Currently on view at Invisible-Exports are several dozen small and at first glance amateur wire sculptures. A concise selection from about 1,200 other wire works, these miniature objects initially feel more like maquettes than finished sculptures, with the gestural motions malleable and temporary.
So who is this guy? You tell me. Labeled an outsider artist, he is known only as the Philadelphia Wireman. These wire fabrications were found in a heap of trash in an alley off Philly’s South Street in the 1970’s. There has been some attention to the work in recent years, but nobody – not even a single opportunist – has come forward as the author of these supple creatures. With the hundreds of work discovered that night over three decades ago, and with so much time having passed and nobody claiming the work, it’s reasonably assumed the Philadelphia Wireman himself is dead. His estate is held by the Fleisher-Ollman Gallery.
At first glimpse I said the work appears amateur. But anyone that walks threw the front door of a gallery must walk back out, so on second glance, the wire figures are anything but.
Upon closer inspection, there is something sneaky about it, something condescending yet utmost clever. As in the piece above, he has simply wrapped a hardware store paper bag in masking tape and displayed it in true Duchampian spirit as a bona fide art object. Why? Because he said so.
Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe these are mere doodles he did at work or while watching telly. But I don’t think so. There is something intentional about the work that makes me believe they aren’t just 3D scribbles (although that’s kind of a cool concept…). He purposely collected found materials and tightly bound them in wire to create statuettes that seem to reference the human body and architecture. And not just one or two, but over a thousand (that are known to have survived).
Abstract in form, these monuments were constructed for an audience of one: himself. Like keeping a diary or shamefully masturbating in an airplane bathroom, these works were not intended to be shared by the eyes of others. Or maybe they were and nobody listened. Songs for the deaf.
Every artist with a brain wants his or her name to be remembered, to be known on some level by the public. In the case of the Philadelphia Wireman, he’s not only unknown but so obscure he was never even forgotten. He is an interesting testament to failure, to the nameless. It makes one wonder how many brilliant artists never reach the stage, how many paintings never hung, music never heard, books written but never read. His success came posthumously. His audience finally arrived after the curtains closed. The Philadelphia Wireman is a stranger in a new land.
Contributed by Dean Dempsey.
“Oedipus and Sphinx” is on view now through July 13 at Invisible-Exports in New York City.