Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
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April 19–26, 2001


Wake Up and Smell the Rosenbach

Contemporary artists come to terms with a venerable museum’s collections.

BANG! Contemporary Artists Collide with the Collections

Through July 29, Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2010 Delancey Place, 215-545-7529


Really Rosey: In Red Maids, hanging skirts reading "Here" and "Dirty" pay homage to 18th-century prostitutes murdered for their hair.

Traditionally, the Rosenbach Museum & Library has suffered from an image problem similar to Punxsutawney Phil’s, capturing the spotlight only once a year on Bloomsday. Now, they’re branching out into new art and the new space of the townhouse next door. "BANG! Contemporary Artists Collide with the Collections," the museum’s new show of commissions by three local artists, is a brilliantly conceived exhibition.

For BANG!, the two exhibit spaces upstairs in the 1865 townhouse have been outfitted by feminist artist Teresa Jaynes and ceramicist/textile designer Candy Depew. Jaynes’ installation, Red Maids, is a series of objects, texts and stories representing the complexity of women’s lives throughout history. In Petals From The Same Flower, Depew collaborates with mezzo soprano and performance artist Martha McDonald, who leads the audience on a quirky tour of the Rosenbach brothers’ vast collection of precious stuff, culminating in a performance of Baroque music in the feng-shui-meets-construction-paper space designed by Depew.

McDonald’s performance celebrates the "culture of excess" represented by the brothers’ vast collection, which includes over 30,000 rare books and 300,000 manuscripts. Indeed, it suggests excess to be led through an historic townhouse by McDonald — she is attired in an 18th-century ball gown, bustle held up with clothesline, which is made of fabric hand-printed with Technicolor bay leaves. As a former Rosenbach tour guide, McDonald knows the collection cold, and she manages to blend descriptions of Victorian hair bracelets with rhapsodies over her own collections of nun figures and vintage salt and pepper shakers. McDonald is a celebration of kitsch, and it’s fun roaming the halls of the townhouse with her.

McDonald’s tour guide character might be stronger without McDonald in the role, however. Her performance was marred by garbled lines and pauses wide enough to drive a truck though; a more fluid performance might show the impeccably wry script in a better light.

McDonald, Jaynes and Depew spent a great deal of time ferreting through the collection in order to present various groupings and interpretations of objects. Jaynes went all out in her research, spending two months researching the giant collection of quotes ("Beauties seldom hear the truth") and obscure books (The Louse, a story told from the perspective of a bug living in a French aristocrat’s wig) that form a commentary on women’s history.

The focal point of Red Maids is a high-impact labyrinth of 120 blood-red damask skirts suspended from the ceiling. Stand below and look into the center and you may see a rose or an intestinal tract, depending on your mood. The skirts, embroidered with a 17th-century couplet, pay homage to the prostitutes murdered for their hair during an 18th-century real-hair wig craze in Britain. Red Maids is an idea that began three years ago — that’s when Jaynes began growing out her own hair. Before the opening, she cut off 12 inches of her hair and put it into a glass display drawer in the exhibit room. It’s part of a themed collection of objects termed "Beauty." Other collections are dubbed "Courting" and "Appetite," and include objects ranging from books to shoes to teapots.

Red Maids may feel familiar, even obvious. Its political subtext reads like the average curriculum for Women’s Studies, revolutionary for some and mundane for others. Thankfully, Jaynes maintains a sense of humor as she explores the contradictory and complex roles of women in Western culture, symbolizing time-honored themes like Freudian castration anxiety through objects like a brass nutcracker shaped like a woman’s legs.

For the Rosenbach Museum & Library, whose permanent collection hasn’t changed substantially since 1954, launching an exhibit of contemporary art is a gutsy move. Launching exhibits that explore both the sensibility of kitsch and issues of women/social class/sexuality in a historical context is even gutsier. Ultimately, the success of BANG! isn’t in the installations; it’s still the Rosenbach’s collection that steals the show. BANG! is a wake-up call reminding you how phenomenal that collection really is.

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