Opening Doors for Emerging Artists with Just 289 Square Feet
What could you do with a 17 by 17 foot white room?
That’s the question posed by PostScript, an initiative that bridges the gap between students and professional artists and allows the Weitzman School’s Department of Fine Arts to reach beyond campus and connect with practicing artists in Philadelphia.
Maybe the space, a room tucked away in a corner of the Crane Arts building in Kensington, becomes the canvas for a room-wrapping mural, a screen for video projections, or a quick-changing pop-up site for young artists to document their work.
“I like the fact that this is exactly what it is; it’s just a square,” said Exhibition Director Pernot Hudson, who manages the installation of the Postscript shows. “You don’t have to fill this thing with 50 paintings.”
It was an idea, said Matt Neff, director of undergraduate fine arts and design, that he and his colleagues had been kicking around for a few years: an adaptable gallery space where they could expand their curriculum outside the confines of the campus.
PostScript launched in 2018 and hosts regular exhibitions by current Penn art students, recent Penn grads, and artists not affiliated with Penn. Some of the grads choose to show their own work, while others opt to curate shows with artists they know, expanding the department’s network.
While the School often brings in artists to meet with the students, Neff said, he’d become more interested in bringing the students out into the city. Some Penn students might not have been outside West Philly before, he said, and “especially now that students are Ubering and Lyfting everywhere, they’re not experiencing the city in full.”
The city is an asset to Penn, said Ken Lum, the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor and chair of fine arts. The Crane Arts Building, just off busy Girard Avenue, is an example of the benefit that Philadelphia offers over smaller college towns.
Crane Arts, a former plumbing warehouse turned seafood processing plant, is a handsome brick building situated on a triangular plot in the rapidly gentrifying Kensington. It houses a number of artists’ studios and galleries run by artist collectives, including one, Fjord, which counts a number of Penn graduates among its directors.
Sharing space with other artists and collectives gives PostScript visibility, especially on nights like the citywide Second Thursday open house event, when artists and members of the community stream through the studios and galleries. And having an off-campus exhibition space among those artists is attractive to alumni looking for opportunities to show their work.
Something like PostScript would have been helpful when he was in the MFA program at Penn, Hudson said. He could have made connections and learned from someone like him.
“I’ve been told it’s a great opportunity,” Hudson said. “I think there’s just a freedom to experiment. There’s not a lot of risk. There’s no major repercussion if something were to go wrong.”
Not that it would, he added, because he works with the artists to make sure everything goes according to plan.
Angela Jang –– whose video and audio work with artist Heejin Jang, Noise Bath, is on view at PostScript through December 7 –– was drawn to the project in part because of the similarities to her own gallery space, Bedroom. Having graduated from Penn with an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts in 2015, Jang moved to Hong Kong and opened Bedroom with co-founder Michael Yu. Originally meant to be a studio, they instead opened it as a multi-disciplinary space that hosts gallery shows and pop-ups.
She loved her time at Penn, she said, so bringing Noise Bath from Bedroom to Philadelphia was a no-brainer. She worked through the video and sound installation set-up with Hudson over the phone, as he adjusted the video angle and positions of the glass Ikea bowls that refract ripples of light as they vibrate from the sound waves of nearby speakers.
For students, or young artists, working with Hudson to mount a show in the space gives them the support they need to figure things out and learn the lessons that can only come from experience.
It’s one thing to see a work in the studio, Lum said, another to see it in a gallery space. “Once they hang the work, it’s incredibly clarifying.”
In February, during a lull between shows, Hudson came up with the idea to offer the PostScript room up as a temporary exhibit space. Artists signed up for time slots, then installed, exhibited, and de-installed their work over a period of a few hours.
“Exhibitions often exist online,” Neff said. “A hundred people may see your show, but a thousand people will see it online.” Having the space for a few hours and photographing their work, he said, could be as useful to artists as having a show on display for weeks.
“That became a really powerful vehicle,” Neff said.
Following Jang’s Noise Bath in mid-December is the second part of her curated show, an installation entitled Bedroom, by Hong Kong artist Lousy.
One component of Bedroom is the red and blue woven bags common in Hong Kong that Lousy draws on. “He calls it a mobile canvas,” Jang said. “The whole show, it’s like a mobile, transitory art.”
The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation at Penn funded the first year of PostScript. This year, the Department carved out funding from its own budget in a show of support for the initiative. PostScript also receives funding from The Emily and Jerry Spiegel Fund to Support Contemporary Culture and Visual Arts and the Lise and Jeffery Wilks Family Foundation Artists Residency.
The budget is small – a few hundred dollars per show to support the space rental, the installation and the shipping of work. Going forward, the hope is to provide artists with more monetary support for materials and shipping to “see ideas come to fruition that wouldn’t otherwise,” Hudson said.
Lum hopes PostScript will gain more name recognition. Not that it isn’t already having an effect –– he recounts meeting artists in New York who had been to Crane Arts and seen PostScript shows, just without realizing what it was.
He also hopes there will be more opportunity for crossover with other departments at Penn. He pointed to the exhibit by recent MFA graduate Heryk Tommasini inspired by sustainability and climate change. “It showed not just artistic innovation and an interesting exhibition in its own terms, but how Penn contributes to the intellectual formation of the MFA students.”
In this vein, MFA graduate and visiting artist and professor Jiwon Woo will open an exhibit at PostScript in February showcasing her work in biological design, an emerging field that blends art and biology, creating designs using unconventional “media” like tissue. And in the spring, as is tradition, a graduating senior will be awarded a solo show in the space.
“The goal is not to be a commercial gallery or sell work,” Neff says, “the goal is to be a project space that feels free and open for students to experiment in.”