The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Among the Magic Gardens

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From vacant lot to wonderland: the gardens at the tail end of the blizzard (watch your step!)

To provide the topical connection between Philly (my hometown) and Brooklyn (my current location, where I’m staying until my flight leaves), I have Isaiah Zagar to thank — born in the former, raised in the latter, and now known as the most celebrated public artist in Philadelphia, surely among the most renowned in the US.

If you have taken a walk along South Street, you have seen the mosaics — the dazzling patterns of tile, glass, and found objects that sprint across various storefronts and walls. Zagar’s trademark mosaic style concentrates in two establishments — Eyes Gallery, at 402 South, owned by his wife, Julia; and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, at 1020 South, the opus magnum, no mere housing of art but one giant piece of art itself.

Isaiah Zagar's mantra: "Art is the center of the real world."

I toured the gardens on Sunday. If you plan on going, consider taking a guided tour. You’ll learn a lot about the man behind the tiles, and come to realize unmistakably that he is the work he creates — every aspect of his life and philosophy goes into it through his choice of materials, his incorporation of folk trinkets from Hispanic America, and his preservation of personal memories and experiences in the design. Aside from the impression that Zagar’s deeply romantic egalitarianism makes on you, the tour also gives you the chance to witness the artist’s evolution. In an apartment building next door, you’ll witness his earliest mosaics, where the beauty still pervades but the style is yet uncertain and the craft a bit undisciplined, a striking contrast to the main building itself, a juxtaposition of the artist as a novice with the artist as grand master.

It’s true that the mosaics are deeply personal. To put one’s life into every facet of their art can be seen as an act of the highest narcissism. At the same time, it takes courage to expose oneself as being human — which Zagar does, not just stylistically but visually, rendering himself in various degrees of nakedness, free from societal shame. That Zagar’s autobiographical work is also a visually arresting tour de force is a happy coincidence, and a great gift to the people who happen to find themselves in Philadelphia.


Written by cwmote

February 24, 2010 at 10:11 am

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