BY ELIZABETH FLYNN I’m sort of prejudiced about South Philly. I happen to think it’s the coolest neighborhood in town. When I moved here as a disgruntled center city bohemian — having been gentrified out of my fabulous CC apartment after 9/11 — it was still very Italian and Old World. But in the last five years I’ve watched the neighborhood change drastically as an influx of hipsters and Mexicans moved in to take advantage of the cheap rent and convenient access to the rest of the city.
The recent evolution of 9th St from Federal to Washington is living proof that this change is happening right now. This once dark and scary couple of blocks that used to house only junk shops and empty store fronts is suddenly teeming with Mexican groceries, restaurants, and art galleries. Also notably, there is one totally insane, completely neon and florescent Mexican bridal shop full of the frilliest, most ruffle-y, cupcake shaped wedding gear I’ve ever seen in my life. Though Fishtown and Northern Liberties have long held the title for the capital neighborhoods of the underground art movement in Philadelphia, the opening of T&P Fine Art is the first salvo in what will turn out to be a real battle for subversive art supremacy.
The brain child of three music industry veterans — Bryan Dilworth, Andrew Ellis, and John Halperin — T&P Fine Art is mapping the intersections of “fine” and “street” art. It seems as if the work displayed at T & P Fine Art just won’t stay in the building. At the opening on Nov. 7th, the art literally spilled into the street, with the outside of the gallery plastered with work by featured artists Rene Gagnon’s wheat paste prints of the original pieces being displayed inside on the walls of the gallery, meanwhile local graffiti artist El Toro’s stickers tagged the stop sign, and featured artist Kelly Towles’ huge surreal mural adorned the side of the building. Dilworth walked me down the street to point out the wooden wall that surrounds the gaping pit where an ancient warehouse used to stand, pointing out how the artists from the show, specifically Kelley Towles, had nailed original mixed media pieces to it.
“They say that this is the new graffiti,” stated Dilworth. “It’s cool because if people really like it, they can take it.” Apparently the wall, which spans almost the entire block, is a contentious space between local artists and whoever owns it. It gets painted by artists and muralists, then painted over, then bombed again. That empty expanse is just too tempting to leave blank. “You know, all of this is happening because of Joe Brown.” says Dilworth.
Joe Brown is the owner of numerous store fronts on the block, including T & P and Connie’s Ric Rac, a music and comedy venue that he opened with his sons Frankie and Joe Jr. “All of this started because the civic association asked me to put some paintings up in my empty store fronts to make the neighborhood look better,” said Joe Sr. Joe and Connie are real old school South Philly Italians and they pleasantly bickered while I interviewed them. When Joe Sr., ever the proud parent, started to expound on Frankie’s comedy career in New York, which inspired the inception of the venue, Connie was like, “Joe, come on…” to which Joe responded, “Hey, yo- is she interviewing you, or is she interviewing me?” But because of their children’s influence, Joe and Connie have become committed to sponsoring the arts movement in South Philly.
Ever humble, Dilworth really wants me to talk to curator John Halperin. Halperin is an affable Los Angeles native that books the Glass House in Pomona, California. He walked me through the gallery and talked about how three music industry dudes decided to open an art gallery. One day Andrew Ellis, who runs Ellis Industries, a music booking agency in New York, called Halperin and said, “Halperin. Let’s open a fucking gallery.” Halperin expected Ellis to be calling to confirm New Found Glory or something. The idea was totally unexpected, but Halperin was completely down with it. Though he works in the music industry, Halperin has long been an art aficionado and collector. The Los Angeles market was completely oversaturated with this type of gallery, and New York is just way too expensive.
They looked at Austin, but that didn’t work out. Then Ellis brought in Philadelphia native and Heyday Entertainment owner Bryan Dilworth, and together they literally just drove around the city looking for a spot. “We just saw something in this location; it kind of reminds me of Silverlake in LA, with every socio-economic bracket, race, and sexual orientation living together peacefully,” said Halperin. “But none of this would have happened without Bryan’s marketing skills and neighborhood connections.”
The space is open and light without feeling pretentious the way many Old City art galleries do, and the customers and staff have a general air of almost childlike exuberance rather than the typical standoffish superiority that generally characterizes art world denizens. Halperin curated the inaugural show of T & P Fine Arts straight from the artists that he had personally collected over the years. “Yeah, I just looked around my condo and started contacting the people I really liked, and I got so many positive responses.” The show features over 40 artists, with 80 plus pieces (check the website for a total list of artists.
The biggest name in the show is Shepard Fairey, whose mixed media stencil collage on paper of Johnny Ramone is, in a word, awesome. Though the Fairey piece is comparably expensive, much of the other work is very affordably priced, aiming to appeal to younger collectors. Halperin doesn’t quite know the extent of the impact of T & P Fine Arts on the neighborhood, being an out-of-towner, but he said he’d seen the gallery “transform” just in the last couple of days. “Yeah, it’s been really cool. Little old ladies that have lived in the neighborhood for 30 to 40 years have been walking by saying thank you so much for opening an art gallery down here.” All of this in a neighborhood where they are still selling live chickens, ducks, and rabbits for butchering right down the block. “Do they really eat them?” Halperin asked me with a little trepidation. Yes, I assured him, they really do.
SURREALISTIC PILLOW FIGHT: “Bam Thwop” By Brandon Bird [courtesy of T&P Fine Art]