I never would have thought of Locks Gallery's formal ground-floor space as having the look or atmosphere of a park, but Virgil Marti's first solo show with the gallery has made me see it in exactly that way - and without employing any telltale parklike features.
In other words, the installation of "Forest Park," titled after the much-loved public park in St. Louis, where the artist, a St. Louis native and longtime resident of Philadelphia, had his first encounters with hippie culture, is pretty ingenious. You walk through this show expecting a falling acorn to break the silence, but there's not a tree in sight.
Actually, that's not quite true. There are parts of trees.
The seats of Marti's three freestanding sculptures of park benches are concrete casts of tree trunks, and each one sprouts a cast-metal bough. A sculpture called Tête-à-Tête comprises two adjoined chairs assembled from concrete casts of tree branches (in perhaps a nod to hippies and yarn-bombing, Marti has festooned his chairs with macramé hangings of knotted colored nylon).
There's definitely a whiff of counterculture spirit emanating from the earliest works in this show: three large, hanging canvas-and-crushed velvet quilts from 2001, on which Marti printed digital images of Disneyesque landscapes that immediately suggest hallucinations.
Some of Marti's works cast a spell in this silent park.
His "looking glasses" - five six-foot-long wall sculptures that borrow their scrolled outlines from 18th-century, Chippendale-style mirrors made by Philadelphia craftsmen - are urethane casts of the period floorboards of his Philadelphia studio. Onto them he has applied silver plating and colors, giving them a shimmering pearlescence that is simultaneously inviting and reflective - you're pulled in and pushed back. They're like something Alice might have encountered in Wonderland; incongruously, they also recall the industrial "L.A. Look" of the 1960s, artworks (by Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, DeWain Valentine, and others) that used such materials as Plexiglas, resin, and car paint to mesmerizing effect.
Death Mask of John Keats, which features the real plaster mask - on loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum (where Marti's exhibition "Ode to a Hippie" closed in January 2014) - resting on a python print-covered cushion surrounded by aluminum branches, qualifies as the most romantic work here. It, too, has a double meaning. To Marti, who saw the mask in the Wadsworth's collection and made it the centerpiece of his installation there, the short-lived English Romantic poet was the original hippie. But the mask also reminded him of the artist Paul Thek, whose life was cut short by AIDS and whose "Technological Reliquaries" of the 1960s contained casts of human parts.
There is much to muse on in "Forest Park," not least Marti's ability to summon relationships between the past and the present in his art, including ones you might never have thought of before.
The Roth effect
Swiss artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998), revered for the graphic inventiveness of his books, among the various other media he juggled, spent some time in Philadelphia 50 years ago, working with master printer Eugene Feldman and graphic designer Jim McWilliams on printed and hand-drawn pages that form the basis of his book, Snow. While here, Roth also had his first show in the United States at the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. "After Snow," a group show of 14 artists at UArts' Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, is celebrating that anniversary.
The history component gives a sense of the whiz Roth was. Several of his books are here, among them Snow, mounted in vitrines alongside Jim McWilliam's 1964 N Book, published by Janus Press in Philadelphia.
Some of the contemporary works that seemed to connect most obviously with Roth's style and humor (this is the guy who made a "chocolate" Easter bunny out of rabbit poop and straw and had it editioned as a multiple), include Kate Levant's energetic collage/assemblage of color photographs, plastic, fabric, rubber, paper, electrical tape and other materials, Cancer: Simple Solution; Erwin Wurm's Astronomical Enterprise, an instruction drawing that tells you what to do with two yellow balls; Matt Neff's freestanding sculpture of various translucent materials lit with a fluorescent bulb; and Chris Martin's painted concrete sculpture of a genial gnome.
"Good things come in small packages" could apply to Bridgette Mayer Gallery's annual benefit for BalletX, Philadelphia's terrific contemporary ballet company. More than 200 artists have submitted works on 10-inch-square panels to Mayer's fourth benefit show; they'll sell for $500, $1,000, $1,500, or $2,000, with 20 percent of the proceeds going to BalletX, which also is performing there Tuesday, Friday and next Sunday.
For a listing of participating artists: www.bridgettemayergallery.com/exhibitions.