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A range of styles illustrated

"On Assignment" at Delaware Art Museum highlights works by Howard Pyle.

"Take me in straight or I'll break your arm," an illustration from "Treasure Island" by artist Elenore Plaisted Abbott at the Delaware Art Museum.
"Take me in straight or I'll break your arm," an illustration from "Treasure Island" by artist Elenore Plaisted Abbott at the Delaware Art Museum.Read more

Painting and drawing are the life force of the exhibit "On Assignment: American Illustration, 1850-1950" at Delaware Art Museum, drawn primarily from the museum's nationally recognized collection of original illustrations.

The show's title reflects, of course, the fact that each of the 50 paintings and sketches on view was produced at the request, and to the specifications, of a particular magazine or book editor. Such artworks cover a range of styles and subjects. And the fact that each was done "on assignment" implies completeness, and that everyone's work has come full circle through promise and struggle to fulfillment.

One group of works that occupies a pivotal place in this collection's development is its increased holdings related to Wilmington's own masterly illustrator, Howard Pyle, the archetypal American image-maker whose published works were greatly admired by Vincent van Gogh. A couple of funny and frolicsome early Pyle drawings are included here, along with one of his thriller subjects, and a quieter scene set in Elizabethan Ireland. That the museum staff has followed up lead after lead in discovering and collecting work by former students of Pyle is impressive, and highlighted in this show. (And the steadily growing interest in art by women should be further stimulated by the museum's planned solo show for Howard's gifted kid sister, painter Katherine Pyle.)

Other subjects covered are Western Americana, literature, fashion, sports, and children's illustration, including recent acquisitions. This is a show with much to offer. Don't miss it.

Altered state

Jane Steinsnyder, in her show "Pergamon Altered" at Gallery 51, develops a really effective way of combining her commitment to direct perception with wide-ranging intellectual pursuits. And it turns out that her democratic spirit is at its most American when she seeks out whatever is best in European art and addresses it in terms of her own experience.

Lately she's focused her efforts on the Pergamon Altar, a large figure-filled sculptural composition she has observed closely in Berlin. Featuring strongly classical nude or draped human figures, the altar has a huge outer frieze on four sides, its larger-than-life marble figures portraying the epic war between Giants and Gods on Mount Olympus.

With these action figures from Greek mythology as her theme, Steinsnyder has created an interplay of shapes and line referring abstractly to them, and to the tension and movement she found in them. The drawings and collages by this Philadelphia artist, with their complexity of incident and further art historical resonances, convey a sort of exultation in the simple act by which the eye encompasses its visual field. From these lyrical images, Steinsnyder is developing ideas for folding screens.

Art meets life

"A Show of Hands" is an all-media invitational exhibit of 59 works by 25 artists from city and suburbs at Salon des Amis Gallery, including six members of Philadelphia Dumpster Divers who make art out of discards. Markels Roberts of Phoenixville displays lots of clay hands that reach for the sky, most notably the show's adorned official symbol.

Few of these artists are attempting to keep life and art apart; more often they disclose how closely they've come together. Yet several distinct directions are represented here.

It's as if ideas had been accumulating to create a complexity of options - in found-object pieces by Ann Keech, Hugo Hsu, Jonas dos Santos, and Chanthaphone Rajavong, while others, such as Alice Hyvonen, Betsy Alexander, and Robert Koffler, keep it simple. And John Meehan and Alden Cole, the exhibit's conspicuous realists, show some of the compelling power that confrontation of self via an oil painting can have.