Most people tend to go through art exhibitions at a hit-and-run pace, stopping at a work long enough to "get" it, or not, then moving quickly on to the next.
The work on display at the Brandywine Museum of Art's current exhibition is intended for a different set of viewers. They scrutinize it and return to look again. They talk about it. They ask questions and laugh and lose interest. Then they come back and look again.
Theirs may not be the most educated eyes. Indeed, they may not yet have finished kindergarten. But the six artists featured in "Get the Picture: Contemporary Children's Illustration," on view through Oct. 9, know they have a demanding audience. They bring tremendous visual sophistication, and often wild humor and more than a bit of obsession to the task of opening young eyes and minds to wider worlds.
Children's picture books are a sort of gateway drug not just to art, but also to literacy, even if the book contains only a few words. They engage their readers and help them deal with anger and fear and other challenges of their everyday lives, but most essentially, they suggest new possibilities, and impossibilities. They help children imagine who they are and what they might become.
Parents and grandparents give children the books they themselves loved as children, so these books become part of the conversation among generations. And the best of them stay with us all our lives because they have molded our sense of self and of what the world is like. (Lately, I have been thinking about a character who is disruptive, irresistible, entertaining, and terrifying: Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat, of course.)
None of the works on display in this show, which features the work of eight artists and was curated by H. Nichols B. Clark, founding director and chief curator emeritus of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, is a classic - at least not yet. All the books featured were published since 2010 and were new to me, though one young visitor clearly saw Mo Willems' big-eyed, raging, self-defeating pigeon as an old friend.
My own expectations for the show were not high, but it won me over with the first image I saw when I walked in the door. The color pencil drawing by Raúl Colón, used on the cover of his book Draw! (2014), shows a charging rhinoceros heading straight toward the viewer. In the foreground stands a boy at an easel, wearing a pith helmet and sandals, calmly making a drawing of the scene while oblivious to his own apparent danger. Later drawings show the boy observing lions from a tree and sharing a convivial moment with a gorilla.
The complicated desires shown here - to be at the center of the action yet detached and able to tell the tale - reminded me of my own childhood yearnings and subsequent career choice. It is not surprising that this book, though it has no text, is autobiographical. As a child, Colón had a long illness. In bed with books, paper, and pencils, he drew himself into the adventures.
The museum has helpfully provided a reading area just off the gallery, with most of the books for which the pictures were made available for reading. This is how they were meant to be seen, of course, which raises the question of why they should be displayed on museum walls.
The collage work of Bryan Collier, who deals here primarily with African American themes, provides an answer. He works in a combination of water color and collage that incorporates photographs and imagery from magazines and elsewhere. The pictures look realistic at first glance, but more study reveals, for example, that a boy's shirt is made from a map. A young man standing at a mirror to shave is backed by the profiles of the boys he has been. The New Orleans musician Trombone Shorty feels a strong tie to his community, and Collier suggests they are all made out of the same stuff.
Illustration by Bryan Collier from Trombone Shorty, written by Troy Andrews. Photo: Abrams Books for Young Readers
The results of Collier's technique are apparent in the book, but seeing the original artwork here gives an insight into his methods that reading the books cannot provide.
This is even truer of Melissa Sweet, who works in an even more intricate collage technique, shown most dramatically in her illustrations for The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant (2014). The book's text emphasizes that Peter Mark Roget, who published the first thesaurus in 1805, did not seek to make a dictionary of synonyms, but rather to understand the interrelationships of all ideas and sentiments and the words that express them.
For one spread, Sweet made an illustration that is almost a sculpture. The word idea, for example, is large, and it is surrounded by tendrils of related words like notion and thought. Some of these word-ribbons rise right out of the page and into space. Pictures of gears, and astronomical diagrams and fabric patterns fix Roget's mad project in its time, but the eye keeps coming back to the lists of words.
One of the reasons picture books are such a healthy part of the publishing industry is that their physical presence is important, and they have not been sucked into the digital cloud. Still, one of the works on display, Spot (2015) by David Weisner, was created for the iPad. It is a hypnotic, trippy journey that leads from the spot on the back of a ladybug to an island, the inside of a cell, and a chocolate chip cookie. The surprise here is that no computer was involved in the imagery. Some of the pictures are on the wall, hand-done by the artist in watercolor and ink on white paper.
I suspect, though, that while Spot is a fascinating toy, the same artist's Mr. Wuffles! (2013), a tale of a black house cat who encounters a very small spaceship that has landed beneath a radiator, is even better. The colorfully robed, green-faced aliens are fun, but what's perfect is the curious cat. Weisner spent time on the floor filming his own cat so the one in the book would be as true to life as possible. Kids know when you've got it right.
Illustration for Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner. Photo: Clarion Books.
AT THE BRANDYWINE
Get the Picture! Contemporary Children's Book Illustration
Through Oct. 9 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, U.S. Route 1 at Hoffman's Mill Road, Chadds Ford.
Hours: Daily, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $15; seniors (65), $10; students and children 6 to 18, $6; children under 5, free.
Information: 610.388.2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org