Close encounters with art

At the ICA they know how to throw a great party. The Institute for Contemporary Art, Penn’s showcase for the works of living artists, opened its doors one winter night (Jan. 17), inviting all to a free sneak preview of four of its latest exhibitions.

Stepping in from the cold, I arrived at the corner of 36th and Sansom streets shortly after six. To my surprise, a couple dozen people had already showed up. By 6:30 p.m, there were enough people to create a buzz of excitement. By seven the place was packed. There were old folks and college students, there were young professionals and people dressed in that retro-sixties style favored by artists and musicians and filmmakers. If Philly really had a downtown scene, it had moved west that night.

“Openings at ICA are an opportunity for the public, the artistic community and the Penn community to join together,” said director Claudia Gould. “By bringing these different groups together at the same time, we recognize the hard work and months of preparation that went into presenting a major exhibition, and we increase the impact and outreach of our exhibitions. It’s both a gathering and a celebration.”

See it in person

I headed into the main gallery on the first floor to check out “Edna Andrade: Optical Paintings, 1963–1986.” At age 87, this Philadelphia artist was center stage, surrounded by friends and admirers. Her complex, abstract paintings using simple shapes and colors have a vibrancy that seemed to energize the party. Now, before I came to the reception, I had looked at some pictures of Andrade’s work online, and had found them to be pretty uninteresting. The real thing, however, was very impressive. There is a hypnotic quality to Andrade’s art that cannot really be experienced unless you are looking at it in person. “Color Motion 4-64” (1964), for instance, features four quadrants of black and white tiles that really do seem to move when you walk toward it. Or take “Night Sea” (1977), whose latticework emits such a glow that I could swear that it was electrically powered. One of my favorite pieces was “Color Motion 2-64” (1964), whose colors were so surreal that I thought I was looking at a mere afterimage.

Flying objects

By the time I snapped out of Andrade’s spell, the ICA, from top to bottom, had reached capacity. Squeezing my way up to the mezzanine, where they were serving trail mix snacks and drinks (soda, $1.00; water, $1.00; beer/wine, $2.00), I came upon a group of six flat-panel monitors hanging from the ceiling. Each screen plays what the museum describes as “a full-frontal attack of B-movie appropriation, male anxiety and technological immersion.” The work, called “Without Warning (Flying Vaginas Are Trying to Eat Me).” by Adam Ames (C’91), marks the second in an ongoing series of video projects exhibited in the ICA’s mezzanine.

Artists intertwine

The crowd-stopping show piece of “Intricacy,” the second floor’s main exhibit, was a music video for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love.” Standing along side was the robot from the video. Architect and curator Greg Lynn has assembled works in computer-assisted mixed media by artists and architects. “Intricacy” could have been the title for the Andrade show too. What could she do with CADKEY technology?

Last but not least

I capped off my ICA experience with an exhibition by Justine Kurland, which features photos of groups of people (who are often naked) in forests and other natural settings. There is an adventurous feel to these photos, and when I was looking at them, the word “frontier” kept coming to mind.

Curator Greg Lynn said, “This is an idea show,” and there was plenty to think and talk about. But on opening night the most important ideas seemed to be to see, to be seen and to have a great time.

These four exhibitions will be up until April 6. Be sure to check them out.

Elaine Wilner contributed to this story.

Originally published on January 30, 2003