddenly matched against a world that is recognizable, but distorted beyond repair. Calling to mind Carl Sagan's “Pale Blue Dot” analysis of our earthly domain, we are reminded that despite our joys, fears, and accomplishments, a healthy dose of humility is wise for the often convoluted mechanics of our human doings.
Both shows will be on display at their respective venues through Dec. 6.
Napoleon is located at 319 N. 11th St., on the second floor, Philadelphia; firstname.lastname@example.org; napoleonnapoleon.com Traction Company is located at 4100 Haverford Ave., Philadelphia; email@example.com;