Monday, January 11, 2010

The Philadelphia Wireman

I have to admit that I just don’t know what to think of the Philadelphia Wireman. He is one of the most celebrated Outsider artists in America today, yet nothing is known about him (if, in fact, the artist is male). If anything, I think the mystery surrounding his identity, along with the undeniable power of the artwork ascribed to him, add considerable allure to the various notions that have rushed in to fill the vacuum.

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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The wire sculptures are certainly intriguing. And the mystery behind their creation adds to the allure. Does anybody but me see a similarity between the work of The Wireman and that of Judith Scott? One artist presumably was black, the other a white woman, but both were alike in that they were obsessive wrappers. Does that undermine the argument that wrapping is indicative of a particular cultural aesthetic? The Wireman's and Scott's artwork looks different, of course, but maybe that's due more to their environments than their heritage. Just a thought.

  3. Yes, the obsessive wrapping is certainly a similarity between the wireman and Judith Scott, although the scale and materials seem very different. It just underscores how tentative any assumptions about the unkown wireman are, which is why I am so sceptical about the prevailing theories. I don't think you can assume much from the pieces themselves.

    Thanks, Kevin!

  4. All I can say is I like it. And to me, that's what art is all about.


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