As I stood in front of the image of a striking mahogany-skinned woman, her hands in front of her heart, her visage simultaneously spiritual and strong, I was overcome by a feeling of recognition. The painting, titled Meditation, held up a mirror: looking into it, I saw myself. I am a multiethnic yoga teacher, and Susan Wallack’s painting, now on display in Visionary Voices, a portrait exhibition at Philly’s Magic Gardens, made me contemplate my relationship with my spiritual practices as well as my ancestral history.
Wallack’s work has narrative. She describes her pieces as being influenced by African masks and Renaissance portraiture, “recognizable but not exactly real.” Her artistry is intentionally open to interpretation, so that a viewer can see it and assign their own meaning to her work.
Under the surface
You may or may not identify with the same images I did. Or you may identify with them differently. But, rest assured, there will be something in them that calls you to probe beneath your surface, something that evokes an interior experience. The entire exhibition resonated deeply with me and left me thinking about the selected works long after I’d left. I plan to return for another look before the exhibition ends.
Visionary Voices features four self-taught artists: Wallack, Chloe Fimiano, Anthony Coleman, and Jaither West. Although each of the artists effectively invites viewers to find themselves in the art, each brings a unique style to their craft. I went to the exhibition on a crowded Saturday, and it seemed that the various visual masterpieces evoked a different reaction from each viewer.
Works of heart
I found Fimiano’s works empowering, while the woman next to me gazed at the artist’s representation of female bodies with her hands over her heart, as if sharing one of the secret pains of sisterhood. Fimiano’s art features a multitude of women in scenes that span the everyday to the imaginary. Some of her figures are teary-eyed. Others are powerful and unapologetic. The themes she touches on—femininity, power, love, the relatedness of human beings—touched my heart.
Likewise, Coleman’s work tugged at my heartstrings like a child tugging on a parent’s pants leg. Inspired by the color and mood of 1970s and 80s cartoons, Coleman simultaneously conveys character and caricature. I found myself feeling nostalgic as I stood in front of his work, reminiscing about an earlier time in my life. And although some of his pieces inspired childhood nostalgia in me (I was born in 1983 and grew up on the cartoons of the 80s), many of his selected pieces caused far deeper levels of reflection and introspection.
The essence of Philadelphia
Perhaps more than any of the artists here, West’s work captures the essence of Philadelphia. By combining individual portraiture with depictions of groups of people, he takes viewers on a journey of self-exploration and creative collaboration, directing our focus toward that which we choose to see. A resident of Philadelphia who incorporates his experiences into his art, West infuses his pieces with images of strangers and celebrities. His artistry visually captures the vibe of this city, weaving in various elements from life in Philadelphia while maintaining a level of irreverence that so encapsulates the spirit and individuality of the city. I saw myself reflected in his work, but I also saw him, distinctly. Without speaking a word, West conveys his love of breakdancing and B-boy culture. I felt as if each piece should have a soundtrack. His work is almost lyrical.
Once again, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens has managed to curate an exhibition that conveys the spirit and substance of Philadelphia. The selected voices are, indeed, visionary. The artists’ work takes us on a journey from the personal to the political, the ancient to the contemporary, the individual to the collective.
What, When, Where
Visionary Voices. By Chloe Fimiano, Anthony Coleman, Susan Wallack, and Jaither West. Through February 23, 2020 at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, 1020 South Street, Philadelphia. (215) 733-0390 or phillymagicgardens.org.
The Magic Gardens is a wheelchair-accessible venue.