Collective Citywide exhibit celebrates Philly’s contemporary art scene

Billy Dufala stood like Godzilla, towering over a miniature version of his own warehouse studio.

“We’re in the trusses right now,” said Dufala through the oak beams that support the peaked roof of the Traction Company, which, in real life, is an 8,000-square-foot space shared by 14 artists making large scale sculptures.

Dufala was standing in a one-sixth scale model of Traction, small enough to fit inside the 220-square-foot white-cube space of Napoleon, a tiny art gallery named for grand ambition despite its small size.

The Traction Company and Napoleon are among 25 artist collectives in Philadelphia participating in Citywide, a collective collective.

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Philadelphia’s contemporary art scene is known for its collectives – loose-knit circles of artists pooling money, materials, and skills to run their own galleries. Some use the gallery to exhibit themselves; some strictly do not, rather devoting their time, energy, money to show other artists in whom they are interested.

Almost no collective makes money back, and most exist below the nonprofit radar. Collectively, they were able to secure a grant for Citywide through the Knight Foundation.

Swapping spaces, perspectives

For the month of November, each of the 25 participating collectives paired with another, and swapped spaces. Napoleon – the collective with the smallest gallery – swapped with Traction Company – the collective with the largest.

“A lot of people wanted to do it, to work with others in a different way,” said artist Christina Day, a member of Napoleon who donned her administrator hat as a Citywide coordinator. “What would happen if you marry these two groups and drop them in the same room, or switch spaces — and switch brains — for a month?”

For her creative contribution to Citywide, Day and the rest of the Napoleon collective made objects in response to a poem by Gertrude Stein, “If I Told Him ” (1922). Stein wrote the poem out of repetitive sentence fragments in response to a portrait of herself painted by Pablo Picasso in 1906. The rhythmic, disjointed poem reads like a linguistic interpretation of Cubism.

Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance,exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because. …

“In the same way that Stein was taking a painted portrait of herself by Picasso and interpreting the idea of a portrait into words, we took that and retranslated it into physical pieces,” said Jordan Rockford, another Napoleon-ian.

The five large pieces react to both the poem and the large space inside the Traction Company, where they are installed.

To complete the circle, those Napoleon pieces inside the Traction Company have been re-created at one-sixth size and installed inside the Traction Company’s scale model of itself, which is installed inside Napoleon.

Curatorial experimentation

Many collectives participating in Citywide normally do not exhibit work by their own artists. Napoleon’s Rockford is not a practicing artist at all; his interest is curatorial. Likewise, the collectives Grizzy Grizzly and Rebekah Templeton – while run by artists – are experiments in curating; they are explicitly designed to only show work made by other artists.

Rebekah Templeton, a storefront gallery on Girard Avenue at Second Street, is run by just two people: Sarah Eberle and Ben Will, a married couple.

“We’re not really a collective – it’s just Sarah and I,” said Will. “We wanted to be involved because we show, and support, numerous galleries and artists. We all in Philadelphia have an idea of wanting something more from the Philadelphia scene.”

Will and Eberle have run Rebekah Templeton for six years, but have never shown their own work. They also share an art studio, but have never before collaborated on art-making.

“Going in, we were a little concerned because this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Eberle. “After everything we’ve done together, trying to make an art installation together would finally ruin us.”

The couple created an installation of Will’s found-Styrofoam sculptures and Eberle’s delicate globes made of paper flowers cut from “found toilet paper wrappers taken from bars and restaurants.” It is installed in the Grizzly Grizzly space, inside 319 Building, aka the Vox Building, at 11th and Callowhill.

Trading audiences too

All the collectives in Citywide have built their own audiences from friends, colleagues, alumni, and students. The exchange allows them to swap audiences for a month, and shake up their own aesthetic jars.

“Citywide is an opportunity that is not having a show in a gallery – it’s having a show in a gallery associated with a multitude of galleries,” said Will.

Would husband and wife collaborate again?

“I would love to do it again,” said Eberle. “I’m not sure Ben would feel that way.”

“The show is a success,” said Will, adding that “music is the thing I like to create with other people, and art is the thing I make alone. I enjoyed doing it alone.”

Disclosure: Reporter Peter Crimmins contributed audio to the Citywide exhibition by Grizzly Grizzly.

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