Bare Wires: Transmissions for the Philadelphia Wireman.
Things have been busy over at Paradise of Bachelors, but writing persists regardless. I just sent this to Sweden for publication in the catalogue of the upcoming Philadelphia Wireman exhibition at the Konsthallen in Södertälje (Bjorn Borg’s hometown.)
Bare Wires: Transmissions for the Philadelphia Wireman.
These are bare wires of my life…
All my bare wires are alive.
Who untangles bare wires?
– From Bare Wires, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, London PS 537 (1968)
Who is the Philadelphia Wireman?
He greets me by proxy every time I drop the needle onto a record in my living room, because his talisman—one of more than a thousand such mysterious objects known—stands silent sentry on the left rear corner of the turntable there. The odd, inscrutable lump (itself a wireman) appears vaguely anthropomorphic, and although barely four inches tall, art critics, curators, and dealers have imputed to this figure a powerful, even magical, presence, and a certain monetary value. The Wireman proper is the anonymous person who, likely sometime in the 1970s in Philadelphia, tightly wound three gauges of bare wire, accentuated by a thin strip of green adhesive tape, around what appears to be a vintage lipstick tube, crowned with a medicinal cork and a red, scalloped sticker proclaiming in bold text: “HOOK HOLDER.” He is, we are told, an artist, a lumpen bricoleur whose (mostly) miniature assemblages reconfigure urban flotsam into fist-sized, fossil-like sculptural forms constructed according to a singularly obsessive formula. Trash of every conceivable variety—castoff printed media, plastic, food packaging, reflectors, glasses, hardware, tape, rubber bands, combs, buttons, electrical parts, even the odd umbrella—is enclosed securely within, and threaded through, a densely wrapped wire armature or exoskeleton.
The needle drops, the record spins, and “Bare Wires” blares, a loose-limbed, atmospheric overture by English blues-rock band John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. My wireman listens, in sympathy. Because we have so little else to guide us into the obscure whorl of these (im)mortal coils of wire and waste transfigured, let’s start with a song. Why not, since he stares there from the stereo? The lyrics to this particular song inform poetically—“who untangles bare wiiiires?”—and the technology by which we perceive it offers a less incidental cultural context. When we listen to recorded music, or live music electronically amplified, our brains process the sound as it hits our eardrums only after an electrical signal has hummed through a web of wires (world-wide or otherwise) to hammer a speaker diaphragm, which displaces the interstitial air with vibrating molecules. We hear.
As John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers undoubtedly knew, Bo Diddley and many other African American blues musicians who came of age in and around the pre-WWII Mississippi Delta learned how to play guitar by stringing an uncoiled broom-wire—a kind of wireman unwound—along an exterior wall of their homes, which served as a sound box. And so in field recordings we hear a very different sort of spectral wire-sound, produced by the material’s innate acoustic properties, its resonant, ramshackle overtones, rather than its electrical properties. The so-called “one-strand on the wall,” or “diddy bow,” often fretted with a bottleneck slide or another piece of appropriated glass or metal, shares possible West African antecedents and a bricolage aesthetic with the Wireman’s perplexing artwork.
Wire, whether manufactured specifically for electrical or musical uses or not, registers as a symbolically freighted material of modernity and technological perception. Wiring hogties our homes and offices, trusses our cities, traces our roads, cleaves our forests, burrows beneath our soil, and traverses our seas, hungrily. Even as we rapidly retire the surfeit of wires which has strung us up (and perhaps strung us out) and which has governed much of our communication for a century—as we transition from a wired to a “wireless” lifestyle—we recognize the material for its literal and metaphorical status as a conduit of energy, power, immediate meaning. We speak of information and voices passing over “the wire,” of thrumming wires, hot and bothersome and even menacing with the threat of pain: barbed wire, bare wires. (John Ashbery writes in his 1979 poem “Pyrography” of “America calling:/ The mirroring of state to state/ Of voice to voice on the wires.”) Wire is not a material of comfort, but rather a material of technological contingency and the relatively recent human dependence on electrical communication, the transmission of signals both banal and beautiful over vast, unhollerable distances.
Similarly, the roughly 1200 artworks attributed to the Philadelphia Wireman provide no comfort to the viewer as objects of material culture, at least from an art historical perspective. The identity of their maker, this diminutive infantry’s shepherd and general, remains unknown, a snarl of guesses, hearsay, and speculative theory. The Wireman is the rough neighbor, the uninvited, wild-haired guest at the formal dinner party of contemporary art. Who is that? And yet these nuggets, these wiremen, somehow communicate; they divulge, however reluctantly. They contain meaning, just as the generic, labyrinthine wire that comprises their shells, mute with potential charge, contains identifiable artifacts of modern material culture. We see: a cigar label, a metal buckle, a ballpoint pen, a bottle cap, a bolt, yellow tape, aluminum foil, a hair curler, a drafting compass, a plastic bottle, drinking straws, green paper, broken blue glass, all swathed snugly, or crushingly, in bare wire. We buy this stuff, we lose this stuff, we throw it away, on the streets and in dumps. But some of it survives, transmogrified. These three-dimensional drawings in tangled line and scavenged scraps of color activate and gracefully syncretize inelegant junk. (Kids love the Wireman and his wiremen, their awkward toy-soldier angles and playful figuration, their compressed secrets and intimate miniaturism.)
The study of material culture involves the examination of and participation in the dimension of physical artifacts—our world of objects and tangible things collected, curated, created, and consumed. Material culture, often associated with folkloristics, greedily encompasses architecture; foodways; craft; farming; office decor; record collections; fashion; furniture; laptops and smartphones; as well as Art, that thorny and fussy master category of expressive culture. Academic or commercial or fine; vernacular or self-taught or outsider or brut or visionary or folk art—all these tired terms and specious, overdetermined taxa (each representing a distinct concept, none interchangeable and none adequate, but none mutually exclusive either) coexist within the study of material culture. This is a historical tale best told by William Morris, and retold by folklorist Henry Glassie.
Like other contemporaneous artists—like Emery Blagdon, like Felipe Jesus Consalvos, like James Castle—the Philadelphia Wireman belongs to a tradition of American vernacular modernism, specifically the democratic modality of collage. The diffuse condition of American modernity, with its attendant explosion of material culture, presented many of the same sets of circumstances and material glut to all potential artists within range of a highway, postal route, radio, telephone, or television—our wired or wireless networks of commerce. But the loudest response to the call of this cloying materiality, the official system dedicated to sales and exhibition of visual artwork (“dealing”), has long followed axes of established or emergent hegemonic power and privilege, particularly wealth and education. The notion of vernacular modernism subverts those shaky binaries of culture that demand we consider art made by different sorts of people hierarchically: fine vs. folk, academic vs. vernacular, insider vs. outsider, trained vs. self-taught, secular vs. visionary. Regardless of what Foucault would deem the artist’s subject position, it’s all art, my friends; and at a certain level we should regard it as such, celebrating its similar cultural impacts as well as its culturally inscribed differences.
The single most revolutionary aesthetic technology of modernism, the crown jewel of its innovation, is recombinative appropriation, in its multifarious forms: collage, assemblage, photomontage, bricolage, sampling, remixing. It is evident everywhere we look in the United States, from teenagers’ pin-up-plastered walls, to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, to hotrods in Los Angeles, to Lukumi altars in Miami, to Andy Warhol, to Public Enemy, to YouTube, to quilters everywhere. An already ancient technology of expressive culture, appropriation accelerated and thrived in the realms of the domestic and everyday once 19th-century North American mass production and mass media flooded the country with material culture to expend, to sort, to reuse, to worship, to love, to discard. (These days, with the dominance of online culture and commerce, collage has colonized the realm of the virtual, where it has become even more entrenched in the vernacular.) But the vernacular artist has only recently edged herself into the footnotes of art history. You see, there are established disciplinary ghettoes for discussing art that exists outside the rarefied air of the academy, the museum, and the gallery: we call these ghettoes folklore, anthropology, and material culture. With the Södertälje exhibition of more than sixty of his sculptures, the Wireman takes another step out of the (putative) ghetto and into the (purported) light of international art-world acclaim.
But the problem persists. Mired as vernacular art is in the twin ruses of intentionality and authenticity, and in the Western cult of the artist—of the individual genius whose singular authority and (anti)heroic stature imparts value to his work—the Philadelphia Wireman unsettles us with his inherent instability and vexing ambiguity. His anonymity does not permit a patronizing psychological, socioeconomic, educational, or spiritual rationale, as in the cases of Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez, Adolf Wölfli, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Frank Jones. Despite a few tentative and unreliable anecdotal claims to the contrary—a few Philadelphia residents have shared hazy memories of seeing a wire artist in the vicinity where the work was discovered—no one has any real idea who this guy was. He has no biography, and the work possesses only a dim provenance, and certainly no easy biographical justification.
Who is the Philadelphia Wireman? Does it matter? And why do we care? Perhaps the more salient question is Why is the Wireman, or How?
The discourse of vernacular artistry, much more reliant than the discourse of academic art on ascribing biographical and cultural difference, foregrounds the discovery narrative, often muffled in beguiling myth. (Here, in an admittedly perverse inversion, we’ll end with discovery instead of beginning with it.) As artwork made outside the conventional purview of the contemporary art world follows its often circuitous route into the art market and academia, it achieves a wider audience. It obtains normative economic and intellectual validations that it may resist or to which it may capitulate, but which it (and its maker, if still living, as is tragically seldom the case) does not necessarily seek or require. The Wireman’s artistic practice may well have been secret, sacred, public, or profane. But ultimately we really have no idea, despite the insightful conjecture of various curators and critics.
There does exist a vernacular American tradition of wire sculpture and junkyard assemblage, but nothing comparable to the Wireman oeuvre’s rigid discipline, serialism, and non-objectivity. Some have noticed similarities to Crow medicine bundles and African American memory jugs, North American assemblage practices with spiritual, mnemonic, and funerary functions. Foremost among Wireman commentators is Robert Farris Thompson, a pioneering and influential scholar of African art, who has noticed the persuasive formal correspondences between the Wireman’s work and the Kongo ritual power objects known as nkisi, which he posits may have survived in radically mutated fashion in contemporary African American culture. This surmise stems largely from the geographical fact of discovery, the thin crust of fact that tenuously anchors the Wireman mythos.
Sometime in 1978 or 1979—the date has never been concretely determined—a young designer named Bob Leitch was driving home from a party when his headlights illuminated a curious field of dazzlingly reflective wreckage (stones? car parts? jewelry? plumbing fixtures?) on Juniper Street in Center City Philadelphia. He alit to take a closer look and found hundreds of cockeyed, wire-bound objects piled in and around dozens of sodden cardboard boxes, as if recently and hastily emptied out of one of the nearby derelict houses. (Among the sculptures was also a group of page-sized abstract drawings in colorful marker ink, reminiscent of both Mark Tobey’s and J.B. Murry’s calligraphic images; these lyrical, linear drawings have been much less frequently exhibited, though they bear a revealing two-dimensional kinship to the sculptures.) “Somebody made these things,” Leitch remembers realizing aloud, and he breathlessly packed as many boxes as possible into his car, finder’s keeper’s. He returned to salvage more of the ductile sculptures over the subsequent several days, afraid that they would be sold for scrap or brought to the dump, their presumed final destination. Finally all that remained on that block of Juniper Street was the crushed anatomy of those wiremen massacred by car tires or perhaps never fully assembled in the first place. For years, much of the extraordinary find languished in storage, though Leitch displayed the most impressive pieces in his home and gave others away as gifts, never forgetting his thrilling foray into urban archeology, but unsure what to do with so much ostensibly worthless stuff.
Finally, around 1982, a friend convinced him to bring his enigmatic cabinet of curiosities to Philadelphia’s Janet Fleisher Gallery (now the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery), where director John Ollman, an expert in American self-taught art and African art history alike, immediately recognized something special in these tiny totems or urban fetishes. At the time, the block where Leitch discovered the wiremen was in an historically African American neighborhood undergoing a painful process of what city planners then euphemistically branded “urban renewal.” Because of these seismic demographic dislocations and a perceived relationship to traditions of sacred Central and West African power objects, Ollman ventured that the artist may have been African American, either recently deceased and lacking a sympathetic executor to sort through his belongings, or perhaps uprooted by the recent gentrification and forced suddenly to move, to another street or to the streets. Because of the brute strength required to bend and bind wire so tightly without pliers (there are few apparent pliers marks), he assumed the artist was also male, a Wireman and not a Wirewoman. Both suppositions offer compelling coordinates, but they remain unresolved and definitely open to debate. Despite numerous inquiries and substantial research, no one has ever advanced a convincing answer to the Wireman’s true identity.
To further complicate matters, the discovery narrative of the Philadelphia Wireman has remained even more obscure due to Leitch’s decision to remain anonymous himself during his lifetime. (Sadly, he passed away recently.) That is not an uncommon choice in the world of vernacular art, since those who bring such artwork to the market risk exposing themselves to charges of fraud, opportunism, or exploitation. Often they prefer for a gallery to deflect such accusations, and indeed, John Ollman has tackled allegations that he himself was the artist, perpetrating an elaborate hoax. With the artist’s anonymity compounded by the discoverer’s, it is to Ollman’s great credit that he steadfastly maintained that the value of the artwork transcended biography or established provenance. And in a sense, his accusers have a point—his tireless work as curator, dealer, and champion has effectively achieved generative consequences almost tantamount to the Wireman’s artistry.
By recognizing the aesthetic beauty and cultural significance of the work, buttressed only by his intuition and the most threadbare sense of context, he and Leitch together assumed the mantles of artists, tradition-bearers, and folklorists. Since the Wireman’s inaugural exhibition at the Janet Fleisher Gallery in 1985, Ollman has ushered the artwork into exhibitions from Malmo, Sweden to Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, and into the collections of the National Museum of American Art, the American Folk Art Museum, and La Musée de l’Art Brut, among others internationally. By providing an open but culturally specific interpretation of the artifacts, and by encouraging frontal and figurative readings by displaying them on custom wire armature stands—gallerist Randall Morris has suggested that the artist himself may have hung the artwork—Ollman has effectively rendered these unquestionably prickly artworks digestible, appealing, and fascinating to audiences worldwide.
But he has been careful not to defang the Wireman, whose dangerous anonymity and hypothesized link to arcane, alternative American religions still provokes a certain frisson with bourgeois audiences. Because in this case of immediate archeology, we still lack several crucial analytical valences. When we cannot attribute an artifact to a specific maker, we void those insoluble riddles of intentionality and authenticity, without which the spectatorship, connoisseurship, and criticism of Western art founder and gutter. Instead we must speculatively assess either what the culture can tell us about the artifact (rude aim of the art historian and material culture expert) or what the artifact can tell us about the culture (rude aim of the archeologist and anthropologist.) Of course, artifact and culture always inform each other in dialogue, sympathetically and symbiotically, and all these disciplinary approaches are essentially compatible, if seldom pragmatically reconciled in the academy, at least in terms of vernacular art.
Listen. The art of the Wireman whispers about one person’s experience of Philadelphia in the 1970s, invoking promises of bicentennial freedom and civil rights realized in the City of Brotherly Love and indicting the sad reality of systematic discrimination, urban decay, the dereliction of our built and natural environments, and the forgotten despair of brothers and sisters. Today a crisis of faith in advanced market capitalism, abetted by an impending global environmental crisis, has degraded the world of objects and material culture. Suddenly things are worth less, and it has once again become fashionable to reuse what we already have in our possession. But the Wireman’s work tells a lonesome story of an enduring, tenacious human recycling impulse, a deeply personal economy of accumulation and lack. The Wireman’s artful accretion of waste products through the fundamental modernist technology of appropriation attests to a quiet revolt against a culture of disposability and speculative, abstract wealth. Let’s not misinterpret these objects through the lens of gape-mouthed condescension to magic, animism, or cultural difference. We needn’t allow any more slippage of the fault lines between the artists more regularly enshrined in the white-columned institutions and the unseen millions making in their homes, for their own private reasons and for their own private audiences.
When you view this exhibition—here in Södertälje, as in Philadelphia—when I put a record on my turntable, when we ask who could have made these astonishing objects, so seductive yet so forbiddingly insular, we participate in a collective narrative. We propagate and unfold the Wireman’s hermetic vision and aesthetic through the modest act of wondering, of considering how these objects mean, and telling others what we think and feel about their existence. That is our gauge; that is our reckoning. We are, all of us, implicated in the formation, circulation, and interpretation of the Wireman’s identity, history, and art. Who is the Philadelphia Wireman? We are, all of us. Together we untangle bare wires.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina