New York

Philadelphia Wireman

Matthew Marks Gallery

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.

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. This is a tradition that has been traced by scholars such as Robert Farris Thompson from the streets of northern cities to the homes and yards of the Deep South, and further back to the African tradition of the nkisi, or medicine bundle.

From the smallest, Untitled (Bolt Ring), which measures just three-by-two-by-two inches, to the tallest, Untitled (Two Umbrellas), a relatively statuesque thirty inches in height, each piece buzzes with dizzying patterns produced by the interplay of coiled wire and wrapped objects—which ranged from bolts and nails to books of matches and shards of glass. The majority of works presented here were roughly fist-sized, variations on a common egg-shaped form that exploded into figural or cruciform conformations, wonderfully punctuated by color from striped plastic straws, blue rubber bands, orange and red candy wrappers, and the like. Occasional flirtations with the profane notwithstanding—Untitled (#324) incorporates a clipping from Playboy—they feel sacred.

This extensive body of work is of course not the first to cross art-world borders from margin to mainstream. From Lonnie Holley of Birmingham, Alabama, to the late Curtis Cuffie of New York City, purveyors of allegorical assemblage fashioned from recycled, mojo-infused urban detritus have long been quietly recognized as crossover anomalies: Recall, for example, Cuffie’s appearances in Kenny Schachter’s early-’90s group shows. Matthew Marks here upped the ante again, but the question remains: Can or should the Wireman’s appropriation of pop-cultural castoffs, produced without any apparent ironic or other critical intent, ever be assigned the same art-historical significance as the work of more canon-savvy practitioners? Refreshingly spin-free, this show only made the question more urgent.

Jenifer P. Borum