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Northern Liberties, down and up

Show chronicles the changes in a neighborhood

Ira Upin's "Battleground" is from the exhibition "Northern Liberties: A Transformation" at Projects Gallery.
Ira Upin's "Battleground" is from the exhibition "Northern Liberties: A Transformation" at Projects Gallery.Read more

There should be applause. Projects Gallery's "Northern Liberties: A Transformation" features artists who, taking their cue from sculptor William Rush in the Federal era, live and/or work in a neighborhood that's been distinct in identity since William Penn's time and are part of its revival in recent decades.

Spontaneity stamps this show. The hearty, rugged dignity of the locality belongs especially to artists who don't confine their interest to their studio interiors - painters like Jennifer Baker, who since 1978 has visually chronicled the cycle of decay, destruction, and revival of Northern Liberties' industrial traditions and vibrant creative life.

This unpretentious show is bouncy, with a sparkle disguising its seriousness of purpose, and art that is disarmingly likable. Also exhibiting are Joe Brenman, Tanya Murphy Dodd, Anda Dubinskis, Ray King, Rob Matthews, Ray Metzker, Bruce Pollock, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, John Thornton, and Ira Upin.

"Northern Liberties: A Transformation" is a signal event, in a place whose vitality stems from its heritage of craftsmanship, commerce, and aspiration. Lately that has meant defining the area in new ways, as Baker does in a series documenting how an old tannery became the community-owned Liberty Lands Park. Once again artists both record and propel the renewal of a now-prospering Philadelphia neighborhood.

Antipodean jewels

Robert Baines, world-renowned Australian goldsmith, scholar, and jewelry maker, is having his first U.S. solo show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. "A Treasury of Evidence," curated by Helen Drutt English, does not disappoint. Baines has become a go-to consultant for major museums (including the Metropolitan) seeking information about the ancient jewelry-fabrication techniques he has mastered. He also has written several catalogs on the subject.

The alliance is displaying more than 50 of his works - jewelry and larger, more complex works. Both kinds of objects he builds of wire made from valuable metals, combined with such other materials as plastics and powder-coating. In these featured works, done since the 1990s, he occasionally indulges in a very personal touch or a note of humor. Of them, Baines says "history remains unchanged but played with." He explains that to make jewelry new "does not mean to erase the past, but to transport the work of the past into the present."

He does just that in the show's important three-part ceremonial Philadelphia Centerpiece, which consists of a powder-coated silver candlestand, tray, and vase, pieces of intricate beauty carried off with easy grace. Serious work, and an impressive solo. One hopes the Philadelphia pieces will remain in this city.

Also exhibiting at the alliance are Matthew Alden Price and Chad Curtis. Price's exhibit, "Stills," offers a direct contact with an artist on the move in shaping abstract painting today. Who would have anticipated his sparkling zest for combining clay, paint and glazes in unusual ways as he does here, often with an Asian tilt reflecting time spent in Korea?

The plethora of incident in Curtis' multimedia installation "Speculative Landscapes" prevents his construction from being read too simply. His goal, I think, is to entice the viewer to examine very closely the layered detail discoverable as we reflect on the charged relationship between man and nature during the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. It's symbolized here by terrariums popular in that period. Curtis sees even greater problems facing us from the nature substitutes introduced by today's Digital Revolution. Deeply felt, such earnest speculations are thought-provoking.

At Sande Webster

In a twin-bill show at Sande Webster Gallery, Alonzo Davis of the Baltimore area displays a series of informal 3-D "sky ladder" constructions symbolic of travel and calling into play resourceful embellishment using interwoven clusters of bamboo-pole fragments, while Anthony Liggins of Atlanta exhibits new painterly abstract canvases drenched in the colors of sunsets and moonglows.