A friend of mine jokes that our similar interests tend differ when it comes to our preferred tastes, which break down something like the approval matrix in the back of the New York Magazine. Our combined personalities form a like grid of current events, interesting shows, and noteworthy articles of gossip, with my contributions covering the “highbrow” and his the “lowbrow,” and together we seem to cover almost the whole spectrum. Our highbrow/lowbrow tastes were exemplified this past Saturday on our day trip to Philly, an exhausting trip full of good food, bad good food, and sunny weather. Having read much of Bruce Nauman because of his representation of the US at the Venice Biennale last year, I was curious to see his piece reinstalled at the Philly Museum of Art. My friend, on the other hand, wanted to see the much blogged about Love Letters, a public art installation in west Philly by new york based artist Steve Powers. Both artworks were well worth the trip, and both represented the best aspects of the so-called highbrow/lowbrow art scene.
Nauman, I find, is easy to dislike. Every time I see an artwork spelling out some new catch phrase in neon I find him completely at fault. His early works are low tech, boring, and sometimes self-indulgent. I keep running across his work, recently at the new wing of the Art Institute in Chicago where his clown videos are installed, and watching viewers react to them is entertaining. If ten seconds is the average viewing time for a piece of art, in general Nauman commands a bit less than even that, and what a shame. I enjoy his artwork, his early spontaneous performances and his later works. Living out west he has the kind of sensibly I understand. When interviewed he has an Eggleston-like gruffness and a ranchers bluntness: the antithesis to artist’s like Viola and his films drenched in emotion. Nauman’s literalness is often what allows his work to become metaphorical. Though he is usually featured in his own films as the performer, his videos don’t seem to be about him but about some sparked thought that came to him while he was sitting in his studio.
Nauman’s Venice piece, Days and Giorni, is a sound installation of impeccable simplicity and lasting intrigue. Though a cacophony of voices greet you as you enter the room, all speaking different days of the week in voices of different age and gender, they sort themselves out into patterned rhythms of individuality as you walk through. There is something playful in the sounds Days creates—it reminded me of hearing unexpected echoes or of making sounds with endless amusement on the piano as a child—at the same time that it speaks (literally) of timeless monotony. The days of our weeks have different meanings for all of us, though usually they divide into days of work or leisure in a calendar-based sense of time. These days of the week, however, and the anonymous voices speaking them, could also belong to anyone and in any calendar. Giorni is the Italian equivalent of Days, though the piece seems to be more about the words themselves than the voices speaking them. My favorite voice is that of a little boy in Days. Sitting on a stool, his voice battering each of my ears with different recorded patterns, he lists his particular days with the restrained eagerness that is the essence of childhood.
In striking contrast to the museum setting and the sound of conceptual musings, Love Letters consists of 31 colorful murals covering about 20 street blocks along the Market-Frankford subway line in west Philly. I remember the area from the Obama rally I attended before the election, and it reminds me of the rundown, non-white areas of Richmond. Originally from the area, and working with local residents, Steve Powers created humorous, slogan-based murals full of love and romance for an imagined someone. Written in fonts we recognize from retro ads, the murals pop out of the landscape in such a cheerfully clever manner they must be a welcome addition to the daily commute. Reading phrases like “open your eyes I see the sunrise” or “anyplace, anytime, anywhere,” it’s hard not to immediately smile. They are smartly designed murals, but they don’t require much more than your glance, and for once this seems completely appropriate. Considering their placement, the neighborhood, and Power’s general purpose of giving the city a little love, they are the most successfully integrated pieces of public art I have seen in a long time. Installed late last year, I am amazed how pristine they remain, perhaps a testament to their public success. Love Letters make nyc’s most recent pubic art installation in Madison Square Park, Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon, look shamefully boring and inadequate.