A black dress speeds by, trailing sleeves and dry branches. A fine old christening dress disintegrates into chalk lines on a blackboard. A man's white dress shirt, circa 1875, sprouts a small forest of branches. You're in the world of Ron Isaacs, master craftsman and trompe l'oeil magician. There is mystery everywhere, writ in solid evidence on the walls of the Snyderman-Works Gallery in Old City, Philadelphia. Isaacs works in wood, birch plywood, to be specific. Delicate dry leaves, smooth gabardine, fine crocheted lace, wispy muslin with embroidered borders - all wood. You read the label, note the fact, and then return to the work without believing it; your eyes and mind tussle against each other in a rich and interesting game. There is knowledge of past masters here - William Michael Harnett especially, with his delight in tactile deception and fine detail - as well as a sense of the past, and of time passing. An autumnal theme runs throughout, recalling the twist of the heart that comes with the turn of that season. There is a hint of death in the air, evoked not only by dry leaves and bare branches but by the nostalgia implicit in the styles of the clothes. Someone once lived here, these works say. One, titled Improve Each Shining Hour, is a dress of a particular green with cream polka dots - a 40's icon complete with neatly buttoned sleeves and collar, here presented with cutout boxes filled with scissors (also wood - don't forget!) It recalls the neat tidy tasks of women - sewing, handwork - the slight wrinkling of the fabric visible at close range reminds one of a time before permanent press, when the iron and ironing board were a daily presence. One box, squarely over the pubic area, has a large pair of scissors pointing straight down - a hint of sex, perhaps, but perhaps not really the point (the scissors have a blunted tip.) A spring note appears in the work titled Overtaken, which sprouts colorful yellow and purple iris buds, rising out of the hem of a deep blue/green dress with demure lace collar. They bring a fresh damp smell into the air, but again there is a slight ominous note; the nostalgic style of the dress seems to have it sinking gracefully into a fecund swamp. The christening dresses (there are two) are sweet and delicate but perhaps most of all they carry the sense of lives lost. The Queen of January is a masterful work. The rich finely-detailed fabric, a tea-dyed ivory color, is thick and expensive looking; this christening took place in winter in a northern climate - or was it used to guard a tiny lost life against an eternal cold? The dusty spray of dry leaves shooting out of the skirt speak of both possibilities. There is so much to Isaacs's work - this exhibit is a pleasure for the senses and the intellect.
At the Snyderman-Works Gallery through May 14th
A Tangible History of the American South
2 weeks ago