The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Posts Tagged ‘public art

An outdoor art gallery on Buenos Aires’ shuttered storefronts

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This is Avenida Patricios, a commercial avenue that serves as the border between two Buenos Aires neighborhoods, Barracas and La Boca. Both barrios have heapings of charm and grit, the kinds of traits associated with the city’s poorer southern half, although La Boca has the bigger reputation for seediness and crime.

The division between the two barrios was once as much visual as psychological; in La Boca, a port neighborhood historically vulnerable to flooding, the walkways in front of buildings rise and fall between three and six feet above the street level. A few years ago, the city government re-leveled the sidewalks of Patricios to make the avenue friendlier for pedestrians. Even with increased foot traffic, the street is still a hit-or-miss experience for retail, and a number of storefronts remain shuttered. Instead of amateur graffiti, however, these shutters bear dignified imitations of paintings that characterize the neighborhood.


Some popular images of the neighborhood, including the touristy Caminito (center)

I thought of Avenida Patricios recently when reading about a similar proposal for Germantown, Philadelphia’s historical onion of a neighborhood that has its own share of grit. The idea of painting the commercial shutters on Germantown Avenue to fight blight is a smart one, and while it won’t be the cure-all to stimulate retail, it certainly can instill a stronger perception of safety and vigilance in pedestrians who remain intimidated by it. And the idea of small-scale high-art isn’t a bad example to follow.

Here are a few more shots from Buenos Aires. Note that these were just the stores that were shuttered during the day; many more art pieces join them when the active businesses close at night.



And it’s not limited to the roll-down shutters: this business has touches of Van Gogh and Dalí between the windows, 24 hours a day:


What always captivated me about public art in Buenos Aires was its lack of pretense, its do-it-yourself quality that seemed to stay within the material limits of its surrounding grittiness instead of covering it in a sheen of newness. There were exceptions, of course, but in La Boca and Barracas, that from-the-ground-up impression was the rule. I do wonder how Philadelphia’s murals strike visitors, whether that same impression prevails — and it will be interesting to see what results comes of this similar proposal for Germantown.


Written by cwmote

March 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

“Things Are Why We Can’t Have Nice People” (and other South Philly snapshots)

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League St. near 8th

7th & Moyamensing

E. Passyunk Ave. & Cross St. (yes, that is an Isaiah Zagar mural)

Point Breeze Ave.

16th & Snyder Ave.

22nd & Point Breeze Ave.

22nd & Federal

27th & Moore

Skateboard park under I-95

Reed Street under I-95

6th & Snyder Ave.

Written by cwmote

April 25, 2012 at 2:02 pm

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

Gee, thanks for reminding me of what a cold puritanical country I just left

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OK, so it’s not the best way to introduce the fact that I’ve been in Buenos Aires for the last week, and will be here for several (perhaps many) more to come. That introduction will come later. Why not put off introductions till later when you can cut and paste stories like this here and now?

A New Jersey family said a police officer asked them to cover up portions of their snow sculpture — a nude tribute to the Venus de Milo.

Rahway police Sgt. Dominick Sforza said an officer visited the home of Elisa Gonzalez, who built the snow sculpture with daughter Maria Conneran, 21, and son Jack Shearing, 12, last week on an anonymous complaint “of a naked snow woman”….

And the sculpture really does look like the real thing, even though it’s too symmetrical and doesn’t have a head. And yes, they did put a bikini over it. But please, it’s snow. Do you know how many chances the public actually get to make public art with readily found and free materials?

Of course, one anonymous call does not make for a philistine society. If anything, the fact that a 12-year-old helped sculpt this thing means the suburbs are verging ever closer to enlightenment. But indulge me: I wouldn’t have normalcy if I didn’t have the old sensation-driven media to read through and smack about. Just take it that I’m jealous that I can’t drive up the Turnpike to see the sculpture before it melts.

P.S. If this otherwise harmless public art offends you, don’t come to Buenos Aires. Every other newsstand has a scad of magazines with topless women on the covers. It’s really something. Either censorship is a thing of the past, or the sight of breasts doesn’t shock anymore.

P.P.S. Don’t come here either.

Written by cwmote

March 4, 2010 at 7:54 pm

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