Gaining Traction: Industrial-scale Collaboration in Philadelphia
Traction Company at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
July 2 to October 11, 2015
118-128 North Broad Street at Cherry
Philadelphia, (215) 972-7600
Shared media or common theoretical interests sometimes spur artists to form a collective. The Philadelphia Traction Company is a collective formed around a building. Beginning in 2007, this group of graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) set up shop in a vast shed that was once a repair depot for Philadelphia’s trolley system, and a symbol of the city’s industrial past. The process of making that forlorn and forbidding space their home was the common experience that forged their partnership. It has led to shared approaches to materials and a certain esprit de corps that has transcended markedly different artistic output of individual members.
The Traction Company’s eponymous exhibition at PAFA contains works by individual members, collaborative projects and equipment borrowed from the site. Most notable are installations that straddle the line between art-making and entrepreneurship, such as the Modular Studio (2015) that greets visitors as they enter the exhibition. Made of repurposed materials of many types, including palette racks, unfinished plywood, pre-fabricated wainscoting, and corrugated metal, the capsule is meant to be inserted in the old trolley barn as a studio-within-a-studio. According to group member and multidisciplinary artist Billy Dufala, the rent collected from such moveable spaces is one way the group plans to cover the high cost of maintaining the building.
Modular Studio encapsulates the knowledge gathered by the group about how to make do in their adopted home. Dufala notes that the building’s owner has been supportive of the artists’ presence but limited in his capacity to maintain the site. Faced with a vast, unheated and not always dry space, the artists learned to repair, improve and adapt in the manner of wilderness explorers. Their first building-within-a-building, a three-story structure that functions as place of rest, design studio and office, took advantage of the trolley barn’s lofty overhead. On the floor below, each artist created or inserted facilities for his or her own craft, such as metal casting, woodworking, or welding. Along the way they acquired an understanding of the building’s 19th century bones that has shaped the aesthetic of their recent collaborative projects.
The need for spot heating has sparked many innovations including a tiny, handmade stove installed in Modular Studio. This beautifully-crafted item is an example of the overlap of art and old-fashioned manufacturing know-how that characterizes the Company’s output. The artist made serendipitous use of odd-shaped scrap metal pieces to create a stove that is both functional and ornamental.
This form-cloaks-function aesthetic dates the trolley barn’s heyday, when industrialists sought to familiarize new machinery by embellishing it with decorative styles from the past. A grand example is Miguel Horn’s Obelisks (2015), replicas of the building’s ornamental gate-posts, displayed upside-down at the entrance to the gallery. Made of thick-hewn wood carved with elegant designs, the tapering posts recall, in their new orientation, Egyptian-style designs made popular in the mid-19th Century as archeology uncovered the treasures of the ancient world. When presented in the context of a current-day, white cube gallery, these functional objects stand out as art in and of themselves.
The group recognized that the building’s best readymades were its enormous roof trusses, and so re-created one in the gallery using thick timbers borrowed from a demolished building nearby. Seen up close rather than from the usual vantage point of approximately thirty feet below, the truss’s heroic scale and hard-worn beauty comes to the fore. We see the natural ruptures and striations of its oversized wooden beams, and the enormous nuts and bolts affixed to its carefully fabricated steel join plates. More than with sheer size, the object impresses us with the care the artists took in learning how to make it. Imagine that Marcel Duchamp had apprenticed as an industrial ceramicist in order to manufacture a urinal for Fountain instead of using an off-the-shelf model.
According to Dufala, the group’s skill set comes in handy not only in repairing and improving the building, but in outside projects that help to situate the collective within its community and sustain it financially. Dufala is himself a veteran at forging such creative partnerships, having developed the Recycled Artist In Residency (RAIR) as a quid-pro-quo with a local scrap yard: artists gain access to materials, the scrap yard gains a positive image. The Traction Company has also improved its standing in the community by lending its skills to the repair of a nearby church. And it has been hired to fabricate other artists’ work, suggesting another earned-income alternative to the usual funding sources for collectives, membership dues and grants.
Opposite in scale from the truss, but also showing off the group’s collective technical bravura is subTRACTION, a playhouse-sized model of the entire building, complete with miniature versions of welding equipment, power tools, raw materials, and works in progress. Walking into this pint-sized world, which is barely tall enough to stand in without bumping one’s head, one appreciates the group’s flair for re-purposing materials as well as its relentless concern for detail. The artists have re-created each of the trolley shed’s hanging light fixtures, for example, using a cut-off top from a metal spray can and a decorative LED bulb. subTRACTION – which was shown at the artists-coop Napoleon in 2013 and discussed at the time by The Review Panel Philadelphia – recalls every effort the group made to adapt to the harsh conditions they encountered. It is part scale model, part self-portrait.
Individual members vary greatly in style and approach when it comes to their own work. Following PAFA’s age-old traditions, many are figurative sculptors. We see Joshua Koffman’s allegorical grouping Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time (2015), commissioned by St. Joseph’s University as a thirty-year commemoration of the Second Vatican Council’s progressive teachings on Jewish-Catholic relations. Nearby is Connie Ambridge’s helmeted portrait head Joan of Arc (2015), in bronze and silver and adorned by an intricate gorget of hexagonal brass plates. Sedekial Gebremedhin’s video installation Dinner at Traction (2015) represents a much more contemporary approach. In line with the Traction Company’s self-aware building techniques, this video—showing an African American couple feeding each other hors d’oeuvres—is projected in a viewing room whose exterior structure is exposed. There are numerous examples of abstract sculpture as well, including Brendan Keen and Leila Bateman’s Space for Space (2015), a giant pod carved from glued boards and supported by a thicket of wires that creep up the piece’s base. In a pop-art vein is Laura Giannini’s Mason Basin (2015), a claw-foot tub made of tiny bricks.
As different are they are in style, these works are linked by an attention to materials and details of facture that speaks the artists’ experience of collectively building out their shared facility. The trolley shed has spurred the development of both hammer and nail skills and an industrial approach to art making that differs from the non-profit gallery model that characterizes most collaboratives.