First impressions of "Haunting Narratives" prompts one to ask, Why hasn't someone done this exhibition before? Perhaps the subject was so familiar it needed a fresh eye, which Woodmere Art Museum, through director William R. Valerio and curator Matthew Palczynski, was able to give it.
The show examines a kind of art that has been common in Philadelphia for a long time, and especially in recent years — an amalgam of observation, magic realism, imagination, storytelling and perhaps a smidgin of dreaming.
Such art bumps up against surrealism occasionally, but rarely strays into the bizarre or the improbable. Symbolism is common, but usually it's readily understood, or at least recognized.
Above all, much of the art in "Narratives" projects a quality best described as real life slightly out of register, and usually slightly out of reach.
Peter Paone, one of the 58 artists represented, puts it thus: "Somewhere between the world of realism and surrealism there is a world that deals with the reality of relationships, favoring the substance of the imagination rather than the substance of everyday vision."
Over three decades of looking at Philadelphia art, I have seen and written about a good deal of such art. The majority of the artists in the show are familiar, yet it never occurred to me that the kind of work they produce, which stylistically covers a broad range, should constitute a movement or a tradition.
Palczynski, who came to Woodmere in January, has persuaded me that such a view is valid. Accepting that premise makes this body of work — 84 paintings, works on paper and sculptures — come together as a coherent thesis, especially given that the show begins in the 1930s and is organized in several thematic subdivisions.
Key to the show's premise is the assertion that Philadelphia's long history as a center for illustration establishes the foundation of this kind of art. The link to this tradition continues today — for example, in a precisely rendered charcoal drawing by Anastasia Alexandrin that reaches deftly into the realm of romantic imagining.
Alexandrin studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Paone, whose work for me has always typified the poetic spirit that "Narratives" tries to capture.
His large acrylic painting The Temptation of St. Anthony, in which Paone casts himself, enthroned, as the beleaguered saint, is packed with visual allusions to sins such as vanity, in the guise of a strutting peacock.
Valerio's interview with Paone in the catalog establishes the show's historical and conceptual boundaries.
Paone identifies other artists of his generation (he was born in 1936), such as Sidney Goodman and Eileen Taber Goodman, whose art is grounded in solid drawing skill, even though they came into art during the age of abstract expressionism.
By now you should have surmised that representational drawing is paramount here. You encounter this straight away whether you enter the show chronologically, by starting on the balcony, or at its most compelling focal point, in the gallery devoted to work inspired by classical and baroque antecedents.
One is tempted to begin with the latter, because Bo Bartlett's imposing oil Madre del Nene, which references the Crucifixion, is the first thing seen as one enters the museum, framed in a doorway. But I prefer to climb first to the balcony, to begin with two under-appreciated graphic masters, Benton Spruance and Robert Riggs.
Paone, who worked with Spruance, describes them as "probably the two great lithographers that came out of Philadelphia" — to which I would add, or anywhere else. In their prints, both dramatized social issues prevalent in the Depression era.
Masterly prints such as The 30s Windshield by Spruance and Clown Alley by Riggs, with its dense composition and gorgeous, moody contrasts, give a visitor a running start into what will prove to be an intellectually challenging and visually stimulating journey.
As is customary at Woodmere, most of the work on the balcony is small, with the notable exception of Eileen Goodman's powerful vanitas watercolor of wilting blossoms and John Moore's fractured view through a glass-block wall. It's always difficult to appreciate works like these at such close quarters.
Other things up here to savor Leon Kelly's drawings and small oils, the show's closest brush with surrealism; a still life of a single turnip by Jimmy Lueders, and two works from the Brandywine school, the moody John Chadd's House by Philip Jamison and Carolyn Wyeth's quirky Anthurium Plant.
Downstairs, one confronts the show's spiritual core in the gallery featuring Bartlett's contemporary deposition from an implied crucifix, set in an industrial landscape that one can almost smell; two powerful juxtapositions of human nudes and animals by Patricia Traub, a Renaissance-style allegory about the essence of humanity by Martha Erlebacher, and Walter Erlebacher's sculptural tableau The Death of Apollo.
These works have gravitas; they all allude to primordial situations, questions fundamental to human existence and morality. They are real to us in some ways, but clearly allegorical.
More to the point, they have staying power, not only because of their craftsmanship and respect for tradition but because they remain elusively enigmatic.
Other works in the large lower gallery pose similar puzzles. One is Eileen Neff's Evening Light, a painting of people relaxing in a park at sunset, but not as innocently as first perceived.
An elderly man seated at left stares intently in a way that seems challenging. Children blow soap bubbles, symbols of fragility and transience. Another man turns to look into the distance, perhaps a suggestion of how we tend to look backward as much as into the future. And the fading light itself signals life shutting down.
Other intimations of life's inherently precarious state include an artist on a tightrope over water in Paul Gorka's Lifeline, the comic absurdity of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident in Daniel Heyman's Nancy—A Hero for Right Now, and a house about to be swallowed by a cyclonic disturbance in Hiro Sakaguchi's Eye of the Hurricane.
The show concludes on an appropriately elegaic note in Randall Exon's genre landscape, Indian Steps, a scene of swimmers reminiscent of Thomas Eakins The Swimming Hole set on the lower Susquehanna River. Time is dislocated, even frozen in the crepuscular light, as reality oscillates between historial past and familiar present.
"Haunting Narratives" continues at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, through July 15. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 10 to 8:45 Fridays, 10 to 6 Saturdays and 10 to 5 Sundays. Admission to special exhibitions is $10 general and $7 for visitors 55 and older. Information: 215-247-0476 or www.woodmereartmuseum.org.