As part of Philadelphia’s citywide celebration of Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania has commissioned artist Brian Tolle to create a new work.
Brian Tolle uses history as a material to create art that, as he says: reflects upon history to understand the present. He democratized Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk, for instance, by assembling a group of four replicas the artist faithfully hand-carpentered from wood, and another pop-up cardboard version that he designed for mass production. For his Franklin project at ICA, Tolle has elected a series of images that pitch this luminary historical figure in a contemporary light. As with all of Tolle’s work, this installation was developed through extensive research and involves a combination of complex handcraft and high-tech production.
After months of reading and visiting historic sites and archives throughout Philadelphia, Tolle arrived at three emblematic images. Signifying Franklin’s genius for invention and politics, his enlightened philosophy of independence, tempered by humor and pragmatism, these images are: an electric snake (after Franklin’s famous political cartoon “Join or Die” inciting the importance of unification); a brilliant sun burst (when the Constitution was finally signed, Franklin declared that the sun carved on the back of President Washington’s chair was rising over a new nation); and Franklin’s face engraved on the $100 dollar bill (Franklin’s printing press minted the first American currency). As room-scale elements these images are realized with a graphic punch-which the populist Franklin would certainly appreciate-in an installation composed of painting, printing, mural, and sculpture.