Articles by

Chip Schwartz

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    What exactly is contemporary art? Although the inquiry is straightforward, it proves that directness doesn’t always parallel simplicity. Such a profound and open-ended question would likely yield responses so varied and complex that the casual art viewer, let alone an individual uninitiated in the arts, might abandon the answer altogether in exasperation. That is where Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art comes in. Supported by Knight Foundation, the institute plans to begin a new educational series, Extra Credit, this summer to bridge the gaps of understanding that tend to hold people back from a more full and rewarding appreciation of the art world.
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    While Philadelphia’s real estate market has boomed in recent years, and rapid development has become a pervasive fact of life in the city, reactions have understandably been a mixed bag. In the Fairhill neighborhood–between Germantown Avenue and Front Street north of Lehigh Avenue–the pressure has been particularly acute as the changes creep steadily northward. This area has long been heavily populated by Latino residents, particularly Puerto Ricans, but also Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians and a variety of other groups. With more than 80 percent of the population identifying as Hispanic, the Fifth Street corridor has come to be called “El Centro de Oro” (the Center of Gold) due to the deep cultural roots of Puerto Rican and Latino heritage.At the center of the community, amidst the many Puerto Rican-owned stores, restaurants and family businesses, there stands Taller Puertorriqueño, rightfully known as El Corazón Cultural del Barrio or the Cultural Heart of Latino Philadelphia. 
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    When you go to see a show, it goes without saying that you probably know at least something about what you’ll encounter, but what if you didn’t? What if the next time you arrived in front of the stage everyone in the audience was equally out of the loop? The Painted Bride Art Center is the ideal destination for curious culture connoisseurs this spring, as they kick off the second season of their Secret Show Series. Supported by Knight Foundation, these Secret Shows tantalize audiences by announcing only the artists involved in advance of the events (and maybe dropping a few clues), while leaving the rest to the imagination. To discover more, theatergoers must arrive, more or less in the dark, to witness the hourlong shows firsthand. “Anything can happen in an hour," the series’ teaser reads. “Especially when you’re at the Bride.”
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    In Philadelphia, there is certainly no shortage of musical talent. Countless aspiring electronic musicians, practiced instrumentalists, beat makers, producers and MCs call the city home, and they might even be your neighbors. These individuals contribute to a supportive community full of music lovers, venues and studio spaces that comprise the foundation of Philly's wide auditory spectrum. Discovering the music is oftentimes the easy part, though. Finding one's own footing in a competitive world means that even the support structures need reinforcement.Enter the Institute for Hip Hop Entrepreneurship. As a winner of the Knight Cities Challenge, the institute–a product of Little Giant Creative's Tayyib Smith and Meegan Denenberg–has made it its mission to help aspiring music makers help themselves. By offering informational sessions and firsthand experience from inside the often tricky and meandering music business, organizers hope to provide Philadelphia's present and future talent with the means to turn their dreams into reality.
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    Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, a Knight Arts grantee based in the heart of Philly’s South Kensington neighborhood, has spent the last year working to strengthen its ties to the residents of the surrounding community through the Philly Block Project. This Knight-funded endeavor finds curator Kalia Brooks and conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas helping to facilitate storytelling and the documentation of contemporary life in this section of North Philadelphia. Although the photos currently on display at Photo Arts Center are Thomas’s floor-to-ceiling prints of row houses sprinkled with interiors and shots of neighborhood details, Philly Block Project is overwhelmingly invested in the idea that a place’s residents are its most authentic narrators.Stretching from Girard Avenue to Berks Street, and from Front Street to 6th, South Kensington is a heavily residential neighborhood bordered closely by locales like Fishtown and Northern Liberties, which garner significantly more name recognition. In order to amplify the voices of its neighbors, the Photo Arts Center began the Philly Block Project by reaching out to community members directly. This initial segment of the project, entitled “Archive Collective: South Kensington 19122,” was led by photographer and visual storyteller Lori Waselchuk, artist and educator Tim Gibbon, and photographer Andre Bradley. The group made ‘house calls’ to local homes and hosted photo-scanning sessions at shared spaces like Al-Aqsa Islamic Society and John Moffet School.
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    Near the back of the grounds at Eastern State Pentitentiary–Philadelphia's historic 19th-century prison complex turned museum–visitors can find its newest structure, a 16-foot tall tower that serves as the dubious pinnacle of its so-called “Big Graph.” Instead of looking to the sometimes distant past, as many of Eastern State's displays do, this bar graph focuses on the present and future of the prison system, acting as a focal point for an expansive exhibit: “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Although the installation provides a range of information about the United States prison population in comparison to other countries, the elephant in the room is undoubtedly the staggering jump in height across its final five columns. The 600 percent increase in Americans behind bars between 1970 and 2010 is illustrated with devastating effect at this scale, as are the prisons' racial disparities and steep climb in population despite fluctuations in actual crime rates. All of the data, in the shadow of this looming metal structure, tells the story of a social tool that has not only outgrown its utility, but has come to represent an injustice itself; an institution that has mutated into the very problem it aims to address.
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    Above: Busy shoppers and vendors inside Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Reading Terminal Market. Reading Terminal Market–Philadelphia's downtown destination for all things edible and beyond–is gearing up to offer community members a chance to connect through their cuisine. Slated to get underway this fall, the market is busy organizing its upcoming “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers” project, funded by a Knight Cities Challenge grant. Using different cultures' cooking as a starting point to open up dialogue amongst Philly's varied ethnic, economic and religious groups, Reading Terminal hopes to bridge the divides between these pockets of the population. Over the past decade or so, Philadelphia's population has been steadily growing, partly due to an influx of young people, but also because its immigrant-friendly policies attract those seeking a new start. Representing one of the most diverse single locations in Philadelphia, Reading Terminal Market is uniquely positioned to cater to and connect these sometimes disparate segments of society. “Food is one of the few common denominators we have left in society,” says Reading Terminal General Manager Anuj Gupta. “Every culture values good food.” Gupta explains that the market is free to enter and very affordable. With its many culinary offerings from fresh produce to ice cream, cheese, baked goods, fresh juice, coffee, delis, Amish cooking, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Indian and Pakistani food, along with much more, Reading Terminal unsurprisingly attracts a wide array of hungry visitors. This appeal makes it a destination not just for food, but for important cultural exchanges too.
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    In Tim Portlock's world, it's easy to encounter a remarkable sense of familiarity. In many ways, the locations he presents are just like places we've been. The thing is, in light of this recognition of place, there is not a face to be seen. The streets are utterly devoid of people, although their presence is unmistakable: signs, buildings, parking lots and graffiti populate the landscape, and yet, the most integral part of the city–its inhabitants–remain only as an echo. Portlock's first exhibition at Philadelphia's Locks Gallery, titled “Ash and Gold,” is a solo show of both great magnitude and complete emptiness, a testament to both the excess and the alienation of our time. Every one of these images is digitally rendered using a combination of photographic documentation, 3-D animation and digital effects in order to construct semi-fictional cityscapes that seem to challenge our impressions at every corner. In their sparseness lies a complexity and attention to detail that calls to mind Portlock's many paradoxes, which are programmed into his portrayals of contemporary urban existence. Straddling North America from coast to coast, Portlock's subjects are representations of either Philadelphia or San Bernardino, Calif. Brightly lit streets, green palm fronds and parking lots clearly indicate the Southern California scenes, while gigantic concrete warehouses, shopping carts, abandoned cars and billboards embody Philadelphia.
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    Above: Photo of Tenderloin Flophouse from the Historical Society of Philadelphia, along with a survey of formerly or currently unhoused visitors. Photos by Chip Schwartz. History has frequently been skewed toward those who recorded it. Whether facts were purposely changed to favor those in power, or the writing merely focused on what the authors were familiar with, the challenge for present-day historians is to piece together these accounts and dredge up further information in order to gain a clear picture of the past. Erin Bernard’s Philadelphia Public History Truck has set up “A Houseless Museum” at Knight grantee Asian Arts Initiative’s Pearl Street Project space this month in order to examine the past and present of one of society’s most marginalized groups: those without houses. Pearl Street Project’s gallery, location behind Asian Arts Initiative’s main space, is an ideal setting for such a discussion to take place. Situated just north of Vine Street and the expressway that bisects the city, the area around Pearl Street was once an industrial expanse crisscrossed by train bridges and dotted with bars and brothels. Many people did–and still do–sleep on the streets around this area, and a prison at Broad and Arch Streets once incarcerated many of these unhoused members of the community.
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    Morgan Dummitt, “Wayfarers.” As May 2016 drew to a close, the Philadelphia artistic community found itself offering a bittersweet farewell with the closing of Frankford Avenue’s inimitable Philadelphia Sculpture Gym. Started by Darla Jackson in 2012 with the help of Knight support, this destination for all things wood, welding, casting, assemblage and more offered classes, studio space, equipment and gallery exhibitions at its bustling location, which has seen an uptick in activity and construction throughout recent years. With increased development, however, inevitably came the sale of property, and Philadelphia Sculpture Gym’s giant renovated garage space found itself among the buildings changing hands. In light of Philly’s immediate loss, there is not much to be done besides continuing to create and curate, and that’s surely what Jackson, Gallery Director Abbey Gates, and the rest of the artists affiliated with this local institution intend to do. For the final show at Philadelphia Sculpture Gym, the artistic excursion has come full sphere (circles, after all, are only two-dimensional). The inaugural show was a selection of objects made by casting, and the final exhibit revisits the fourth iteration of art made in this way.
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    Mannequins and similar human likenesses have the power to snap us back to the present moment. Catching a human form out of the corner of one's eye is often a surprise, and for a moment, these figures seem to gain life as we react to their presence. Our self-consciousness reflects what it means to be observed by a fellow person, and their motionlessness usually quickly betrays their lack of sentience. Kay Healy is quite interested in such avatars, not only for their ability to mimic, but for their power to change and tell stories. In “What is Real” at Napoleon gallery in Philadelphia, Healy starts with the human form and augments it, in order find out how even inanimate objects, with the right posturing, can capture the imagination and tell a story. Using fabric and stuffing, and sometimes referring to outside materials like wood or brick, Healy constructs an assortment of body parts and busts for a show that is as fantastical as it is at times unnerving. Kay Healy, “Carry.” Photo courtesy of Kay Healy. The image of a firefighter carrying a child from a burning building or a reverent believer bringing an offering to a shrine: these actions carry significant psychic weight. But what about a man–arms extended–carrying his own legs? In “Carry,” Healy offer us not only this, but a figure whose entire body is composed of red brick and mortar. Without a leg to stand on, and paradoxically steadfast in his approach, the two halves of this man seem determined to reach their destination. In offering up his lower half, he remains on course to provide viewers with a bit of his resolve and tenacity as he drifts forward.