“Sculpture is sometimes a stepchild in the art world,” said Leslie Kaufman. As president of the Philadelphia Sculptors, she tirelessly advocates and promotes work that sometimes literally can’t fit through the door.
“It’s a lot easier to have exhibitions of paintings and things that go on walls, and things that people recognize as belonging in galleries or their home,” said Kaufman. “Sculpture is very difficult.”
As if to accentuate just how unwieldy sculpture can be, Kaufman and curator Cheryl Harper have put together “Catagenesis,” a show of large-scale, site-specific pieces inside Globe Dye Works, a 160,000 square foot industrial space in the Frankford neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia.
The massive brick building had been a textile dying facility for 135 years, until it was sold to developers in 2005. A hive of high-ceiling rooms filled with stainless steel vats, plumbing, and god-knows-what industrial detritus, the compound was slowly abandoned as the family that owned the shrinking company gradually shut down parts of the building. The unused rooms deteriorated, some with their entire roof caved in.
“What happened was water,” said Kaufman. “A little water will deteriorate everything.”
The building itself is an arresting example of found-art, with masonry returning to the elements and ancient machinery lying in puddles. Kaufman and Harper sought artists willing to use the building as a context for sculpture. Said Harper, “There’s a sense of decay here that is matched by a contemporary viewpoint.”
The title of the show, “Catagenesis,” refers to the process by which new things are created from the decomposition of previous things. The term is most commonly used in geology is describe the way rock can form from previously existing rock that had crumbled. Harper asked artists to conceive original work related to the history or physical condition of the building.
Jacqueline Weaver and Timothy McMurray hung hundreds of individual strands of mercerized cotton thread floor-to-ceiling, creating a curtain on which they project slowing changing colors. Elizabeth Mackie created a 12-foot wedding dress, filled out with 400 yards of tulle, on which she projects images of farm animals; her piece remembers an employee tradition wherein co-workers would buy a colleague a farm animal on the event of her wedding, and event which invariably meant she was leaving factory work. Scott Pellnat created pieces of boats out of foam, like shipwrecks suspended from the ceiling; part of the hulls are animated by cam-shaft motors flapping the starboards and rudders.
“We’re interested in expanding the realm of what sculpture can be,” said Kaufman. “Traditional sculpture is objects on pedestals or objects on the floor. The world has changed so much–there’s no definition of sculpture.”
“I was interested in give artists the opportunity to work outside the white box. This is about as far from a white box as you can find.”
“Catagenesis” is the largest and most ambitious show in the Philadelphia Sculptors 16-year history. It’s last large show, the 2008 “Global Warming at the Icebox” at the Crane Arts Building, featured original work strong with social and political agendas. “Catagenesis” is not without its talking points–the illuminated sign on top of the Globe Dye Works building was changed to read “Good Bye Work,” a nod to economic globalization–but many of the pieces are focused more on memory, history, and the beauty of decay.
Many of the works on display would not, and could not exist outside the dark, dank walls of Globe Dye Works. Most would not look good perched on your living room mantle.
“For the artist who is not on the museum level, it’s hard to find opportunities,” said Kaufman. “One of the things we try very hard to do is create opportunities for artists so they can get their work out there.”
“Catagenesis” runs until Oct. 21, open on weekends only, at 4500 Worth St., Philadelphia.