The wire-sculptures now attributed to the Philadelphia Wireman were originally deemed trash when they were left out on garbage night in the late 1970s. Overtime, the group of 1200 small sculptures and some ink-drawings were saved by an art student, Robert Leitch – anonymous until his death – who found them in the South Street neighborhood, while in the flux of gentrification. The sculptures are assumed to have been made by a local denizen, who had no relatives to claim the creations after his or her passing. Leitch began giving away individual sculptures as gifts, until his friends persuaded him to show them to a gallery. The collection was purchased by gallerist John Ollman and exhibited in a 1985 exhibition of outsider art. At the time, when folk and self-taught art was only beginning to develop a following, the works were ridiculed as being garbage or the results of an elaborate scheme by the gallery. Ollman himself has said that people came into the gallery during the first exhibition of the wireman and were appalled. Now, artists like James Castle and Henry Darger have been championed by the art world, representing a rare strand of artistic vitality, removed from and independent of the prescribed discourse.
Most of the sculptures are comprised of tightly wound “nests” of heavy-gauge wire that secure an assemblage of small everyday objects inside. The type of wire changes from sculpture and the objects entangled in the “nests” are never the same. There are straws, pencils, plastic tape, glass shards, metal scraps, food packaging, batteries, nails, coins, toys, lightbulbs and manufacturing scraps. Today, the Philadelphia Wireman’s sculptures are viewed as a contemporary strain of Neo-Primitivism. Consider the totemic, alien figures and busts of Huma Bhabha or the horrific, yet humorous ceramic-masks of Mark Grotjahn, as the wireman’s contemporary relatives. Whoever he or she was, this is an artist who was creating modern reliquaries for the complex and ever-evolving American life. The works have been compared to ritualistic objects of antiquity, Native American medicine-bundles, African memory jugs or fetish objects, and even have some similarities with an early John Chamberlain. The purpose and power of these objects coupled with the mystery and anonymity of their maker, has made a legend out of an unknown artist, and only increased the allure of these obsessive wire-cum-object bundles. The sculptures are now highly regarded and perhaps they will serve as reminders of our time, long into the future when history has blurred the past.