There is one work in the Delaware Art Museum show "Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970-1990" that really sticks in my mind. Flash Rosenberg's The Change Machine (1982) is a series of three photographs that tell a joke. In the first, we see a young man wearing eyeliner and a rather androgynous costume. He places his dollar in the change machine, and radiating parallel lines in the second picture suggest a transformation is underway. In the third, he is in glasses and a jacket, dressed for business if not necessarily for success. An after-hours superdiva has turned back into Clark Kent.
In the exhibition catalog, Rosenberg says the works she did at the time as art now seem most useful as historical documents. The Change Machine is one of the sharpest expressions I have ever seen of a particular historical moment, a time when the culture changed.
It sums up the two decades examined in the show. During the 1970s, all authority seemed to be empty and coercive, so respect for old rules and standards disappeared. Some cities experienced urban riots in the late 1960s - including Wilmington, which was under National Guard control for nearly nine months. The gleaming postwar dream had ended, just at the moment when the boomers who were themselves the product of that optimism came of age. Faced with abandoned cities and overturned icons, they felt free to experiment in every sphere of life - sex and art prominent among them.
In 1981, Delaware passed a new state law to encourage financial firms to settle there, and many did. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was elected president with an explicit platform of rescuing America from the chaos of the previous decade. And the outbreak of AIDS ended the joyful hedonism that had marked the first decade of gay liberation.
That is a lot of history to pack into one little joke, I suppose. But I think one of the values of looking at the past is calling into question our notions of progress. We can say the man in the picture needed to grow up. Or we can see his transformation from louche to respectable as a fall from innocence. The artist doesn't really make a judgment. She was just there, making art out of what was happening.
One can read a darker, parallel story in two Robert Jones works, the first of which is an ecstatic 1970s drawing from the Anvil, the notorious New York sex club, the other a powerful and haunting sculpture of a standing but empty shroud, made of cloth infused with fiberglass. A group of such figures was shown in 1984, outside a gallery near where the club had been.
"Dream Streets" is a hyper-local show about a place and moment that do not rank with, say, renaissance Florence, fin de siècle Paris, or New York when the abstract expressionists burst upon the scene. As the show and its catalog document, there was hardly any scene in Wilmington to burst onto. There were some salvaged spaces downtown, a couple of public employment programs that hired artists, a comic book store, and a rental gallery at the Wanamaker branch. Artists experimenting with xerography even had to drive to Philadelphia to find a really good copying machine.
The show's catalog, edited by Margaret Winslow, the young curator who conceived and organized the show, places heavy emphasis on the founding of several enduring local arts institutions during this period. What's more interesting, at least to someone from out of town, is to see how a group of artists responded to their own somewhat provincial place, and to the culture at large. The labels on the works are biographical, with little historical context. Nevertheless, some major themes emerge.
Take, for example, the huge black crocheted forms by Margo Allman that dominate the first part of the exhibition. The label quotes the artist saying the repetitive working of a single stitch provided a rhythmic and meditative experience. The viewer might see it, though, as sweater-making on acid, part of an effort to, as one button on display demands, "Psychedelicize the Suburbs."
The idea of a crocheted work of art was, of course, new at the time, part of an effort to celebrate traditionally female crafts. But the work is made from a synthetic fiber, herculon, manufactured by Hercules Inc., a Wilmington chemical company. That makes the work both a celebration of place and a postindustrial artifact.
Something similar happens in Teresa Barkley's 1974 quilt made from thousands of labels taken from widely marketed, factory-made clothing. Her craft took these emblems of a mass consumer society and folked them up.
I suppose I am most drawn to those works, particularly from the 1970s, that reveled in the freedom of having nothing to lose. There was a sense in cities like Wilmington - and Philadelphia and New York, for that matter - that one was living in a ruin. There were treasures and textures to be salvaged in the old buildings and neighborhoods, but relatively little at risk.
That's why I was delighted by an extremely low-def video by Rick Rothrock, later founder of the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art. We see him and some friends driving to a quarry near Reading with some steel forms he has constructed. We see them being placed on the ground surrounded by explosives, which are then detonated. At the end, the transformed forms are shown in a gallery. "Let's blow it up and see what happens." What a '70s idea! And in the city still dominated by a company, Dupont, whose roots are in the manufacture of blasting powder, it's a very Wilmington idea, as well.
The value of "Dream Streets" is that it gives quite a comprehensive look at a particular but not extraordinary place. It shows us how artists responded to an era that began in destruction and disillusionment and ended in what some see as deliverance and others denial of reality. It looks at an era that was just long enough ago to appear familiar yet very, very strange.
Art: BACK IN THE DAY
Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970–1990
Through Sept. 27 at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington.
10 a.m.–4 p.m Wednesday;
10 a.m.–8 p.m. Thursday;
10 a.m.–4 p.m. Friday–Sunday.
Family (up to two adults and four children): $25; adults, $12; 60 and over, $10; students, $6; 7–18, $6; 6 and under, free