With the reopening of many of the region’s museums, it’s possible to see art again. And maybe, because of the deprivations and horrors of four pandemic months, we’ll see it differently.
At least that’s the way I feel after a mini-binge of museum-going, in which I caught up with two exhibitions I had planned to see this spring, along with a third that had not been on my radar. This change of perception doesn’t spring from big changes in the museum experience: the new protocols of advance reservations, face masks, sanitizer stations, and one-way traffic flow to encourage social distancing.
Rather, after this forced fast, the art itself seems stranger, more alive, and deeply textured. I suppose you can lose yourself in a smartphone screen, but not as you can in a painting.
Back in March, I had been planning to review the Woodmere Art Museum’s show “Africa in the Arts of Philadelphia”, which opened in February (and reopens this weekend, through September 9.) Then suddenly, everything closed.
Instead, I wrote a column about looking at art online, which was well-intentioned but perhaps a bit wishful. You can learn a lot about art online, but you can’t really experience it.
Next up on my pre-pandemic schedule would have been the Michener Art Museum’s “Rising Tides: Contemporary Art and the Ecology of Water,” which reopened Monday and will continue until Jan. 20. I decided to catch up with that, too. And because the Mercer Museum, which is across the street from the Michener, has reopened with “200 Years of Bucks County Art,” through Dec. 31, I decided to make the most of my trek to Doylestown.
At Woodmere, an explosion of life
The Woodmere show spotlights the work of three artists: Barbara Bullock, born in 1938; Charles Searles (1937-2004); and Twins Seven-Seven (1944-2011). The first two grew up in Philadelphia and studied art here. Twins, as he was called, was Nigerian, but he spent much of his life here and all were involved with the Ife-Ife Black Humanitarian Center, founded by the dancer Arthur Hall in North Philadelphia in 1968.
Hall quickly expanded the center, which began as the home of his dance company, to include many other artistic activities. Both Bullock and Searles taught there.
Ife-Ife, now the Village of Arts and Humanities, was part of a movement by Black artists in many American cities to connect with and reflect on their African heritage. Twins initially served as a kind of cultural emissary from West Africa, with a special insight into the spirituality of the Yoruba people. His art drew from and extended these traditions — though, like Bullock and Searles, he was not making traditional art.
After these long gray months, the Woodmere show feels like an explosion of life. The works incorporate the gestures and rhythms of African dance that was at the heart of Ife-Ife, and the colors and patterns Bullock’s and Searles’ work are wonderfully vibrant. Twins used a more subdued palette, but he more than made up for it with intricate draftsmanship, painting, and incisions.
His works, including paintings on cloth, low reliefs on plywood, and drawings, each evoke a cosmos with multiple layers of life: Birds’ feathers are fish, people’s eyes sometimes contain whole faces. There seems to be no ground, no end, just endless, obsessively created layers. Once, when he was asked to decorate a shopping bag, he drew a bag on it; it’s in the show.
Searles was the first graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to use a traveling fellowship to go to Africa. In contrast to Twins, his work is rooted in the abstract principles taught in art school. The African inspiration lies in his ebullient use of bold, clashing patterns. A few years later, exploration of juxtaposed pattern and ornament would become an art world trend, but Searles’ work has a sense of music and movement that is unique.
Bullock seems to have been influenced by the way Twins layers his images, but while his almost need to be examined with a magnifying glass, Bullock’s strong, graceful, challenging figures make their presence felt across a room.
This is true of works on traditional rectangular canvases, such as Stiltdancers (1982). It is doubly true of the later works in which she cut and shaped the canvas to eliminate all background and let the bodies of her healers, angels, and dancers stand on their own against the gallery wall. Their strong form permits her to cover the figures with enigmatic shapes and figures.
It's a great show to help you open your eyes again.
At the Michener, a show-stealing new name
Michener’s “Rising Tides” was originally scheduled to honor the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Moreover, all seven artists in the show are women, which was meant as a tribute to the centenary of women’s suffrage. The artists are all local and the works are mostly very recent.
They range in medium from Diane Burko’s crackly paint and photographic imagery of disintegrating glaciers, to the late Paula Winokur’s porcelain versions of cores extracted from glaciers and Stacy Levy’s room-sized installation that uses glass bottles to model the Delaware River and its floodplain.
Perhaps because I am preoccupied with looking at things I can’t see through a screen or in a photograph, I was particularly moved by an Emily Brown charcoal drawing of what appears to be a featureless sea. If you look carefully, though, you can see the faint wake of a boat that might have passed minutes ago.
In a time when our lives have been dominated by a virus too small to see and impacts we may not know we are having, this modest drawing with its ghost of a human presence seems particularly pertinent.
Marguerita Hagan, a ceramicist who is new to me, effectively steels the show. Her subject is life in the oceans, ranging from single-celled diatoms to coral reefs, firefly squid, and blue whales. There is an entire wall on which 53 of these works are mounted, with an animated image of earth projected onto it.
Among Hagan’s individual works, one standout is The Beautiful Woman Has Come (Nefertiti), an evocation of the spawning of a brain coral. A label says the artist sees this effusion of life as a “broadcast for our oceans and planet.”
“Rising Tides” was hung and about to open when the shutdown came, so its spacious installation with a relatively small number of works is not a result of the pandemic. It does, however, appear to be a model for the Michener going forward.
Similarly, most of the works that appeared in the museum’s recent exhibition of the Lenfest collections of Bucks County impressionist and modern art are currently being shown in two large galleries, with far greater separation between them in the past. These are really the heart of the Michener’s holdings. The spacious installation lets us see them in a new, and presumably healthy way.
Across the street, more Bucks County art
“200 Years of Bucks County Art” at the Mercer Museum includes some of the same artists as the Michener, including Daniel Garber’s radiant October (circa 1918), which was a gift from the artist to the eccentric, acquisitive founder of this mad museum, Henry Mercer. Still, as the exhibition reminds us, most of these well-known Bucks County artists actually came from elsewhere.
The emphasis here is really not so much on the artists as on the Bucks County Historical Society, whose collection this is. The show begins with an enormous Civil War scene, The Rescue of the Colors (1889), by William T. Trego, which depicts an incident in which members of the 104th Pennsylvania volunteers kept their flag from being captured by Confederates. It was given to the society by John Wanamaker, himself.
Far to the left, holding his wounded arm, is William Watts Hart Davis, founder of the Bucks County Historical Society. Mercer later took over as president, and his interest in artisanship and folklore influenced the collection.
You have probably already seen some of the 60 or so versions by Edward Hicks of The Peaceable Kingdom, with its pussycat tiger, white draped Jesus, and often, William Penn in the corner. There is one of those here, along with a full-sized Penn’s Treaty. What I had never seen was his Washington at the Delaware (1833), a sign that once hung on the Pennsylvania side of the bridge at Washington’s Crossing. Mercer is said to have found it in an attic.
Much of the show consists of portraits of varying quality that constitute something of a who’s who — judges, bankers, industrialists — of white post-Civil War Bucks County. There is one Black face, a 1947 watercolor of Nelson Derry, a nursery worker. A few months ago, the exhibition might have struck many as being merely fusty. Now I see it more problematically as I’m moved to think deeply about how our history is packaged and promoted, and who gets represented.
“Africa in the Arts of Philadelphia: Bullock, Searles, and Twins Seven-Seven” though Sept. 9 at Woodmere Art Museum. Information and timed tickets at woodmereartmuseum.org.
“Rising Tides: Contemporary Art and the Ecology of Water” through Jan. 20 at the Michener Art Museum, Doylestown. Timed tickets required via michenerartmuseum.org.
“200 Years of Bucks County Art” through Dec. 31 at Mercer Museum, Doylestown. Open every day 11-6, with special hours from 10 to 11 for seniors and the immunocompromised. Closed between 1 and 2 p.m. for cleaning. Information: mercermuseum.org/visit.