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From interpretive homages to flights of fancy, Woodmere Art Museum’s Just In: Recent Acquisitions in Sculpture and Relief offers something for every taste in materials, from thread to porcelain to iron.
Several artists reference earlier works. Natalie Charkow Hollander renders Nicholas Poussin’s 17th-century allegorical painting Parnassus, in After Poussin (1980 and 1981), reliefs in limestone and bronze. In Ode to Klimt (1996), Ed Lee Bing recreated Gustav Klimt’s 1901 painting, depicting Biblical heroine Judith in the style of a Gibson Girl, knotting color-matched embroidery thread on linen.
Consistent with Woodmere’s mission of showcasing Philadelphia art and artists, both Charkow Hollander and Bing have local connections. Charkow Hollander studied at Temple’s Tyler School of Art and taught at Philadelphia College of Art, while Bing headed Philadelphia’s Craftex Mills and taught at Moore College of Art and the University of the Arts.
Many works are significant beyond pure artistic value and local pride. Selma Hortense Burke, who came to Philadelphia to study medicine, commemorated a civil rights champion in Mary McLeod Bethune (date unknown), and a study for the bust is here. Another of her works, however, gained greater circulation: Her 1944 relief bust of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the model for the FDR dime.
Thomas Chimes’s studies at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts were interrupted by Air Force service in World War II, and Multiplax (1971) looks like something from a cockpit or airport control tower. It’s a wall-hung aluminum box with a Plexiglas window, through which a mysterious schematic is visible. There are grids of filament-thin lines and cryptic notations such as “emission source,” “level No 1,” and “level No 2.” Below the window, a bulbous red light is illuminated. Gallery notes explain Chimes made many such constructions in the 1960s and ‘70s, possibly anticipating a time when people would be held in thrall by incomprehensible boxes.
What a relief
Bas-relief combines the technical difficulties of both painting and sculpture. Like canvases, flat carvings can only be worked from the front; as with sculpture, changing one’s mind can be fatal. Several impressive reliefs are on view, among them Henry Weber Mitchell’s Italian Washer Women (date unknown), an impressionistic wonder. Roughly carved in bronze, it’s little more than a series of blocks and curved masses, yet Mitchell conveys the presence of three peasant women descending stone steps, balancing large baskets of laundry on their shoulders, headed to the banks of a rushing river. Mitchell also sculpted Winged Ox, installed on Jefferson University’s Center City campus at 10th and Walnut Streets.
Anthony Visco’s The Fifteenth Station: The Resurrection (1983) is an exquisitely rendered relief of Christ rising from the dead. Angels rejoice overhead and rabbits scamper away in surprise as Christ steps up from the tomb, burial wraps flowing over outspread arms. The scene is framed by Corinthian columns supporting a strand of unruly cherubs. This plaster is a model for a work Visco sculpted for Philadelphia’s Old St. Joseph’s Church when Roman Catholic churches added the hopeful conclusion to the crucifixion story illustrated by the Stations of the Cross. Visco, a noted liturgical artist, is founder of the Atelier for the Sacred Arts in Philadelphia.
Rudolf Staffel, a long-time Tyler faculty member, learned to work with porcelain in Mexico, and soon made raw porcelain his primary medium. Four shimmering vessels, designed to collect and redistribute light from above, are here (Untitled, 1980s; Vase, date unknown; Light Gatherer Vessel, c. 1985; Light Gatherer Bowl, c. 1980). Three of them are unglazed and, washed with copper salts, bear the blue-green tinge of weathered metal.
In 1984 Phillips Simkin began curating newspaper text and images in blankets knitted on commercial machines. The Cable Knitted News (1984), featuring front-page headlines from September 11 to 22, 1984, reports on Hurricane Diane moving into North Carolina and the crowning of a new Miss America.
Gallery notes, which are excellent throughout the exhibition, report that Simkin is locally remembered for organizing a 1975 Print Center fundraiser in which he placed auction items on a conveyor belt attached to a paper shredder. Works traveled along and, if not purchased in time, were destroyed. Thus Simkin prefigured by 43 years the artist Banksy, who in 2018 shredded a painting after it sold for $1.4 million. Simkin, at least, shredded only unsold art.
Then there is Bill Walton, whose work challenges the very idea of what constitutes art. West of Roulette #3 (no date) looks like two oily rags hung on a metal bar. The conceptual artist, who taught at Drexel and Moore College of Art, produced undated work with puzzling titles which could easily be dismissed as random objects left in the gallery. My theory is that Walton winks at viewers through his work, indifferent as to whether his art amuses or confuses.
What, When, Where
Just In: Recent Acquisition in Sculpture and Relief. Through April 14, 2019; Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 561-8888 or woodmereartmuseum.org.
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