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Galleries: Contemporary craft artists breathe life into morbidity

Art of the vanitas persuasion has never been more in favor. And it's distinctly different in tone from 17th-century Netherlandish still lifes or Robert Mapplethorpe's elegant photographs of nodding flowers and other elegiac works of the 1980s. Artists are

Art of the vanitas persuasion has never been more in favor. And it's distinctly different in tone from 17th-century Netherlandish still lifes or Robert Mapplethorpe's elegant photographs of nodding flowers and other elegiac works of the 1980s. Artists are working with symbols of death in much the same spirit as Victorians who wore snippets of hair in lockets and picnicked in the cemetery. The new morbidity often looks expensive, eccentric, and over-the-top, in a Victorian sort of way. Think Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted platinum skull.

The contemporary craft installations that make up the Philadelphia Art Alliance's latest exhibition, "Vanitas: Contemporary Reflections," do not muse on the transience of life as extravagantly as does Hirst, but they come close. Candy Depew, Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, Katherine Kaminski, Audrey Hasen Russell, and Gae Savannah all have an obvious fascination and fluency with their respective materials, and push them as far as they'll go.

It's hard to tell what Russell contributes to her accumulations of Depression-era glass dishes and plates other than assembling them - there are tiny bits of plastic grass attached to some pieces and what I assumed are Russell's own blown-glass shapes added to the mix - but each of her works has a wacky charm. The totemic glass pieces mounted on white-painted bricks make the strongest contrast of materials.

Kaminsky tells the romance of a deer and a deerlike woman in her ornate sculptures cast from and coated with sugar and in drawings of the couple mounted in white filigree frames. Her works are more obviously rooted in the vanitas tradition than those of the others and seem to aim to be sickly sweet in every sense. Her piece The Savory and the Sweet, of sugarcoated faux flowers arranged around a wax cast of a deer heart on a sugar cast of a table, struck me as something a mad Victorian mortician might have concocted for fun.

Depew, a Philadelphia-based printer and sculptor/installation artist, contributed the show's most sophisticated, fluid piece, an installation of porcelain, cut vinyl, crystals, a bike, and a skateboard that uses the floor and walls of one large room to describe what looks like an accident scene (on the floor) and its aftermath (on the walls).

The extenuated, dripping forms of Mimlitsch-Gray's copper and silver sculptures appear to grow from found cookware and tableware and made me think of Robert Gober's sculptures with unexpected human limbs and Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup. The vanitas theme seemed least evident here, though, except in the obvious expense of her materials.

Other than the pedestals/giant cakestands they're on, Savannah's puffy sculptures of fluorescent-bright cellophane and fabric look like a cross between wedding cakes and fantastic tents and something Carrie and her Sex and the City 2 cohort might have encountered in Dubai. They do not bring to mind the brevity of life. But they do quickly suggest the real meaning of the Latin word vanitas: emptiness.

Past perfect

Memories of lost loves, first cars, and childhood pleasures are rendered in paint, ink, colored pencil, and graphite in "I Can't Get You Out of My Mind," a group show of 14 artists organized by Philadelphia artist Hiro Sakaguchi for Seraphin Gallery. That this carefully considered gathering works as well as it does has more than a little to do with the fact that Sakaguchi's own work is informed by his own early memories and obsessions.

The show's theme seems most literally embodied in works by Phillip Adams, Michael Kowbuz, and Gretchen Diehl. Adams' Solipsist: Will, of a young man's face and the reflections of a suburban landscape in his sunglasses, made me think of early Philip Roth. Kowbuz's oil painting Honda (2009), of a smiling young man with his car, seems to have been based on a snapshot. You can't help wondering who took the picture. Diehl's pen and colored pencil drawing They're never who I thought they were. I'm never what they think I am, of a young woman looking up at balloons with the faces of men inside them, is all about obsessing.

Sakaguchi has included a few artists whose works are more like his own - the familiar turned fantastical - among them Michelle Oosterbaan's radiating colored pencil vision When Stars Unfold; April Loveday's untitled pen, gouache, and collage landscape of robots sliding along telephone wires in a field; and Marie Sivak's Hard Fact, a surreal drawing of a suitcase whose contents have risen like a genie to form a floating woman. Marie Ulmer's strange drawings of girls, made in the 1930s when Ulmer, now 92, was a UArts student, fit right in.

The aforementioned vanitas theme makes an appearance here, too, of course, in Casey Watson's whimsical ink drawing Jungle Skull - a skull shape made up of trees and wild animals - and Sarah Roche's solemnly beautiful ink painting of a woman inside a medieval suit of armor.