It’s not graffiti, and it’s not a traditional memorial mural.
Barely visible from the ground level, two carefully painted words in larger-than-life, carnival-like text reads “Drop Knee.” The exterior mural can just be seen above the faded orange metal veranda that overlooks the 3600 block of Sansom Street, adjoining the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
Curated by Paul Swenbeck, the building administrator at the, ICA, “Woe Be Gone” is the mural installation that passers-by can glimpse through the structure. It is one of the 18 commissioned works on display during the ICA’s 50th anniversary celebration.
“ICA@50: Pleasing Artists and Publics Since 1963,” Feb. 12-Aug. 17, has showcased 50 new displays and programs, each tipping its hat to a previous show in ICA’s history.
“Woe Be Gone” pays homage to the works of Margaret Kilgallen, an artist who painted murals around San Francisco, and her installation “Main Drag,” which was featured in “East Meets West: ‘Folk’ and Fantasy from the Coasts” at the ICA more than a decade ago. “Drop Knee” is a reference to California’s surfer culture and Kilgallen’s interest in the sport and lifestyle.
“It is important to retread the emotional terrain of the original exhibition from 2001,” says Swenbeck. “The connection between the Philadelphia artists with an interest in graffiti is strongly tied to the personal experience many of us have had with the late Margaret Kilgallen and her then-husband, Barry McGee.”
Kilgallen had a flair for printmaking, letterpress and traditional hand-painted signs. Unlike other artists, she saw beauty in imperfections detected in hand-drawn works. Traditional folk-art typography, circus-like fonts and illustrations of people engaged in urban outdoor activities were some of her specialties.
In 2001, despite being in the final stages of breast cancer and several months into a pregnancy, Kilgallen, 33, worked tirelessly to install “Main Drag.” She hand-painted a tower of signs that reached the ceiling and combined folk art with print press-style typography, traditional murals, hobo graffiti and urban scenes from the San Francisco area.
Within weeks of completing the installation at the ICA, she delivered her daughter, Asha, in early June and received her master’s degree from Stanford University.
Kilgallen died in late June 2001, while “Main Drag” was still on display at ICA.
“This exhibition is memorable as a monument in equal measure of exuberant freedom and poignant sadness,” Swenbeck says. “The tragedy of her death was a shock to those who were closely involved in the exhibition. It was important to have a tribute to her sweet and kind nature as part of looking back at ICA’s history.”
As a way to honor Kilgallen’s work and her contributions, two Philadelphia-based artists, Dan Murphy and Isaac Tin Wei Lin, spent two weeks last month painting the mural in her honor on ICA’s terrace.
Murphy’s art illustrates a gritty version of life in Philadelphia and includes painting, sculpture and photography. He also co-produces a photo magazine, Megawords, with Anthony Smyrski.
Tin Wei Lin makes pattern-based installations of works on paper, hand-worked photographs, as well as painted and silkscreen designs and recently finished a mural at Facebook Headquarters.
Swenbeck adds that while Lin and Murphy had free reign to commemorate Kilgallen in any way, they both thought it would be most respectful to reproduce her work in the most direct approach. While the scale of her original murals was modified to fit ICA’s architecture, and with McGee’s blessing, the artists moved forward with the piece.
“In the spirit of her free-hand lettering and painting, they’ve created a new window into ICA’s past,” Swenbeck says. “The bold color of this addition has changed the feeling of the outdoor space and serves as an exciting new backdrop for events.”