Saturday, December 26, 2009

Drawings Big and Small

Drawing, as anyone who reads this blog knows, is a passion for me, so I savor every chance to see a good drawing show. This was a great week in that department, with gold-plated historical works at the Frick Collection in NY and a big contemporary shout at Joe Gallery in Philadelphia. The Frick's exhibit of French drawings from a private collection ("Watteau to Degas," - early 18th c. to late 19th c. - through Jan 10) presents virtuosity on the expected small scale, neatly framed, all made for the private pleasure of an artist or an artist's patron, done as sketches or studies for larger, more finished paintings. The atmosphere of the show, like that of the Frick altogether, is hushed and reverent - it's easy to imagine viewing these intimate marvels in a drawing room, talking quietly with heads together, about subtle line and nuanced shading. The exhibit at Gallery Joe, "Very Very Large Drawings (through Jan 30) strikes a significant contrast on all front. Vast sheets of paper, some framed, but some rolling down from ceiling to floor, boldly take up whole walls, crying out color, value, texture, in booming modern voices. The old guys would recognize (some) mediums - graphite, pencil, watercolor - but pigmented paper pulp, acrylic, enamel spray, along with the scale and the abstract content would be hard to figure out. I think they'd get it, though - drawings, fresh and unerringly personal, are a great place to see how far ahead some historical artists could be (look closely at the easy, abstract strokes of chalk in Watteau's portraits and see the startling modernity in Degas's Roman soldier's eyes.) Great joy is on display in both places, speaking clearly in the tones of a suitable age.

Monday, December 14, 2009

B Square Gallery

Artists and galleries - often a complicated relationship, but what about when an artist is also a gallery owner? Heather Bryson, who runs B Square Gallery on South 9th Street in Philadelphia, shows her own jewelry, paintings, and sculpture, but she also has a mission to support and encourage local artists, many of whom attended her alma mater, Moore College of Art. Heather's enthusiasms show up in exhibits that include skulls painted with flowers - and insects - she loves insects and does an annual group show on the theme. She has some delightful, quirky jewelry pieces that feature carved flies set with silver, gemstones, and rich looking faux stone made of fimo. The central exhibit at B Square at the moment is the work of Dae Rebeck Sanchez - intriguing assembled memory pieces with personal photographs worked with soft colors and textures. Sanchez describes them as "environments of the expected fused with surprise." Heather is doing this right - keeping her heart in her own art while also connecting artists she cares about with the lively neighborhood where she lives, works, and runs her gallery.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Eye Candy for the Holidays

I was New York this week and spent some happy hours wandering through the Met Museum, discovering things and getting ideas. But it's Holiday Time in New York and Eye Candy of the most sparkly, over the top kind is on my mind. I nominate the people behind the Bergdorf Goodman windows as Artists of the Month. I look forward to these windows every year and am never disappointed. The theme is Alice in Wonderland - sort of. In any case it's High Surrealism complete with illusions, misleading reflections, visual tricks, strange proportions and juxtapositions of scale and context. The closer you look the more you see from the story - keys, white rabbits, pocket watches, little doors - they've done a great job of capturing of Lewis Carrol's bizarre vision. Adding to the glorious confusion are the reflections of buildings on Fifth Avenue and other gawking spectators, carrying the theme out past the windows into the street. After leaving 5th Ave I went past a display on 6th Avenue - Claes Oldenburg couldn't have done it better - which comes first? Pop Art or Pop Culture?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Beauty, Order, Pattern

Nature is always one step ahead of art; the wise artist pays close attention. Patterns I've noticed recently in nature have led to thoughts about pattern in art. In Islamic culture pattern is both beauty and prayer - the two are inseparable. In the ordered, mathematical designs of rugs, tiles, and other characteristic forms is endless meditation on the infinite space of God. Celtic patterns are among the most familiar in this category, with or without the weaving in of Christian motifs after the conversion era. Pattern based on nature are the lifeblood of 19th century Arts & Crafts movment, especially in wallpaper and fabric designs of William Morris. Some beautiful patterns can be found in patchwork quilts, with names and motifs that clearly reference nature as a design source. An art movement in the 60's and 70's known as Pattern and Decoration reacted against the dry aesthetics of Minimalism with explosive color and design, often making intentional use of traditional materials and processes as a feminist statement about the association of decorative arts with functional "women's work." The example here is a mosaic by Robert Kusher, installed in the 77th Street stop in the NYC subway. It's a beautiful world, outside and in.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Drawing: The Dance of It

Not so long ago the art of Drawing was consigned to the dustbin; in the wake of Modernism it seemed (to some) that it was of little use and the craft of it was, for a while, abandoned in many art schools. But, like the Terminator, IT'S BACK! Drawing is of increasing importance in contemporary art, I'm happy to say, and by the evidence of INDA 4, an annual publication devoted to Drawing, the art and the craft are in excellent shape. INDA 4 (2009) is just out and I'm also happy to say that I'm a part of it. Not a drawing, but an essay on Drawing, one based on the quote from W.B. Yeats, "How do you tell the dancer from the dance?" For drawing is a dance, and like the act of dance it scribes the intimate details of the 'dancer' putting the marks down on a surface. My heroes of drawing have always been those who are closest to the process - the dance - and who partner easily with the motion and the materials. I cite Richard Diebenkorn in the essay and include one of his drawings here. Diebenkorn, who had the courage to continue drawing figuratively when it was out of fashion, celebrates the process by showing it to us - the smudging, the strikeovers and whiteouts - a rich part of the beauty of his work. Matisse is another hero - as much a skater as a dancer - whose line can be a miracle of ease and simplicity. In my own drawings I prize spontaneity and the play of space - usually white, but lately I've been using black to provide an intense background for line - I include three examples. I've also included two sample drawings from INDA 4, the one at the upper left by Jason John, the colored drawing by Aimee Manion. INDA 4 is a great resource for teachers, artists, and collectors: the link allows a look at each of the works in the publication and give information for ordering.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Art of Fine Craft in Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft show is up and running, 4 great days of eye-popping ingenuity, imagination, technique, and high perfection. One of the best parts of a show of this quality and scope is first, trying to figure out how-the-heck the artist did THAT and then asking them to explain it and marveling at how they got from HERE to THERE. One of my favorites in the ingenuity category is JoAnne Russo, who makes baskets - I should say basket forms, as she transitioned from functional baskets to more magical interpretations a couple of years ago - which she decorates with sewing notions! As with the best of truly fine craft, she gets to a completely new place from the traditional (the technique and materials) - anyone who's done sewing has buttons, hooks and eyes, and zippers lying around but has anyone else thought to do THIS? She dyes the wooden buttons herself, thus creating organic color schemes, and carefully stacks and arranges them with other findings into precise satisfying patterns on the surface of the forms. I noticed several more basket makers in quick succession, a nice reminder of the endless interpretations of a single theme. Ed Bing Lee from Philadelphia makes small, entertaining baskets out of things like striped shoelaces while Debora Muhl from North Carolina makes her deconstructed shapes out of sweet grass, aware as she does so of the sacred Native American view of her materials. I taught ceramics for a while so am always interested to see the offerings in this category; I found a favorite in Brian R. Jones's small solid handbuilt wares, painted and glazed with milky pastels touched with color. The jewelry range is, as always, fascinating, from strong dark metals to delicate work with stones and ivory. Two other favorites were Akiko Sugiyama's paper creations, and Christine Kaiser's narrative boxes - more to come later. The show invites a different international group each year; this year the focus in on Korea, with 26 Korean guest artists. Most of the artists spoke of keeping prices at an accessible level - they offer amazing value for such astonishing work. I talked with some of the artists about the old chestnut of 'functional vs. non-functional' - a limiting, earthbound discussion that often equates ceramics and other craft with something you buy so you have a way to eat your cereal. This show and these extraordinary artists are reminders that beauty of form and spectacular demonstrations of imagination and technique lift the spirit, provide joy, and inspire better versions of oneself: what could be of more use than that? This is the 33rd year of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, which according to the website ( was the first retail show of its kind, run by volunteers as a fundraiser for the museum. It's the prototype for other Craft Shows of this caliber, and artists are chosen by a highly selective jury process. The show runs through Sunday.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

William Blake at the Morgan Library

To see a world in a grain of sand... William Blake's lovely words from "Auguries of Innocence" wink up at you from a small brown notebook as you enter the Blake exhibit at the Morgan Library. It's a thrill to see them in his own neat, polite hand - the well-behaved script of the 18th century - especially as they come from a mind that was anything but polite and conventional. The Morgan Library specializes in that kind of thrill; you can find Tenniel's original drawings for Alice in Wonderland, musical manuscripts by major composers, an original Gutenberg Bible (2 1/2, actually) - as someone said about the collection - "if not the only, the best." I lived for a number of years around the corner from the Morgan and still feel nostalgic for the days when admission was free and nobody went there except us book arts lovers (my days as a limited edition book publisher.) Now, with its airy new interior by Renzo Piano, it's more accessible and far better attended ... a good thing, as it always has very interesting exhibits in addition to the jaw-dropping treasures in the inner sanctum, J.P. Morgan's private library. The Blake exhibit is the Morgan at its best: excellent quality original art and text, beautifully displayed with intelligent, articulate explanations. If you go, be sure to allow time for learning by careful examination of details. William Blake (1757-1827) had little use for conventional religion and social artifice; he believed in equality of gender and opposed slavery. He is considered by some to the be forerunner of 20th century anarchism. His signature medium is engraving, a method that allowed him to give his idiosyncratic visions full rein by combining the linear arts of drawing and writing. He lived at a radical moment, witnessing the American and French Revolutions, with all that implies about hope for humanity and disappointment at human chaos. The exhibit contains several of his illustrated series, including the Book of Job, but I was most fascinated by the Prophecies, one for America and one for Europe. He tells the stories by focusing on a God/Tyrant figure, expressing in his lushly cryptic poetry and elegant, sinuous drawings the fears and triumphs of his human characters. This link to the exhibit has interactive features, including Jeremy Irons reading "Auguries of Innocence" and "Tyger."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fast-Moving Mural

Philadelphia has more murals than anyplace I've ever seen - 3000 at last count. There are some truly amazing works of art splashed on buildings in every corner of the city. They loom 10 or 15 stories high, some with seriously American stories featuring giant portraits of Franklin and Jefferson, some tell of local history, and some, among the most charming, relate to a specific neighborhood or even the building on which the mural is painted. Now there's a new one in town; I'm not sure it's counted in the mural tally, but it's a great new take on giant wall art. The Comcast building, a jazzy new spike on the landscape (the tallest in the city, built in 2005); I'm not wild about the Robert Stern design - the top looks like a mail slot topped by a wire basket - but the wall art inside is a stroke of genius, a visual feat perfectly suited to our techie moment in time. Entering the giant atrium entrance you think everything is normal upmarket corporate, (except for the cool art overhead - a post for another day) until the wall facing you starts to move. Suddenly the huge space is churning with images - nature, time, creation, love, Philadelphia, invention, art, etc. etc, all punctuated with fast-moving people rollerblading, dancing, running, giggling - they even make getting ready for work look fun. Perspectives change - one minute you're out in space, the next you're underwater or in a meadow or flying over the city. We stood there completely and utterly entertained for the whole show (about 20 minutes) and then asked the attendants at the desk if they ever got tired of it - "no way" was the response. They also said there are regular changes in the content, and that a special Holiday version goes up at the end of November. Here's a link to the designer who created this magic with some clips of the show

Sunday, October 25, 2009

With no small child to use as an excuse, I might have missed the Please Touch Museum. Lucky for me, however, an appointment took me to the Museum's intriguing new quarters in Fairmount Park, not far from the Philadelphia Museum. There are two stories here: the fantastic, brilliant, kid-centered museum designed for children under 7, and the remarkable architecture. In 1876 the first World's Fair in the United States was held in Philadelphia, and this beautiful Beaux Arts building, known then as Memorial Hall, was created as the Art pavilion. By some miracle, not only did the building survive when others were demolished (most were never intended to be permanent) but the interior detail is still here in exquisite authenticity. Part of the fun of the interior is the crazy contrast between bright, hip, kid-colored fittings and 19th century ornate grandeur. In the rotunda entry you're surrounded by sculpted swags and caryatids - fresh and tasteful in white, gold, salmon, and mauve - under a finely wrought iron and glass dome, a marvel of engineering of the time. It must once have held people spellbound, but now it goes unnoticed by most visitors, trumped by a more recent marvel - an enormous model of the arm of the Statue of Liberty made entirely of brightly colored toys by local artist Leo Sewell. (His hodgepodge elephant is elsewhere in the Museum.) I watched the kids and parents entering for a while and was struck by how well-designed the museum is for its purpose. Every little face lit up and every little body starting squirming in a dad's or mom's grasp; arms reached out and feet started churning before they even hit the ground. As soon as the parent set them down they were moving, straight for the good stuff. And the good stuff is everywhere; there's a splashy river to play and experiment with, a Wonderland maze, and a city with trucks and buses to explore, and lots more. Lucky kids! The grandeur reasserts itself when you leave, in the form of two heroic statues originally intended for 19th century Vienna - what a great new job they have, standing guard over all this fun.