What Are Philly’s Artists Up To? See 5 Key Works From the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Revelatory Survey of the City’s Art Scene

Shows & Exhibitions

The show paints a pleasing portrait of the city’s artistic talents.

Ben Davis, June 11, 2021

New Grit: Art and Philly Now” makes a heckuva case for Philadelphia as a creative capital.

The show, surveying 25 artists based in the city, opened alongside Frank Gehry’s big, highly anticipated expansion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art last month. Gehry’s work adds multiple access points, a dreamy underground promenade, and sweep of new gallery spaces—but the goal was clearly not to do anything that would disrupt the grand, stately museum’s vibe.

That leaves “New Grit” to project the museum towards the future. And its curators land the trick wonderfully.

Almost everything in the show hits. Overall, the tone of “New Grit” feels both engaged with the world and personally invested. The show has heartfelt and bracing moments, but also offbeat and even funny ones.

Wonderfully textured abstractions by Howardena Pindell play off the wonky tapestries Mi-Kyoung Lee made from twist ties. There are large, witty text paintings by Ken Lum that channel the verbose titles of 19th-century books to tell contemporary stories. And there’s a pleasingly strange installation by Doug Bucci of intricate little sculptures floating in an endless circuit on water.

There’s really too much good stuff. Here are just five artists that stick out as reference points.

Judith Schaechter

For sheer formal verve, Judith Schaechter’s intricate stained-glass works stick in my head. Radiant in color, with the feeling of needing to be read like some exciting coded surface, they are dense with details of swirling flora and fauna and suggested narrative.

Kukuli Velarde

Equally great are Kukuli Velarde’s painted ceramic figures from her “Corpus” series. They represent pre-Columbian deities bursting forth from the shell of Baroque Catholic icons, merging into new gene-spliced contemporary entities.

Tiona Nekkia McClodden

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, one of Philly’s big contemporary stars, offers a series of looping videos meant to channel the fragmented form of a film trailer for a “conceptual epic film.” The clips compress her family history and larger political narratives into elliptical, mythic images that very much stick in the brain.

Jesse Krimes

Jesse Krimes, whose work has often focused on incarceration (and which speaks from experience: Krimes is a formerly incarcerated person himself), offers scrap quilts from his “American Rendition” series. A piece such as Crow Hill, which shows an image of a barren chair, captures the bereft sense of a body made absent from family and home. Composed of stitched pieces of clothing donated by current inmates and vintage quilts, the quilt’s craftwork neatly suggests longing for home and community.

Jane Irish

Jane Irish’s paintings have dense, all-over interlocking details that make up a patchworks of images from anti-war protests and marches. The swirling figures of Resistance Ceiling, record (2019) are inspired by images of historic anti-Vietnam War activism. They are arrayed around the edges, with a turbulent sky at the center, using the disorienting trick perspectives of Rococo ceiling decoration—an artistic device that elegantly mirrors the unresolved way such protests get memorialized.

Overall, “New Grit” doesn’t exactly feel like it offers something as coherent as a “Philly Style,” but that would be out of keeping with the pluralism of the moment anyway.

What you could say is that the works included here are united in a feeling of being ambitious, while also not relying on huge scale or spectacle. The curators have brought together a group of artists who feel as if they come from a place of confidence—confidence in their own explorations, and confidence in the audience’s curiosity. On its own, this paints a pleasing portrait of Philadelphia.

“New Grit: Art and Philly Now” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through August 22, 2021.

Ben Davis National Art Critic