Art Theory / Musings / Philadelphia / Shows

Out and About: Checking out Philly Flânerie


Allan Espiritu’s piece at Fishtown Bikes-n-Beans

Our Philadelphia winter was recently interrupted by unseasonably warm weather. Perfect timing to kick off my hunt for public installations associated with the Barnes Foundation’s Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie, which opened on February 25th. The “flâneur” references Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” in which he describes as an individual who is actively engaged in the world as a spectator, energized by the crowd yet maintaining autonomy. To quote K. Malcolm Richards, the flâneur is “a part and apart”. These are artists who use their work to contemplate and comment on their contemporary world.

Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie features work by more than 50 international artists who have taken to the street to play detective, make fantastic maps, scavenge and shop for new materials, launch guerrilla campaigns, and make provocative spectacles of themselves to speak to issues as diverse as commodity fetishism, gentrification, gender politics, globalization, racism, and homelessness.
Barnes Foundation Website


My first stop was the 915 Spring Garden Arts building to take a look at Allan Espiritu’s series, I Fall Deeper and Deeper, and It Gets Sweeter and Sweeter Over and Over. A home for Philadelphia artists for over 30 years, the 915 building closed after a fire two years ago and seeing Espiritu’s colorful work adorning the first floor wall of the now defunct studio building was heart warming. The red, yellow, pink and green decorative text on the posters is taken from Madonna’s 1992 song “Deeper”:

I fall deeper and deeper
the further that I go
It gets sweeter and sweeter
the more that I know

Espiritu references Madonna again in his second work, that I found a short ride away at Fishtown Bikes-n-Beans. This time he works off of “Paradise” from her 2002 album, Music. Here he uses “I was so blind I could not see”, dramatically enlarging his typefaces to emphasize “so” and see”. Taking these lyrics out of context, and a decade or two out of their moment give Espiritu the power to pose them as phrases for contemplation.


Jenny Holzer’s, Truism’s at the Physick House

Jenny Holzer’s Truisms are also available on view as a part of the “Persons of the Crowd” exhibit. A full alphabetical listing of her statements can be seen in two locations. Even though the Buttonwood Street location is an easy walk from Espiritu’s 915 Spring Garden location, I recommend seeing Truisms at the Physick House site at 321 South 4th Street. There is no barrier between the sidewalk and the work so it is easier to engage with the text. Truisms is pasted up on boards supported on scaffolding in place for the re-roofing of the Physick House. Standing on the sidewalk reading through Holzer’s words is like having an endless supply of fortune cookies. Every sort of messages can be found: some humorous, others foreboding, sensible, or nonsensical. Standing along the sidewalk reading them led to conversations with strangers laughing about phrases like “a lot of professionals are crackpots” and cringing over “abuse of power should come as no surprise”.

Espiritu and Holzer are not the only artists featured in public spaces as a part of this exhibit. On my ride back out to the suburbs I spotted one of the Guerrilla Girls’ billboards along 95, but I’ve yet to find Christy Rupp’s Rat Patrol. The exhibit itself at the Barnes Foundation is packed with video, photography, sculpture, painting, found objects, and performance documentation. The show runs through May 22nd, and is included as a part of their first Sunday of the month free admission to the collection.


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