Steven Earl Weber, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This

Real Talk

How Are Artists Implicated in the Class Divide?

We are squirming under the thumb of an economically and racially oppressive system headed by a horrible orange monster. Anyone who cares about their fellow human being is devastated. Chances are you already know about or are starting to be aware of the massive inequalities all around us in this country. Perhaps you’re living it every day. Race, gender, economic, you name it. They are all connected to the class divide. The city of Philadelphia is still segregated. According to census data, many of us still live in neighborhoods where a single racial group represents 75 percent or more of the population. In our country, 1% of the population holds 90% of the wealth. Our healthcare is in constant jeopardy. We have always lived in a system that punishes the poor, rewards the rich, and blames “the other” for society’s ills.

What is the artist’s role in inequality in America? Because we in the art world are responsible for noticing, learning, reflecting, and presenting the world through visual language, we play a key role in cultivating important conversations like these. The time period in American history that best illustrates the artist’s relationship with inequity and the uber wealthy is the Gilded Age. This was a time when a small quantity of wealthy families (the Rockefellers and Carnegies, for example) made large sums of money by exploiting the labor of African American and new immigrant laborers. The wealth disparity would have been visually striking at this time, with workers living in tenements and the elite living in the enormous mansions on the horizon. Artists and craftspeople made those mansions the iconic monuments to the broken ideology of the American dream. We gilded their foyers, painted their silk wallpaper, carved their cornices, and painted their portraits. The artists and the robber barons of yesteryear are intertwined because without artistry, no one would want to visit mansions (today, they’re all museums).

This is not to say that those artists were wrong for making a living wage. In fact, it’s a testament to our power as creators. From unassuming materials, we can make history. We have historically worked for the wealthy, giving them the trophies they need to display their social class. These American mansions represent a longer history of systemic practice of cultural appropriation, reliance on fiscal inequality, and the art object as private property to further the social standing of a few. They also represent the time period when Americans started worshiping the lifestyles of the rich, a symptom of a deeply flawed value system we are still saddled with today (*cough* Trump *cough*).

Art’s relationship with the wealthy elite during the Gilded Age also directly relates to the classist stigma in the arts. Jessie Clark and I started Champions of Empty Rooms (CHER) because we saw a need for exhibitions that are relevant and accessible to all people (outside the echo chamber). We saw this need because too many people feel that art galleries and museums feel sterile and uninviting (terms like highbrow and lowbrow refer directly to class). If you come from a working class family and are an artist, you know this stigma. We need heady, conceptual, art historically-self referential and philosophically geared exhibitions. We also need cookouts that double as a video art and independent film screening (Dinner and a Movie) and everything in between. You shouldn’t need a college degree to be invited to view artwork, but often, that’s how it feels.

An integral element of the solution to this classist stigma is to provide more opportunities to connect artists, curators, and art institutions with geographic communities without contributing to gentrification. Art spaces have the ability to connect communitie with art and artists. Unfortunately, permanent art spaces and institutions are often used by developers to spark real-estate investment and then gentrification by enticing a demographic of higher income people into neighborhoods to increase property value and thereby initiating the gentrification process, evicting the people of lower income, artists included! According to an Artnews article on the top 200 art collectors in the world, nearly 60% of the list consists of mostly white heterosexual couples or white males a vast majority of whom work in either the investment or consumer industry and likely are purchasing art just as they would purchase stock for trade or sales.

This is who drives the art market and this is the kind of demographic developers are shooting for when they gentrify. They may decide the monetary value of art, but they don’t get to decide its actual value: what art is for and who gets to be impacted by it.

More Stately Mansions, an exhibition and zine I’ve curated which opens at Kitchen Table Gallery on August 6th, provides the opportunity for discussion among artists and art viewers regarding these issues and stigmas that affect us all. Discussion, visual and verbal, inches us toward common ground through the most effective tool for communication and culture building, the arts.

My intention with CHER and the More Stately Mansions is to simply provide an avenue of discourse outside of the existing institutions and among a larger variety of people. I do not pretend to know any clear solution to the long-standing, complex, and deeply rooted problems we face with inequality in American society. I simply wish to take my small set of skills and do what I can with them. I am an artist and a teacher, I am always going to look to engaging in open communication in troubled times as a means of forming vital connections and empathising with what other people feel and think. This is the overarching purpose of the More Stately Mansions exhibition.

The title of this exhibition is an intentional homage to two famous works. The first is the Aaron Douglas painting, Building More Stately Mansions, which links the labor history of African American men and women with the foundation of great civilizations. The painting celebrates their artistic and intellectual contributions to society despite the perpetual imbalance of power throughout history. The second is The Chambered Nautilus, a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. that uses the imagery of the mansion to represent the “self” and the nautilus as a noble creature that symbolizes continual growth and therefore continual re-building of the “self.” The final stanza reads:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,

As the swift seasons roll!

Leave thy low-vaulted past!

Let each new temple, nobler than the last,

Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,

Till thou at length art free,

Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

(Holmes, Sr. 5. 1-7)

These two works are a jumping off point for two ideas. First, The United States owes their iconic structures, infrastructure, and heritage to the contributions of people who had little to no power in an imbalanced power structure just as many of the wealthy elite, particularly of the Gilded Age, owe their station in life to this same power structure. Second, those of us who create have an uncanny ability to create “something from nothing”. Since the nature of art making requires constant self examination and evolution of skill and concept, we are in many respects, a symbol for perpetual grown just as the nautilus is for Holmes.

In response to the discussion of the class divide that has been at the forefront of political debate, More Stately Mansions will harken back to a historical symbol of wealth inequality, the gilded age of the 1800s and 1900s. This was a time when great American mansions were built, largely on the backs of slave, non unionized, and/or new immigrant laborers. These mansions have continued to be glorified and highly valued in today’s society as beacons of the American Dream. Visitors pay admission to view their lavish interiors with guided tours that glaze over the subservient work and slave labor it took to create said building. The American mansion represents a systemic practice of cultural appropriation, reliance on fiscal inequality, and the art object as private property. Asking artists to transform the gallery space into a rendition of these iconic structures is a way of investigating the artist’s role in the class divide, the role of the class divide in the exclusionary stigma in the arts, and the unspoken elements of the value system in the American dream as represented by these places.

Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This, Zach Zecha

Real Talk

Nine Artists Explore Wealth Inequality in Philly

The More Stately Mansions exhibition features local artists who were selected by Champions of Empty Rooms (CHER) founder and curator Veronica Cianfrano to create work that discusses themes of wealth inequality, the class divide, and the notion of the American dream as it relates to both the art community and the community at large. The artists were asked to reference the time period of the American robber baron, the Gilded Age, using only recycled materials as a means to discuss the artist’s role in the class divide and the power of the artist to create value from “nothing.” The following is information on the exhibiting artists, and the work they are making for the exhibition.

POPc, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This

POPc, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This

Dena Shottenkirk is a philosopher and artist. Her project, Philosophers’ Ontological Party club (POPc), is the marriage of these two worlds. Her work encourages conversation and a free exchange of ideas in a personal and intimate way.

Her piece, POPc: Making Thought about Speech, will encourage discussion between viewers and the resident philosopher in an enclosed space.

I make work that involves both publishing philosophical writing (generally in book form) and making related artwork. After that input, I hold events within the framework of an organization, POPc. The most recent topic [of discussion] has been censorship and free speech. I then take those conversations and along with the original input of mine (book/artwork) I build an installation that gives the whole “conversation” about the topic. In addition, the artwork is never for sale; instead it is part of a related project called the Lending Library, where people borrow the artwork for approximately six months, and then do an interview about what they thought. That also is added to the “conversation.” This project is in keeping with the theme of [More Stately Mansions] as it is entirely against the role art has come to play in our society: decor for the wealthy. Instead, the project emphasizes experience and thought. The viewers who come into this gallery will be able to leave their thoughts behind as well as take physical pieces of the installation with them. – Dena Shottenkirk

Stephen Dobash, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This, photo by Perry Melat
“The Joneses’ Sitting Room” by Stephan Dobosh. Photo by Perry Melat

Stephan Dobosh’s studio practice employs a careful consideration of Symbolist literary devices, automatic writing, and visual free association. He uses art creation as a physical documentation of his experiences and state of mind. Through the subconscious psychological connections between color, sound, text, and implied imagery, he wants to provide an entrance for the viewer to be able to free associate, transforming these elements from static objects to dynamic associations.

My installation “The Joneses’ Sitting Room” is a spectral fragment of the American suburban home, an “achievable” standard of wealth, made up of commonplace household items. Including a chair, a painting, a rug, and an end table are all spray painted gold. The installation stands as a satirical metaphor, an artifact documenting what “The Joneses” have achieved on their economic quest toward “The Mansion.” -Stephen Dobosh

Tiernan Alexander knows a lot about art as decor and social status. She holds an MFA in ceramics and a second Master’s degree in Material Culture from Winterthur, the DuPont mansion in Delaware (yes, those DuPonts).

Chandelier is a piece that juxtaposes refuse and the style of the chandeliers of the wealthy elite of the Gilded Age to illustrate extreme wealth.

The chandelier is one of the great examples of Gilded Age extravagance that was costly to make, used excessive resources, and required hired help to maintain. By building this one out of mostly garbage, equipping it with very moderate lighting resources, and providing a remote control, all of those historic conventions are inverted. The piece will also call on the history of using natural phenomena in an anti-contextual decorative fashion that lets the participant enjoy nature without any personal risk or worry about the destruction of nature. -Tiernan Alexander

Siri Langone, Veronica Cianfrano, Jess Flynn, Curate This
Trash Core by Siri Langone. Photo by Jess Flynn.

Siri Langone creates work that uses themes of repetition and time to draw connections between the banal objects of our daily lives and our impact on the world around us.

Siri’s piece, Trash Core, serves as a core sample of refuse. Each layer of the resin sculpture is a different discarded trash item organized by the time it takes for that material to break down, starting with glass on the bottom then maxi pads, fishing line, plastic, aluminum, and batteries. Each section is divided with dirt and neon layers that glow green when exposed to darkness. She states:

You have to look into the resin deeply in order to see what’s visible inside the different-colored layers. As familiar items appear, one can only wonder if each layer represents the time of decomposing. All materials were used for their purpose and then thrown away, possibly without any regard to where it may end up or what it will do to the environment. -Siri Langone

Jim Dessicino, Curate This, Veronica CIanfrano
Between the End and Where We Lie by Jim Dessicino.

Jim Dessicino is a fine artist and teacher at the University at the Arts. He creates sculptures that investigate the relationship between power and sculptural forms.

Though he typically deals with the portrait, More Stately Mansions has allowed him to expand the scope of his critique to architectural forms and luxury objects. Mining from his grandmother’s pole barn and Atlantic City’s self-cannibalization. In his piece, Between the End and Where We Lie, he presents us with objects that have fallen from luxury into a refugee state.

Harry Sanchez Jr.’s experience living in a border city has made him keenly aware of the boundaries everywhere. His work often serves as a response to this feeling of inaccessibility.

His piece will be a detailed recreation of typical dining room from the Gilded Age made of duct tape. The duality between material and environment is a reflection of the facade and falseness present in the setting of the lavish dinner party. The duct tape material is used as a reference to the working class who use it to fix that which is broken.

Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This, Zach Zecha
High Tea by Zach Zecha

Zach Zecha uses materials to show us how disjointed and chaotic language can be. His work shows us an urgent and somewhat futile need to understand and make sense of a cacophonous, hyperreal world.

His work, High Tea, will tackle this theme of wealth inequality and inaccessibility by creating a projection-based installation that taxonomically displays information regarding distribution of wealth in the United States. Accompanying this information is a table, set for tea, paint oozing out from the vessels as the excess flows from the capitalist structure that we live in. Chairs on either side of the table sit empty inviting one to sit. Yet even these are just projections, symbols of the illusion of power of the American individual.

Lauren McCarty, Curate This, Veronica Cianfrano
Window of Bewilderment by Lauren McCarty

Lauren McCarty embraces the opportunity to create work that is interactive. She often assumes the role of the keeper or collector in her work, emphasizing the preciousness of materials and found objects.

McCarty’s Window of Bewilderment employs imagery, materials, and architectural components from Camp Santanoni, an Adirondack “Great Camp” built in the 1890’s by an Albany banking family. Camp Santanoni was built in the style of rustic Adirondack log construction typical of Great Camps. The complex of buildings is unique in its evident Japanese design influence. While the buildings are grand, they are discreetly tucked into the landscape. Indoor and outdoor spaces are thoughtfully blended, blurring distinctions between the two.

This piece is a birch bark-paneled circular window. The painted figures seen through it, which are made of artist-produced charcoal and inks, are members of the privileged class enjoying the wild Adirondacks at the turn of the twentieth century. As the great American cities boomed, these newly affluent industrialists sought out refuge in the mountains. This refuge in the wild Adirondacks reflects the wealthy elite’s tempered and curated wilderness.

Steven Earl Weber, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This
Regression to the Mean by Steven Earl Weber

Steven Earl Weber uses objects, images, and their arrangement to contemplate questions of subjective identity within the issues of class, religion, and politics. His work addresses personal identity and social commentary by fusing craftsmanship and concept in a variety of mediums.

Steven’s piece, Regression to the Mean will be a cross-section of a domestic scene of the wealthy elite presented to us from an outsider’s perspective with an emphasis on the imbalance in social status.

More Stately Mansions runs from August 6-25, with a performance night and zine launch on Saturday, August 19. Kitchen Table Gallery, 1853 N. Howard St.

Zach Zecha

My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Nothing Out of the Ordinary

Zach Zecha is a fairly recent Philly transplant, moving here from Colorado in 2013 to get his MFA from PAFA. He was a founding member of Automat, a gallery he started with some fellow PAFA MFA-ers on the second floor of the 319 N. 11th st. building. He makes paintings and assemblages that remind that we are not in control, and that is beautiful. His work is glorious chaos at first glance and then slowly you begin to find meaning in the connections he makes, going from a loud scream to gentle whisper. I never thought hot pink duct tape could make me so sad. An inner conflict ever-present. Symbolism both invented and universal is presented, redacted, and then re-presented in a different form. He cites Baudrillard, Plato, and the like; but really, in the most human terms, his work asks us to stand back and appreciate the beauty of our chaotic, broken world as it crumbles in front of us; at the same time, he asks us to work hard to make meaningful connections. Very relevant work for our current political climate.

-Veronica Cianfrano, curator


OITNB, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This


Treat Yourself

Jessica Anne Clark paints, draws, curates, reads voraciously (ask about joining her sci-fi book club), and writes. She is a staggeringly intelligent and empathic human being which makes her an amazing collaborative partner. She wonders what your life is like, who you love, what you love, what kinds of things decorate your house. She wonders these things because thoughtfulness is her superpower and because she comes from a theater and film background. Her work retains these qualities. When you encounter one of her paintings or drawings, you feel as if you have interrupted a staged scene and for a moment, her super power rubs off on you and you begin to wonder and care about her lovingly depicted characters. When she’s not working in the studio, she’s helping me curate and install exhibitions through my pop-up project, CHampions of Empty Rooms (CHER), she’s organizing Philly Art Talks, or she’s managing Manifesto-ish collective’s online artist in residence program. If she tells you to read something or look at something, you should do it because she’s thought a lot about it.

-Veronica Cianfrano, curator

Growing up, one of my mother’s favorite phrases was “de gustibus non est disputandum.” In colloquial English this loosely translates to “there is no accounting for taste.” She’d cart this puppy out whenever my sister and I would turn our nose up at something my mother enjoyed (be it food or entertainment) or when we’d fight amongst ourselves on matters of preference. Her words have stayed with me and as such, I am always hesitant to make recommendations regarding any subject where taste is concerned. However, after much consideration I have comprised the following list of items for your viewing/reading pleasure. They have something to offer beyond pure enjoyment and entertainment. Many provide insight into relevant social and historical issues as well as observations on the human condition. Though you may not share some of the ideas expressed in these works, they provide an opportunity for discussion and understanding.

On the Beach, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

1. On the Beach by Nevil Shute (book). This book takes place in Australia, post-World War III. A nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere and Australia and New Zealand are among the last nations awaiting an inescapable radioactive cloud to make its way south. In a perfect world, I would hope this book would have the power to truly drive home the dangers of military escalation and nuclear warfare. Super important, super relevant. There are plenty of problematic elements to this book. As a product of 1950’s, On the Beach’s presentation of women and gender roles is dated. There are just two main female characters: one a housewife/stay at home mom type (Mary) and one pseudo-manic pixie dream girl (Moira) drinking her way through the apocalypse. Mary spends most of the novel worried about her garden, in complete denial of the coming destruction. In the throws of radiation poisoning, she is found struggling to place mothballs in all the closets. In contrast, Moira’s coping mechanism is brandy and parties. She forms a relationship with an American Navy captain and through this friendship, her last days are improved. While I do not enjoy encountering narrow and ill-defined portrayals of women in literary products from the past, reading these types of works gives me an appreciation for how far we’ve come as a society. On the whole, On the Beach’s flaws do not outweigh the import of its message and the profound sadness I felt upon reaching the last page.

2. Inverted World by Christopher Priest. This book creates a compelling metaphor regarding the subjectivity of our experiences and how our experience of reality can be skewed. I’ve already said too much.

Love and Friendship, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This, PMA3. Love and Friendship (The Sacrifice of the Arrows of Love on the Altar of Friendship) by Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert. I first encountered this piece during a trip to the PMA. It fast became one of my favorite items in the PMA’s collection. To me, this sculpture exactly encapsulates how art enables us to make connections to artists of the past. It also demonstrates how an artwork can feel like a relic while simultaneously feeling fresh and relevant to the present day. Love and Friendship implies that the movement of burning desire towards far less tempestuous feelings of friendship is a timeless cycle, rather than a product of modernity. At times the past seems so far and foreign; artworks like this circumvent those impressions.

4. Something you don’t like. I think it can be important to force yourself to read/watch/listen to something you don’t like (or think you don’t like). You may be surprised or you might just come to understand something about people who are fans of the things you abhor.

OITNB, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

5. Episode 12 (and part of episode 13) of season four of Orange is the New Black. This is a cheat because you kind of have to see the entire series for this episode to really hit home. Partial SPOILERS to follow. This episode tackles the subject of law enforcement brutality and race (the case of Eric Garner comes to mind, specifically). A longtime and much beloved character (who had been in all four seasons of OITNB) is unintentionally killed during a peaceful prison protest. There’s nothing anyone can to do bring back the dead and it often feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop the same thing from happening over and over. This episode feels very of-the-moment in light of events of the past few years/weeks/days. Critics of the show (and this season in particular) call out the use of serious issues for entertainment purposes as being tasteless and exploitative. These arguments cannot be ignored and create an opportunity for important discussions regarding race and the representation of race in popular entertainment. OITNB is definitely a flawed show, but nowhere else will you find depictions of such a wide variety of women’s stories, presenting women of all sizes, shapes, and colors. This isn’t a perfect show but perhaps it’s paving the way for new types of series.

6. The Killing. While I’m hesitant to recommend everyone partake in murder-for-entertainment shows, I think this series stands out in a couple of ways. Each episode represents one day in the murder investigation of a teenager. In this way, the pacing is slowed. This allows the show to really take its time to come to the conclusion. Time usually feels so sped up in TV series/movies, so this is a nice departure. The Killing is just as much about those affected by death as it is about discovering whodunnit. Also, the show does an excellent job of highlighting why circumstantial evidence isn’t always dependable. Just because someone looks guilty doesn’t mean they are.

FRONTLINE, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This7. Frontline (PBS documentary series). Each episode of Frontline is essentially a rich investigation on a compelling subject. Frontline has reported on concussions in football, mental illness in prison, physician-assisted suicide, and more. Some episodes focus on an issue/topic at large, others follow a specific person (or persons) and the specific issues they deal with on a daily basis. The New Asylums centers on mental health issues and how prisons have become a repository for the mentally ill (especially people with no support system). Country Boys follows two teenagers coming of age in Appalachia. Watching Frontline can feel a little like an “eat your peas” viewing experience in that the subject matter is not always easy to swallow: the reports are often heart wrenching and may leave you feeling a little hopeless . . . but it’s good for you.

8. Burn This (Lanford Wilson), specifically one night in the run of a Syracuse Stage production of this play in 1999. This night at the theater felt like magic. One of the things I’ve come to value most about theater is the possibility of variation within a run. One night will never be exactly the same as the next. This can cut both ways. You may attend on an off night, a night where actors were not at their best. Or, you could be present on a night where the actors are firing on all cylinders, everything is clicking exactly right and you are invigorated with the energy crackling on stage. That night at Syracuse Stage was one of those nights. I am recommending the performance rather than the play because it is the performance that has stayed with me all these years, not the story. Instead of teleporting back to 1999, take a chance and see some theater. You may just hit one of those magic nights.

9. Translations by Brian Friel. This is a play about language/communication/communication breakdown. It also has to do with cultural identity as well as “cultural imperialism” (thanks, wikipedia). The play takes place in small, fictional Irish town in the mid 1800’s. Issues between the Irish and English during occupation factor in heavily. Language is so essential to our daily lives, but it is flawed and fragile. Can we be understood without a common verbal language? Are we really being understood in our common tongue?

Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

10. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman). This film exemplifies the strength of visual storytelling. On paper, Anomalisa is the story of a man who is really just a terrible, completely self-involved asshole. He’s so wrapped up in his own feelings of dissatisfaction that he is unable to differentiate between any of the people he comes into contact with as the movie progresses. Kaufman allowed us to experience the world as this man does, and it is not a pleasant world. Perhaps you too will be left conflicted, left with the odd feeling that you’ve just enjoyed something you shouldn’t have.

11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Charlie Kaufman). I saw this a year or so after breaking up with my first serious boyfriend, the absolute right/wrong time to see this film. Anyone who has had the exquisitely terrible/kind of not terrible feelings of heartbreak would do well to see this movie.

Moonstruck, Nicholas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

12. Moonstruck: Olympia Dukakis. Cher. Nicolas Cage. Treat yourself.

13. Kindred by Octavia Butler. I read this book in one night a couple of years ago. It had been a long time since I had read a book that I could not put down when bedtime rolled around. This time travel story-meets-investigation of slavery in America allows us to experience life on a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation through the eyes of an African American woman from 1976. The effect is really powerful. Why is this relevant? I’d say it’s at least relevant to any and all Americans because this is our heritage. The time of (legal) slavery in America is still so close to the surface. It’s wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. In many ways we are still feeling the effects of that point in our nation’s history. There is a poignancy to sending a woman living in post-Civil Rights era America to pre-Civil War era America, especially in light of the current events (re: police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement). America has yet to reach a point of full fairness and equal treatment for all its inhabitants, for all races and sexes. While 1978 may afford a better quality of life/more rights for an African American woman than 1815, and 2016 may have even more opportunities/possibilities than 1978, things still aren’t what they should be. The scales are still tipped: in this way the specters of past wrongs have not been vanquished.