Galleries: Art in the cells of Eastern State Penitentiary

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"Specimen," by Greg Cowper, who has displayed insects found on the prison grounds in jars, test tubes, and cigar boxes.

The stars must have been perfectly aligned the day that Eastern State Penitentiary took its annual leap of faith and committed to four artists' proposals for 2011, as well as one that will make its formal debut in 2012. Now realized, and occupying five former solitary-confinement cells, the installations by Greg Cowper, Jordan Griska, Michelle Handelman, Judith Schaechter, and Karen Schmidt have fully utilized their allotted spaces, as well as drawing on the atmosphere, architecture, and history of this unusual venue. (Schaechter's installation is her prototype for a series that will be completed in 2012.)

Walking into Cowper's Specimen, you'll imagine - undoubtedly for the first time - how an imprisoned 19th-century lepidopterist might have organized his cell. In fact, Cowper's installation was inspired by his discovery that Henry Skinner, a curator of the entomology department at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences, actually met an inmate at Eastern State in 1889 who was a trained lepidopterist, and was astonished to see that he had collected 18 species of moths and butterflies in the yard outside his cell.

Cowper has retrofitted his cell space with old-fashioned display cases and a wooden flat file and filled them with jars, test tubes, and cigar-box arrangements of insects recently found (dead) on the premises by him and helpful ESP staff. Clearly, he is familiar with artist Mark Dion's fanciful re-creations of historic places and events, but as a real-life entomology curatorial assistant at the academy, he brings an encyclopedic knowledge, palpable enthusiasm, and wit to his project (I'm assuming his dead stinkbug viewed through a peephole in the flat file is a reference to Marcel Duchamp's Etant Donnes at the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art).

In Separate System, Griska, a Philadelphia sculptor known for his found-object reinventions, has intensified the experience of imprisonment through his transposition of an entirely new cell within the dimensions of an original one, vastly increasing the space's innately claustrophobic quality. (He also jettisoned the bed and toilet to remove all personal touches.)

Formerly peeling and powdery, like all the other cells, and lit by a narrow, rectangular skylight, Griska's new hard-edged, geometric, sheet-steel interior looks as clinical and cold as a morgue.

By contrast, Schmidt's Cozy, in a cell directly across from Griska's, seems intended to comfort the prisoner. She, too, has reclad her interior, covering the walls, floor, and existing furniture with 25,000 yards of yarn, hand-knitting every square inch herself and transforming the cell into an invitingly woolly playroom.

You've probably seen video projections of people on walls before, making them look as though they are standing in a room with you. The actors in Handelman's Beware the Lily Law aren't engrossing because they look real (they do), but because they're so believable in their roles. In dialogue written by Handelman - also uncannily authentic-seeming - her characters relate the abuses of incarcerated transgendered people, occasionally in graphic detail. (There is a sign in the hallway noting that her piece is not appropriate for children, but more than one visitor seemed not to have read it.) This is a powerful piece that uses its space simply and effectively.

Schaechter, who will have a major installation of stained-glass windows in 2012, is represented by a prototype for that project, a rectangular window that fits the dimension of her cell's existing skylight. In it, a pale yellow snake and a flower float in a blue background. Bathed in blue light, but leaving the cell otherwise untouched, Schaechter's meditative installation calls to mind a derelict Romanesque church.


Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 215-236-3300 or www.EasternState.org.

Chestnut Hill group show

Chuck Connelly, the perennially outspoken painter with the storied career (Nick Nolte modeled his New York painter character in Martin Scorsese's New York Stories mainly after Connelly), has organized a group exhibition, "Out of Order," for Chestnut Hill Gallery. It's an about-face for this gallery, which until now has shown a preference for landscape painting.

All of the show's four artists are nationally known.

Harry Anderson, who lives and works in Philadelphia (as does Connelly, after many years in New York), is represented by three whimsical lamps assembled from found parts, and by a wall installation of vintage gears and wheels arranged in a grid.

Ted Victoria, a New York artist, is showing wall-mounted, lighted projection pieces in which images of a pencil hovering over paper, or of a lightbulb, seem to have been generated by a séance. He also has a film of live sea monkeys in an aquarium, much enlarged, that is being projected on scrims on the gallery's windows at night.

Connelly's paintings are cruder than ever, flying in the face of all conventions, presumably intentionally. Hate signatures on paintings? His are so large, scrawly, and in-your-face he must mean them as an affront. His paintings' images are so expressionistic and large they're barely contained by a canvas, such as the painting, Fluffy, of a gigantic cat, or New Computer, a Jules Verne-like interpretation of contemporary technology.

Even so, you're presented with evidence of Connelly's discerning eye throughout this show, which makes me think he is asking for a reading of his own work that is not readily apparent. This possibility seems most likely in his inclusion of the photographs of Hal Hirshorn, who makes salt prints of his staged photographs of contemporary figures posing in old-fashioned scenes that seem to date from 1920s Berlin and Rome and speak of debauchery. A curious pursuit in this day and age, you might think, but no more curious than Connelly's.


Chestnut Hill Gallery, 8117 Germantown Ave., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, 12 to 3 p.m. Sundays. 215-248-2549 or www.chestnuthillgallery.com. Through June 25.