It’s the night of the fall opening at ICA, and Joe Rishel is standing just inside the downstairs gallery holding a microphone, looking at an 1876 model of the Philadelpia Waterworks. Joe is a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), a lively, charming man with round owlish glasses, and he tells the gathered crowd that the Waterworks used to be a big tourist attraction back in the 19th century. He points out the silvery Schuylkill river in the model, and the little boat houses, and a tiny carousel on the pleasure ground. The model, under its plexiglass vitrine, is one of the touchstones of this show, Set Pieces, which is made up of little scenes Philadelphia artist Virgil Marti composed from objects he found in the storage facilities of the PMA. “Look,” Joe says of the silent model. “It’s a sleeping princess.” He says the exhibition puts you in mind of “toys in a toy shop: close the door and they start talking.”
It’s true that there is a strange animation to the objects here, many of which seem to be pretending to be something they’re not. A ceramic pitcher is dressed up as a piece of wood. A writing desk has decorated itself with inlaid books. Prim tilt-top tables half-shield our view of an erotic couch sculpture by the surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning, now one hundred, who apparently made a lot of erotic furniture sculptures.
Joe, who recently curated the PMA’s blockbuster, Cezanne and Beyond, is talking about juxtapositions—how Virgil’s juxtaposition of objects is like Cezanne’s juxtaposition of colors. He’s talking about “the enounter of artists with older works of art,” how revealing it can be. Virgil, who is known largely for his super-Pop installations—his over-the-top wallpapers and bright chandeliers and decadent poufs—has chosen rather austerely here, though there is a whole row of ceramic George Washingtons and an enormous Renaissance bench painted with a women in a billowing dress.
Wearing a checked shirt and a purple tie, Virgil explains about the forest of small bronze animals casting shadows on the wall. Apparently the Elkins family (as in Elkins Park) donated a large collection of small bronze elk to the PMA, though here there is also a goat, a handsome bear, a buffalo (or perhaps a yak?) and a boyscout. A woman in stripes whispers, “The shadows are so…” but I can’t hear what adjective she chooses. A different woman with bright green toe nail polish regards a handsome silver goose. People mill and wander, looking and gossiping.
After weeks with the museum doors locked and only the staff inside, it’s a bit of shock to see all these strangers here. I find myself wondering who they are, and how would Virgil arrange them. Would he put the tall man in the linen cap next to the grumpy-looking woman with curly hair? The woman in yellow silk with the short woman looking for something in her purse? The artist in jeans with the funder in the gorgeous black dress?
One of Virgil’s gifts is to be alive to the stories these objects are telling, and to organize them so that we start to hear them too: Once upon a time there was silver goose. Once upon a time, four identical men in wigs each said, “I am the real George Washington!” Once upon a time there was a pitcher that wished it were a tree. Once upon a time an artist was let loose in the store house of a great museum, but he could take with him only as much as he could carry.
Of course—even if that were the rule—he could take all the stories he wanted. Stories, though they order the world, weigh nothing, and are infinite.