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Philadelphia Wireman Profile

BACKWASH 1 Sept – 22 Oct 2023
Drill Hall Gallery

b. Unknown.
Lived in Philadelphia sometime in the 1970s.

Philadelphia Wireman is the name given to an anonymous artist who produced roughly 1200 wire-bound objects in the 1970s. These small-scale workings combine a gamut of material remnants, from single-use plastics, foils, papers and tapes, to fragments of manufactured goods like lighters, toys, coins, buttons, jewellery, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, food containers, piano keys, mirrors, electrical devices, and scraps of anonymous metal. Each artefact is a unique group of common wastes bound together with wire. The entire collection was salvaged from the curbside of a street in South Philadelphia by Robert Leitch in the late 1970s. With a particular alertness to abandoned items, Leitch instantly recognised the aesthetic peculiarity of these purposely arranged objects. In 1984, Leitch introduced the objects to gallerist John Ollman who immediately purchased 650 of them. In 1985, the sculptures were exhibited at Ollman’s gallery Janet Fleisher Gallery and they became attributed to ‘Philadelphia Wireman.’

Despite their wide recognition, their presence in numerous museum collections and popularity on the art market, the identity of the maker and the motivation of the work remain unknown. Surely provoked by their aesthetic brilliance, art discourse puzzles over the significance of their vernacular provenance. Some speculations link them to traditional Congolese power objects, inferring they possess animistic power, or that they are in some sense sacred. In our experience of them as unknowable aesthetic creations, we are lead paradoxically somewhere and nowhere. 

Philadelphia Wireman’s work not only reveals the inherent human impulse to create, to gather and to recycle, but also documents what has been produced, consumed, and discarded.

Abandoned to remain in despair and relative oblivion, the work’s story parallels the collective fate of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood in which they were found. Through an ‘urban renewal’ project, the population who lived in one of the most socially and economically disadvantaged suburbs of Philadelphia were displaced to make way for a new development. Wireman’s figurations invoke a story of a population that has experienced systematic discrimination: people who have been dislocated, forgotten, thrown away or excluded from mainstream society. 

Some of these appear in ‘Backwash’ courtesy of a local private collection.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.