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Must-sees in Philly galleries right now, including Scott Noel’s exceptional paintings

Michelle Marcuse at Grizzly Grizzly and "Writers Making Books" at Arcadia's Spruance Gallery are other highlights.

Detail from Scott Noel's painting, "Britomart" (2018), at Gross McCleaf Gallery
Detail from Scott Noel's painting, "Britomart" (2018), at Gross McCleaf GalleryRead moreGross McCleaf Gallery

Scott Noel’s exhibition “The Academy and the Alcázar,” at Gross McCleaf Gallery, is more ambitious than previous shows of his I’ve seen — he’s been given both the front and back galleries — and his paintings have a new lushness.

His compositions of figures are still studied, but they’re more painterly.

Noel’s characteristic filtered natural light makes people and places seem exceptionally still and quiet. I’m reminded of hot, dry air at noon in a city more Mexico City than humid Philadelphia. And that’s still very much intact.

Noel observed paintings by Velásquez at the Prado in Madrid and felt a kinship with the 17th-century Spanish painter, spurring this latest body of work.

You can see the influence in paintings such as Britomart, depicting a model at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (where Noel is a professor) surrounded by students. The Velásquez effect is also there in a view of Noel’s wife’s vegetable garden behind their house in Manayunk, and in sweeping scenes of Center City that emphasize the assimilation of new buildings into the historic cityscape.

Some of these paintings are quirkier, too, than paintings I remember from Noel’s past shows.

And Then Face to Face, for example, is a view of Broad Street and the historic Frank Furness-designed PAFA building from an upper floor of PAFA’s Hamilton Building — in which Noel has excluded much of Claes Oldenburg’s late, overproduced, slick outdoor sculpture, Paint Torch.

If that’s a critique, I’m with Noel.

Through Feb. 28 at Gross McCleaf Gallery, 127 S. 16th St., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 215-665-8138 or

Artsy books for Walt’s 200th

Among the many events this year for Whitman at 200, the regional Walt Whitman bicentennial celebration, is a not-to-be-missed exhibition at Arcadia University’s Spruance Gallery.

“Writers Making Books” gathers books written and designed by writers — and by a few artists who write — all created in the DIY spirit that guided Whitman’s production of his iconic poetry collection Leaves of Grass, which he himself helped to typeset.

With the exception of 19th-century Leaves of Grass volumes, which are here in facsimile form, and Gertrude Stein’s Lucy Church Amiably, published in 1930, most of the show’s books are contemporary. All are mounted on individual shelves and meant to be picked up and paged through.

Care to linger? The installation includes a library table and chairs for extended reading.

Randall Couch’s Peal (2018) is one of the show’s most visually exciting and inventive books. Its simple one-word title is printed in radiant blue on a brilliant red, cloth cover. Its rows of poetic words were determined by the same algorithms used to sound bells in church towers.

Robert Blackson’s If There Ever Was: A Book of Distinct and Impossible Smells is a scratch-and-sniff book that Blackson created in 2008 with the help of 11 perfume and smell artists. Its absorbent paper is impregnated with extinct or impossible scents (of the sun, of Cleopatra’s perfume, of communism), accompanied by Blackson’s descriptions of them.

Writer-artist Jayson Scott Musson (aka Hennessy Youngman) has cleverly reappropriated his own words. A collection of 29 columns that he wrote for Philadelphia Weekly are collated in his staple-bound zine, Black Like Me, but in their original, unedited form.

Perhaps the most intriguing book here — and that’s saying a lot — is English artist Fiona Banner’s Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, published in 2015. It looks like a hardbound fashion magazine but it explores greed and power using photographs of London’s financial and fashion districts shot by war photographer Paolo Pellegrin.

The exhibition also includes works by Sophie Calle, Jonathan Safran Foer, Paul Chan, Simon Cutts, Marianne Dages, Pati Hill, Ditta Baron Hoeber, Wayne Koestenbaum, William Pym, and Athena Tacha, among others.

Through April 21 at Spruance Gallery, Arcadia University, 450 S. Easton Road, Glenside, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays (Thurs. to 7 p.m.), noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 215-572-2131 or

Marcuse at Grizzly Grizzly

Over the past five years or so, Philadelphia’s typically youth-oriented collectives have been organizing solo shows for mid-career and mature artists, which strikes me as a win-win for everyone. There’s a lot to be learned from artists who’ve been around the block.

Michelle Marcuse grew up in South Africa during apartheid, graduated from Temple’s Tyler School of Art in 1985, and lives in Philadelphia. Her recent wall-mounted sculptures suggest individual houses and entire neighborhoods in the process of collapsing, not least because of the found construction materials Marcuse employs.

It’s all too sadly familiar, but wondrously conjured by Marcuse.

Through Feb. 24 at Grizzly Grizzly, 319 N. 11th St., 2 to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays,