Three new installations have arrived this month to occupy Eastern State Penitentiary's achingly depressing and dilapidated solitary confinement cells, joining 10 others already there. Two are conceptual works by artistic collectives, each taking up two cells. One is by an individual artist — Rachel Livedalen — situated in the prison greenhouse.
Photo Requests from Solitary is the work of the artist collective Solitary Watch, which invites imprisoned men and women held in long-term isolation to request photos they would like to see, and makes those requests available to the public. The installation offers wall-mounted grids of poignant handwritten letters asking for images of sunsets, New York City vistas, and wolves in the wild. A video monitor in the cell next door shows the images the prisoners received.
Electric Kite, by the collective Provisional Island, uses two cells across the hall from each other and is more severely minimal. One cell displays a pedestal holding a handmade radio transmitter hidden inside the carved-out pages of a book. The other has a receiving radio, exhibited in a clear casing and also on a pedestal. An accompanying audio compilation airs segments from historic radio shows recorded in prisons and internment camps.
Livedalen's Doris Jean, rendered in black vinyl on the greenhouse's glass panes, is the most visually exciting, although it avoids any opinion on imprisonment. Indeed, Livdalen's replicas of newspaper articles about the 1955 death of Philadelphia heiress Doris Jean Ostreicher and subsequent trial of soon-to-be Eastern State prisoner Milton Schwartz feel, frankly, fun — even considering their dark origins. And they look fantastic.
Through Nov. 30 at Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Information: 215-236-3300 or easternstate.org.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art's new video installation Wil-o-Wisp is remarkable in at least three respects.
There's the video itself, of course, a dark fairy tale that could have borrowed its stylistic cues from Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, and any number of silent films.
And there is Rachel Rose, the young artist who conceived, directed, and shot it. Since earning an M.F.A. from Columbia University in 2013, Rose has been given solo exhibitions at London's Serpentine Gallery and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In addition to Wil-o-Wisp at the Art Museum, she has works in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, London's Tate, and Japan's Ishikawa Foundation, among others.
Third is the arrangement that brought Wil-o-Wisp to Philadelphia.
Rose's exhibition marks the inauguration of Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media, a shared initiative of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy, that will support the production of a new video, film, sound, or performance work every two years. The two institutions will exhibit those future commissions and acquire them for their collections.
Wil-o-Wisp is in the same large gallery that hosted the majority of Bruce Nauman's Contrapposto Studies last year, but is shown on a screen in the middle of the rectangular gallery and can be viewed from behind as well as from the front. The video is projected on semitransparent projection scrims that create a shimmering effect of moiré patterns.
Viewers can stand while watching the video — it's just over 10 minutes long — or sit on cushions and carpeting that are part of Rose's installation. Viewers' footprints have already left moiré-like patterns in the carpeting, echoing the patterns made by the scrims.
At its core, Rose's video tells the story of Elspeth Blake, who lives with her family in rural 16th-century Somerset, England. The protagonist undergoes a tragedy and is thought to have died, then reemerges in another village as a mystic and healer, where her practice of magic lands her in trouble.
Blake's trajectory, compelling as it is, is also a thread to connect Rose's multiple references. It unfolds in chapters like silent films of old, with musical scoring and sound effects that bring to mind contemporary movie features. The video concludes with appropriated early 20th-century footage that purported to show light-filled fairies at night. It's a fitting finale for this transporting collage of image, sound, history, and place.
Through Sept. 16 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (Wednesdays and Fridays to 8:45 p.m.). Information: 215-763-8100 or philamuseum.org.
John DeMelas, a Philadelphia-born son of Sardinian immigrants who attended art school after serving overseas in the U.S. Army and later worked as an offset printer — and who with his wife raised three children on Pine Street, where he still lives — never expected to have a show. But the 93-year-old artist is finally getting his closeup in a survey at the Pete Checchia Photography & Arts Studio.
"Dreamscapes: The Art of John DeMelas" includes portraits of the artist's wife, children, and fellow soldiers, along with landscapes of the New Jersey coast, whimsical studies of rabbits, and a series of uninhibited Rapidograph ink drawings on paper napkins.