Robert Wilson, the country's most multidisciplined avant-gardist, has become slightly more accessible. He's been making video portraits, and his subjects include a panting Briard dog, Johnny Depp posing as Marcel Duchamp posing as Rrose Sélavy (as photographed by Man Ray), moist frogs, and Isabella Rossellini as a cross between a Cartier-Bresson prostitute and Bjork, among others, all as seen in continuous loops with no obvious beginnings or ends. Who can't relate to that?
Best known as the director and set designer of Philip Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach, Wilson is also a respected choreographer, painter, sculptor, video artist, and sound and lighting designer. Since 2004, one of his many projects has included this series of video portraits commissioned by VOOM HD, a high-definition network of channels owned by Rainbowmedia/Cablevision, 14 of which are now installed at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
The VOOM portraits are displayed on flat-screen monitors in the museum's main building and in the windows and interiors of the New Temporary Contemporary a few doors west. Besides Depp and company, they include images of Winona Ryder as Gala Dalí (the only portrait that is projected on a screen), Alan Cumming, Marianne Faithfull, and various lesser-known and anonymous figures.
I'm still not sure who Cumming, Faithfull, and the frogs are channeling, but an auto mechanic named Norman Paul Fleming, dressed in bib overalls, looks straight out of Dorothea Lange's Depression-era portraits, and William Pope L. has to be Matthew Barney. The Briard? It's the real puppy version of Jeff Koons' topiary sculpture, of course.
Wilson's new portraits could be seen as a continuation of "Video 50," a series of video portraits he made in the 1970s. His high-definition VOOM portraits are a more minimal, formal effort, allowing Wilson's sly references to art history and his soundtracks (by various musicians with occasional voice contributions from Wilson) to stand out in particularly sharp relief.
You have to wonder if Philadelphia's art world had insider info on the economy's downturn before the rest of us did. First came the Philadelphia Museum of Art's uncanny fall 2008 pairing of James Castle and the quilters of Gee's Bend, all self-taught artists born of the Depression and working with salvaged scraps. Then came the UArts Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery's retrospective of Salvatore Meo (a teenager in 1929) and his poetic assemblages of street pickings. Now we've got the Institute of Contemporary Art's down-to-earth "Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay" and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' retrospective of George Tooker, a particular master of Depression-era gloom and doom. Most eerily, though, more than a few Philadelphia contemporary artists who have never even experienced a recession have been working in a hobo-ish, do-it-yourself mode for at least a decade.
Steven and Billy Blaise Dufala, collaborating brothers who are having their first exhibition at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery and are also the winners of the 2008 West Prize, are among the younger artists who have been recycling castoffs as art, but they alter and add to their junkyard finds more than many others do. What initially looks itinerant or makeshift turns out to be more grounded and finessed than you thought.
Their aesthetic appears to have been formed by Robert Gober, Gordon Matta-Clark, Rebecca Whiteread, Tony Feher, and Edward Kienholz, but their humor is simultaneously lighthearted and bizarre in a David Lynch-movie way. (Lynch was a PAFA graduate, remember). These two have clearly looked to the best, in other words, while fashioning a style of their own.
Dumpster Coffin, which from a distance could easily pass for the everyday rusted dumpster, is assembled from weathered found parts the Dufalas welded together. Its stained quilted satin lining, clearly a flea-market or fabric- store-sale find, has been cut and sewn to fit the dumpster's massive proportions precisely.
Hurricane Katrina or our own local floods likely inspired Living Room, which consists of a velvet-covered sofa, a freestanding lamp, and an end table supported slightly above the gallery floor by conglomerations of plastic containers lashed to their legs.
In Office, the Dufalas have taken a cue from the late Matta-Clark, but instead of slicing a building in half Matta-Clark style, they've taken a saw to a desk, chair and filing cabinet, leaving gaping rectangular spaces where you've never seen them before.
When the Dufalas confine themselves to a smaller scale, they delight in bursting out in some creepy way; the results are always amusing, as in Broom, a facsimile of a commercial broom with a normal-sized handle and a broom end three times the usual length, or Shears, whose carved wood handles look grossly swollen and cartoonish next to its petite metal blades.
Trophy, the wall sculpture from which this show takes it title, is unapologetically big all over. Choosing metal electrical conduit as their material, the Dufalas have fashioned the above word in uppercase letters to run the entire length of one wall and part of another, in rows of equidistant conduit, junction boxes included. It's not electrified, and doesn't need to be. It delivers a powerful jolt as it is.