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Sprawling show of 25 artists with Philadelphia ties will greet visitors when Art Museum revamp is revealed this week

The show in the huge new contemporary galleries features art that Philly is making right now. Fifteen of the artists identify as people of color. Eleven are women. The oldest is 78, the youngest 32.

Painter Odili Donald Odita with his commission "Walls of Change," at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work is part of the upcoming exhibit "New Grit: Art & Philly Now," which opens May 7 in the museum's new Daniel W. Dietrich II Galleries.
Painter Odili Donald Odita with his commission "Walls of Change," at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work is part of the upcoming exhibit "New Grit: Art & Philly Now," which opens May 7 in the museum's new Daniel W. Dietrich II Galleries.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Here is Philadelphia and the landscape of America as a marching line of geometric forms, full of color, full of darkness, hard-edged, freighted with anger and possibility.

And here is Philadelphia as a place that does not exist, except within the imagination of the artist. And here is Philadelphia as ruins, as circles of energy reconstituted by memory, as a haven for the down-and-out, as escape for the comfortable, as asphalt prairie, as home.

Years in the planning and building, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is at last pulling back the veil on its massive $228 million reconstruction that has transformed the old neo-Classical building’s interior, adding 90,000 square feet of Frank Gehry-designed public space and two huge new suites of galleries, one for early-American art and one devoted to contemporary art.

It all reopens to the public on Friday, May 7, with the rethought American galleries and the sweeping “New Grit: Art & Philly Now” exhibition in the new contemporary galleries, presenting art-making from the city and region.

New Grit” features 25 artists crossing generations and races, ethnicities and genders, media and styles, all brought together by an unusual collaboration of curators across multiple museum departments.

More than half of the artists, 15, identify as people of color; eight identify as Black. Eleven are women. The oldest is 78, the youngest 32.

Their work in the new Daniel W. Dietrich II Galleries touches virtually every conceivable genre from more or less traditional painting to computer-generated imagery to video, photography, performance, installation, and possibly even outdoor demonstrations and rallies (still in the planning stages).

The museum has never seen or attempted anything quite like it.

Curators worked together, across disciplines, something that “is new at PMA — it hasn’t really happened before,” said Peter Barberie, the museum’s curator of photographs. “We were learning how to work together in the process of making this exhibition. What we came up with is just thinking about the city as different artists who have different reasons for their connections to it.”

This city of artists emerges as a place, but not a static or stationary place. It is a network, a crossroads, and an idea.

Some artists, like Paris-based Mohamed Bourouissa, 43, have never lived in Philadelphia. But a penetrating few months he spent here in 2014, when he discovered Strawberry Mansion’s Black cowboys, still influences his work. Some artists, like Howardena Pindell, 78, grew up in Philadelphia, but left decades ago. The city still echoes through her work.

Some of the artists, like Michelle Angela Ortiz, 42, Doug Bucci, 49, and Becky Suss, 40, are lifelong residents of the area; their work could not be more different.

Bucci, who teaches at Tyler, is known as an innovative jewelry maker. But for this show, curators were impressed by a much bigger idea inspired by the museum’s period rooms.

The result is The Last Course, Bucci’s largest work ever, a room-size installation made in part with calcified animal bone and consisting of a large dining table edged by a small moat. Various antique dining accessories, such as a parlor dome, are arrayed about the room.

This antiseptic-feeling place is actually very specific, recalling the 6-year-old Bucci’s nearly yearlong stay at Children’s Hospital, under treatment for tumors on his pancreas. The experience triggered diabetes but also inspired him to be an artist — lots of craft distractions to while away the hours.

“Living in Philadelphia, in the context of my work, is the ultimate source of inspiration, having that kind of pairing of art and medicine side by side in the city,” Bucci said. “And that goes to my personal life too. I married an endocrinologist. I’m the luckiest damn guy you could ever imagine! My parents are so relieved.”

Bucci started out working with small jewelry and metalwork, and went big for this exhibition.

Ortiz, on the other hand, is best known for her big public art, largely murals addressing struggles of immigrant communities. But she downsized for “New Grit.”

The museum commissioned her to create Arrival and Belonging, a multimedia work consisting of video and etched lightboxes that highlight the lives of four members of traditionally overlooked communities. One of the subjects is the artist’s own mother, Epifania Ortiz, who came to South Philadelphia from poverty in Colombia in the 1960s.

Ortiz also focuses on the stories of Fatu Gayflor, a Liberian singer who fled civil war 40 years ago and now lives in West Philadelphia; Jamaal Henderson, an advocate of housing rights for the homeless, who participated in last year’s homeless encampment a stone’s throw from the Art Museum; and Carlos Torres, a North Philadelphian who fled Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricane devastation.

The piece “is about shifting or pivoting people’s perspective on Philadelphia and identity,” Ortiz said.

“Carlos and Jamaal would be seen as migrants, and Jamaal is a Black non-gender-binary person, and so it’s not necessarily focused on status of citizenship; it’s really about when we think about arrival and belonging, where we either find home within the communities that we are connecting and fighting for … or we find home in the homes, in the spaces and four walls that we are able to build.”

Suss is a straightforward painter. Her work suggests that place is a product of domestic familiarity. For instance, her newest painting in the exhibition, just completed, is 8 Greenwood Place (my bedroom).

“I’m really happy to have that in the show because it’s the first painting I’ve done of the house that I grew up in in Wyncote,” Suss said. “And this whole series that I’m working on now is a revisiting of that house which I never felt like I could paint before. I was just like, ‘No, it’s too close, can’t do it.’ And then, with the pandemic, I ended up there all the time because my parents were there and they were helping me watch my son. I made that painting in the living room of my childhood house, of the bedroom, in my childhood house. So it sort of comes full circle and is just so specific to this place.”

Philadelphia is a place of memory for Ortiz, who grew up in South Philly, Bucci, who grew up in South Jersey, and Suss, who grew up in Montgomery County.

It is completely a place of memory for Pindell, 78, who lived in Mount Airy before leaving for college 60 years ago. She has never lived here again, but the impact of the city on her life and art has been incalculable.

Pindell visited the Art Museum as a child. She took art classes at Fleisher Art Memorial, the University of the Arts, and Temple’s Tyler School of Art.

She completely absorbed the city’s powerful figurative tradition.

“I knew nothing but figurative,” she said, recalling her departure from the city after graduating from Girls High in 1961 to study painting at Boston University and then at Yale.

“You know, growing up with the figurative tradition, and then going to Boston, which further became a part of my figurative work, sometimes I would work cutting and sewing my tracing of my figure in it.”

Her work evolved in unusual directions. She is quick to recall participating in demonstrations during the civil rights movement, and the hostile glares of white store owners on Germantown Avenue. Political feelings began to color seemingly abstract work. She tore canvases apart and sewed them back together. She punched out parts of canvas and used the holey cloth for stenciling. She reattached punched-out circles and built up richly layered collages.

“There are all kinds of ways that I use the stitching,” she said, likening the stitched canvases to “African scarification.”

Political and social views, sometimes veiled, sometimes not, underscore much of the work in “New Grit.”

Tim Portlock, 52, who lives in Philadelphia and St. Louis, where he teaches art at Washington University, uses software to manipulate cityscapes into images of urban abandonment, rich with art-historical references.

His work, Escape (Flight), for instance, is a surreal vision of Camden with the sun on the horizon and boats on rooftops, ready to shove off to anywhere.

“I actually tried to find people who live in Camden, worked in Camden, et cetera, to describe the city to me, and the work is the result of my conversations with them,” Portlock said. “The thing that all people had in common was that Camden was deeply affected by a white flight.”

A magnificent slanting sunlight illuminates Escape (Flight) — a light evoked by 19th-century American landscape painters.

“That language is meant to describe an American identity, an idea about Americanness,” Portlock said. “The ongoing conventions of my work are the contrast between this 19th-century American vocabulary versus the contemporary experience of living in an American city. So I’m kind of contrasting these two things, ideals about Americanness and then the reality of Americanness.”

David Hartt, 54, teaches at Penn and lives in Elkins Park. The museum commissioned him to create an installation, The Histories (Crépuscule), that revisits locales from the work of 19th-century American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church’s work. The result is a meditation on colonizers’ triangular trade routes, involving, in this instance, enslaved persons beings traded for rum and cod.

Images of a palm tree and a sinuous beach in Jamaica are woven into an immense tapestry, fronted by a vertical video screen showing ice floes off the coast of Newfoundland. Hartt commissioned German composer Pole to create a score, which issues from a large, old Panasonic radio set on the floor next to the video.

There is nothing didactic in Hartt’s presentation, nothing that explicitly invokes the trade of enslaved human beings. Yet the juxtaposition of imagery tells the viewer something is up here.

“I have an ideal audience in my mind,” Hartt said. “One that is curious, one that has a degree of visual sophistication. The work will ultimately catalyze that curiosity and they will begin to ask questions.”

Odili Donald Odita, 55, was commissioned by the museum to create an interior mural for the exhibition. Walls of Change is a skein of triangles and parallelograms that runs the entire length of the new gallery’s corridor.

Odita was born in Nigeria but was taken out of the country as an infant by his parents when civil war exploded. He now teaches at Tyler. He says the abstract geometric mural references the moments of its inspiration last summer, when the steps of the Art Museum were filled with Black Lives Matter demonstrators after the murder of George Floyd.

With the Ben Franklin Parkway arrowing off toward City Hall and with protesters on the steps, it became obvious to him that the museum is “a particular center” for movement and action in Philadelphia.

“My piece is about possibility, and it is about change and transitions,” Odita said. “I’m trying to raise the idea of a story through all the geometry. And I hope that people see that.”