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Wharton Esherick, re-interpreted, and other must-see shows in Philadelphia galleries right now

Indigo has works by Cuban outsider artists. Swarthmore College is showing an illusionist's installations.

Becky Suss's painting "Wharton Esherick Bedroom (2018), at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery
Becky Suss's painting "Wharton Esherick Bedroom (2018), at Fleisher/Ollman GalleryRead moreClair Iltis

The potential to lure new audiences to historic properties by displaying contemporary art is now becoming clear to organizations in and around Philadelphia. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing something in an unexpected context?

Some recent successes that come to mind: painter Jane Irish’s installation at Lemon Hill, sponsored by Philadelphia Contemporary; Stacy Levy’s Art@Bartram project involving Bartram’s Garden and the Schuylkill; and 2017′s ceramics group show at the Hill-Physick House, in collaboration with the Clay Studio.

The exhibition “Becky Suss/Wharton Esherick” takes a slightly different tack. Currently on view at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, which represents Suss in Philadelphia, it will reappear in a different iteration at Malvern’s Wharton Esherick Museum in the spring.

It’s a remarkably copacetic fit between the gallery and the museum, and between contemporary painter Suss and the influential Pennsylvania modernist Esherick (1887-1970), known primarily for his woodwork. (But he was also a self-taught architect, printmaker, and painter.)

At Fleisher/Ollman, Suss’ paintings are displayed together with Esherick’s furniture, paintings, and prints,

Her paintings of the rooms and objects in his house and studio (now the Wharton Esherick Museum) were made specifically for this two-person show, and it’s fascinating to see how she responds to his minimalist aesthetic. You can also see the progression from her earlier paintings of the interior of her grandparents’ modernist house.

Suss’ crisp, flat style of painting — I think of Will Barnet as another possible muse — perfectly sets off Esherick’s sometimes curvy, often angular architecture. More than once, I had the uncanny sense I could walk right into her large paintings, such as Wharton Esherick Bedroom and Dining Room (Wharton Esherick).

Esherick’s contributions to the show are mainly works on loan from the museum, and they look surprisingly contemporary in the context of a white-walled gallery. His three-legged stools, his books, cutting boards, and ceramic plates appear to have magically materialized from Suss' paintings of them.

Esherick’s dollhouse-scale maquettes of his designs for rooms are fun to see. So are his watercolors, some of which are extremely peculiar -- depicting what appear to be single female nude figures dancing in the rain at night.

A careful arrangement of his neatly folded, well-worn shirts is there, too, underscoring that art and life were one and the same to him.

Through Jan. 26 at Fleisher/Ollman, 1216 Arch St., 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. 215-545-7562 or

Illusions, seen in darkness

Swarthmore College’s List Gallery is shrouded in darkness for its current show of Robin Mandel’s mysterious and often kinetic sculptures and video projections.

The simplest, most poetic of them, Always Never, consists of a pedestal on which a candle rests, looking to have been recently extinguished. A video monitor behind the candle shows a continuously looping video of smoke curling upward.

Another work, Entertaining Illusion, employs the 19th-century illusion technique known as Pepper’s ghost, produced using a large piece of glass situated at an angle between the viewer and a scene. It’s how they create the floating ghosts at Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

In Mandel’s piece, a wineglass and a bottle of wine are positioned at opposite ends of a long table, separated by the angled pane of glass. Two video monitors mounted at either side of the table show the glass being filled with wine and the wine bottle being depleted. The images are intoxicating, as is amplified sound of the wine being poured.

The work Moving (Relative Strangers) involves a continuously spinning plastic bottle. It’s also an optical illusion, but the static portions of Mandel’s piece — a DVD player casually positioned atop a cardboard box atop a plastic bin — are so unassuming I didn’t suspect that right away.

Siren is the most ambitious of Mandel’s four works — it’s a three-channel video installation with sound — but the least visually intriguing. On each of the monitors, the face of a young woman sings a single, breath-length note.

There are no wall texts explaining Mandel’s methods, by the way. The exhibition catalog is helpful.

Through Dec. 15 at List Gallery, Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. 610-328-7811 or

Outsider art out of Cuba

Indigo Arts, Philadelphia’s longtime destination for folk art, is exhibiting a carefully curated show of works by five self-taught Cuban artists.

Two standouts are Carlos Garcia Huergo’s painted and drawn works of cartoon characters on corrugated cardboard and Damian Valdes Dilla’s obsessive drawings of futuristic cities. Both artists have been hospitalized with episodes of paranoid schizophrenia, and their work reflects those acute mental states.

Another highlight is history teacher Leandro Gomez Quintero’s meticulous facsimiles of the battered vehicles populating Cuba. The painters Wayacon (aka Julian Espinosa Rebollido) and Mario Mesa are the other two artists in the show.

Through Dec. 29 at Indigo Arts, 1400 N. American St., 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. 215-765-1041 or