Skip to content
Arts & Culture
Link copied to clipboard

Hurry — Philly’s sleeper art show of the season closes soon

"Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past" is one of the must-see shows in Philadelphia galleries right now

Detail from John E. Dowell’s photograph, “The Poet” (2017), from Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past" at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Detail from John E. Dowell’s photograph, “The Poet” (2017), from Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past" at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.Read moreJohn E. Dowell / Courtesy of Stanek Gallery

The large, sumptuous color photographs of cotton in John E. Dowell’s exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia came to be after a dream compelled the Philadelphia artist to visit cotton plants up close in Southern fields -- and through them to experience his ancestral connection to slavery.

Dowell contacted a USDA farm agent for the Savannah region, who in 2011 introduced him to a Georgia farmer whose family had been growing cotton on their property for seven generations. Dowell began photographing cotton there in various stages of growth, from first- and second-day cotton flowers to the so-called perfect cotton at harvest time.

His show here, “Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past,” doesn’t hide his ambiguous feelings about the plant — many of his images are seductively beautiful even as they embody the horrors of slavery. The exhibition has been drawing raves since it opened in September, and just one month remains to see it. I urge you to go.

The exhibition also includes photographs of cotton eerily superimposed on present-day Manhattan.

Some are from the Wall Street site where New York City’s main 18th-century slave market once stood. Do They Remember? shows young professionals out walking on an otherwise perfectly normal summer evening, suggesting the everyday encounters with forgotten histories that we unknowingly have all the time.

Other photo compositions impose the ghostly cotton plants onto images of a portion of Central Park formerly occupied by Seneca Village, the largest community of free African American property owners in antebellum New York.

Harlem makes an appearance, too — incongruously polka-dotted with cotton — because Dowell had been photographing street scenes there and recognized a different connection to slavery. “Seeing street vendors and individuals struggling with survival brings to mind that we are still on the plantation, working supporting those with the power. So I placed cotton in Harlem to remind us that we must continue to resist,” he explains in the wall text.

Dowell has created two installations here, as well.

A Moment of Reflection is an altarlike structure decorated with cotton branches and family photographs. Lost in Cotton is a tall construction of hanging fabric that invites viewers to walk through a narrow, claustrophobia-inducing maze. Inspired by a story his grandmother told Dowell, it’s a sculptural and photographic reimagining of a fright she experienced as a little girl — and of Dowell’s own fear hearing her story when he was a boy.

“She got lost in a cotton field near her home in Edgefield, S.C.," Dowell recalls in the wall text. “The cotton thorns scratched her arms and legs, leaving them bloodied. The more she wandered, the more lost she became. She feared she would never find her way out.”

Through Jan. 21 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays (closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day), 215-574-0380 or

Miraculous meditations

Max Cole’s exhibition “Crosswinds,” her first solo show at Larry Becker Contemporary Art since 2013, shows the 81-year-old California artist working as rigorously and meticulously as ever.

All but one of Cole’s new square-format paintings are from her Greek Cross series, employing the form of that cross as an organizing principle. From there, she departs on a surprising number of journeys, depicting a strong, dominating cross in some paintings and just an echo of the cross form in others.

The fine, hand-drawn vertical lines that make up the gray-toned backgrounds in her paintings are so perfectly aligned they’re frequently mistaken for woven textiles. Cole’s works have been compared to Agnes Martin’s — both have described their approach to repetitive mark-making as a meditative process — but to me, her latest paintings suggest a hybrid of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings and Louis Kahn’s buildings.

Cole is also showing nine drawings from 2012.

Through Jan. 12 at Larry Becker Contemporary Art, 43 N. Second St., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and by appointment. 215-925-5389 or

A Black Mountain echo

There’s little chance of scoring a seat for Martha McDonald’s performances of Music for Modernist Shapes: Reimagining Spectodrama, at Marginal Utility on Jan. 12 and 13 — at this time, all four are sold out — but you can see the art installation that serves at its set. And on Jan. 5, 6, 12, and 13, you can catch a video of the performance. (On the 12th and the 13th, it plays between live performances.)

McDonald’s work takes its cues from Bauhaus-trained Xanti Schawinsky’s 1936 theater piece Spectodrama: Play, Life, Illusion, which he made with students at the experimental Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C.

His piece included folded-paper costumes, light projections, and live music. Hers employs her own paintings and folded-paper works, based on techniques taught by Josef Albers at Black Mountain.

Music for Modernist Shapes was commissioned by the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center and features an original score by Laura Baird.

On exhibit through Jan. 13, Marginal Utility, 319 N. 11th St., noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (closed Dec. 24-31),