Rethinking What It Means to Be a Philadelphia Artist

This article is part of our latest special report on Museums , which focuses on reopening, reinvention and resilience. The artist Jesse...


This article is part of our latest special report on Museums, which focuses on reopening, reinvention and resilience.

The artist Jesse Krimes had a unique way of adapting during his nearly yearlong stint in solitary confinement.

“I didn’t have access to any materials, so I ended up using my local newspaper, pieces of prison-issued soap and playing cards sold in the commissary,” he recalled.

He cut out mug shots and photos of well-known people from the paper, and transferred them onto the damp surface of slivers of soap with the help of wet toilet paper. Then he cut out the faces of the kings, queens and jacks from decks of playing cards, replacing them with the 292 soap “portraits,” and mailed them undetected to a friend outside prison.

The goal of the collection, titled “Purgatory,” was “to challenge the disposability of incarcerated people, to make their and my full humanity visible to the public,” said Mr. Krimes, who, beginning at 13, was placed on juvenile probation for marijuana use, underage drinking and a variety of other offenses and was in and out of prison from age 18 to 31 for drug charges involving cocaine.

Born and raised in rural Lancaster, Pa., he is now 38 and lives in Philadelphia, where he focuses his art practice on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.

Mr. Krimes is one of 25 contemporary artists with strong connections to Philadelphia whose work is featured in “New Grit: Art & Philly Now,” through Aug. 22, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“New Grit” helps mark an important moment in the more than 100 years since ground was broken on the majestic building that sits atop Fairmont, a hill overlooking the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The museum has undergone a $233 million interior transformation under the direction of the renowned architect Frank Gehry. It unveiled the final phase of the current project to much acclaim earlier this month.

Construction, which began four years ago, involved most of the 90,000 square feet of the redesign, including two new 10,000-foot wings, each with eight generously proportioned galleries. “New Grit” occupies the contemporary and modern art wing, while the second wing features American art from 1650 to 1850 in and around Philadelphia from the museum’s permanent collection.

The city “played such a central role in the development of American art in the 18th and 19th centuries and remains a vibrant place for artists today,” said Timothy Rub, director and chief executive of the museum. “The two shows complement each other. They celebrate Philadelphia then and Philadelphia now.”

Speaking of the overall expansion, Mr. Rub said: “It’s the first new space we’ve added since the building opened in 1928. We’ve transformed what was once back-of-the-house space into public space and galleries.”

The two-story Williams Forum space connects the new wings and features a massive wall installation called “Fire (United States of the Americas)” by Teresita Fern├índez, a first-generation American born to Cuban immigrants, whose work joins — physically and thematically — the “New Grit” and American art shows. More than 80 charcoal parts with shadow-like striations form a map of the United States and its territories, intended to explore the concept of place and raise questions about identity and Americanness.

The recaptured areas, designed also to improve circulation, include a 640-foot-long vaulted walkway that runs the entire length of the building, and rows of windows alongside the new galleries have been unblocked to allow visitors to view the city beyond.

The new design “opens up the heart at the very center of the museum in a way that will make it even more inviting and engaging for our community to become part of the museum,” Mr. Rub said, “and for the museum to become an even more integral part of the community it serves.”

The “New Grit” exhibition features more than 115 works in a range of media: ceramics, fiber, glass, painting, photography, sculpture, video, textiles, works on paper, and interactive dance performance, arranged thematically in nine sections.

“Artists here are taking on some of the most urgent ideas in the contemporary art world, themes that speak to being and belonging in the 21st century,” said Erica F. Battle, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s associate curator of contemporary art and lead curator for “New Grit.” “The exhibition is a refreshed look at what it means to be a Philadelphia artist,” she said, “updated to reflect on what it means to be an artist engaged in Philadelphia. It’s about how we connect to place and to each other. ”

Compared to the past, Ms. Battle said, the city’s art scene has grown more vibrant, a result of excellent art schools, relatively affordable studio space, and a proliferation of artist-run spaces and arts organizations.

Mr. Krimes’s exhibit includes two quilts — an art form reflecting the local quilting tradition of Lancaster. “Crow Hill” and “Phoenix’’ combine antique quilts, old fabrics and used clothing from incarcerated people, using a variety of needlework and decorative techniques. Each depicts an empty chair and an ominous figure or a bird of prey.

“These vignettes are meant to evoke absence from homes and other spaces where incarcerated people were once part of the community,” but have disappeared into prisons, said Mr. Krimes, who works with formerly imprisoned artists through Right of Return USA, a fellowship he co-founded, and regularly collaborates on projects with people in prison, some of whom are serving life sentences.

“The figures are a reminder that something is constantly looming over them, ” he said. “We need to think about how we can utilize restorative justice instead of punishment, where people have the opportunity to better themselves.”

When people walk into “New Grit,” “they’re going to see works that talk about time and the cosmos, they’re going to see works that talk about Confederate monuments, they’re going to see works about immigration, incarceration and re-entry, about encounter and exchange,” said Ms. Battle, the show’s lead curator. “We’re at a moment in history in which everyone’s perspective has shifted. The show is reflective of the recent changes and transformations we’ve all been experiencing.”

The diagonal design pattern of “Walls of Change,” a large-scale, bold and brightly colored abstract mural by Odili Donald Odita, a Nigerian-born American artist and Philadelphia resident, for example, “reflects the mass of moving bodies of the Black Lives Matter protests around the museum last summer,” Ms. Battle said.

Mr. Odita, whose work is notable for its deliberate use of color, also incorporated chalk tones from street drawings made by the racial justice demonstrators, and the rose and yellow hues of Kasota Stone, a distinctive type of limestone used in the museum’s walls and floors.

The mural is one of five commissions for the exhibition.

In the section called “Memory & Belonging,” acceptance and connection are explored in “Arrival and Belonging,” a commissioned work by Michelle Angela Ortiz, known for her large-scale public art work focusing on community engagement and social issues.

The installation combines multiple light boxes made from etched and hand-painted photographs with an animation on video screens. It draws from first-person accounts to tell the stories of four people who moved to Philadelphia and the challenges they faced in making it their home.

“This work is connecting a larger audience to the community members who are part of our city,” said Ms. Ortiz, who was born and raised in Philadelphia and has worked as an artist there for 20 years. “It’s bringing the streets of Philadelphia back into the museum. It’s about seeing their beauty and their resilience and their power and their strength.”

The different narratives — a Liberian refugee who fled a civil war; a Puerto Rican man displaced by a natural disaster; a formerly homeless, nonbinary person from the American South; and the artist’s mother, who immigrated from Colombia — shift our idea of who is a Philadelphian, Ms. Ortiz said, and raise questions like who belongs here, and when does a place become home?

“It’s a way to remind us of who we are, where we’re coming from, but it’s also a way to reinforce a sense of community and a sense of connection,” Ms. Ortiz said. “All of these stories are really part of a bigger web. There’s living, breathing history in our communities.”

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