Martha Mayer Erlebacher, in her Seraphin Gallery show "The Cycle of Life," is a shining example of today's nationally revitalized figurative impulse giving rise to formidable painting. The finest representational painting now seems to be done by artists who have totally rejected the notion of vanguard and prefer to seek inspiration in developments of past centuries, taking into account the heritage that launched them.

The centerpiece of this show of 18 works is a group of four large allegorical oil paintings, full of clarity and ambition. In these - perhaps Erlebacher's most powerful work to date - the surprising thing is that she isn't pulling us into her world; instead, she is insisting we closely examine our own. Concerned with life itself - childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age - the paintings are moving, restlessly inventive, and life-affirming.

The allegorical episodes are meant to focus the mind on themes we're not used to encountering in art. There is taut lyricism in the first, a joyful painting of children interacting with doves, and a strong, almost colloquial "voice" of the artist's Elkins Park neighbors, some of whom posed for the other three of these masterly large works. There's meticulous, virtuoso craft and a naturalist's energy along with sensuous handling of paint here. Subjects always are portrayed from direct observation.

Erlebacher's "Cycle of Life" and related pieces celebrate the mind's aspiration to a deeper understanding of its own mysteries throughout all of life. The artist, a frequent exhibitor at galleries in New York, Chicago, and up and down the West Coast, introduces these recent major works for her hometown audience to savor.

Seraphin Gallery, 1108 Pine St. To Oct. 31. Tue.-Sun. 11-6. Free. 215-923-7000.

Windows on a war

It is the artists' treatment of subject matter that distinguishes their reflections on the war in Afghanistan and justifies serious attention being focused on the debut of their dynamic show "Windows and Mirrors," at Arch Street Meeting House.

Forty-five mostly American artists so far have come forward (the number may grow during the show's forthcoming two-year tour) to paint murals in acrylic on "parachute" paper especially for this event. Many so completely engage the theme of the human cost of the war that they touch a truly universal nerve. The windows their 4-by-6-foot murals open for us on a ravaged land are also mirrors reflecting our own identity as a nation at war for nine long years.

The Chicago Public Art Group initiated this project, putting out a call to artists, including Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, in January. Sponsors include the American Friends Service Committee and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Participating Philadelphia artists are Joe Brenman, Cathleen Hughes, Ann Northrup, Deborah Gross-Zuchman, and Philip Zuchman. Adding a further poignant note are 15 drawings by Kabul high school students.

There will be special programs throughout the show. This is an important "first."

Arch Street Meeting House, Fourth and Arch Streets. To Nov. 7. Mon.-Sat. 10-4, Tue. to 9. Free. 215-241-7000.

62 views

Cheltenham Center for the Arts' 67th annual Awards Painting Exhibit attracted 93 regional applicants, from whom judge Chris Schmidt, director of Schmidt Dean Gallery in Center City, chose a lively show of 62 artists, each contributing one work. A few names give an idea of the show as a whole: Henry Bermudez, Bob Borucki, Nick D'Angelo, Paul Gorka, Klair Miller, Betty Minnucci (top prizewinner), Jane Rovins, Maxine Schwartz, Robert Small, Merle Spandorfer, and Ruth Wolf.

Especially interesting - and controversial - is Eleanor Day's striking oil Pope Benedict, why hast thou forsaken us, which evokes something of Day's familiar narrative images, but with a sharper edge. Pictured against the framework of a cross are seven young women of today, subbing for seven widely revered saints. Here Day's highly resonant figure art enters a new stage; mellow depth of feeling for better recognition of women as role models pervades this painting.

Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham. To Oct. 16. Mon.-Fri. 10-3. Free. 215-379-4660.