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Art: A swing through some galleries

Off the "Silk Road" and into architectural sculpture, post-Mao art, and more.

The Luo brothers' "Untitled B," 2008, digital pigment print with silk-screen varnish , in "Post-Mao Dreaming" at Ross Gallery.
The Luo brothers' "Untitled B," 2008, digital pigment print with silk-screen varnish , in "Post-Mao Dreaming" at Ross Gallery.Read moreSmith College Museum of Art, Gift of Pace Editions Inc. and Ethan Cohen Fine Arts

This year, February, not April, is the cruelest month. A bureaucratic snag spoiled the opening last weekend of the only local blockbuster in sight, "Secrets of the Silk Road" at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Fortunately, several gallery exhibitions help to compensate, including, ironically, a collection of contemporary Chinese art at Penn. So for a refreshing change of pace, I decided to sample a few.

Architectural ornament isn't something one often sees exhibited as contemporary art, but then Stephen Robin's distinctively complex approach to the subject demands to be seen in that context.

Rosenfeld Gallery's retrospective through Robin's career reveals how he integrates rich layering of historical references and sly humor with voluptuous modeling and meticulous finish.

It's hard to take the full measure of this work in a gallery setting because we can't see how Robin's sculptures interact with architectural environments, as they do in the federal building in Newark, N.J., and the Ronald Reagan building in Washington.

Yet we can appreciate his references to Renaissance and baroque sculpture, particularly when he inserts putto self-portraits in pieces such as Tondo. And we can also admire his fastidious attention to detail and surface in works created from a variety of materials, from bronze and cement to plaster, resin, cast iron, and aluminum.

Horticultural motifs such as flowers, leaves, grass, and even fruits abound; Robin describes some works so composed as "parodies" of traditional garden sculpture. This quality is evident primarily in the heroic scale and muscularity of a huge cast-iron rose or a Bowl of Rosettes.

Yet even these pieces from the 1990s communicate a hint of delicacy, a quality that becomes more pronounced in more abstract works from the last decade - a monumental wall relief called Rhododendron, large cast-iron grills, and the six-panel Below the Surface, a burnished aluminum relief that evokes sea grasses undulating gently under water.

Robin's aesthetic emphatically refutes the modernist idea that decoration is by nature frivolous and extraneous. His sculptures not only are modern in sensibility, they don't require architectural support to assert their conceptual and material integrity.

Art after Mao. "Post-Mao Dreaming," a traveling exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in the Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania, raised expectations that unfortunately weren't fully realized in the viewing.

This wasn't the fault of the art per se, but of a lack of exposition. The 32 paintings and works on paper describe the relaxing of creative constraints after the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976. In the late 1970s and early '80s, Chinese artists began to reclaim their traditions, particularly ink painting, and to respond to outside influences.

The works at Ross were collected by a Smith College alumna, Joan Lebold Cohen, and her husband, Jerome, during trips to China in the 1970s. The exhibition commemorates the gift of their collection to the Smith College Museum of Art.

The installation is the problem. The point of departure is a 1971 socialist realist painting by Tang Muli called The Young Bugler, an especially luminous example of the genre. But its significance isn't immediately apparent because the label exposition - here and throughout the show - addresses only the career of the individual artists. For the historical context, one needs to read the catalog.

It's only after doing so that one can understand the post-Mao efflorescence of ink painting and other, more irreverent examples such as AK-47, a silk-screen print by Zhang Dali, and an untitled pigment print by the Luo brothers that juxtaposes an image of Mao with bottles and cans of Coca-Cola and other soft drinks.

Not all the works are from the immediate post-Mao period. The more stimulating pieces, particularly AK-47, are the most recent - in this case, from 2008. With a more functional installation, this show might have delivered its message far more effectively.

Disappointing sex. Besides being dull, "Sex Drive" at Haverford College is almost totally inadequate to its task, which, in the words of its organizing curator, Stuart Horodner, seeks "to shape a multivoiced story about desire, power, and difference."

Part of the problem is diminutive scale - sex is just too capacious and complex a topic for such a small space. The show involves 22 artists, some of whom, like Andres Serrano and the late David Wojnarowicz, are well-known.

Horodner, who runs the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, developed the show in conjunction with a Haverford humanities seminar. Perhaps that's why, on the walls, it seems like half a loaf; the intellectual and historical armature is missing.

But still, how can a show about sex with such a provocative title be boring? Partly it's because Horodner gives an inordinate amount of space to gay and lesbian sex, and to explicit images. The most tedious section is a series of color photographs that depict bondage.

Some of this work is far from subtle, and some of it, in a different context, would be pornographic. This is no doubt why the material becomes boring very quickly.

Also missing is any sense of sex as the driving force of life, perhaps even of the universe. Nor, with one notable exception, will viewers find any evidence here of sex as a component of love or even romance. "Sex Drive" is mainly about raw, unmodulated lust.

The exception is a large photomural called Memorial to a Marriage, by Patricia Cronin. It depicts a marble burial monument - two women, Cronin and her partner, embracing in sleep.

The monument, installed at their cemetery plot, is the only piece I can recall from the show that ventures beyond sensation or superficial social and sexual politics. Cronin's candid, close-cropped watercolors of lesbian lovemaking might also qualify, depending on one's mood.

Violence and misogyny. "The Illuminations Project" by Shary Boyle and Emily Duke at the Institute of Contemporary Art delivers as much violence and misogyny as any normal person can handle, but in a disarming storybook style.

The show displays half of a long-distance collaboration that produced 33 gouache paintings by Boyle with accompanying texts by Duke. The images and texts were produced independently, not in response to each other.

"The Illuminations Project" isn't a narrative, although two central characters, male Peg-Leg and female Blondie, appear throughout the 15 pairs in the exhibition. Exceptionally bloody violence is also a constant theme, as is nature.

Boyle and Duke have imagined a darkly dystopian world from a feminist point of view. The titles of the episodes suggest as much: Wild Boys Revel While Tame Girl Drowns, Feral Girls Hunt Down and Prepare to Slay God. The corresponding images leave nothing to the imagination.

Yet despite the gore, Boyle manages to maintain a subliminal fairy-tale quality that suggests things aren't as grim as they appear. This is especially evident in The Island of Animal Laughter, which might remind you, believe it or not, of Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom.

Art: Sculpture to Sex