The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Presents Work by Emerging Artist Jordan Griska for Lenfest Plaza
In the newly constructed Lenfest Plaza located adjacent to Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), artist Jordan Griska has crash landed a Grumman aircraft fighter plane. The play to spectacle is notable, considering the backdrop—PAFA's landmark museum building, primarily attributed to Frank Furness, and considered one of the finest surviving examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in America. "Grumman Greenhouse," commissioned by PAFA, employs a Grumman cold war era Naval plane; the artist has folded the nose and body of the plane so that it appears to be crumpling onto the pavement. The inside of the plane is a planted garden and its crops designated for City Harvest, a local charitable food agency.
PAFA President & CEO David R. Brigham notes, "Jordan's work engages us in social and environmental issues in extraordinary ways." Griska adds, "These repurposed finished pieces simultaneously lead the viewer to contemplate the history of 'the thing' while changing the function of the object. Halting the actions of this machine by grounding it in Lenfest Plaza will turn this mobile weapon into a stationary iconic object."
The City Harvest donation is foremost symbolic–this is art not farming. Like using the term "repurposed" in the context of conceptual formalism, Brigham and Griska aim to land (or rather crash) the work in the realm of political correctness and unobtrusive banality—rather no-brainer content that is in rather stark contrast to the work's high-jinks production value. So it begs the question, why all this spectacle when a student protest placard reading "end war–feed the poor" would have sufficed?
Or is there a larger cultural symbolism here that both Brigham and Griska have missed–or chosen not to voice? Grumman was the leading 20th century U.S. producer of military and civilian aircraft. During its cold war heyday, which included building the Apollo Lunar Module, the company employed 23,000 people. Following a corporate merger in 1994, the company sold off most of its holdings and currently employs just 2,000.
Desolation by Thomas Cole.
Grumman's history is the classic narrative about the metronomic rise and devastating crash of an empire. It's the same narrative Cole brilliantly depicted in a five-part series of oil paintings titled The Course of an Empire. Griska's Grumman Greenhouse could be cast as Cole's Desolation 175 years later–same narrative, same imagery, but in this instance we are not disinterested viewers of Cole's Fall of Rome. Rather than classical ruins overgrown with nature's reclamation, we are offered a ruin closer to home–a once powerful symbol of U.S. industrial and military might.
I see Griska's piece as a chilling predictor of our nation in decline–and of the fragile nature of civilization itself. Paradoxically, Grumman's fighter jets helped determine the outcome of WWII–a war that had near universal support from our country's citizens. Subsequent wars and conflicts, particularly Vietnam, and more recently in the Middle East, has not garnered anything near the ideological support of WWII and in fact our nation's post-war foreign policies have been grounds for radical dissension and national disunity. Grumman symbolizes this conflict as well. And lastly, as a nation, we are currently grappling with the consequences of our material excesses and overreach–and we aren't out of the weeds just yet.
Griska, and other young artists like him. privileges imagery that offers subtle, and not so subtle, warnings of civilization's cyclic decay. They point to a trajectory that dangerously parallels Cole's thesis on the inevitable rise and fall of empires and alerts us to the very real possibility that we'll soon be harvesting sustenance gardens in the ruins of US civilization–and not for charity.
Michael Gormley is the editorial director of American Artist.