Hill-Physick House Inspires Us to Think About "Preservation" in a New Way
The Hill-Physick house is trying something new. Upon entering the foyer of the large historical residence on South 4th street, a visual incongruity immediately captures your attention. Here, in the middle of early 19th-Century splendor, sit two bowls upon a table. The bowl on the left is of Chinese manufacture and appropriate to the period of the home - a piece of timely exotica from when the world was much less easily navigable and felt much larger than it does today. The bowl to the right is by artist Jane Irish, its surface adorned by visual motifs that immediately delve into issues of class and war. Inside the bowl is a roundabout set of illustrations of of homes, “historical Philadelphia mansions that were connected to the slave trade and plantation economies” as the helpful Visitor Guide assists in explaining. On the outside are fuzzy black and white images, like those of an old TV set with rabbit-ears, documenting images made popular through the medium of TV, of the Vietnam War. That both objects use similar types of imagery, people in places, immediately elicits a back-and-forth game of contrasting and comparing.
This is what this new endeavor at the Physick House truly succeeds at. By strategically and
thoughtfully curating contemporary Art throughout the home it forces the visitor not to be lulled into a sense of complacency by this luxurious living environment, but instead to be always aware of their surroundings. This exhibition gives visitors to the house the ability to question the what and why of their surroundings more acutely by fracturing the historical continuity of the home’s interior design.
Continuing through the foyer and into the ballroom, something startling slithers to greet you across a well-appointed Grecian couch. A glossy bone-white ceramic snake by Jacintha Clark is using this recamier as its resting spot. Leaves fall over the snake’s back and a stick lies to the its side. The white body lifts the figure away from couch visually, and allows you to investigate the embroidered silk cushion it is perched upon, which may have never caught your attention otherwise. What from at a distance once seemed like triangular flowers of a decorative sort now come completely into view with this new juxtaposition. Insects! The embroidered design is a repeated pattern of some type of flying insect - perhaps a fly? - which now makes the imagination leap to the question of: “who the hell embroiders silk cushions with flies?” The taxonomic imagery of the flies, along with the snake and the verdant green of the silk makes it feel as if the snake had enough of living outdoors and placed an order months ago for these custom cushions to remind of his previous bucolic setting. We’ve just stumbled in on its first moment of reflective repose so pardonnez-moi monsieur serpent!
In an attempt to avoid eye contact and give the snake its space, a queer cabinet set into the fireplace will seek for your attention next. It implores you to do that which is never done in a setting such as this - open it up. The two handles fixed on the front are mismatched, so if caught you might just explain you were trying to assist in helping find the matching handle. But no, this is on purpose and the product of woodworker Kevin VanZanten. Upon opening up the beautifully crafted doors, a jumble of drawers, none of them facing outward but instead stacked perpendicular to their normal orientation, fill the interior. The masterful dovetailing on each drawer is exquisite, but it begins to beg the question, “why all that work for something that doesn’t fulfill its purpose?” This clever work slowly becomes a meditation on issues of purpose. The 19th Century was perhaps the most purpose-centric century of human existence. Almost every exercise or operation possible, physical or metaphorical, had a tool developed specifically for it. This is most comically evidenced in rummaging through a box of old silverware and coming up with a pickle fork or an egg spoon! This set of drawers, which negates both the function of the fireplace and of the drawers for storage, begets an interesting game of looking around at all the other wonderful period objects in the room and beginning to ask the question “why?” in regard to both their form and function.
Another bowl by Irish sits in the centre of the room, well two bowls actually, one inverted and one placed on top to produce a shape of a squashed hourglass. The images on these bowls seem to speak primarily of maritime travel, with their ship and water motifs, but also include imagery surrounding the War in Vietnam. They are on a table in between another couch and a small Classical settee. It immediately enchants the imagination to think of what early-19th Century conversations Dr. Physick may have had with friends and colleagues in this room about far-flung American and European journeys taking place during this historical period of “discovery”. It also makes one think about how that “discovery” and influence brought us to the terrible almost-20 year long war in the middle of the following century.
After circling through the last room and seeing another one of Irish’s thematically-similar bowls in the dining room, the stairs beckon you upward to explore the second-half of the exhibition. In entering the hallway and walking throughout the rooms upstairs, small photographic prints of distorted human beings are scattered throughout. Multiple heads and misplaced eyes feature prominently. These images wouldn’t be out of place in the 11th Century English manuscript “Wonders of the East”, which detail bizarre foreign “races” with heads in their stomachs and feet so long and wide that they could serve as umbrellas. The series, “Sons of Cain” by Terri Frame seeks to touch upon similar issues, but it is her very use of portraiture in this setting that is a stroke of genius. Before the days of television and magazines, daily newspapers and heavily illustrated books, images were much more scarce. Therefore, to have one’s image immortalized in portraiture was a much more profound statement than a “selfie” is today. Frame’s images force you to explore the other portraiture in the room. Upper-class Anglo-Saxon men with names like Sproat, Washington and Wayne return your gaze, while Frame’s work makes prominent the bizarre, foreign or otherworldly. This perspective on portraiture, using that familiar and the unfamiliar to force the viewer into questioning the purpose of why and how we choose to document ourselves visually, is a delightful morsel to muse upon when roaming through the house.
Before leaving you must venture into the garden to find two ceramic and steel statues. The statues speak to their setting, pastoral and agrarian, or at least to what the setting would have more likely resembled during the early-years of its cultivation as a rural enclave away from the more urban environment of Center City. These two works use familiar shapes, a flat plane for earth, an ovoid volume for an egg, the weaving of multiple rectangular strips into a basket, the pyramidal pitch of a roof to create pleasing compositions. Their welded steel bases, both different, reference a conglomeration objects such as an old wood crate and a garden house to continue this “outdoor life” theme. These works, more so than any other work in this exhibition, transport you back to the earlier setting. The greenspace is already enough of a juxtaposition with the surrounding row homes for most any city-dweller to start the question ball rolling. These works feel like a proper close to the exhibition and offer an excellent space for meditating on all the questions it has raised.
Down the street there is a sister-exhibition at the Clay studio showing work by artists, some included in this exhibit, inspired by the history and period of the Hill-Physick house. Both are worth a visit. However, if you only have one chance to see some great Art before these shows close at the end of the month then I would recommend the Hill-Physick house, as the setting and the artworks make such great fodder for having a good think.