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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July 12-18, 2002


Raising the Bar

Frankās slate: The Off the Wall gallery at Dirty Frankās  

has been showing local art for over two decades.

setting the standard:Northern Libertiesā Standard Tap 

houses a collection of local work.

Frankās slate: The Off the Wall gallery at Dirty Frankās has been showing local art for over two decades. setting the standard:Northern Libertiesā Standard Tap houses a collection of local work.

: Michael T. Regan

A look at Philly watering holes that offer more than just drinks to local artists.

It all started one day while I was sitting at the bar at Standard Tap, a popular corner bar and artist hangout in Northern Liberties. A small painting on a nearby wall caught my attention. It showed a side view of an imperfectly stuccoed rowhouse, partly in shadow and partly lit by a brilliant orange-yellow light, and fragile power lines silhouetted against a pale and neutral bluish sky. Titled Light on 2nd Street II, it had been painted by Jesse Gardner, a painter who often works in Northern Liberties, and given to Paul Kimport and William Reed, the bar’s owners. The painting showed a perfectly captured moment of urban life -- real and relevant to where I was the moment I saw it. It started me thinking about the role of real art (as opposed to the ubiquitous fine art reproductions of, say, Monet or Miro) in public life. From this, I decided to visit a group of local establishments and check out Philadelphia’s contemporary bar art scene.

I began my adventure by going back to the source of the phenomenon, the famous art bar on Pine Street, Dirty Frank’s. Mary Liz (her preferred moniker) is the founder and curator of an ongoing exhibition program, the Off the Wall Gallery, that’s been there since 1978. Like a business within a business, the gallery has existed with the cooperation of several different owners. In recent months Mary Liz has been seriously ill, but has still managed to keep the gallery running. She says the gallery has lasted because “it’s so important for artists to have an alternative space to show their work instead of being locked out of the art world … and I get a big kick out of most of them.” She’s especially pleased to recollect success stories from over the years, with tales of many promising young artists -- for instance, Barbara Bullock, now a Pew Fellow -- who had their first one-person shows in the program. On a recent visit, work by Felix Giordano and Barbara Uritis was tightly packed on the gallery’s single long wall. Uritis makes bright computer images of abstracted objects, and in Car Exhaust on a Hot Summer Night she recreates a sleepless night with bright, fuzzy patches of color. Giordano’s showing mostly figurative paintings, including Portrait of a South Philly Politician, which shows a man wearing an ill-fitting brown suit and gold jewelry, and seems to capture the subject’s weariness, jittery nerves and just a bit of a smirk.

Works of art and bar life in Philadelphia have a long history together. Our founding fathers carefully considered the role that taverns should have in the social fabric of the city. Billy Penn believed that they promoted cultural life, as well as fostered communication, oral history and a sense of community. Visual entertainment was an attractive feature of many colonial Philadelphia taverns. Besides the permanent displays of maps, paintings and decorative art, bar owners put up temporary displays of art and objects, for example, collections of prints showing faraway cities and famous battles. Other exhibits included a musical clock and camera obscura, wax figures of biblical characters and a 17-foot-long model of Jerusalem carved by two Germantown men. At the Indian Queen Tavern, a celebrated exhibition of paintings of livestock featured The Great Hog’s Portrait, portraying a 900-pound pig.

Though many contemporary drinking establishments in Philadelphia decorate their walls with mass-produced posters, in recent years more and more have followed Mary Liz’s example by showing original artwork. For about 10 years Tavern on Green (in the Fairmount neighborhood) has had changing exhibitions of art. Carmen Travaligne, general manager, has been behind most of the planning and organization of these exhibits over the years. Louis Gribaudo, a bartender, says that it all started when several staff members decided to exhibit their artwork. They each took turns organizing their own shows, and after a while other artists started to hang work there as well. Right now Gribaudo himself has several watercolors and digital prints on display in the bar, including expressive beach scenes and a charming digital print, Fruit, that shows an apple, pear and orange in saturated tones of red, green and orange. In the dining area, local photographer Kathleen Reilly is exhibiting her manipulated photographs, with brilliantly unnatural colors, of female nudes.

Also inspired by Dirty Frank’s, local artist Jake Henry started an exhibition program at Tattooed Mom’s -- a South Street bar co-owned by Robert Perry and Kathy “Mom” Hughes -- because he and his friends had been “stockpiling artwork.” T-Mom’s has hosted the program for about three years and it has generated energy among the artists (often Space 1026ers) who show there regularly. Henry believes that it has helped many of the artists advance their careers, citing Space 1026’s recent show at the Institute of Contemporary Art. One of the largest spaces of its kind, the second-floor bar that houses the exhibitions is a huge collaborative work of art, with layers of handmade posters and prints on the walls, plus hundreds of impromptu drawings and (officially sanctioned) graffiti. The next exhibition at T-Mom’s will include work by local artists Mike Frank, Andrew Clark, Paulee and possibly a few others.

Bishop’s Collar in Fairmount, owned by Megan and Jeff Keel for the past three years, has become another new exhibition site for young artists. Megan Keel, an artist herself, thinks that the exhibitions are good for business because it makes the place more fun for customers and brings in the artists’ friends on opening nights. Shows are usually organized by Pat Lyon, but right now the Keels are hosting Phantom Gallery, a roving gallery masterminded by Philadelphia artist Flip Hassell. The gallery is a loose collective of local artists and for the past nine years has staged exhibitions at The Trocadero, The Khyber and many other venues. In this show, bar-goers can see artwork by all of the Phantom regulars. The work is rather diverse, more a collection of individual pieces than a cohesive show, but that seems to suit the free-spirited mission of the group. For example, Hassell is showing mixed-media assemblages made of refrigerator parts and plastic army men and a group of semi-autobiographical cartoons about his life as an artist/waiter, while Heather Rippert has put up a group of watercolor Tarot cards and Christine Fronczak is exhibiting 3-D wall pieces that frame found objects.

Only a few doors down is Terry McNally’s London Bar and Grill, which has experimented with a number of different formats for art exhibitions over the years. She has hosted the Phantom Gallery several times, commissioned permanent works and organized changing exhibitions. During a quick tour, McNally shows off a series of pastel drawings that she commissioned from Diana Dorenzo of lively scenes of staff and customers in the bar. She also commissioned Karen Farr, an artist and illustrator of children’s books, to paint murals in the restrooms. On temporary display, there are several pleasantly decorative paintings of flowers and waiters by Tony LaSalle that McNally says she has extended indefinitely on the insistence of her customers.

Rather than hosting temporary exhibits, other bar owners have focused more on building a collection of art for permanent installation. Though you might intend to go there just for drinks or dinner, Neil Stein’s Striped Bass actually has one of the most interesting permanent displays of contemporary art in town. The art was selected by the decorating firm Marguerite Rodgers, Ltd. to help create ambience -- and to highlight Philadelphia artists. The bar is filled with the marvelous and poetic black-and-white photographs of George Krause. Mummer shows a decked-out Mummer frozen in a darkened stone archway and the raw and beautiful Five Boys captures a row of boys in shorts lying on a bare expanse of pavement. Other works in the dining area include Frank Galuska’s huge painting of women in a garden, Tomorrow Never Knows; Randall Exton’s painting of figures in the last light of the day, Shawnee Heights; and an enormous hand-forged steel bass (hiding an exhaust hood) over the grill area by Philadelphia metalworker Bob Phillips.

Similarly, The Happy Rooster, a tiny bar and restaurant on Sansom Street, is filled with a large permanent display of art, but, as I was warned on the phone before I came in, “there are only roosters.” This eclectic collection of rooster art was started by the previous owner and continued with much enthusiasm for the past two years by current owner Rose Perotta. It’s a delightful installation of kitsch from the past 50 years; there are drawings, paintings, ceramic figurines, plates, stuffed animals, feather assemblages and woodcarvings. More recent additions include Philadelphia artist Mary DeWitt’s expressive paintings of roosters on glass. DeWitt painted a group of hens and roosters on the storefront window in the dining room, as well as individual portraits of roosters on Dumpster-dived glass panels with old house paint. One is a flirty white rooster who seems to be glancing back over his shoulder, as DeWitt points out, “like Marilyn Monroe.”

Toward the end of my adventure I went back to Standard Tap, and again was thrilled to see that little patch of orangish-yellow in Jesse Gardner’s painting. Besides Gardner’s painting, the bar contains a permanent display of work by Jim Reed, a.k.a. R. Horsebutt, a Philadelphia artist and brother of one of the owners. Reed makes painterly modifications to thrift-store paintings, as well as working, as he puts it, “from scratch.” There are about eight to 10 of his works throughout the bar, among them an idyllic golden forest landscape into which Reed has inserted a clunky culvert, and a unique painting of a woman in an orange dress, who proudly flourishes a set of extremely prominent toes. All of Reed’s paintings have traditional frames with small lamps that wonderfully illuminate the paintings and, indeed, the bar itself.

It’s encouraging to see that Philadelphia drinking establishments are again using visual art to attract and entertain customers. After all, museums as we know them today are a fairly recent phenomenon and, rather than isolating art in neutral gallery spaces, some of these diverse grassroots exhibitions make art’s connection to real life somehow more apparent. By putting real art on their walls, these insightful bar owners and curators (and surely many others) offer a creative outlet to hundreds of artists and foster the cultural life of the city. Our founding fathers would have been proud.

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