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Galleries: Artists' subversive sense of humor at Vox Populi

The first in a series of three guest-artist exhibitions at Vox Populi Gallery has no title, but all four of its artists share a subversive sense of humor.

The first in a series of three guest-artist exhibitions at Vox Populi Gallery has no title, but all four of its artists share a subversive sense of humor.

Michael May tells the story of a mental-patient character he has invented, through a group of oil paintings depicting the character's misbegotten cures and inventions. As in mid-20th-century instructional posters, each of May's paintings is divided into several parts demonstrating the steps involved. In Extracting Spirits from Photos of Native Americans, for example, three measuring cups and bottles of denatured alcohol and mineral spirits sit on a counter; on the adjacent stove is a glass baking dish containing portraits of American Indians, with a vacuum-cleaner hose attached to its base. Fountain of Youth combines separate images of a bathroom sink; a counter with an assortment of age-prevention creams and a fountainlike apparatus on it; and a view of a pipe beneath the sink with the fountain attached to it. May's video of interviews with himself and his character (played convincingly by an actor), and examples of still-life objects that appear in his paintings mounted on shelves, turn what might have been simply a group of curious paintings into an even curiouser project.

Deliberately messy in a cheerful Fauve palette of oranges, pinks, greens, and yellows, and full of competing Matisse- and Dufy-like patterns, Michael Van Winkle's small still-life paintings pairing two or three objects - a table and a skull, for instance, or a bottle and a sword - walk a fine line between just right and too cavalier. Clearly, a salon-style installation is meant to be invoked, but his encyclopedic presentation of 25 paintings and works on paper undercuts his finest moments, among them his untitled painting of a single tiger lily in a vase.

At first glance, it's hard to believe that Dan Levenson's exacting installation, "SKZ Student Monochrome Workshop," about a fictional state art academy in Zurich, isn't true. Those large, black, monochrome paintings propped against the wall look at least 20 years old, and the unpainted sides of the paintings even reveal yellowed and stained linen. The wooden storage cabinet seems of a similar vintage, as do the magazines and postcards relating to the school. Levenson's video of a woman recounting her memories of a fellow student is less believable, though, possibly because we're used to seeing fictions in videos (as in May's). Still, this is a clever, perfectly executed deception.

Todd Baldwin's day job as an art preparator in a museum has clearly influenced "you took this out of context," his whimsical installation of museum-quality mounts on which he hangs his assemblages of gallery trash and found objects. Standing in the space inside Baldwin's mounts, facing their fastidiously fabricated backs (on which he also positions his assemblages), I felt as if I were in a gallery turned inside-out - or like Jonah in the whale - and, in fact, I sort of was. The innards of the perfect white box make a perfect foil for Baldwin's unassuming assemblages.

Give Temple a whirl

Under its new director, Robert Blackson, Temple Gallery has become more testing ground than art gallery, a purposefully undefined place that can change on a dime if need be and reflects not only its director's ideas and aesthetics, but also those of the 30-member advisory council of Temple students and faculty, as well as Philadelphia citizens invited by the gallery to share their thoughts. Hence, programs and events to do with soil, foraging, the Marcellus Shale, AIDS, and Occupy Philadelphia mingle with presentations of contemporary art (and, at the moment, WPA watercolors on loan from the Free Library of Philadelphia).

Distinguishing the boundaries can be trying. I arrived at the gallery one day a few weeks ago to see art and, instead, was greeted by the Big Shale Teach-In, for which the gallery had been transformed into a lecture hall.

There is very good art to be seen if you can catch it in time, including "couch" and "front desk" installations that change every two weeks or monthly. At this moment, you might catch Katarina Jerenic's amusing "front desk" installation, for which she has covered the top of the desk with a mountainous accumulation of crumpled white paper and placed a video monitor in a drawer below showing her hands crumpling said paper.

You'll definitely see Tim Belknap's space-station installation; an installation of AIDS banners loaned by the William Way Community Center and ACT UP; and artist and AIDs activist Gregg Bordowitz's selection of deliciously ironic WPA watercolors and prints on the subject of the New Deal.