‘Things should be a little messed up’: Cherry Street Pier taken over by installation of neon, demolition art

John Schlesinger holds a still life painting, broken and repaired, up to the light at the Cherry Street Pier. The work produces the desired effect when lit from behind. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

John Schlesinger holds a still life painting, broken and repaired, up to the light at the Cherry Street Pier. The work produces the desired effect when lit from behind. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In his first large-scale solo exhibition, John Schlesinger has taken over Cherry Street Pier with demolition debris dripping with cables, neon tubing, steel rebar and scrims of black-and-white photography prints.

The site-specific series of works, After the Fall, is a cluttered show by a mind in love with raw materials trying to physically twist them into shapes that tell a story.

“I’m a counterpuncher,” said Schlesinger, using a boxing term. “If I have a completely clean white room, I’m paralyzed. I need something with problems.”

Schlesinger — a two-time NEA fellow whose work has been collected by New York MOMA and the Walker Art Center, among others — had his work cut out for him: Cherry Street Pier is a challenging space to fill with art. The former industrial pier has 50-foot ceilings and is partially open to the elements. Large grates open like garage doors to the river and sky. There are few walls to hang gallery-style artwork.

Neon lights, construction debris, photographs and found objects are incorporated into John Schlesinger’s installations at the Cherry Street Pier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In one corner of the pier is a cluster of photo prints lying horizontally on tiers of stacked wooden shipping pallets, lit from underneath by bars of neon. In another is an arrangement of 100-year-old chicken wire windows that were installed when the pier was used by the United Fruit Company to receive shipments of bananas. Now they are suspended by wires at odd angles from both above and underneath, the frosted glass both reflecting and filtering colored neon light.

Schlesinger mounted some of his photos onto glass. He then shattered the glass with a hammer and used clear resin to hold the shards together, the image creeping into view through scars.

Some of Schlesinger’s sculptural pieces made by wrapping neon tubing around broken concrete are suspended in the air by a web of cables. The concrete, still embedded thick bars of bent rebar, came from the ill-fated tram tower at Penn’s Landing. Built in 2002 for $16 million, the concrete towers were supposed to be the anchor of an aerial tramway between Philadelphia and Camden across the Delaware River, but it was never completed. For 18 years it stood as a monument to municipal failure until last May when it was finally torn down.

Chicken wire windows, ripped out when the Cherry Street Pier became a public art space, were repurposed by artist John Schlesinger. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It was gargantuan, a huge Pi sign,” said Schlesinger, who was so drawn to the so-called “Stonehenge of Philly” that he had taken a hard drive-worth of photos of the tower. “It’s a good example of a good intention that didn’t happen.”

Shortly after the demolition in May, to clear the way for development in that part of Penn’s Landing, Schlesinger arranged permission to haul away pieces of broken concrete. Somehow, in ways he didn’t yet know, he was going to make art out of them.

“Art shouldn’t be perfect. Art should be broken and things should be a little messed up,” he said. “The trick is to find a way to do that that feels compelling. It’s harder than you might think.”

Watching the tram tower being demolished, exposing the concrete’s internal network of steel rebar, Schlesinger saw something akin to a human body: coated with green epoxy to resist corrosion, the rebar resembled a neural web.

John Schlesinger’s installation at Cherry Street Pier combines neon lighting, photography and construction materials. The works respond to the recent demolition of the Penn’s Landing sky tram tower. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It made Schlesinger recall a cold winter day in 2002, when he watched the controlled implosion of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Mill Creek Apartment buildings in West Philadelphia.

“I look over and there’s this huge guy, and he’s crying. I go, ‘What’s the matter?’” Schlesinger remembered. “‘I’m an EMT. I spent the last 10 years delivering babies there, and hauling the sick out, answering response calls.’ The memories of this place are gone. So many memories of what happened. This guy was overcome.”

It’s doubtful the folly of the tram towers elicited that degree of emotion when they were torn down six months ago, but the broken pieces, when lit up with snakes of neon, evoke a similarly visceral connection to the built environment, and its destruction.

“Everything has a history,” he said. “Everything has a story.”

“After the Fall” opens this weekend, but Schlesinger says he is far from finished. He will continue to work on the installation, jumping between the many pieces on view until it’s time to remove them all on March 31. “I don’t think it will ever be done,” he said.

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