Wilmington’s Delaware Art Museum has two contemporary regional offerings that are vastly different and equally illuminating. The second in the museum’s Distinguished Artist series, Mitch Lyons: The Hand Translated is a lovely posthumous tribute to regional artist Mitch Lyons (1938-2018). And on the opposite end of the visual spectrum, there’s Angela Fraleigh’s Sound the Deep Waters, a self-contained exhibition of paintings.
Sculpture and print
After studying at Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) and receiving a 1971 MFA in ceramics at Tyler School of Art, Lyons began his practice as a potter. Over a five-decade career, Lyons continued to work in traditional pottery forms and sculptural clay.
But as his practice evolved, he invented and refined the innovative “clay monoprint” process, describing himself as “a clay person making prints.” Lyons created luminescent prints (sometimes with recognizable visual elements, sometimes abstract) pulled directly from a clay slab. Eschewing traditional printmaking techniques (woodcut or linocut, engraving or lithography) he used hand-colored clay to make inlays and balls of pastel which he applied using water and (often) a kitchen sieve.
There are clay vessels and sculptural works on view, but Lyons’s monoprints are the stars. He printed on various grounds, including paper and sandpaper. But his most compelling works (usually untitled) are those he transferred to reemay, a nonwoven spun polyester fabric used in fields as disparate as art conservation and gardening. Here, the depth he achieved with colored clay (which transfers more inward distance than paint alone) is strikingly augmented by the fabric’s texture, creating works that take the eye further than would seem possible in a print viewed under glass.
A generous artist
An exploration of Lyons’s unique process is an important exhibition component. It’s documented in both the catalogue and a film (created by Philadelphia’s Senior Artists Initiative) that intersperses Lyons explaining his practice with reminiscences and insights from Meredith Wakefield (his wife), colleagues, and exhibition curator Margaret Winslow.
A founder of Wilmington’s Delaware Contemporary, Lyons was a generous and expansive mentor, teacher, and colleague. Rather than jealously guarding his innovative process, he chose to share it widely, influencing a generation of regional artists. The Hand Translated—celebrating the 50th anniversary of an innovative technique—is a welcome insight into an artist’s generosity and his beautiful works.
Sound the Deep Waters
Fraleigh’s museum commission, Sound the Deep Waters, has only four huge paintings—two triptychs, a diptych, and one single panel—measured in feet rather than in inches, all created this year. Passionately looking at gender and identity through the lens of historic narrative art, Fraleigh (who teaches at Moravian College) made a deep dive into the museum’s collections of Pre-Raphaelite works and American illustration and then proposed Sound the Deep Waters.
While other galleries in the museum flow into one another, Fraleigh created these large oil-and-acrylic works as an immersive installation in a self-contained room. They are paintings of great range and beauty whose images—inspired by works in the museum and society at large—explore and explode how views of women have been calcified and codified.
This premise might seem dogmatic or academic, but Fraleigh has created startling, evanescent, thrilling works. She does it first through content, overlapping multiple references in iconography and imagery with an immediacy that in no way mitigates her expressive joy or stops fluidity.
These paintings are filled with content that is referential yet personal, historical but contemporary. And as well as being layered in meaning, they are also technical masterpieces of stratified painting genres. Realistic figural work is balanced by abstraction, filled with visuals drawn from impressionism, the Pre-Raphaelites (especially Albert Moore), illustration (especially Katharine Pyle), gestural abstraction, and color-school painting. Some areas are highly varnished, some are matte; some are textural, some smooth; some are poured, some have the feel of calligraphy.
Titles are drawn from poetry, especially that of Christina Rossetti. Allusions abound, and there is a feminist catalogue. Such visual and intellectual activity might be overwhelming, but the exhibition’s soothing wall color, a deep blue “the color of still water,” along with Fraleigh’s embrace of reality and dreams, are perfect invitations. And the museum is intimate enough that one visit allows a view of many originals that provided inspiration for Fraleigh’s visual feast.
What, When, Where
Mitch Lyons: The Hand Translated, through February 2, 2020; Angela Fraleigh: Sound the Deep Waters, through April 12, 2020 at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, Delaware. (302) 571-9590 or delart.org.
Museum facilities, entrances, galleries, and parking are accessible and there are wheelchairs and folding stools available to borrow at no cost. Visit online for more accessibility info.