Over the last decade, Susan Hagen has been coaxing contemporary art from one of the world's oldest art practices - carving small, wood sculptures of living people of all ages, from almost every walk of life.
Expressively modeled, painted with oil or bleached or charred, Hagen's small linden wood figures have a poignancy that emanates from the size and familiar postures and ordinariness of her subjects.
The individuality of each of Hagen's sitters has not always been obvious in her gallery exhibitions, however, mainly because they've been shown together as types. That's definitely not the case with "Susan Hagen: Social Studies," an exhibition of Hagen's work from 2004 to the present organized by art critic Robin Rice for the Center for Art in Wood.
Seeing Hagen's sculptures from various bodies of work together, in one gallery, you quickly appreciate her eye for subtle differences among types and the nuances she can evince from wood.
More often than not, Hagen has come across her models in Philadelphia: an overweight man with a knee brace seated at a table, legs apart; a disaffected teenage girl in a parka and skinny jeans; a couple of shirtless construction workers on a break. Two series marked a departure for Hagen and were based largely on her imagination, archival photographs, and other research: one, of a group of U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq, the other of prisoner dioramas at Eastern State Penitentiary that were originally exhibited in cells at the prison.
Hagen has worked in series (she calls them "projects"), but this exhibition was wisely organized to highlight the commonality among her pieces, beginning with the show's title wall, which displays her conté-and-ink wash studies of models from all of her projects. Inside the galleries, her projects are mixed and mingled.
Most of the time, this works nicely. I liked seeing the diversity of themes that make up Hagen's "Recollection Tableaux," and how their differences and similarities are simultaneously camouflaged and conflated by her exclusive use of bleached linden (the bone-white wood immediately conjures memories and their tendency to fade) in these multi-figure tableaux. I'm not convinced Hagen's charred black linden soldiers should have been positioned in such proximity to her colorfully painted figures of teenagers, endearing pint-size facsimiles of newspaper boxes (part of a recent venture into non-human models), and everyday citizens in the main gallery. It's a stark contrast - visually and otherwise - but it does resemble American society today, minus the rich and famous.
A concurrent one-person show of Hagen's recent sculpture can be seen at Schmidt/Dean Gallery through the end of this month. "This is Real/New Work About Life in Philadelphia" catches her between projects and experimenting with non-human models that bear the traces of human activity, including spot-on carvings of trash bags and more of her stickered and graffitied newspaper boxes.
For the first time ever, James Oliver Gallery has turned over its fourth-floor (walk-up!) loft space to installation - in this case, several installations on the same theme - by John Y. Wind, an Israel-born, Philadelphia-raised graduate of London's Slade School of Art who became the founder and chief designer of Maximal Art, an internationally known jewelry and gift company (Anthropologie is said to be a major fan of Wind's chunky jewelry).
It's not surprising that Wind's first solo show as an artist, "The Making of a Modern Man," should take the form of installation. Wind's fluency with presentation is such that his attention to detail actually undermines him at times, but the intensity and obsessiveness of his installations seems so genuine, it's a little heartbreaking.
No doubt about his sexual identity in this show. Wind's accumulations of his own eyeglass frames, rings, watches, and other personal memorabilia (including porno images, current and Victorian, a Warhol poster, a series of portrait photos of him as a child, taken at Sears) are something to ponder. Impressive, too, that he commanded this space as he did, although I think he could have played with the scale between his installations more.
This month's shows at 319 N. 11th St. are exceptional.
Vox Populi's show of works by member artists from the New Orleans collective, The Front, exudes an distinctly NO vibe, not least Brooke Pickett's oil-on-canvas paintings that summon thoughts of Hurricane Katrina chaos; Dave Greber's blinking video-cum-installation that looks like a kinetic ad for a strip club but features confessionals by earnest-seeming men and women, and Alex Podesta's science-fiction sculptures.
At Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Gillian Pears' evanescent photographs of things we generally never notice - wires, twisted paper bags, hanging in vacant, glowing backgrounds - summon thoughts of Caravaggio and, more unexpectedly, given their minimal detail, Soutine's supremely painterly eviscerated rabbits.
Last but not least, at GrizzlyGrizzly, Kim Faler's violet-tinged translucent polyurethane foam sculpture of what looks like a cliff etched with remembrances and testimonials, is gorgeous, scruffy, and fun.