Contemporary culture's intense fascination with all things mystical, undead, and Victorian-flavored, once cyclical and now seemingly perpetual, is mirrored in two one-person exhibitions at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery this holiday season.
Paul Swenbeck's deliberately lumpen, childlike ceramic sculptures usually make me smile, especially the ones that incorporate colored aluminum foil and other cheery leftovers (I wouldn't put Play-Doh past him, either). They look like they fell from a planet whose inhabitants briefly touched down on Earth, got into a recycling bin, flew home, and gave the stuff to their ET offspring, who've been trying to make sense of Earthlings ever since.
This is not, though, the case with the sculptures that make up Swenbeck's third solo show at Fleisher/Ollman, "Dor and Oranur" (Google Wilhelm Reich), which have the gallery's main space and make up his most polished appearance there to date. These colorfully painted and glazed forms resemble primordial, living creatures and plants caught in a process of evolution gone off course.
Or, given Swenbeck's two theatrically lighted tableaux - one an arrangement of sculptures on adjoining hexagonal pedestals (Google Reich again) accompanied by a mysterious sound piece by Aaron Igler, and another that suggests a museum-style installation of creatures as they were discovered in a cave used for ancient rituals - they may have been deceased, but are now squirming back to life.
It's nice to see Swenbeck in a different mode, orchestrating his individual pieces into large installations, although I'll still appreciate the unexpected close encounter with a single Swenbeck.
Those familiar with Joan Nelson's landscapes painted in the styles of various historical landscape painters (Albrecht Altdorfer, Albert Bierstadt, George Caleb Bingham, et al.) - which she began exhibiting in New York's East Village in the early '80s and continues to paint - probably do not yet know her boxes. Each one frames a landscape scene that is actually composed of six reverse paintings on glass. They've only been shown once before now, in Fleisher/Ollman's booth at the 2011 Armory Show in New York, and the recent boxes that make up her show at Fleisher/Ollman have never been previously exhibited. But Nelson's fans will certainly recognize her habit of combining multiple references within one image in these dreamy, three-dimensional renditions of her practice.
As in Salvador Dalí's 1934 work The Little Theater, a theatrical maquette encompassing 11 paintings on glass panes and which inspired Nelson to begin making her boxes in 2004, the exaggerated sense of depth in each of her boxes gives her multilayer painted landscapes a photographic quality reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which does, in fact, involve photographic images.
The backs of Nelson's boxes, which she fills with toys, ornaments, beads, and other trinkets, are more reminiscent of Joseph Cornell's boxes, but they are not, unfortunately, exposed in the gallery's installation, which displays the boxes facing forward on wall-mounted shelves, presumably so they could be illuminated from behind. Ask for help - someone will be happy to turn them around for you.
Hard to believe that the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center is only now having its first one-person show. Perhaps it was waiting for a solid, one-of-a-kind body of work like Laura Heyman's large, black-and-white portraits of residents of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, taken before and after the earthquake Jan. 12, 2010.
Heyman shot her portraits with an 8-by-10 field camera in makeshift studios she set up in various neighborhoods around the city.
Her unsentimental images of families, workers, and expatriates posed against neutralizing cloth backdrops catch the particular moods and spirits of people on the days they've arrived at her "studio" to have their portraits taken.
Despite the formality of a portrait session, her subjects' faces display almost every human expression, from caution to resignation to hope to happiness. But despair is not one of them.