Artist Uses Everyday Objects to Tell a Poignant Story
Photographer and multimedia artist Brent Wahl sometimes finds inspiration for his work just by walking around the city.
Often comprised of “collected” and staged objects, his work includes items that he’s found in various sites that are potentially loaded with meaning—from empty lots and construction sites to the side of the road. Regardless of the site’s location, it is crucial to Wahl that there is an interesting history embedded in either the place or the object.
“In these circumstances, I think about why I’m in the space that I’m in and how that object is interacting in that space,” says Wahl, a senior lecturer in photography and visual arts in Penn’s School of Design. “Next, I think about how that object will transform once I remove it and re-contextualize it.”
For one of his creations, he arranged dozens of pieces of debris, including new chunks of marble, glass, and metal that were juxtaposed with old bricks, concrete, and glass from a “transitional space” that he found in a gentrifying neighborhood in Philadelphia. He photographed these items over an extremely extended exposure time, moving and repositioning the objects throughout the frame to slowly create the final composition. This series was meant to evoke the tensions between gentrification and community history, love and broken hearts, and hope and tragedy and to provoke in the viewer a feeling that something is, as Wahl describes it, “off.”
Wahl says he hopes his artwork spurs people to want to look, and also to think about the potential meanings.
“There is a quiet underbelly in the work and I think if you sit with it long enough, you can come to the realization that there’s actually some sort of critique happening of a particular place or object,” he says. “The viewer may think, ‘Why are those objects being depicted? Where are they from?’”
His recent work is a departure from his art made with collected items or repurposed objects. Instead, it’s produced with tape that he suspends from wires. Wahl says the newest work deals with personal moments in his life, “those locked-in memories that get frozen like images—the images that we play out for the rest of our lives.
“Working off of the debris site imagery, I thought it might be interesting to use myself as a site—thinking about the pivotal experiences in my life that speak to where I am now and why I see the world the way I do,” he adds.
Wahl is a winner of a 2014 Pew Center for Arts and Heritage grant and fellowship.
Along with the grant, Pew offers professional development seminars on issues such as available grants and fellowships, as well as financial planning, public speaking, and navigating the art world.
Wahl’s work has been exhibited in the U.S. and in Europe, but he hopes that the Pew fellowship will help him reach greater visibility.
The grant has allowed Wahl to acquire a new studio space in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. It’s his first reliable studio space in more than a year.
“For the past year, I begged, borrowed, traded, and I took over empty spaces here and there, ‘guerrilla style,’ just to keep moving forward with my work,” says Wahl.
Over his more than 20-year career, and in nine different studios, he often had access to a workspace for just one day or for less than a week, before he had to begin searching for another location.
“As much fun as it is to be nomadic, I could not be more excited to not have to move things around for a while,” says Wahl.