Delaware Art Museum presents ‘Assemblage: A Regional Collective of Women Artists’

Seventeen artists, 32 years, one show

Many marriages don’t endure nearly as long as Assemblage, the group of 17 artists who have gathered, worked, and supported one another’s artistic practice – in varying configurations – for more than 32 years. The oldest artists’ collective in the Philadelphia region, Assemblage was “assembled” after graduate school in 1985 by Rosalind Bloom (who’s still active). Though they’ve mounted 16 exhibitions over the years, this one (on view at Wilmington’s Delaware Art Museum through September 3) is their largest and most ambitious.

"Many New Moons," 2017, by Lauren A. Litwa. Oil and pencil on Canvas, 42 x 44 inches. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

Assemblage members are all women — not by any grand design, but because, according to Bloom, “We thought about it, but we just never invited a man.” Much of this interesting exhibition takes trite and “feminine” tropes — landscapes, still lifes, flowers — and gives them a resounding shake or two.

Upturning expectations

Here, landscapes are largely untraditional. Take Solar Clouds, Sheila Letven’s dark and muscular work. She starts with black gesso to render the fear, majesty, and primeval darkness she sees inherent in the solar system. Lauren Litwa Holden’s Many New Moons explodes into vivid natural images in imagined worlds of Gauguin-like color.  Kathe Grinstead has studied the vastness of clouds for years, but her vistas are surprising in their intimacy. Rendered in colored pencil, monumental in spite of their compression, they are tiny, glowing near-miniatures.

Lesley Mitchell’s TreeMountain III, and Seabed I are the opposite: three monotypes laid onto oil marbling whose organic, almost cellular movement seems to portray the landscape from the inside out. Similarly, Marion Spirn’s Sanctuary-Crystal Cove — four small abstracts of wax, pigment, and varnish with delicate gilding — microscopically convey the power of the place where sand and land meet the sea.

"The Watchers: HER-rymonious and Bacca," 2016, by Carol Wisker. Mannequin, cotton, wool, silk cocoons, found objects. Left: 51 x 25 x 18 inches. Right: 60 x 25 x 18 inches. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

Not everything here hangs flat on the wall. Carol Wisker, back to her studio after a museum career, used Hieronymus Bosch as inspiration for The Watchers, three large, riveting, and disconcerting fiber sculptures of imposing headless cotton torsos embellished (or strangled) with textile adornments. Lesley W. Eadeh’s disembodied image of a dress, which at first looks like a bas-relief, is wittily composed of painted lint, an ironic reuse of detritus.

Challenging in concept and practice

Several artists tautly pull their work from environmental or political themes. In Disasters of War, Charlotte Schatz fills repurposed crates (originally used to ship grapes from Latin America) with supplicating hands and paints everything white, the color of mourning in much of Asia. Abyssinia is Now Ethiopia is one of Eleanor Schimmel’s two sinuous molten-wax sculptures. Born of heat and chemistry, they at first seem like rosettes, ribbons, or delicate traceries of fluting. On closer examination, these miniature worlds lose their misleading friendliness in a tangle of whorls.

A surprising number of Assemblage artists work in molten wax — the ancient process of encaustic — using it alone or with other media. The Egyptians, a culture that knew what they were doing when it came to chemical processes, employed it expertly. Encaustic was revived in the late 20th century, in part by the invention of modern heating techniques, and it has engendered the creativity of artists like these. It takes both patience and skill to work with this demanding medium that elicits a wide range of textures and emotional effects.

This group show is part of the museum’s Outlooks series, begun in 2008 to invite community proposals for group exhibitions. Scheduled to continue through 2018, the often challenging initiative has been overseen by curator Mary Holahan since its inception. Holahan works closely with each exhibition’s coordinator from concept to installation, always seeking to “show the range and depth of artistic talent in our region.”

Assemblage offers a clear example of the importance of any institution’s commitment to its regional artists, and this exhibition makes a fitting celebration of the group’s longevity. Three decades is a long time for such widely divergent artists to continue an affiliation, and at their opening, the gallery brimmed with an enthusiastic group of visitors and artists, attesting to the diversity and vibrancy of the work.  

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