Pennsylvania Academy's "Narcissus in the Studio'

An artist's favorite subject is....

Paone's 'Peter and the Wolf' (2007): Watch for those squinting eyes.
Paone's 'Peter and the Wolf' (2007): Watch for those squinting eyes.

How do we see ourselves? And others? With few exceptions, it's always from within our cultural context. This is what makes "Narcissus in the Studio" so fascinating.

After looking carefully at each portrait in this new exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy, I found that the ones I most responded to were those of the late 20th and 21st Centuries, such as Peter Paone's audacious Peter and the Wolf (2007, above) and Recent History, Sarah McEneaney's moving 2006 parody on Charles Willson Peale's iconic The Artist In His Studio (1822). Instead of Peale presenting his collection of natural history objects— an 81-year old-patriarch making his case to posterity— McEneaney exhibits her recent X-rays, cell scans and other references to a cancer diagnosis: a 55-year-old woman hoping for a future.

More than 100 portraits, many from the Academy's permanent collection, build an amazing conversation across the centuries. Many of the works organized by Robert Cozzolino, the Academy's curator of modern art, have been in storage for decades. Now all these paintings— as well as a few drawings, photographs, works of sculpture and artists' palettes— are on view for us to compare, contrast and, one hopes, think about.

Since artists are their own most accessible (and affordable) models, it seems natural for them to paint themselves and/or family members and friends at varying intervals. You can usually tell by the slight squinting of their eyes that they were intensely looking at their reflection in a mirror. But were they always so formally dressed while painting? And which hand held the brush? I'm left-handed, so this question always interests me.

Two modern women

Naturally, more portraits of male artists are on view, but the women were surprisingly communicative. Margaret Foster Richardson's self-portrait, A Motion Picture (1912), reveals a very dynamic, modern woman on the move, brush and maulstick in hand. She'd be right at home today and could readily be friends with Joan Brown, as seen in her 1970 Self Portrait with Fish and Cat.

At The River's Edge (1998), by Emily Brown, seems to represent all of us in a state of flux: becoming, being and changing with each passing current. Fantasy II (1976-85) recalled the persona of Ben Kamihira.

I wish one of Ellen Powell Tiberino's definitive self-portraits had been included. She was a fine artist and an important part of Philadelphia's art history.

Self Portrait (2007), by Joe Fig, introduces us to an artist's working environment. His personal features seem immaterial, but we experience the solitary aspect of creating art in a converted garage. We peek in as if eavesdropping, almost forgetting that it's all in miniature. Then, just as you think you can sense an artist working, look up and ahead through a windowless opening: Your face is reflected in the mirror on the back wall of a small studio.

Live artist at work

If you're fortunate enough to be at the Academy on a Wednesday or Saturday afternoon (or other special occasions), you can watch a young artist at work. Devon Lee, a fourth-year Academy student majoring in sculpture with a minor in printmaking, was our artist for the day, creating small sculptures that express her mood, feelings and recent experiences.

Using Sculpey, a clay-like substance that can be oven-fired without requiring a kiln, Lee develops her forms with Fuze Art, beads and glitter that melt and grow with the use of a heat gun. It all looked promising and could be an exciting new technological development. Don't hesitate to ask these young artists questions about their technique and media as they bring portraiture to life and give it a new dimension.

It was fun to exit the galleries and see Daniel Heyman's large etching and woodblock on paper, Summer: The Artist Sleeps. What else can one do after a long hard day in the studio?♦

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