Virgil Marti, a well–known Philadelphia artist and curator of Set Pieces, a show currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, has given new life to decorative art pieces long forgotten in PMA’s storage facilities. Marti’s goal was to highlight the “minor players,” “extras” and “odd ball characters” of the PMA’s collection. The result is an assemblage of otherwise uninspired historic busts, landscape portraits and decorative crafts that are galvanized by their collective kitsch and inventive method of display.
The walls of the show are not the pristine white of most gallery spaces, instead, they are painted in deep dark hues of purple and grey with the exception of a single screaming orange wall. The air is heavy with silence save for the buzzing coming from air–vents. The main room is so dimly lit that you can hardly read the description labels. The eerie calm allows you to meditate on the odd selection of pieces present.
Full of antique furniture with elaborate inlays and gilded mounts, mirrors, vases and still clocks, the space evokes the atmosphere of an attic whose contents have recently been cleaned and polished in preparation for a garage sale. Here, Marti plays with the viewer's perceptions of scale, size and context by grouping together pieces from different artists, styles and sometimes centuries. Displayed are miniature models and Dutch miniature paintings, miniature busts and figures. In striking contrast, there is a massive pine bench (better described as a throne), decorated in what appears to be the Italian Baroque style.
But the most fascinating play on scale can be found in the main room. Various small bronze statues (by different artists, some known and others anonymous) are carefully placed on a raised, black platform. When observed separately they are individual actors on a grand stage–men deep in thought, bears on the prowl and galloping reindeer; but this is only one part of their presentation. A bright light projects their silhouettes on the dark wall behind them, merging them together into one dynamic scene that looks remarkably different than one would expect.
To the right of this diorama, mirrors and tilt–top tables from the 18th century menacingly surround an amorphous couch. The upholstered wood sofa with wool, polyester, rayon, cardboard and ping pong balls (materials you could probably find in a frat basement) is actually called "Rainy Day Canape," a piece by American artist Dorothea Tanning. Like many pieces in the exhibit it is most stunning in its arrangement, the tables, hovering over the sofa acquire an ominous, human quality. This is the beauty of Virgil Marti’s work in this exhibit; he has shown that a curator can be an artist as well.
The final room of the exhibit provides a welcome reprieve from the gloom of the main room. It is light and airy with a bright pink wall adorned with a single white mirror which looks like it could be part of the decor of Marie Antoinette’s bedroom. A convex mirror hanging on an adjacent wall allows you to view the room with yourself in it, to participate in the peculiar world Marti has created. Here, in this Rococo–esque room marble busts leisurely rest on furry beige seats as though conversing with each other and the viewer is invited to join.
This isn’t Marti’s first venture at the ICA. In 2003, he created an installation entitled Virgil Marti:The Flowers of Romance, one of a series of commissions for the museum’s ramp space. Now, in a brilliant display of his creativity as artist-curator, Marti has cast 76 actors to enact his newest vision. Taking inspiration from his favorite films and their ability to seamlessly combine various plot-lines, Marti knits together unique narratives using these found objects. Acting as director he arranges these set pieces to interact in entirely new ways, and with the ICA right in your backyard there is no excuse not to go.