I am fortunate that my work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art exposes me to exceptional examples of human creativity representing five continents and more than two millennia. However, my personal passions and involvements are with contemporary art in Philadelphia and contemporary, non-traditional Jewish art and Judaica. Illustrated and discussed here are just a few examples from these two typically separate--but sometimes surprisingly overlapping--spheres of activity and interest.


Art in Philadelphia, Now

Philadelphia and Philadelphians' history of creating, collecting, and presenting exemplary art extends back more than 325 years and remains vibrant to this day. Masterpieces can be found in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and other excellent and venerable institutions. But what I find most gratifying and interesting about art in Philadelphia is what is happening now. In an August 28, 2009 article headlined "Art to Make You Laugh and Cry," the New York Times described a "particularly Philadelphia brand of hardy, low-budget, do-it-yourself, do-it-for-love creativeness." This is what inspires me.



Marti Virgil For Oscar Wilde Ed Cunicelli ewc200706042-005933.JPG                                                     Photo: Ed Cunicelli 


Missouri-bred, Philadelphia-based artist Virgil Marti is a painter, master printer, and creator, in his words, of "immersive environments." Marti tests the relations between art and interior design while exploring concepts of class and taste. Marti created an installation for Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary (a former prison that is now a historic site) in 1995 called For Oscar Wilde. He created a dream of an Aesthetic Movement jail cell for Wilde--who spent two years in English prisons for "gross indecency"--decorated with three Wiliam Morris-like wallpaper designs. Virgil took down the installation by cutting its walls--drywall--into panels that are approximately two feet wide and three feet high. Shown above is one of those sections, which reads, "If one tells the truth." This is part of one of Oscar Wilde's sardonic aphorisms: "If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out."



Houser Jim Safe House Ed Cunicelli 200706042-005870.JPG

                                        Photo: Ed Cunicelli 


Jim Houser is an artist/poet who explores the relationship between the look, sound, and meaning of words and the things they represent. His painted words suggest snippets from overheard conversations or his own inner monologue, but they are not random--they converse with one another and with Jim's vocabulary of images, saying a lot about the artist and his art. Jim is a painter of paintings within paintings. He paints directly on walls, ceilings, and floors, then layers atop clusters of smaller, discrete pieces (the painting shown here is a mere seven-by-six inches). He paints on canvas, paper, everything--wood scraps, sneakers, basketballs, flowerpots, skateboard decks, figures that he's cast. Jim and his contemporaries--artists such as Shepard Fairey, Chris Johanson, the late Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, and Clare Rojas--seemed to spring fully formed from the overlapping, late-twentieth-century worlds of punk rock, skateboarding, and graffiti. Despite widespread acclaim, Jim's art is the antithesis of many attitudes reigning today. It is not ironic, self-referential, self-conscious, anchored in academic theory, or otherwise "conceptual." It is heartfelt and visceral, speaking with the same clarity to those steeped in or unaware of art's canon.



Spector Sheller The Light Ed Cunicelli 200706042-005980.JPG                                         Photo: Ed Cunicelli  


Shelley Spector is a visual artist, curator, gallerist, educator, editor, and catalyst and champion for her native Philadelphia's creative community. In 2002, she presented the exhibition Mamaloshen means Mother Tongue at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, where I am a curator. Each work in Mamaloshen conveyed the meaning of a single Yiddish word. Long concerned with identity, memory, gender, and language, Spector examined anew an element from deep in her own personal history--the Yiddish she heard spoken by her grandparents and their generation. She created from (and on) found wood and other commonplace items an array of recognizable human types. Titled The Light (2005; fifteen by eighteen inches), the print illustrated above was not in the show, but the family-filled-truck and flying man--who represents Spector's father, who died while Shelley was young--are derived from a sculpture titled Mishpocha ("family" in Yiddish), which was featured in Mamaloshen.




Contemporary Jewish Art and Judaica

The mission of the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art (PMJA) is to present "contemporary art that illuminates the Jewish experience"--the artist need not be Jewish, but her or his work must be Jewish in concept. As a curator at the PMJA, I gravitate toward work that addresses Jewish-American themes, specifically. I especially enjoy working with artists who don't consider themselves to be "Jewish artists" but who have a Jewish topic in mind for which the PMJA provides a venue for its realization. Shown here are works related to exhibitions I've organized for the PMJA.



Liebowitz Cary PMJA clipper ship.JPG                         Courtesy: Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art  
                                        Photo: Carol Perloff


Jew and American. Sacred and secular. Humor and pathos. Art and kitsch. In Assimilatiana: Conscious Consciousness--presented at the PMJA in 2003-4--Cary Leibowitz created an entirely new body of work that tickled, teased, and tested the distinctions between these pairings. In his exhibition, Leibowitz presented items of imagined Judaic-Americana (thus, "Assimilatiana") that responded to what the artist calls "the challenges of WASP good taste," and conveyed the conflicted feelings of a present-day Jew who retains the sense of being an outsider despite professional success (in addition to being a critically acclaimed artists, Leibowitz is Director of Modern and Contemporary Editions at Philips de Pury auction house and a noted collector) and full integration into American society


Leibowitz Cary ski caps Ed Cunicelli 200706042-005940.JPG                                         Photo: Ed Cunicelli   


In Leibowitz's hands, paintings of clipper ships--invoking the kind of art found above the mantle in a cliché of a New England living room--are literally, figuratively, and contextually askew. On trapezoidal surfaces that appear to be cropped at random, cartoon-like renderings of ships are painted in bright, glossy colors; WASP connotations are contradicted by "plaques" bearing the artist's name and their place of exhibit. Ski-caps--redolent of sporty, outdoorsy, all-American fun--proclaim "Shalom Slalom" and "Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art." In parallel to the wide range of Christmas apparel available to consumers, Leibowitz fashioned other ski-caps that extend seasonal greetings for a "Happy Chanuka."



Adler Reform Temple vase Ed Cunicelli 200706042-005902.JPG                                        Photo: Ed Cunicelli   


Launched in 1994 with a single order from Barney's, Jonathan Adler's career in clay has transformed the Brown University-educated New Jersey native into the head of a burgeoning empire that now includes a chain of eponymous retail stores, representation in hundreds of other shops and galleries throughout the world, textiles that channel folk- and modern-art inspirations, and a decidedly eclectic line of furniture.   


Adler found wonder in the newly minted--and, often, architecturally adventurous--temples that sprang up in the baby-booming suburbs of his youth. "I have always been driven by and fantasized about moving into those synagogues," he said in a 1998 profile in the New York Times. "They have such a groovy, brutalist, modern thing going on." This quote was the starting-point for Jonathan Adler, Re:form, presented by the PMJA in 2004-5. Re:form was Adler's first (and only, for the moment) museum retrospective. It paired his ceramics with photographs of striking modernist synagogues. With Adler's pottery showcased alongside images of a singular source of creative inspiration--the American temple at mid-century--the visitor could enjoy Adler's inventive forms, surfaces, and colors while exploring a distinctive but largely unsung period in synagogue architecture and American Jewish life. In conjunction with Re:form, Adler created a trio of "Reform Temple" vases. The one illustrated above--and shown below amid other examples of Adler's variously organic and architectonic pottery--is about twelve inches in height and ten inches wide.


                                          Photo: Ed Cunicelli   

Adler pottery group Ed Cunicelli 200706042-005917.JPG 

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