Philadelphia Wireman: Matthew Marks Gallery

Article excerpt

For the past decade and a half, the small, wire-trussed assemblages made by an anonymous artist known only as the Philadelphia Wireman have circulated busily within the folk/outsider art world, but the mystery of their origin has remained unsolved. Over a thousand of these enigmatic objects were found on a Philadelphia street corner by a student and brought to the attention of local outsider art dealer John Ollman, who has worked diligently to preserve and exhibit them at different venues, Matthew Marks Gallery's minuscule Twenty-first Street annex being the latest.

It is widely assumed, due to the brute strength required to bend the high-gauge wire used in the works, that their maker was a man, while the demographic of the neighborhood where they were found has encouraged the belief that he was African-American. The objects have been dated to around 1970 based on details culled from such materials as matchbooks, wrappers, and magazine clippings. While such theories inevitably invite debate, they are probably as close as we'll get to the facts. In any case, that the Wireman's work was discovered in 1982, the same year that the Corcoran Gallery of Art's "Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980" exhibition sparked widespread interest in African-American vernacular art, facilitated the oeuvre's rapid acceptance into that particular canon.

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This show's straightforward presentation of forty-eight representative works constituted a fresh opportunity to contemplate their aesthetic brilliance without dismissing the significance of their vernacular provenance. Lined up neatly on a long shelf that extended around three walls of the single-room gallery, these visually dynamic bundles of urban detritus had a commanding presence. Indeed, some critics have recognized them as latter-day manifestations of the Afro-Atlantic folk practice of wrapping objects to activate medicinal or other protective powers. …