Woodmere Art Museum has brought another forgotten Philadelphia artist out of history's back closet, to her benefit and ours.
If you haven't heard of Ethel V. Ashton (1896-1975), the exhibition's title, "Private Artist/Public Life," explains why.
Ashton was a fixture at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she was active for years in the Fellowship organization, which supports PAFA students and artists. She also was the school's librarian from 1957 until the early 1970s.
She was much less well known as an artist. She participated in Fellowship exhibitions and in occasional gallery shows locally, but mainly she kept her work to herself.
This is odd in a way, because the Woodmere show reveals her to have been a talented professional who had an especially keen facility for piquant social realism of a type common during the 1930s and '40s.
Ashton has one other claim to fame. She was a friend and studio-mate of Alice Neel during art school (Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now Moore College of Art and Design) and for a few years afterward.
The principal evidence for that is a striking portrait that Neel made of a nude Ashton in 1930 that's owned by the Tate Modern, London.
The show includes two oil portraits of Neel that Ashton made in the 1920s, the earlier one influenced by Ashcan realism, and a pencil portrait from about 1930, when Ashton, Neel, and a third friend, Rhoda Myers Medary, briefly shared a studio on Washington Square.
As we know, Neel became an art celebrity. But as we see from her work, Ashton, though far more conventional in outlook and technique, was an equally acute social observer.
She spent considerable time in the city's parks on weekends, observing people at leisure, particularly African Americans (she was white). Small works in pastel and gouache depict simple pleasures, such as people gathered at a hot-dog cart or, in Sunday Afternoon and Sisters, just relaxing on benches.
Ashton's drawing is fluid, her color ingratiating. The pieces from the 1930s are quintessential American Scene realism, sunny and wholesome and, in social terms, remarkably color-blind.
The show includes several assertive self-portraits, images of circus performers, and several forays into abstraction during the 1950s, culminating in a majestic synthesis of realism and abstraction in River Drive, painted about 1960.
Media masters. Knowing that John G. Hanhardt was curating a survey of contemporary media art at the Fabric Workshop and Museum persuaded me to visit. Hanhardt has impressive experience as a film and video curator going back to his appointment at the Whitney Museum in 1974.
Because film and video are linear, experiencing them often takes more time than one has available. In this case, that requires at least half a day to see every last minute.
I didn't have three hours-plus, nor the requisite stamina, so this report is abridged. However, given Hanhardt's reputation and an international cast of artists that includes Nam June Paik, Adrian Piper, and Javier Téller, "Changing Scenes" is worth investing whatever attention you can give it.
It breaks into two parts, installations and screened videos, in the workshop's two locations on Arch Street. The installations incorporate objects to varying degrees, most notably in Pepón Osorio's rotating assemblage Drowned in a Glass of Water.
On a large turntable bisected by a mirrored wall, Osorio contrasts the lives of working-class and leisure-class families; the mirrors allow visitors to put themselves in the picture.
The most powerful piece of those I saw is Téller's variation on an ancient Indian parable, in which he filmed six blind men touching an elephant in turn.
The projected HD video, juxtaposed with a blocky "elephant" constructed of bricks, motor-scooter tires and fabric, suggests the infinite sensations and perceptions that can emerge from shared experience.
Piper's theme is, typically for her, racial identification, mythology, and stereotypes. She delivers her argument on a bulky video monitor set into a corner, while an array of 16 other monitors that suggests a chorus instructs viewers in a variety of languages that most white people have some hidden black ancestry. (Do they really?)
The six longest videos play as a projected program in the New Temporary Contemporary space at 1222 Arch. I saw only three, unfortunately missing a meditation on cultural miscommunication filmed on Guadalcanal, scene of a demonic World War II battle, by Paik and cellist Charlotte Moorman.
I did enjoy Jason Simon's energetic "production notes" on the making of commercials for fast food, and Philadelphia native Ayoka Chenzira's sassy Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People, a similar jibe at the manipulative power of commercial advertising.
Goodman service. A memorial service for painter Sidney Goodman will be held next Sunday from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Historic Landmark Building of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St. Goodman died April 11 at age 77.
Art: Private/Public, Public/Public
1214 Arch St., through summer. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission: $3. 215-561-8888, www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.