Kenzos will know: there’s a particular kind of light that fills our streets, at once ghostly and rich, pale and blushing. It comes in the afternoons, especially in the winter, and sets the old brick row homes and the factory hulks at a distance, as though under a blurry lens. It is this quality of light that Jesse Gardner captures, forcefully, in his new exhibit with Terrence Laragione, “Invisible City.” Gardner is a painter of forgotten places, like the Delaware river front and the quiet side streets of Kensington. His gift lies in finding—or perhaps, restoring—the numinous in the quotidian.
His oil paintings of local scenes—row homes, power lines, snow drifts—recall Monet’s urban paintings in grittiness and command of light. But though Gardner’s technique calls to mind the French master, his politics are a bit more DIY. Gardner speaks of his painting as a way of reclaiming neglected places in the city. He looks where no one else looks. And through the power of his gaze, he makes the city visible again.
For Gardner, this is not merely a matter of artistic practice. He has dedicated much of the last five years to renovating a former East Kensington textile factory into several intimate, comfortable live and workspaces. And—with the establishment of a cooperative art gallery on the first floor—industry, albeit of a quieter kind, has returned to this Kensington factory. “People say that artists don’t make useful things,” Gardner notes, “But art is a kind of industry. Artists can bring a sense of place and industry back to a neighborhood.” And not just in the creation of art objects: Gardner has made it a practice to hire workers from the neighborhood for the restoration, helping to sustain a few families through hard times.
Gardner’s new gallery is run on similarly homegrown, DIY principles. Operating without a dealer, Gardner can sell work below list price and feature works that are under-represented by commercial galleries. Working this way offers him substantial flexibility in the way he organizes shows. “Invisible City” was born of a conversation between Laragione and Gardner in the NoLibs coffee shop Café Maude around Christmas; it opened, three weeks later, to a rapt First Friday crowd.
The collaborative show is fortuitous. Gardner gives his scenes a vivid, luscious clarity. Laragione paints similar scenes, but in bleaker, somber tones. He has been acclaimed for his vivid paintings of Girard Ave trolleys: in hand-made frames, they are caught, memorialized, in the midst of their everyday work. Laragione, a Philadelphia-area native and graduate of PAFA, uses his painting to preserve and remember the endangered pockets of historic Philadelphia.
In their combined show, Gardner and Laragione are engaged in revitalizing and preserving invisible Kensington. As their lives and work show, there need be no distinction between the two. Finding poetry in the mundane and promise in the run-down, they bring what was lost to the eye back to light.
Invisible Cities will be hosting a second First Friday event February 4th. New paintings are being added to the exhibit as work is sold.