A Dilettante at Large reviews two new shows at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

(Note: This is a series of reviews of art forms about which I know next to nothing as I step out of my professional comfort zone, theater. If you haven’t yet met D.A.L., take a look at other pieces in this series.)

till from Wil-o-Wisp (Moiré Installation), 2018, by Rachel Rose (American, born 1986). Video installation with sound, double-lined mesh scrim, carpet, projection screen, and semi-transparent projection scrims. Jointly commissioned and owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Funding is made possible for the Philadelphia Museum of Art through the Contemporary Art Revolving Fund. Image © 2018 Rachel Rose.

Still from Wil-o-Wisp (Moiré Installation), 2018, by Rachel Rose (American, born 1986). Video installation with sound, double-lined mesh scrim, carpet, projection screen, and semi-transparent projection scrims. Jointly commissioned and owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Funding is made possible for the Philadelphia Museum of Art through the Contemporary Art Revolving Fund. Image © 2018 Rachel Rose.

Your intrepid DAL moves on to visual art. What nerve.

Here are two small, fine shows, each unlike the other in every imaginable way—technique, style, materials, genre, effect—are both worth a long look.

Rachel Rose: Wil-o-Wisp/The Future Fields Commission
Alter Gallery 176 Free with Admission
May 2 – September 16, 2018

Ten mysterious minutes. Wil-o-Wisp, Rachel Rose’s lovely, haunting video, installed with meticulous care in room 176 of the Philadelphia Art Museum, will fill both your eye and your mind. The room is dimly lit; the creamy walls are covered with shimmering moire silk, the creamy carpet hushes footsteps. A large video screen sometimes seems to be a framed 16th century genre painting of an agrarian scene, and sometimes seems to be a contemporary movie in period costumes, with close-ups and voice-overs.

The wall text tells us the video is about “the Enclosure Movement, the systematic privatizing of common land in England that spurred tumultuous, violent upheavals in agrarian life.” A woman named Elspeth Blake whose daughter accidentally burns down their house, reappears years later as a mystical healer and is prosecuted as a witch. It is unlikely that you’d know any of that from watching: it was still news to me even after watching it twice.

What I enjoyed and found most intriguing were the collisions between the old and new, between the still and the moving image, and the elusive story of a family set in a rich, earthy landscape in contrast to the magical suggestions, ever so delicate, the glimpses of wil-o-wisps—little flickering fairylike creatures. Although neither the video nor the wall text gives us much information about these fluttering images, I was fascinated to learn what Wikipedia had to say:

“A will-o’-the-wisp, will-o’-wisp or ignis fatuus (Medieval Latin for “foolish fire”) is an atmospheric ghost light seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travellers from the safe paths.”

Rose shot the video on site at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, using their guides dressed in presumably authentic costumes; the sense of place conveyed feels deeply authentic. Rose wrote a little song that contains the narrative and because I found it hard to catch all the lyrics, I requested a copy and here pass them along to you:

As the land was privatized,
Greed disturbed the peace their town once knew.

Victimized by selfish lies,
Charges against Elspeth would accrue.

A farmer said she stole his crops,
Picked a batch of peas without consent.

When asked if she’d return the stock,
They said she cast a spell on him as revenge.

A man refused to lend his horse to her,
And all his horses died in the night.

He said that Elspeth cursed their lives.

Connoisseurs, 1799, by Thomas Rowlandson. Hand-colored etching, published by S.W. Fores, No. 50 Piccadilly, Corner of Sackeville Street, London, England. Given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Carl Zigrosser, 1974.

Connoisseurs, 1799, by Thomas Rowlandson. Hand-colored etching, published by S.W. Fores, No. 50 Piccadilly, Corner of Sackeville Street, London, England. Given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Carl Zigrosser, 1974.

Biting Wit and Brazen Folly: British Satirical Prints, 1780s–1830s
Korman Galleries, Rooms 121-123, through August 22. Free with admission
May 4 – August 22, 2018

If you enjoy Saturday Night Live’s political skits and Signe Wilkinson’s daily political cartoons in the Philadelphia Inquirer, you will likely appreciate the “Biting Wit” of these 18th and 19th century satirical prints, skewering the “Brazen Folly” of British society between 1780 and 1830. Small, snarky and garishly colored, these cartoons are amusing in their own right and point up how much the shame and scorn of yesteryear resembles the shame and scorn of the present. The show could be titled, Plus ca change…

Consider, for example, “Connoissseurs” by Thomas Rowlandson (a major name in this genre), dated 1799. The picture has four grotesquely ancient guys, drooling over a painting of a nude woman. All that’s missing is the hashtag.

And there’s another Rowlandson, titled “The Chamber of Genius”: an artist paints a rich man while we see his cramped studio with his wife and children crammed into an impossible living space. The caption reads:

“Want is the Scorn of every wealthy Fool
And Genius in Rags is turned to Ridicule.”

Heartless and oblivious: On a crowded street, many people are looking at pictures in a window, while a man behind them has fallen and no one notices. The cartoon is called, “Very Slippery Weather.”

And then there’s a terrific piece called, “Monster Soup Commonly Called Thames Water, Being a Correct Representation of that Precious Stuff Doled Out to Us” by William Heath. It shows a water sample filled with hideous fish, insects, and trash.

Another Heath cartoon gives us a Botox-before-the-fact moment; there is a man reeling back from a hideous old crone; the title is “An Alarming Discovery Showing the Fatal Effects of Using Cosmetics.”

And needing no translation to the present is James Gillray’s “Elements of Skating—Attitude, Attitude is Everything.”

And so on it goes, merrily and pointedly, as these clever indictments of the fashions and foibles, the politics and social cruelties, fill two rooms with the clever drawings of these British satirists.

Arts, Reviews, Visual - Tags: , , , , , - 1 comment

About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was recently published by Methuen, and she has just finished an essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," due out in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.