New art about incarceration at Eastern State and a Whitney Biennial sculptor at ICA

Jared Scott Owens’ installation, “Sepulture,” at Eastern State Penitentiary

Three new art installations at Eastern State Penitentiary, now on exhibit with 11 others that have been shown there before, make especially poignant use of their assigned space in former solitary-confinement cells.

Jared Scott Owens, who was once incarcerated and learned about art while in prison, has constructed and painted a life-size model of an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus and placed it in the center of a cell.  Sepulture is accompanied by an audio recording of Owens explaining the meaning of his work — it’s a symbolic burial of a formerly incarcerated person — and his path to art, helped along by his diligent reading of art magazines.

A cut-paper silhouette portrait of the formerly incarcerated activist Hakim Ali is projected on the far wall of another cell in Hakim’s Tale, an installation by Erik Ruin and Gelsey Bell. As Ali describes the experience of solitary confinement to Ruin and Bell in an audio recording played within the cell, his portrait increases and diminishes in size with the corresponding emotion of his words.

Piotr Szyhalski and Richard Shelton’s Unconquerable Soul, one of the more sophisticated installations to have come to Eastern State in some time, features an overhead video monitor positioned over a cell’s rectangular skylight, displaying moving views of the penitentiary and its surrounding Fairmount neighborhood made with a drone. In an audio recording that accompanies the video, prisoners of various nationalities read their own poems in their native languages. It offers a literal and spiritual evocation of the outside world, the main beacon of a future for the incarcerated.

The 2017 Eastern State art-exhibition season opened May 5 and runs through Nov. 30 at Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 215-236-3300 or www.EasternState.org.

Jessi Reaves’ “Chair 1” and “Chair 2” (both from 2016), plastic, driftwood, sawdust, wood glue, fabric, cotton batting, and polyurethane foam, at the ICA.

Funhouse vibe at ICA

The peculiarly humorous paintings and sculptures by Ginny Casey and Jessi Reaves now on exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art, in the second-floor Edna S. Tuttleman Gallery, are so uncannily in step with each other you’re more likely to feel as though you’ve entered the reinstallation of a reclusive collector’s living room than a two-person exhibition.

And who might that collector with such rarefied taste be? Hmmm … in my imagination, John Waters or Pee-wee Herman. In fact, this marvelously droll exhibition was dreamed up by the ICA’s 2015-17 Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow, Charlotte Ickes.

Casey and Reaves did not know each other before Ickes put them together, although both graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design — Casey in 1981 with an M.F.A., and Reaves in 1986 with a B.F.A. But Casey’s awkwardly composed paintings of curious scenes that could have populated a surrealist film (Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet comes to mind) and Reaves’ abject sculptural send-ups of furniture and domestic objects seem to have sprung from a shared appreciation of things being slightly “off.”

Ginny Casey’s painting “Purple Conversation” (2016), oil on canvas, at the ICA.

People are mostly absent from both artists’ works, but their presence is implied. Casey’s painting Droopy Vase, for example, has a green-blue vase in its foreground shaped like a paunchy human. Next to it, resting on a table, is a disembodied hand. Behind the hand is another blue vase that looks as though it’s communicating with its droopy counterpart. In the upper left, a blue sculpture of a head appears to be weighing in on this mysterious tableau, in the manner of Gauguin’s self-portraits in his Tahitian paintings.

In Casey’s Blue Table, a curvaceous cerulean blue table has been cut nearly in half by an ultramarine-blue saw that’s been left there by someone, stuck in place. An elegant white upholstered chair in the upper right appears to have witnessed this brutal assault.

Reaves, who studied painting as well as sculpture and who once worked part-time as an upholsterer, creates her sculptures, several of which are also included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (closing June 11), using found furniture parts and materials. The finished forms suggest do-it-yourself, homespun versions of chairs, tables, shelves, and other furniture. Her Kragel’s Nap Chair, a play on reclining chairs by Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier (and possibly others) is a wonder concocted from a found steel frame, rattan, enamel, polyurethane foam, cotton, plastic, glass, and hardware.

Reaves’ Mutant Butterfly Chair,  constructed from plywood, leather, plastic, hardware, wood, sawdust, and wood glue, is a tormented-looking version of the classic Hardoy “butterfly” chair.

Initially, I wasn’t sure I liked the living room/show room-style trope for this show. Its multiple juxtapositions of Casey’s paintings with Reaves’ sculptures seemed a too-obvious effort to connect the dots. But the fun and the wit won me over.

Through Aug. 8 at Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.  215-898-7108 or www.icaphila.org.

A detail from John Singletary’s photographic installation at James Oliver Gallery.

Last call for “Anahata”

Just a short time left for John Singletary’s ambitious Anahata/I Forgive You project at James Oliver Gallery, a musically enhanced photographic narrative of interactions between gods and demons.

Singletary, a Philadelphia fine-art photographer and multimedia artist, photographed the images in a black-box studio in a Victorian house in Germantown, collaborating with composer Matt Hollenberg. For the show’s opening, he enlisted a team of dancers, set technicians, choreographers, costume designers, makeup artists, and theater performers to bring the photos’ story to “life.” The performance now plays in a repeat loop on a computer screen.

James Oliver’s usually well-lighted loft space has been shrouded in black fabric, all the better to experience Singletary’s LED-illuminated photographs.

Through June 9 at James Oliver Gallery, 723 Chestnut St., 4th floor, 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday. 267-918-7432 or www.jamesolivergallery.com.