Let’s start at the beginning. Back in 1982, an art student in Philadelphia was scouting around the street on trash night in an African American neighborhood on South Street when the student found a large group of unusual assemblages in boxes and bags meant for trash pickup. More than 1200 pieces of sculpture, in fact, most of which were constructions of tightly wound wire with bits of street detritus stuck in between the strands. All representing the singular obsession of a single artist, by the looks of them. Perhaps even an entire life’s work, tossed aside after the artist’s death.
The student brought the entire body of work to Fleisher Ollman Gallery, specialists in Outsider art, and the gallery set about cementing the unknown artist’s reputation through exhibitions, catalogues, and sales to important collections. (One of their pieces is illustrated at the lower left; a piece from the Dean Jensen Gallery is at the right). Comparisons were made to Native American medicine bundles, African American memory jugs, and African fetish objects. The assumption that these works were the product of an African American male (gender assumed by the strength required to manipulate the materials) seems to prevail at every turn. Due to the efforts to characterize and promote the work, the Philadelphia Wireman has been exhibited at the San Jose Museum of Art, the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
Quite a lot of recognition for an artist with a biographical blank slate. All of the speculation about the Wireman is within the bounds of reason, but so are other scenarios. My favorite being that this is the work of a art student who couldn’t get an exhibit to save his life, and thus tossed out his work out of sheer frustration.
A few years ago some generous donors gave the Fenimore Art Museum a small, 6" high piece by the Philadelphia Wireman. I gladly accepted it, knowing that the works were powerful and intriguing and the debate over their background spoke volumes about the attraction and the challenges of Outsider art in America (you can find out more about this type of art here). You can see both sides of it in the first two photos at the top of this post. The trouble is that I have a hard time showing the piece in our galleries, so it hasn’t been out on view yet.
I mean, what do I say about the piece or the alleged artist? I’m comfortable with some speculation in my exhibit labels, but this seems to go beyond the bounds of what I consider responsible conjecture. Nevertheless, it is a great study piece, and a genuine art world phenomenon. I think.