Paul Santoleri, Confluence

September 7 – October 6, 2007
Opening Reception
September 7, 2007
Paul Santoleri, Sarah Schmerler

exhibition Images

Paul Santoleri, Confluence
Installation view 1

Paul Santoleri, Confluence
Installation view 3

Paul Santoleri, Confluence
Installation view 2

Press and Promotion

Paul Santoleri, Confluence

Paul Santoleri, Confluence
Press release

About the exhibition

Solo exhibition, front gallery space

Paul Santoleri has a very overcrowded garden behind the narrow, former workmen's town house where he lives in Philadelphia. Tending it isn't easy, but it's one of his great joys. There are two big magnolia trees, a maple, twisting wisteria ("about as thick as my leg"), and acanthus. There are strawberry plants crawling along the ground and a climbing rose that constantly needs to be cut back. Numerous other things, including a Chinese black pine tree, anemone, and a bright yellow moonflower—that blooms every night at 8 o'clock without fail—round out the mix. / The garden is only 15 by 20 feet, but Santoleri finds within it a world of inspiration, taking pictures of the natural forms he finds there and incorporating them, later, into his work. Whether the end result is a 12-inch painting or a mural on a building 5 stories high, it's full of that garden's organic sprawl. "I find that wherever I don't walk in my garden, something grows," says Santoleri. "It's amazing.”/ Alternating between a micro and a macro view of the world is a running pattern for Santoleri, both in concept and scale. For some 15 years now, the 42-year-old artist has been well known around his native Philadelphia as a muralist, taking major city commissions for public buildings and projects. The Ramonita Ramirez Library near his home (in the Northern Liberties section of town) has its walls encrusted with shards of colored glass. Following Santoleri’s design, they weave in and around each other like giant strands of DNA. A massive Sunoco oil storage tank near the Philadelphia International Airport has, thanks to Santoleri, a colorful aerial view of the entire city emblazoned on its side. (To complete that project, he worked some 11 weeks on scaffolding 5 stories off the ground.) And then, of course, there are the smaller, room-based works like what we see here. All mix industry and nature with impunity. Just take that massive Sunoco tank, for example: It's called Philadelphia on a Half Tank —a pun on Botticelli's Venus washing up on shore. "I looked at the city in a more organic way than it really is," says the artist of the piece's colorful, fish-eye sprawl. / Santoleri was born in Philadelphia. He earned a BFA in painting from the Tyler School of Art and later received an MFA from the University of Arizona in Tuscon. The artist traveled extensively but by 1993 found himself moving back to Philadelphia, intent on engaging with the city as an artist in new ways. Almost immediately, and rather intuitively, he found his way into its social and architectural fabric. He led workshops for kids with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, which turned out to be an excellent springboard for mural work. High schoolers spent a whole summer helping Santoleri cut glass for his Ramirez library commission; middle school kids have made ceramic flowers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with their teachers that he would later place outside; and for a zoo project, Santoleri handed out brushes and encouraged children to help paint a 200-foot wall. It was a process the artist found both rewarding and frustrating: "I love the interaction," he says. "You're in a city where a lot of people are underprivileged, and you want to make a difference. I connected with people. And it's amazing how little you need to do to make a difference. But," he adds, "it's really hard sometimes. You want to slip back into the studio. The work I'm doing now is a kind of recoiling where I can focus on myself. Find the work I want to do that's outside the community.” / For the last 5 years, Santoleri has been tackling ambitious, room-sized interior installations like this one, employing a working method he's perfected for his larger mural projects. He begins by making some sort of sculptural or painterly element in his studio—a huge concrete and aluminum flower, for instance (Swamp Lily, 2006) or an easily transportable painting on canvas or paper. For most artists, these pieces would be considered stand-alone objects in their own right, but it's Santoleri's intention that, once sited at the gallery, they'll become catalysts for something more. He put Swamp Lily in a corner of a room at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, which inspired swirling forms that radiated out from the corner like petals. Whole, dystopian cityscapes then sprang up between those large, petal-like bands, complete with billboards, skyscrapers, refineries, and mountains of coins. At the Painted Bride Art Center, also in Philadelphia, Santoleri started with small paintings on canvas and wood and eventually covered two entire rooms 50 by 20 and 30 by 20 feet, even extending lines of black tape onto and along the floor. Two-dimensional renderings blur with three-dimensional realities, delicate and near-decorative floral elements yield to toxic, urban sprawl. Yet somehow the effect is more inspiring than apocalyptic. For Santoleri, projects take shape and gain cohesion even as they seem to get wild and out of hand. / Case in point: a stupendous mural called Abandoned Highway that the artist completed for the Fringe Festival in 2001. It started with a large 36 by 12 foot canvas (first completed indoors) that Santoleri sited on the wall of a dilapidated row house in the Old City section of Philadelphia—an area then full of artists’ lofts, which is now becoming increasingly gentrified. That canvas comprises the top half of the piece while the bottom is gamely rendered free hand by Santoleri on the building's wall itself. At the top looms a highway overpass, viewed from underneath. High-rise buildings sprout out of its concrete struts, off-ramps spread out and blossom into graffiti-like curlicues. Doors split out of the concrete. Gaps between the ramps reveal piles of densely packed tires. There's a lot of teeming activity going on below that overpass—a whole subterranean city. But then you step back and see the mural within the larger city itself. / What's going on beneath the surface? Inside that old building? Just as Santoleri's mural implies, whole aspects of life are only hinted at by appearances. And even the hardest of exteriors—a highway, a row house, a city—can, like a crowded urban garden, yield up unexpected sources of life. - Sarah Schmerler

Related event: September 22, 2007 - Paul Santoleri Artist Talk