Art Star finds alternative work and neighborhood revival

As you round the corner from Girard Avenue to North 2nd Street in Philadelphia, the last thing on your mind is art. The area is littered with abandoned buildings and construction projects, and looks more like a ghost town than a cultural mecca. But in a testament to new-school urban renewal, this is the place that the Art Star gallery calls home and where cult artist Kurt Halsey Frederiksen is currently showing an exhibit.

Halsey, who has two last names but tends to use only the first, is a well-known artist in the indie rock scene. There are fan clubs for him all over Web sites like and

But most people have never heard of him.

That’s why his work is hidden, much like the gallery itself, in Art Star, located in Liberties Walk, a new strip mall of galleries, Pilates studios and coffee bars in the less-than-chic Northern Liberties neighborhood. Like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, hipsters have moved to Northern Liberties and brought their wireless Internet connections, espresso addictions and art to the area.

The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 2 and is free to the public, is small but impressive, with a collection of 39 drawings and sculptures. Halsey’s trademark style is a sketch-like drawing with accompanying words scrawled on the page, like a caption. The words add depth to pictures that, alone, would not elicit a strong emotional reaction.

As indicated by the Internet communities devoted to his artwork, Halsey’s audience and appeal lies in its youth. The drawings have a childlike quality. It’s almost as if Halsey has ripped a page out of his high school notebook and put it on display.

The main subject of each piece is love, more specifically the end of romantic relationships. The drawings do not focus on mature adult themes, but rather the extreme highs and lows of young love.

For example, the piece “Oakland Mall” shows a young couple kissing and the words “Our summer ended with a flash.” The contrast between the happiness of the subjects and the truth of the caption gives the piece a bittersweet feeling that runs through the entire exhibit. But like young love, the commentary embedded in the art is based on na?ve hope, not jaded realism.

The simplicity of the exhibit adds to its power, and it’s clear that Halsey’s work resonates with a large demographic. Despite its hidden location in an underdeveloped corner of North Philly, the gallery has a consistent flow of visitors.

The entire experience of visiting the Art Star is a little bit surreal. The Liberties Walk strip is so new and cute it almost looks fake when contrasted with the urban decay around it. The idea of even having art galleries and coffee bars in the neighborhood seems a little absurd. And the flock of people parking their Audis on the curb make it clear that the new businesses are not primarily for the residents.

But the community, like Halsey himself, is on the rise. The area has had a recent influx of grassroots community organizers, who put together events and draw new crowds to the neighborhood. I wouldn’t be surprised if, after businesses like Art Star draw more commerce to Northern Liberties, the neighborhood became the hipster haven of North Philly.

As for Halsey, his profile is rising. One of his pieces was tattooed on a girl on the show “Miami Ink” earlier this year, and his work is featured on the cover of the summer issue of “ISM Quarterly,” an arts newspaper driven by artist submissions.

Whether or not Halsey ever makes it onto the radar of the average American is anyone’s guess, but the opportunity to see his art up close, in such a relaxed environment, is a rarity in the tough world of gallery art. This is his only show currently scheduled for the East Coast, and since all of his original art is for sale, his exhibits do not travel from gallery to gallery like those of better-known artists.

If you like Halsey, art in general or just checking out up-and-coming areas, the exhibit at the Art Star is worth the trip.