April 22-28, 2004
Putting It in Perspective
Adam Cvijanovic's mural depicts the MOVE tragedy from a whole new vantage point.
I overheard bits of two very different conversations the other day in Morris Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. When I entered, two young Philadelphians were talking about events that took place on the block of Osage Avenue depicted in Adam Cvijanovic's life-scale perspectival mural. On May 13, 1985, the buildings in the mural were destroyed by the City of Philadelphia in a confrontation with the radical group MOVE. Although the account of this event in curator Alex Baker's otherwise exemplary essay is, to my understanding, dubious on one key point (I do not believe that police allegations that MOVE members initiated gunfire have ever been proved), one visitor had remote firsthand knowledge of the firebombing and consequent incineration of 11 people. "I knew them," she said of two of the five children who died. "I was only a little kid but I remember their names: Something Africa was his name and Something Africa was her name." All MOVE members took or were given the surname Africa, so the visitor's words were not particularly informative, but her hushed tone carried the memory of a child's wonder and dismay that playmates could vanish in a strange legal violence.
The Philadelphians were succeeded by a woman and a man with a carrying Australian voice and the vocabulary of an artist. He was captivated by the Cvijanovic's virtuosic rendering of the unpeopled street flanked by neat rowhouses, many immured beneath vinyl siding. Some original Ionic columns have been replaced by cast-iron fantasies, while pastel aluminum awnings shade windows and stoops. The bunker atop the MOVE house is visible in the quiet distance. All are rendered in direct, incisive brushstrokes on Tyvek, Cvijanovic's preferred support.
"I've never seen a one-point perspective on this scale," the Australian marveled. "That's just bizarre!" He strolled several times across the gallery, which amounts to crossing Osage Avenue in the mural. The effect is disconcerting as the perspective of the street seems to shift and adjust itself as one changes position. It's a giant variation of those portraits whose "eyes follow you around the room." The trick is simple: eyes painted looking at the artist look at anyone who is there. A perspective with a single vanishing point maintains a stable and singular relationship to the viewer. However, the experience on such a large scale evokes a bodily response and viewers who discovered it were dazzled and fascinated. The Australian's companion read the brochure and told him about the MOVE massacre. He snorted in disapproval, but clearly Cvijanovic's painterly wizardry was paramount for him.
Such varied responses to art are valid and intertwined. A bad painting relating to historic events remains a bad painting. A piece of wallpaper -- for that is what Cvijanovic's work is, a movable mural similar in technology to one he showed in the Fabric Workshop's recent wallpaper show -- with no underlying text of meaning would not elicit the level of thought Cvijanovic's Ideal City commands. It is a really satisfying work, one of a scale and subject complementary to the large history paintings already in the academy. Its ashy color, typical of all Cvijanovic's paintings, recalls the ash to which that block of Osage was reduced.
Cvijanovic has attempted to expand the meaning of this work by relating it to one of Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom paintings, displayed on an easily overlooked wall outside the gallery, and to images of Osage on fire. Though beautifully executed (it's curious to see Cvijanovic's magnified rendering of Hicks' brushstrokes), they are superfluous, as the inattention of gallery visitors demonstrates. No free-floating, flanking metaphors are needed to enrich the content of the single powerful work.
Curiously, though, I imagined one of the marble statues in PAFA's permanent collection, currently installed on the second level with excellent signage, in this gallery. It's Randolph Rogers' Nydia the Blind Girl of Pompeii (1853). Her toga whipped by the wind of volcanic flames, Nydia hurries through the streets, one hand cupped to her ear listening for the cries of her friends in the doomed city. Cvijanovic does not paint people in his panoramas. Their emptiness sometimes seems primordial, sometimes uncannily elegiac. Nydia would add a note of redemption.
Adam Cvijanovic: Ideal City
Through April 25, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry sts., 215-972-7600