It‚Äôs not graffiti, and it‚Äôs not a traditional memorial mural.
Barely visible from the ground level, two carefully painted words in larger-than-life, carnival-like text reads ‚ÄúDrop Knee.‚ÄĚ The exterior mural can just be seen above the faded orange metal veranda that overlooks the 3600 block of Sansom Street, adjoining the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
Curated by Paul Swenbeck, the building administrator at the, ICA, ‚ÄúWoe Be Gone‚ÄĚ is the mural installation that passers-by can glimpse through the structure. It is one of the 18 commissioned works on display during the ICA‚Äôs 50th anniversary celebration.
‚ÄúICA@50: Pleasing Artists and Publics Since 1963,‚ÄĚ Feb. 12-Aug. 17, has showcased 50 new displays and programs, each tipping its hat to a previous show in ICA‚Äôs history.
‚ÄúWoe Be Gone‚ÄĚ pays homage to the works of Margaret Kilgallen, an artist who painted murals around San Francisco, and her installation ‚ÄúMain Drag,‚ÄĚ which was featured in ‚ÄúEast Meets West: ‚ÄėFolk‚Äô and Fantasy from the Coasts‚ÄĚ at the ICA more than a decade ago. ‚ÄúDrop Knee‚ÄĚ is a reference to California‚Äôs surfer culture and Kilgallen‚Äôs interest in the sport and lifestyle.
‚ÄúIt is important to retread the emotional terrain of the original exhibition from 2001,‚ÄĚ says Swenbeck. ‚ÄúThe connection between the Philadelphia artists with an interest in graffiti is strongly tied to the personal experience many of us have had with the late Margaret Kilgallen and her then-husband, Barry McGee.‚ÄĚ
Kilgallen had a flair for printmaking, letterpress and traditional hand-painted signs. Unlike other artists, she saw beauty in imperfections detected in hand-drawn works. Traditional folk-art typography, circus-like fonts and illustrations of people engaged in urban outdoor activities were some of her specialties.
In 2001, despite being in the final stages of breast cancer and several months into a pregnancy, Kilgallen, 33, worked tirelessly to install ‚ÄúMain Drag.‚ÄĚ She hand-painted a tower of signs that reached the ceiling and combined folk art with print press-style typography, traditional murals, hobo graffiti and urban scenes from the San Francisco area.
Within weeks of completing the installation at the ICA, she delivered her daughter, Asha, in early June and received her master‚Äôs degree from Stanford University.
Kilgallen died in late June 2001, while ‚ÄúMain Drag‚ÄĚ was still on display at ICA.
‚ÄúThis exhibition is memorable as a monument in equal measure of exuberant freedom and poignant sadness,‚ÄĚ Swenbeck says. ‚ÄúThe tragedy of her death was a shock to those who were closely involved in the exhibition. It was important to have a tribute to her sweet and kind nature as part of looking back at ICA‚Äôs history.‚ÄĚ
As a way to honor Kilgallen‚Äôs work and her contributions, two Philadelphia-based artists, Dan Murphy and Isaac Tin Wei Lin, spent two weeks last month painting the mural in her honor on ICA‚Äôs terrace.
Murphy‚Äôs art illustrates a gritty version of life in Philadelphia and includes painting, sculpture and photography. He also co-produces a photo magazine, Megawords, with Anthony Smyrski.
Tin Wei Lin makes pattern-based installations of works on paper, hand-worked photographs, as well as painted and silkscreen designs and recently finished a mural at Facebook Headquarters.
Swenbeck adds that while Lin and Murphy had free reign to commemorate Kilgallen in any way, they both thought it would be most respectful to reproduce her work in the most direct approach. While the scale of her original murals was modified to fit ICA‚Äôs architecture, and with McGee‚Äôs blessing, the artists moved forward with the piece.
‚ÄúIn the spirit of her free-hand lettering and painting, they‚Äôve created a new window into ICA‚Äôs past,‚ÄĚ Swenbeck says. ‚ÄúThe bold color of this addition has changed the feeling of the outdoor space and serves as an exciting new backdrop for events.‚ÄĚ