Art Goes Out into the City and Comes Back into the Gallery

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Drama Wall, Psychylustro, Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Artist: Katherina Grosse, 2014. Photo by Steve Weinik, courtesy Mural Arts Program.

One of the most exciting things about contemporary art is the way works of art have left the walls of the gallery and museum and moved out into the urban landscape. Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with an extravagance of murals across the city. One in particular, psychylustro, breaks new ground.

German artist Katherina Grosse has unleashed her paint spray guns on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor right of way as it passes from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to the North Philadelphia station. The piece is made up of seven passages, three on the northbound side, and four on the southbound side. They vary from murals on bridge and trestle walls, to murals on fences and buildings along the tracks, to washes of color sprayed onto embankments, including onto invasive weeds and trees that make up the rail corridor’s landscape vegetation. You view the piece from your passenger window as the train speeds through the city. At once just a blur of color, you can also listen on your cell phone to artist interviews and experience an audio interpretation by sound artist Jesse Kudler.

The project has received a lot of positive response from bloggers who are tagging their photos and comments with #psychylustro on social media such as Twitter and Instagram. But there have also been some negative comments, that it is just eye candy that papers over the problems of poverty, unemployment, and racism that have festered in North Philadelphia for decades as the heavy industrial economy collapsed. There is no arguing that a work of public art is not going to solve the city’s social and economic problems.

But the purpose of art is less concrete than social action. The purpose of art is to change the way we see the world, sometimes by adding beauty to the world, and sometimes by disrupting the way we see the world. There’s hope that this intervention will be the first of several positive steps to bring life back to North Philadelphia.

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Artist Gene Davis putting finishing touches on his 414-ft-long ptg. ‘Franklin’s Footpath,’ painted on street in front of Philadelphia Museum of Art,” photo by Henry Groskinsky, 1972 :: via The Best of LIFE

At Temple Contemporary, at the Tyler School of Art on the Temple University campus, you can see another take on painting the town, where art on the street comes back into the gallery. Back in 1972, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Department of Urban Outreach commissioned Gene Davis to paint Franklin’s Footpath, a 414 foot long mural on the pavement of the street in Eakins Oval, the large roundabout that terminates the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at the foot of the art museum steps. The museum program was a precursor to today’s Mural Arts Program.

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Polly Apfelbaum + Dan Cole: For The Love of Gene Davis. Temple Contemporary, 2014. Photo by Bill Brookover.

Polly Apfelbaum was this year’s Distinguished Alumni Mentor at Tyler, working with recent grad Dan Cole. Apfelbaum had mentioned Gene Davis’ work as one of her inspirations in her talk to the students during the mentorship. She and Cole worked together to realize the exhibition: Polly Apfelbaum + Dan Cole: For the Love of Gene Davis. Apfelbaum painted the walls of the gallery in horizontal stripes, based on Davis’ mural, and commissioned a hand woven rug for the floor that completes the color field in the gallery. In an adjacent gallery, Cole put together a video installation that overlays Davis’ mural with photos of Philadelphia and screen shots from the 1972 film Harold and Maude. The show celebrates the on-going legacy of art making in Philadelphia.

For more on psychylustro and the Mural Arts Program:  http://muralarts.org/katharinagrosse.  You can join WHYY’s Chris Satullo at the Center for Architecture on Wednesday, June 18, 6 – 8 pm, for a panel discussion, Great Gateways and the Cities That Make Them (rsvp at events@muralarts.org).

For background on Gene Davis: http://www.culture-making.com/post/franklins_footpath_by_gene_davis_1972.  The Polly Apfelbaum + Dan Cole show was also featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer: http://www.inquirer.com/features/entertainment/20140525_Acclaimed_artist__Temple_student_team_to_pay_tribute_to_Gene_Davis__stripes.html

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