Summer in the City

Leaving behind the suburban greenery of the Garden State, where the deer and groundhog cavort among tomatoes and cabbages, I travel to the center of Philadelphia to see an exhibit called “Urbanism: Reimagining the Lived Environment” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, running through Sept. 4.

Entering the gallery, I am first tempted to look away from what I initially perceive to be a site under construction. Sealed off by cardboard, plastic cloth and tape, it is in fact an installation by Amy Walsh, using discarded and found materials to evoke an environment of gutted houses and abandoned buildings.

“I think of my sculptures as evidence of a world that is fragile, transient and decaying,” says the artist, who is on the teaching staff of PAFA and Temple, “and at the same time is being rebuilt and reimagined.”

There are peep holes cut out of the cardboard into which you can see a construction made of boxes and sawhorses and inside one of the boxes windows, stairs and a hall light left on.

Through a larger opening, you can look inside this dwelling, on miniature scale, with shot-out windows and shadows cast by the skeletons of window frames. From another opening, you’re looking into a darkened room, with the door partially ajar, through which you can view another dwelling across the street. Through its broken windows you can see even farther. It’s like looking through may layers of Swiss cheese, with something mysterious back there that you desperately squint to see. There’s an entire city in there, with row houses and rooftops and catwalks and scaffolding and fire escapes and ladders and cranes — a city a cat would love.

    Yet another view looks through the broken panes of a skylight into what looks like a bombed out attic. The very act of looking through a peephole into what at first seemed a scrappy construction site is, of course, voyeuristic; you are seeing a whole universe through these holes, a movie set, a doll house city where the doll occupants, were they existent, would be the downtrodden.“The idea for this show was to show contemporary work of young artists, in their late 20s to 40, who can work on a large scale and do it successfully,” says PAFA Curator of Contemporary Art Julien Robson. “The dynamic of all the work suggests the urban experience.”It took 10 days for Ms. Walsh to create her hidden city. She arrived in the gallery with a framer and sketched out the passageway before beginning the site-specific installation. “She uses lights to create illusion,” says Mr. Robson. “She has a back story. You can’t quite see what it is but there’s something back there like structures built by the homeless. It’s a fiction and the peepholes are an illusory mechanism. With the peepholes, she’s letting you in. You crane your neck to see more detail. Each of these peepholes take you into her studio, from which you look out upon a different vista.”

There are so many windows through doors, it is as though you are looking out at forever. A black-and-white photograph through a distant window shows even more windows through windows.

Ben Peterson’s enormous works in ink and graphite are populated by the discards of our human existence — although, oddly, without us. Perhaps his world is post-apocalyptic. “City on a Hill” has an upright suburban dwelling bifurcated by a felled tree. Outside the home on a wire are the garments, rendered in black and white in this otherwise colorful world, that may have been worn by long-ago occupants. Underneath are other homes, upside down — though these are not reflections — and also with roofs that have been bashed. On yet another level of scaffolding is what looks like a cross section of a city of monolithic buildings. It’s like the remnants of a city on a hill, put on display.

In two other works, Mr. Peterson uses suitcases as the main characters. In one, they are accompanied by Nalgene- type bottles, yoga balls and mats, and lamps hanging by a wire in the sky.

Haiti and New Orleans never looked this orderly after their disasters.

In “Ship’s Wake” the skeleton of a circular building is still furnished with colorful chairs, sofas, desks and pottery, IKEA-style. One wall of a ship is made from suitcases, another from shipping containers. Through windows we can see a luggage carousel, and on the ship’s deck, chaise lounges are lined up, water bottles at their sides, fitted with flat piles of clothes from which humans have evaporated, as if for the rapture.

“Domestic things and building sites fascinate him,” says Mr. Robson. “From a distance it looks like an architectural rendering. He shows how the city is never finished. They are always doing roadwork.” Mr. Peterson’s semi-circular tower is a “fictional structure just plunked down in a modern city, modeled on someone’s idea of a European piazza.”

Mr. Peterson’s work can take six months or longer to create, and then is quickly snapped up by a collector, so it is hard to get the work for a show, Mr. Robson recounts of his challenge.

Reflecting the disorderliness of urban experience, Arden Bendler Browning’s urban imaginings are sprawling paintings, suggesting the noise and movement of city living.

“Cities have attracted me for their density, activity, variety, their layered contradictions … there is never enough to give me a definite understanding of my immediate environment,” she says. The enormous works are painted on Tyvek, a building material.

From a distance — which is the only way to view these properly — they remind me of my drive into the city, with the blur of the roadside and the geometric shapes of buildings, windows, trucks, utility poles, columns, corrugation, ships and holding tanks.

“I came across Arden at Fleisher Art Memorial and was impressed with the way she could compress paintings,” says Mr. Robson. “Arden showed a piece at the Icebox Gallery in the Crane Building that showed how the experience of the city has to do with movement, extracting off Google Earth as well as fragments that appear and disappear. She’s bringing into play temporal shifts and movement. They are places but not specific, a fusion of places in movement.”

Ms. Browning studied at Carnegie Mellon University, Sydney College of the Arts in Australia, and earned a master’s of fine art from Tyler School of Art as an abstract, gestural painter and then drifted toward representation. She gets miles of Tyvek in rolls directly from the manufacturer.

    If Ms. Browning makes you think of construction, wait till you get to the gallery with the big green Dumpster. Peek inside, and it’s lined like a coffin in tufted white leatherette upholstery. Even the outside of this Dumpster is finely ornamented with painted gold designs. The creators, the Dufala Brothers — Steven and Billy — create absurd work that gives new meaning to discarded and homeless objects.“Heap” is a site-specific drawing about three times as tall as I am and as wide as two lengths of me. It is an intricate detail of the inside of electronic devices, with fan belts, gears, pipes, levels, lights, fans and so forth. They question not only the nature and logic of consumer culture, according to wall text, but also challenge us to think again about what art is.“The Dufala brothers were PAFA students, are on the teaching staff of PAFA and they are gaining popularity,” says Mr. Robson. The Dufalas are conceptual artists and experimental musicians who work out of a studio in Revolution Recovery, a recycling center in Northeast Philly for construction, demolition and manufacturing waste. Teachers of found-art sculpture, they are in the process of developing an artists-in-residence program at the recycling center.

The Dumpster had to be cut into four parts to deliver to the gallery, and “Heap” was completed on site in a week. “It just grew organically as they worked on it,” says Mr. Robson. When “Urbanism” ends on Sept. 4, “Heap” will be painted over. “It will become a secret part of PAFA, just as everything we create gets hidden in landfills.”

‘Urbanism: Reimagining the Lived Environment’ is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118-128 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, through Sept. 4. Hours: Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission to special exhibitions: $15, seniors/students $12, ages 13-18 $12. 215-972-7600;

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