Monday, September 22, 2014
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Art: Peter Paone's floral phantasmagorica

Joseph Stella´s "The Virgin," oil on canvas, 1926, is in "American Moderns." It is in the Brooklyn Museum´s collection.
Joseph Stella's "The Virgin," oil on canvas, 1926, is in "American Moderns." It is in the Brooklyn Museum's collection.
Joseph Stella´s "The Virgin," oil on canvas, 1926, is in "American Moderns." It is in the Brooklyn Museum´s collection. Gallery: Art: Peter Paone's floral phantasmagorica
During more than half a century as a professional artist, Peter Paone has built up an impressive resumé - dozens of exhibitions all over the country and in Europe, inclusion in numerous public collections.

The South Philadelphia native taught for more than 30 years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He's respected widely as one of this city's elder statesmen of art, a master of painting and printmaking in equal measure.

Yet I can't help believing that, despite his art's wide exposure, it isn't as well known by the public as it deserves to be. After seeing his current exhibition at Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, I think I understand why.

More than any other show of his that I can recall, "Wild Flowers" reveals the complex interaction of the artist's powerful imagination and his method of extrapolating from it. His images are emotional and cerebral at the same time, nuanced, layered, sometimes mysterious, often haunting.

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  • Paone isn't an easy artist to figure out. One looks, looks, and looks again, but rarely feels confident that the intended message has been decoded.

    But that's OK, because Paone's images are so fey, so beguiling, and so beautifully painted that total understanding becomes immaterial. Their magical, occasionally surreal, spirit and the ingenuity of his imagination carry the day.

    And so to "Wild Flowers," an assemblage of 45 acrylic paintings on panel, 20 drawings, 13 watercolors, and 9 prints. Be forewarned that the show isn't what its title suggests - a group of traditional tabletop still lifes of flowers in vases or, alternatively, fields of fluttering poppies, asters, and daisies.

    Paone doesn't work directly from nature; his flowers germinate in his imagination. Their allure derives from the fact that they're either eccentric variations of familiar blooms or they hover on the margin of plausibility. Even when not true to life, they seemingly could be, or should be.

    Through juxtaposition of different types and improbable combinations of flowers with, for instance, human figures, Paone carries viewers beyond the immediate impressions of color and form - how flowers customarily appeal - into a more symbolic, existential realm of birth, death, and regeneration.

    One of the more striking examples of such transmutation is the 2004 painting Death by Water, which depicts a clear glass vase into which flowers have been stuffed upside-down. The flowers are drowned, yet a single white blossom pokes its head above the rim, affirming life in the presence of death.

    I was particularly struck by a cluster of paintings that Paone began in the 1990s as figures, put aside because they didn't satisfy him, then converted years later into composites by inserting floral foregrounds.

    Each of these, like Three Blind Mice or Birds of a Feather, is two symbiotic images, vividly effusive flowers fronting a ghostly figural backdrop. There is a strong sense in these of natural recycling, or of flowers functioning as human analogs.

    Finally there is the magnificently autobiographical Peacock, a bird encrusted with all manner of exotic flowers and other creatures representing a life's accumulation of experience - in this case by the artist, but the magnificent bird could be any of us.

    Paone has embedded many potential stories in these pictures; the time and patience it takes to tease them out is well worth the effort.

    Modern Americans. A small piece of the Brooklyn Museum's outstanding collection of American art that has been touring the country for more than year has come to the Delaware Art Museum.

    The show of 57 paintings and sculptures is titled "American Moderns" even though one of its six thematic sections presents artists such as Grandma Moses, N.C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell best described as anti-moderns.

    The other sections illustrate how Americans responded to such European movements as cubism and expressionism, and how some developed distinctly American genres such as precisionism and social realism.

    The show describes a cross-section of American art in the first half of the last century. It features many familiar artists - Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Joseph Stella - all authentic modernists, and a number of lesser lights, such as Byron Browne, Isabel Lydia Whitney, George C. Ault, and Ernest Crichlow.

    If you're no longer moved to rapture by A-listers (although the O'Keeffes are particularly splendid), the supporting cast can expand your appreciation of the variety of American art during the period.

    For example, Crichlow (1914-2005) was an African-American realist associated with the Harlem Renaissance who created vignettes of daily life among black New Yorkers. His 1953 oil Shoe Shine is an especially empathetic example.

    Didactic art history aside, "American Moderns" contains a number of wonderful pictures that probably wouldn't turn up in similar surveys. They include Stella's The Virgin, Whitney's The Blue Peter, Raphael Soyer's Café Scene, and The Sand Cart by George Bellows.


    Art: Blooms and Moderns

    "Wild Flowers: Paintings and Drawings by Peter Paone" continues at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, through Jan. 19. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 10 to 8:45 Fridays; and 10 to 6 Saturdays. Admission: $10 general, $7 for seniors. 215-247-0476 or www.woodmereartmuseum.org.

    "American Moderns" continues at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Pkwy., Wilmington, through Jan. 5. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and noon to 4 Sundays. Admission: $12 general, $10 for visitors 60 and older, $6 for students with valid I.D. and visitors 7 through 18. 302-571-9590 or www.delart.org.


    edward.sozanski@gmail.com


    "Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.

    Edward Sozanski Contributing Art Critic
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