The Woodmere Annual is back, beckoning from the before times with hints of our altered selves | Review
Delayed by the pandemic, the Chestnut Hill museum's show of local artists' work lacks its usual urgency. Still, some standouts cross the time barrier to illuminate our strange new normal.
The 79th Woodmere Annual opened last weekend, exactly a year late.
Obviously, the museum has a good excuse for this tardiness. We all do. During the last year many of our intentions and rituals were forgotten, or at least put aside.
The result, though, is that the works in this show were all chosen just before everything shut down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Usually, the Woodmere Annual attempts to tell us something about the state of art, artists, and life around Philadelphia during the preceding year. That task seems urgent following the extraordinary time we have just experienced. But this show is, instead, a message from before, a celebration of an old normal.
The character of each Woodmere Annual is determined by the single juror who picks out what will be shown from the mostly recent work done by artists within 50 miles of the museum’s building in Chestnut Hill. This year, the show carries a subtitle, “Seeing the Story,” the juror was David Wiesner, who works in illustration and digital art. He invited works that tell stories, or at least suggest that there is a story to be told.
As a consequence, the work on display continues a Philadelphia tradition of realism, traditional technical skill, and clear communication. We see the Three Little Pigs, Cinderella’s trophy room, and a young Johann Sebastian Bach. We meet Matt Phelan’s lonely little robot with a toaster head and Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars from Jessica Abel’s 2019 graphic novel. There are intricate and complex works, like Mark Rice’s linocuts of imaginary buildings for art, music, and literature, and Kate Samworth’s depiction of a funeral of a bear.
Yet Wiesner and the staff at Woodmere seem sensitive to the ways our minds, and perhaps eyes, have changed in the last year. Their installation highlights some works whose meanings have shifted since early 2020.
The first work on display is Identity and Masks (2015-16) by Chenlin Cai, one of the show’s prize winners. It is an oil painting on Plexiglas of a grid of nine surgical masks of different styles. Their color is not the standard white or blue but rather a sort of bloody pink, hinting that these masks are somehow part of our living flesh. The artist grew up in China and became used to wearing masks before the rest of us did.
To look at this work while wearing a mask probably evokes different feelings than I would have had, innocent and maskless, 18 months ago. Still, though it seems relevant to the current moment, it is not a particularly compelling image to encounter first.
Nearby in the gallery is Gas Phase Orbiter (2019), a welded steel sculpture by Charles Emlen. In early 2020, this piece might have looked like a particularly whimsical piece of plumbing. Now, though, it is impossible to look at this spiky sphere and not notice its resemblance to the coronavirus itself. This is, I assume, coincidental, but it does show how trauma reshapes our visual vocabulary.
The works that do seem to illuminate life during the pandemic are ones that really deal with timeless themes, such as loneliness, isolation, watchfulness, and intimacy. In John Costanza’s NYP18 what’s going on out there #2 (2017), a lone figure sits at the corner of a high window, the only opening in a large, shadowed brick wall. Costanza, who was born in 1924, depicts the ambivalence of an old person, protected behind the solid masonry, who nevertheless wants to participate in a wider, though sometimes threatening world.
Lynne Campbell’s New Year (Black Cat) (2020) can be seen as a portent of a difficult time. It is one of three small acrylics of feral cats she observed in a field near her house. They are landscapes, but they convey a sense of being inside looking out.
Blue Boy (2019) by Robert Beck is a different kind of animal picture. It is 5-foot-by-5-foot canvas of a large whale swimming in a bright blue sea. This soulful cetacean looks into the viewer’s eyes with a sense of fellow feeling. Its eyes and mouth communicate experience and loss. It evokes, perhaps, the moment last year when civilization seemed to be receding and nature embracing all.
This is an emotionally accessible show, and I found myself drawn to some works I might earlier have deemed too sentimental. In Eliza Auth’s Harry Potter’s Last Chapter (2019) one girl reclines in the foreground reading aloud, while another, presumably her sister, sits behind. They exist together in a peachy twilight glow. You can see their joy in sharing the long saga that is soon to end.
In The Letter A (2016) by Alexandra Tyng, the artist paints herself as a 5-year-old, kneeling on a small Philadelphia street, drawing with chalk. Parents are nearby, partly obscured. The girl is deadly serious, and not obviously happy. But it is clear that as she works and draws, she is discovering herself and becoming her own person.
The family unit shown here is a somewhat famous one. Tyng’s mother was the architect Anne Griswold Tyng and her father — here cut off above his shoulders — was Louis I. Kahn, one of the great architects of the 20th century. The title evokes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It is a deeply moving work.
Overall, though, this year’s annual is a bit too comfortable, and too white and middle-class, for this moment. The pandemic is not all that happened this year. And a show that examines storytelling probably ought to look at lying and its consequences. Stories are not all good and true.
Maybe next year.
79th Annual Juried Exhibition
Through Aug. 29 at Woodmere Art Museum. Open Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (until 6 p.m. on Saturdays). Adults $10, 55+ $7, children and students free. Free on Sundays. Information: 215-247-0476 or woodmereartmuseum.org.