In Paula Wilson's exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, art imitates all-too-familiar life, especially in a frayed-edges, postindustrial city like Philadelphia.

My initial response to her hanging multimedia murals of distressed building facades was that while they're pleasingly artful, blocks and blocks of the real thing lie just around the corner, in every direction.

Well, perhaps not literally around the corner, but cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago (where Wilson grew up; she now lives in New Mexico) abound with worn-out buildings that have been vandalized, boarded up, razor-wired, and graffitied to death.

Chances are, though, that no matter how often you have walked or driven by such urban ruins, you haven't considered them as Wilson has.

Her paintings treat these facades as palimpsests of culture and history, as archaeological layers of time and human activity. Deconstructed visually, they're quietly poetic.

The murals emphasize architectural details and high-relief decorative embellishments, including something so mundane as patterns and contrasting hues of brick. Stains from water coursing down the walls and plants growing in crevices evoke the feeling of slow decay that characterizes Old Master paintings of classical ruins.

Most poignant are the images of pigeons that Wilson has inserted into the installation at locations where one would expect to find birds in real buildings, along the baseboard and in the large front window overlooking Arch Street. The pigeons inject a soft melancholy; they imply desuetude and abandonment just as effectively as boards over windows and discarded plastic bags.

The murals make up only half of Wilson's show; the remainder consists of individual mixed-media prints and paintings.

The most impressive of these are three works hanging in a cluster on the gallery's west wall. Unlike the wall collages, these energetic effusions of vivid color and brilliant light express optimism and renewal.

The exhibition's principal shortcoming is the fact that it's too thin on the walls in such an expansive space. The wall murals in particular would be more effective if the space were compressed. As it is, the easel-scale works feel like connective tissue used to make two distinct bodies of work play as one.

Since it was founded in 1977, the workshop has sponsored dozens of artist-residency projects that have enriched its permanent collection. In recent years, the workshop has dipped into the collection to create special exhibitions, the latest of which is called, somewhat mysteriously, "Duo-Chrome/Duotone: Ink to Light."

I wasn't sure what this meant until I read the official description: to wit, "ways in which contemporary artists have worked solely with black, white and gray or a focused selection of one, two or three hues."

To realize this program, guest curator Ruth Fine of the National Gallery of Art has chosen about 40 works from the collection. Regular visitors to workshop exhibitions over the years might recognize many of them, such as a ribbonlike banner by Louise Bourgeois that runs almost the length of the room, to the point where reminiscence begins to obscure discovery.

The idea of tonal economy is so subtly expressed in this handsome installation that it's difficult to recognize, especially if one is preoccupied by revisiting old favorites. The show isn't uniformly monochrome; splashes of vivid color such as Anish Kapoor's cherry-red hanging sculpture tend to disguise the emphasis on minimal means per se.

Another characteristic that mitigates sameness is the eclectic variety of materials and forms, from sculptures made from pigs' intestines (Miroslaw Balka) to a bed called Cloud Garment by Lenore Tawney to more conventional printed and woven fabrics.

One of the latter was created by artists from Papua New Guinea, another is a monumental tapestry designed by Ed Ruscha.

On one level, "Duo-Chrome" is a "greatest hits" show covering three decades of workshop activity. Digging deeper, it's a celebration of the amazing variety of effects that can be achieved by chromatic restraint, when, as we know, chromatic excess is so much more exciting.

Visions of Venice. The Philadelphia Museum of Art's collection of Old Master prints encompasses so many periods and schools that it's an inexhaustible source of theme exhibitions.

The latest is "Visions of Venice," a group of more than 70 works, mostly etchings and mostly Italian, devoted to aspects of this magical city. The show is a slice of history in that it represents the former maritime power's rebirth as a European cultural center in the century before it fell to Napoleon's army.

It also re-creates an efflorescence of printmaking that was, in turn, a response to increased visitation by young aristocrats seeking enlightenment on the Grand Tour.

"Visions of Venice" offers a way to re-create what these privileged worthies might have encountered, and brought home as evidence of their cultural tourism.

Today we have digital photos and videos; then, people could enjoy something more refined, etchings by masters such as Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal), Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

They might be the only artists whose names you recognize in this show, but no matter. The point is first to appreciate the magnificence of the fabled city in its various aspects - city views, genre scenes, ceremonies and festivals - and to savor the imagination and technical bravura of the artists.

For the most part, the prints display a level of craftsmanship and descriptive acuity all but abandoned after the advent of photography.

One can argue, in fact, that in these prints (there are also a few drawings) virtuoso craftsmanship overwhelms aesthetic imagination.

Yet one must consider the images within their period context - they were created to describe and tell stories, and to evoke the picturesque.

On their own terms, they're fascinating. In particular, one notices in the city views, in which Canaletto specialized, that Venice hardly seems to have changed significantly after three centuries.

The city continues to inspire artists, professional and amateur, to record its unique architectural and topographical character, only now digitally instead of manually.

Satire, Soviet style. I didn't encounter any humor in the grim grayness of the Soviet Union during my one visit, so an exhibition called "Laughing Matters" at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania first attracted, then startled me.

It's a show of two dozen propaganda posters from the Khrushchev era - roughly the late 1950s through the 1960s, with a few earlier pieces, including a classic called Long Live Stalin, Voroshilov and the Red Army.

Nothing amusing in that one, as you might guess.

Generally the posters (all in Russian, with translations on the labels) are mildly satiric. This is what makes them startling; one can't imagine anyone smirking at Soviet ideology during the Cold War.

Yet apparently the so-called thaw that came after Nikita S. Khrushchev's famous anti-Stalin speech in 1956 encouraged a few brave souls to follow the blustering party chief's lead and poke fun at some aspects of Soviet life.

Some posters were inspired by remarks Khrushchev himself had made. Graphically, they're archaic for the period and, humor aside, the texts are a bit heavy-handed. But that these posters exist at all is a historical curiosity.

So is this exhibition, in a way; it looks and feels like a doctoral thesis given visual presence. If Soviet history and culture doesn't light you up, you'll probably find it less than rib-tickling.

Art: Glittering Facades

"Paula Wilson: First Story" and "Duo-Chrome/Duotone" continue at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St., through early fall. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed July 3 to 5 and Sept. 7 and 8. Admission $3. Curator Ruth Fine will speak on Friday at 6 p.m. Information: 215-561-8888 or www.fabricworkshopand

museum.org.

"Visions of Venice" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through July 18. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $16 general, $14 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish first Sunday of the month. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or www.philamuseum.org.

"Laughing Matters" continues at the Arthur Ross Gallery, 220 S. 34th St., through June 27. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 5 Saturdays and Sundays. Free. Information: 215-898-2083 or www.upenn.edu/ARG.

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Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.