When Robert Woodward C’71 was a microbiology major at Penn, one of his chores at the Richards Building involved making cross-sections of unknown bacteria and embedding them in polyester resin.
“We’d slice them open and look at them under an electron microscope, and then I would develop the photos in the lab,” he recalls. “You don’t realize how things affect you, but obviously it’s always been a fascination of mine.”
These days Woodward is an accomplished artist who goes by the name of Peanutbutter and works in everything from sculpture to face-painting. But the parallels between those tiny cross-sections and the oversized epoxy ones that make up Looking-Glass, his dazzling new installation at the Girard Avenue SEPTA stop in Philadelphia, are irresistible.
In a sense, each of the 92 panels he has made for Looking-Glass acts as a different kind of multi-dimensional window into Girard Avenue.
“I’ve always been interested in making people look inside things,” he says. “Just having a window into another world, to me, is a gift.”
The installation features four themed series of 20 panels apiece, each tinted a different color—past (orange), present (blue), future (yellow), and “current” (red), which he calls the “electricity of the subway” and which features “somewhat abstracted images of key architecture and architectural detail from Broad Street,” beneath which runs the subway. Each “window” is filled with select bits of flotsam and jetsam from the Girard Avenue neighborhood—a pocket watch, a piece of needlepoint, a hand mirror, archival photographs—embedded in tinted epoxy resin. (The eight stairways are each lined with 10 panels, while the 12 somewhat more free-form panels line the handicap-access ramps.) The effect is somewhere between dreamy and hallucinatory, an industrial neighborhood’s collective unconscious.
Listening to Woodward describe his multi-layered technique for making the panels can be a little like watching a runaway subway car, one that leaps from track to track but never crashes. “It’s a two-part resin that’s mixed together,” he explains. “Then I color it with different dyes and pigments, and I do it in three or four layers. And each layer I add different things, so that you get a sense of depth to it. It’s probably the science background I have that [keeps me] playing around with materials and experimenting. I’m not too anal about it. It’s more intuitive than anything.
“I love the fact that I can be working on something, and something else falls off the shelf and hits me,” he adds. “Oh yeah—put that in! I mean, there’s such randomness! It’s like-face-painting: it’s chaos within order.”
The installation, which was funded by a $150,000 grant (federal stimulus money distributed through SEPTA and the City of Philadelphia) that allowed him to hire a number of assistants, will also include a bronze mold of a hand, cast from one of the SEPTA tellers. Woodward hopes it becomes a “touch spot”—along the lines of the old eagle at Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s) or the boar at the Reading Terminal Market—a talismanic object where “people can come in and high-five with it and say, ‘I’ll meet you at the Hand.’”
In an essay for his application, he “hypothesized about somebody coming back from work at the end of the day, and coming into the subway, and then all of a sudden seeing all these colors and everything being enlivened and enriched, and just feeling brighter,” Woodward says. “And then somebody coming to work and just being delighted about coming to work instead of going into a dingy, dumpy place.”
Since the installation process began a few months ago, Woodward says he has had a terrific range of positive responses from SEPTA riders young and old. Especially satisfying has been the reaction of the construction and iron workers.
“They’ve been receptive all along,” he said in an email last month. “But this week installing the ‘Gallery’ pieces on the ramp—more like abstract paintings—they are walking up and down, really judging them, analyzing them, and picking favorites. It’s a complete reversal of the normal gallery scene—men in hard hats, goggles, and safety vests, orally blogging about something very foreign to their worlds. I could almost envision this in a Mad Max World with no more hoity-toity galleries. Very, very rewarding to experience a different group of people enjoying my stuff.” —S.H.