Philly’s past meets its future in the final show at the Neon Museum

Jessica Carvajal looks around the Neon Museum of Philadelphia

Jessica Carvajal curates the last art show at the Neon Museum of Philadelphia before it closes in December. ''Philly Based'' features artists who have come to Philadelphia from many different countries. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In the final weeks of the short, bright life of the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, the collection of historic neon signs culled from the city’s streets is joined by the work of 13 contemporary artists who are recent transplants to Philadelphia.

“Philly Based” features mostly international artists from countries like Vietnam, Mexico, Ukraine, France, Cuba, and Colombia, as well as a few artists from other U.S. states who now call Philly home.

Curator Jessica Carvajal wanted to put Philly’s future in touch with its illuminated past.

Big, bright neon signs are seen on display at an art exhibit
The Neon Museum of Philadelphia will close less than two years after it opened in the NextFab Building on North American Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“All the things that you see, they’re all from Philly. Ninety percent of them were situated here,” Carvajal said, gesturing to the Pat’s Steaks crown, a dancing blue Elvis from a South Philly bar, and the iconic Horn and Hardart sign.

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“Contrast that with what we bring from other places — like in my case, Colombia — and other states and other countries,” she said. “Philadelphia is such a diverse city. I feel like it is important to see what other perspectives are brought to the city and how that changes the Philadelphia scene.”

The show includes a large-scale series of paintings on a scroll of canvas, depicting lush green scenes from Vietnam resembling images on a roll of film. Artist Chau Nguyen, who was born in Hanoi and studied art at Bryn Mawr College and Temple University, wanted the canvas to unspool on the floor to allow viewers to get closer to the work.

There are also a series of cartoonish illustrations of pedal carts selling wares on the street of Bogota, Colombia, where artist Daniel Mendez grew up.

“I love riding a bicycle,” Menedez wrote in an artist’s statement. “I think one of the best ways to discover a city is by bicycle.”

Hanging over the temporary exhibition space set up inside the neon museum is an oversized papel picado, or a traditional Mexican cut-out decoration made from large sheets of fabric dyed a pinkish salmon color.

''Asian Fusion'' by Vietnamese artist Chau Nguyen unfurls onto the floor of the Neon Museum of Philadelphia
”Asian Fusion” by Vietnamese artist Chau Nguyen unfurls onto the floor of the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, where it is part of the ”Philly Based” exhibit. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“As a Mexican-American artist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I know that inspiration begins with a blessing,” said Karina Puente in a statement. “Growing up on the central coast of California, my paintings, drawings, and modern Papel Picado installations reflect La Sirena and the Mexican cultural heritage of the Santa Ynez Valley where I grew up.”

Color was an important consideration when selecting pieces for this show. Carvajal wanted the works to be able to compete with the bright neon lights dominating the one-room museum in a former light industrial warehouse on North American Street in Kensington.

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That requirement extended to herself. Carvajal included one of her own works in the show: a densely composed illustration of an Indigenous figure surrounded by traditional symbols and animals associated with many different people and nations in South America.

A large oil painting is seen at the Neon Museum
Ukrainian refugee Yuliya Semenova contributed large oil paintings to ”Philly Based,” including ”Fall Philadelphia.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It’s such a happy place, full of memories. So why don’t we bring color here?” she said. “That was my first requirement. It has to be super colorful. It has to be crazy. It has to be big.”

Standouts include two large canvases by the Ukrainian artist Yuliya Semenova, who relocated to Philadelphia six years ago. Unlike the bright colors of the surrounding pieces, her paintings feature isolated subjects set in darkly lit places: standing at a bathroom sink, sitting on an unmade bed. Semenova adopted a classic chiaroscuro technique of spotlighting figures with stark contrast lighting, often seen in Renaissance art.

“I incorporate my traditional European academic training and contemporary art theories while I am inspired by dreams, traditions, and people,” Semanova wrote in a statement. “My aim is to find my own voice while speaking the voice of our generation with themes of uncertainty and risk.”

Curator Jessica Carvajal looks around the Neon Museum
Curator Jessica Carvajal describes the symbolism behind her digital illustration, ”Universe,” on display at the Neon Museum’s last exhibit, ”Philly Based.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Philly Based” is Carvajal’s first and last curatorial endeavor at the Neon Museum. She was originally going to put together a show of Philadelphia-based Latino artists, which would have been put up in January 2023.

When owner Len Davidson decided, after less than two years, that the museum could not be solvent and had to shut down on Dec. 11, Carvajal’s show was moved up to the end of 2022.

As the final special exhibition the museum would ever host, Carvajal expanded its scope as wide as possible.

Big, bright neon signs are seen on display at an art exhibit
For the ”Philly Based” exhibit, curator Jessica Carvajal sought big, bright pieces that could compete with the museum’s neon backdrop. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“This was the last one, so I didn’t want to focus just on Latin people. As the last one I wanted to bring people from everywhere,” Carvajal said. “You have to say goodbye to this place. It was just such a good experience. I hope the person who is going to take the collection next really loves this as we do.”

Davidson, the museum owner, is seeking an institution willing to take the neon collection in its entirety and keep it within, or close to Philly. Or, a dedicated funder that would sustain the costs of staffing the organization.

A museum spokesperson said any such deal has not yet been arranged. Sunday, Dec. 11 will be the last day the museum will operate in the NextFab building. “Philly Based” will close a week earlier, ending Sunday, Dec. 4.

Jessica Carvajal looks around the Neon Museum of Philadelphia
Curator Jessica Carvajal looks around the Neon Museum of Philadelphia. She curated the museum’s last show ”Philly Based” which features artists that have come to Philadelphia from many different countries. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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