Photo show tells the South Kensington story

Ira Upin's painting "Nola Boys" (2014), oil on panel, at the James Oliver Gallery.

South Kensington's past and present are being celebrated in, well, South Kensington.

Hurry up and see "Archive Collective: South Kensington 19122." It closes Saturday. It's the first of two exhibitions of the Philly Block Project being held at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, comprising scans of recent and vintage photographs of the neighborhood and its denizens, as well as scans of magazine advertisements, historic paintings and maps, and written materials. Part two, of photographs of contemporary Kensington by a team of contemporary photographers, is set to open at the PPAC on Sept. 8.

This group of images, selected by Philly Block Project curator Kalia Brooks from a much larger archive of material collected by and submitted to the Philly Block Project archive team, is as diverse as she could make it.

The earliest depictions of South Kensington are offered by two maps from the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. One is a reprint of an original 1752 map published in Gentleman's Magazine, London, in 1753. The other, "Kensington Before 1854," is by Philadelphian George Baker.

Kensington's anti-Catholic riots of 1844 are remembered in two prints showing nativists clashing with Irish Catholics outside St. Michael's Parish, and an 1880 Thomas Eakins portrait of Gen. George Cadwalader, who, as brigadier general of the First Brigade, First Division of the Pennsylvania State Militia, did not actively suppress that riot, arguing that to intervene he needed an express order from the governor. (Later that year, he did order his troops to fire into the crowd of nativists trying to destroy St. Philip Neri Church in Southwark.)

South Kensington's industrial past is evoked in a postcard photograph of the former sprawling John B. Stetson Hat Co. complex, near North Fifth Street and Montgomery Avenue. The complex was demolished in 1979. An oil painting of its founder, John Batterson Stetson (1830-1906), is here, too, as well as illustrated ads for Stetson hats, one featuring Bing Crosby in an early example of celebrity endorsement.

The former Quaker Lace Co. and Schmidt's Brewery also make appearances.

The South Kensington of the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s is poignantly recalled in David Livewell's snapshots of his family and friends.

Livewell, a poet and photographer who grew up on West Master Street, submitted a photo of his parents embracing in 1948, a formal portrait of his brother at his first communion in 1961, and a shot of his sister posed on an itinerant photographer's horse in 1950 (none of the above taken by him), as well his own pictures: Hope Street in the early 1970s; his musician friend Walter Mills, known as "Kensington's Blues Man"; his brother and his friends hanging out in Hancock Playground, and "Bill the Milk Man" making his last delivery on West Master Street in 1988.

South Kensington's changing ethnicity is evidenced in two photos of Rosa's Deli on Girard Avenue. Herb and Frances Rosa are shown holding their homemade horseshoe-shape pretzels in a 1975 photo taken for an article in La Actualidad, after the Rosas bought the business from the original German owners in 1974. Nearby is a 1920 photo of the original pretzel oven in the basement, given to them by the former owners' daughter, who visited the Rosas after they took over the business.

My favorite image of this image-packed show is the first one I saw as I entered the gallery. It's a greatly enlarged scan of a color photo that Roi Greene submitted of his mother, Donna Marie Greene, looking about 14 years old, wearing a flowing white Empire-waist dress, and clutching an oddly droopy bouquet. It's paired with a scan of its reverse, bearing an inscription in blue ink: "Mom Modeling John Roberts Powers 1970."

"Archive Collective: South Kensington 19122." Through Saturday at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, 1400 N. American St. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Information: 215-232-5678 or www.philaphotoarts.org.

Show of "Force"

It's rare for galleries to go all out for a summer group show, even rarer when your gallery resides on the fourth floor of a 19th-century warehouse that does not have an elevator. James Oliver, proprietor of the James Oliver Gallery, which is so situated, is clearly an optimist. But there's much to like about "Force," his current show of 17 artists.

Nola Boys (2014), Ira Upin's large, colorful painting of two creepy entrepreneurial types presented as though distorted by a funhouse mirror, immediately reminded me of what a skillful painter he is, and, a second later, of how rarely I see ironic figurative painting of this sort and on this scale anymore. Upin, like his predecessors Leon Golub and Sidney Goodman, is not interested in cheerful, nonconfrontational, easily explained narratives.

Hillary Sphinx 2, Cheryl Harper's stoneware sculpture "portrait" of Hillary Clinton, is painted in a newspaper cartoon style and captures the Democratic nominee's visage perfectly, although I personally don't think she's a mystery at all. I anticipate Harper's caricature of Clinton's Republican opponent.

The other standouts here include Lilith, Evan Cairo's mixed-media portrait of a punkish young woman; Wedge #2, Dennis Beach's minimal plywood sculpture; Ali Thompson's amusing reinventions of 1950s and 1960s ads on canvas, and Jillian Shearer's contemporary portraits in colored pencil on paper that recall those classic pastel portraits of the 1940s.

"Force." Through Aug. 27 at James Oliver Gallery, 723 Chestnut St. Hours: 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 1 to 8 p.m. Saturdays. Information: 267-918-7432 or www.jamesolivergallery.com.

Small marks, big colors

Tiger Strikes Asteroid's show of JJ Miyaoka-Pakola's new paintings is one of the most succinct solo shows I've seen this summer.

Miyaoka-Pakola's small paintings of abstract shapes composed of many small marks bring to mind certain Chicago imagists, but the shapes themselves suggest tattoos and bike and motorcycle decals and human profiles. I'm thinking of Milton Glaser's famous silhouette of Bob Dylan, but Miyaoka-Pakola's images are much less referential. His combinations of colors are just short of electric.

"JJ Miyaoka-Pakola: #Hashtag." Through Aug. 28 at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, 319A N. 11th St. Hours: 2 to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Information: 484-469-0319 www.TigerStrikesAsteroid.com.

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