“Ancient History of the Distant Future,” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through Feb. 2, was announced by PAFA as being “a major exhibition” of contemporary art. That might seem like an overstatement for a show that contains only 17 works by 15 artists. Nevertheless, the show feels big.

That’s because the works are scattered treasure-hunt style through the main galleries of PAFA’s 1876 Frank Furness building. That means that in addition to the contemporary artists represented in the show, you will be looking at works in PAFA’s permanent collection by artists ranging in time and approach from the cosmic melodrama of Benjamin West to the incisive realism of Thomas Eakins and the rhinestone-studded not-quite glamour of Mickalene Thomas.

By the time you finish you may feel, as I did, that the real treasures are the Academy building, an exuberant masterpiece of American architecture, and the historically important, relentlessly eclectic collection it houses. The visiting works, as a group, are not tremendously engaging, and the empty pretentiousness of the exhibition’s paradoxical title signals the lack of a clear idea.

Then you realize that, despite the show’s shortcomings, you have spent quite an interesting couple of hours.

The exhibition is a collaboration between PAFA and Kadist, a nonprofit arts organization based in Paris and San Francisco that collects contemporary art and collaborates with other institutions to mount exhibitions. A couple of the works in the show are from Kadist’s permanent collection. One belongs to PAFA, and the rest are on loan. Jodi Throckmorton, PAFA’s curator of contemporary art, and Joseph del Pesco, international director of Kadist, selected the works.

Faced with a historic place, and one of the nation’s oldest art collections, the curators sought out works that speak to history, and to the history of art. While works in the permanent collection tend to celebrate history, some of those in the show seek to question the past they depict, or at least to make a case for including pieces of history that are often forgotten.

The most confrontational is Philadelphia artist Alex Da Corte. He has made two enormous photo blowups of local street scenes he snapped on his telephone. One, which shows an enormous hand holding a doughnut that’s promoting Wawa’s Hoagiefest, provides the background to Thomas Birch’s 1814 painting Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie. Presumably, this is supposed to say something about American commercialism, though I can’t tell you what. It succeeds in calling attention to Birch’s stirring depiction of an inland armada.

Alex Da Corte's "Street View" (Hoagiefest)" from 2019. Painting at far right is Thomas Birch's "Perry's Victory on Lake Erie" (circa 1814).
Barbara Katus, courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Alex Da Corte's "Street View" (Hoagiefest)" from 2019. Painting at far right is Thomas Birch's "Perry's Victory on Lake Erie" (circa 1814).

Da Corte’s other piece shows a North Philadelphia labor demonstration, complete with a giant inflatable rat. It forms the background of a pair of colonial-era portraits of prosperous people, some of whom, the label says, “gained wealth through exploitative labor practices including the trade in enslaved people.” If they are serious about history, the artist and curators should let us know whether the people who are being stigmatized were in the slave trade or not.

Da Corte’s work abuts one of PAFA’s iconic works, West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-2), alluding, the label says, to the rats that spread disease that led to the decimation of indigenous tribes. The installation is striking, and justifiable for a few months, but it does not really tell us much about history.

At center is Alex Da Corte's "Street View (Union Rat)," from 2019, with paintings from PAFA's collection.
Barbara Katus, courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
At center is Alex Da Corte's "Street View (Union Rat)," from 2019, with paintings from PAFA's collection.

History writ large

Great AIDS (Ultramarine Blue) by the artist group General Idea does a better job of pressing for inclusion in our historical consciousness. The large colorful canvas is a variation on Robert Indiana’s Love paintings and sculptures, one of which stands only a few blocks away.

It is hung to be visible through a doorway that is flanked by two portraits of George Washington, one by Charles Willson Peale and the other by his son Rembrandt Peale. This juxtaposition looks great; it livens up both portraits. And it does make the statement that AIDS is as much part of our history as George Washington.

The largest work in the exhibition, Carla Zaccagnini’s Elements of Beauty (2012/19), appears to be an absence of art. It takes up half the large gallery where works are usually hung salon style, one above the other, but there are no paintings, only 29 outlines that suggest their absence.

Installation view of Carla Zaccagnini's "Elements of Beauty" (2012/2014) at PAFA.
Barbara Katus, courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Installation view of Carla Zaccagnini's "Elements of Beauty" (2012/2014) at PAFA.

Zaccagnini, an Argentina-born artist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, alludes to a moment in the struggle for women’s suffrage in England in 1913-14. Woman activists attacked and slashed paintings in museums, concentrating on nudes and other depictions of passive female beauty.

One was Diego Velázquez’s Venus at her Mirror. A label quotes the woman who destroyed the work saying, “Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.” I am not sure that PAFA or any other museum would endorse her tactics.

Shown nearby is John Vanderlyn’s Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (1809-14), one of the first nudes ever exhibited in the United States, so you can see the sort of things she was talking about.

Perhaps the oddest work in the show is Double-Take: A Leader of the Syrian Revolution Commanding a Charge (2014) by the Beirut-based artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan. It is an 11-minute video that recounts the story of a wealthy Syrian Anglophile who buys an English stately home. In the house he finds a reproduction of Théodore Géricault’s O­fficer of the Chasseurs Commanding a Charge (1812, in the Louvre). He commissions an artist to create a replica of the painting, substituting the anonymous French soldier with an image of Sultan al-Atrash, leader of the 1925-27 Syrian revolt against the French.

What’s intriguing is that, by switching out a French colonial soldier with the leader of an uprising, the unnamed Syrian businessman has seemingly reversed the meaning of the picture. But in replicating Géricault’s image, he hasn’t really changed the story. Remaking history is harder than that.

ON EXHIBIT

Ancient History of the Distant Future

Through Feb. 2 at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

Admission: Adults, $15; seniors, students with ID, $12; youth 13-18, $8 (under 13 free).

Information: 215-972-7600, pafa.org/museum.