The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for January 2012

The story behind the mystery woman on that billboard at 10th and Reed

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If you’ve shopped recently at the South Philly Acme on Passyunk Ave. near 10th and Reed Streets, you may have noticed a nondescript billboard image of a bespectacled, heavy-jowled woman overlooking the intersection.

A closer look

If you’ve been left bemused by the image, wondering what commercial product is supposed to be sold here, then the ad campaign has paid off. The woman is, in fact, a real person. Her name is Antoinette Conti, and she’s your typical South Philly neighbor. And the neighbor who captured her in this picture is the local photographer Zoe Strauss — best known, until recently, for her DIY photo exhibits underneath the concrete no man’s land of I-95.

Throughout the city, 52 other images in Strauss’ collection are similarly being displayed without comment or explanation. You may also know the images at 15th and Vine, 9th and Spring Garden, and 62nd and Market, as well as Cottman and Brous in the Northeast — candid portraits of everyday people, or unorthodox perspectives on their lives and living spaces.

All of these displays are a carefully coordinated effort to repurpose commercial spaces towards non-commercial ends. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s retrospective, “Zoe Strauss: Ten Years,” opened on January 14 and runs through April 22. Although it’s a big leap from under the expressway to inside the halls of the establishment, it is great to see a hometown artist, a champion of the poor and working classes, getting her dues and a wider audience. Watch this space for more on the retrospective itself.

Philadelphia’s Outsider Art

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The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program is so far-reaching that it has become almost synonymous with public art. In fact, there’s a little more to the story. Do enough exploring around the city, and you’ll uncover paintings and dabblings characterized by a noble simplicity and lack of upkeep. Some were likely inspired by the MAP’s ubiquity. Others may even predate the program itself.

16th & Diamond, North Philly. Was this in fact an MAP mural? The house hosting it has since been renovated and the mural has been covered.

I call these works outsider art, a term I use with some hesitation. Many of these works come from kids and youth groups, not mental patients or reclusive geniuses. It’s also possible that the MAP, being pretty community-focused itself, had a hand in a few of these projects.

Still, the contrast with the carefully crafted and colorful MAP aesthetic is hard to miss. The program has done much too much good for Philadelphia to ever be discredited, but with so many flashy, professionally designed murals dominating the cityscape, these lower-key pieces can be a pleasure to stumble upon.

Here are some of my favorite “outsider” murals that I’ve encountered in Philly over the years.

10th & Susquehanna, North Philly

Aramingo & Lehigh, Kensington/Richmond

Kensington & Tusculum

50th & Warrington, Cedar Park/West Philly

Randolph & Montgomery, West Kensington. A graffiti artist definitely did this one.

9th & Ellsworth, South Philly

Bustleton Ave. near Philmont Ave., Somerton

Thompson & Sergeant, Fishtown/Richmond

And just to compare…

The “typical” Philly Mural we’re all familiar with, 2nd & Thompson, Old Kensington

Lehigh Avenue mural, Kensington/Richmond