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Art: Del. show is a didactic sampler

Small exhibition of African American art is neither cross-section nor survey of masters.

Clementine Hunter's "Playing Cards" (c. 1970), oil on canvas board, is among a suite of her paintings in the Delaware Art Museum show. Her work depicts life on a Louisiana plantation.
Clementine Hunter's "Playing Cards" (c. 1970), oil on canvas board, is among a suite of her paintings in the Delaware Art Museum show. Her work depicts life on a Louisiana plantation.Read moreGAVIN ASHWORTH

As an exhibition of untutored African American art, "Ancestry and Innovation" suffers from following too closely on the heels of the quilts of Gee's Bend, a spectacular display of vernacular creativity that was exhibited in the fall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Only a quarter of the 39 works in "Ancestry and Innovation," at the Delaware Art Museum, are quilts, and several of these are noteworthy, particularly Diamond Strip Quilt by Lucinda Toomer and Star of Bethlehem with Satellite Stars by Leola Pettway.

Yet, given the standard set by Gee's Bend, and the high visibility of African American art in Philadelphia in recent years, the Wilmington show fails to generate comparable excitement.

It doesn't explore new aesthetic territory or introduce new masters; to the contrary, some of the artists included are long-established in the genre. They include Bessie Harvey; Sam Doyle; Clementine Hunter; the Thornton Dials, father and son; and David Butler.

The 39 paintings, sculptures, quilts, and mixed-media works all come from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum, which organized the show with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

The exhibition is built around two blocs of work, the quilts - which, because of their size, dominate the installation - and a suite of small oils by Clementine Hunter, a Louisiana plantation worker who produced several thousand paintings over more than four decades.

Each of Hunter's pictures reveals a slice of plantation life as she lived it for more than a century, including wash day, baptism, playing cards, a funeral, cotton-picking, and letting loose on Saturday night.

Her style is simple and childlike, direct and charmingly ingratiating. Taken as a group, the paintings provide a poignant reminiscence of life in the rural South.

"Ancestry and Innovation" isn't comprehensive enough to offer a meaningful cross-section of African American art, nor does it qualify as a survey of recognized masters.

Rather, it's more a didactic sampler that might have been designed to impress on young students the idea that one doesn't need formal training to be an artist and that art can be fashioned from everyday materials, such as cloth scraps (quilts) or tree roots (Bessie Harvey sculptures).

This is a worthy objective, although visitors conversant with African American art history might find the show old news and insufficiently challenging or provocative - except for Hunter's ingenuous paintings.

Barnes-deMazia rapprochement. It wasn't so long ago, perhaps five years, that the Barnes Foundation and the Violette de Mazia Trust (now Foundation) - each committed to preserving the educational philosophy of Albert C. Barnes - were antagonists.

Yet after Kimberly Camp was succeeded by Derek Gillman as Barnes executive director three years ago, rapprochement set in. The de Mazia Foundation is not only teaching in the Barnes galleries again, but also, this month, one of its faculty members is temporarily substituting for a longtime Barnes teacher.

De Mazia instructors had access to the Barnes collection from 1998 to 2004 under a contract that was not renewed because the two sides couldn't agree on terms. Two years ago, the relationship was repaired.

Instead of paying $70,000 a year in rent under the contract, the de Mazia Foundation now gives the Barnes a grant to cover expenses, something it does with several other institutions. The last Barnes payment was for $55,000.

The Barnes galleries - organized to elucidate the method of "objective analysis" of art developed by Barnes, philosopher John Dewey, and Barnes' longtime protege and director of education, Violette de Mazia - constitute the most appropriate setting for the courses offered by both foundations.

Yet the de Mazia Foundation has been able to adapt its instruction to other visual sources, particularly museum collections such as the small but selective La Salle University museum.

As the Barnes moves incrementally toward ground-breaking for its new building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway - some staff now work in the former school district headquarters on the Parkway - the de Mazia Foundation has in recent years expanded its programing to include classes at several area universities (La Salle, West Chester) and several art centers (Abington, Main Line, Allens Lane).

The foundation also has introduced classes at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts in Wilmington and at Winterthur. It would like to establish a venue in Center City, to tap into the city's art students. De Mazia officials say the idea has been discussed with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The foundation also has collaborated with Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program to create a mural in the visiting room at Graterford prison, where the foundation also has conducted art-appreciation courses for several years.

It has even branched out into film. This month, it is sponsoring a four-part program at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute on what makes a film a work of art. The program is open only to de Mazia alumni.

The main difference between the two curricula is cost to students. The Barnes charges $1,000 a course, while de Mazia courses are, and always have been, free. The latter foundation subsidizes all its expenses from endowment income. The endowment, once about $11.5 million, has shrunk to about $8.5 million in recent months.

The foundation says its ultimate goal is to prevent the principles of the "objective method" taught by Albert Barnes and Violette de Mazia from dying out, to keep them relevant in today's art climate. Foundation officials also say they have needed to plan strategically for the future, to ensure that their programs remain viable regardless of what happens to the Barnes Foundation.

In the words of president Marcelle Pick, "We're trying to save the Barnes' soul, not its physicality."

As for the Barnes, perhaps you've noticed that the site on the Parkway between 20th and 21st Streets has been cleared. (Isn't it a shame that the vista from Callowhill Street that has opened up will be spoiled by a building?)

A Barnes spokesman said that the relocation project was in the design-refinement stage and that the construction timetable was holding firm. This means that work on the site could begin by the end of the year, leading to a finished building by the end of 2011.

Art: Folk Art Sampler

"Ancestry and Innovation" continues

at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, through July 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $12 general, $10 for visitors 60 and older, $6 for students with valid I.D. and for visitors age 7

to 18. Free Sundays. Information: 302-571-9590, 866-232-3714 (toll free) or

Information about courses and programs of the Violette de Mazia Foundation is available by calling 610-971-9960 or at