Magic realism has never gone out of fashion in literature, but it hasn't had much of a presence in art since the late 1950s, when informed art-world tastes turned to bolder, bigger, less-allusive art. Over the last decade, though, the psychologically complex, dreamy paintings of Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, Dorothea Tanning, Ivan Albright, and others have found an appreciative audience in artists who've grown up with books and movies (and video games) celebrating the impossible and unbelievable, not to mention sorcery. In Philadelphia alone, artists as stylistically diverse as Rob Matthews, Hiro Sakaguchi, and Judith Schaechter could all be said to be practicing a little magical thinking.
A hint of science fiction has wafted from Sarah McCoubrey's beautifully painted, superordinary country landscapes for some time - there are signs of human activity, for instance, but no people to be seen. So her recent paintings and drawings at Locks Gallery should not come as a complete surprise to those who've been following her work.
About half of McCoubrey's show is made up of oil-on-panel paintings of landscapes in the vein of her earlier work. As before, there's the sense that something, possibly momentous, has taken place in the middle of nowhere. Delicate, patterned vapors rise from lakes; a red fox stands on a snow-covered hill, looking down at a cluster of houses in a valley.
But it's soon clear that McCoubrey is responding to hydrofracking and other human assaults on the environment in paintings such as Snooks Pond Oil Tank Takes Off, in which an oil tank can be seen flying through the sky followed by a large chunk of land, and Floating Earth, depicting a large piece of land hovering in the sky above a hole in a rural landscape.
The other half of the show is devoted to McCoubrey's drawings of potatoes, imagining the humble sprouting spud as various fantastic vehicles that walk like robots and fly like helicopters. They bring to mind works by Leonardo da Vinci (his drawings of flying machines from the late 1480s), Hieronymous Bosch (his painting Ship of Fools, circa 1490-1500), and Salvador Dali's 1946 painting The Temptation of St. Anthony. The last shows a horse and elephants with spiderlike legs striding through the desert and was, interestingly, inspired by Bosch's painting of the same title. I like McCoubrey's thinking - the potato as an escape vehicle from a world desecrated by man - and her exquisite execution, but a smaller number of these drawings would have made her point nicely.
Tom Uttech, who has a survey of his recent paintings at Swarthmore's List Gallery (and an accompanying show of his black-and-white photographs in the college's McCabe Library), is literally off in his own world.
Looking at Uttech's large paintings of wildlife passing and flying through magnificent, unadulterated wilderness, one senses that he is transported to a higher level of consciousness when he is alone in the wild. Uttech, who lives in Wisconsin, has taken numerous hiking and canoeing trips through Minnesota and Canada since the 1960s. He communicates this sensory experience in his paintings through their patterned structures, which recall Early Renaissance paintings by Fra Angelico and Gentile Bellini and musical scores, and their hallucinatory light and color, but also through the presence of a solitary bear that is often seen from the back. Whether an avatar for Uttech or an American Indian, the bear arouses compassion for all things wild.
If you miss Uttech's exhibitions, which have their final day Sunday, be sure to see the film by John Thornton that accompanies them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0fNUB1Uhcs
Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square South, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 215-629-1000 or www.locks gallery.com. Through Jan. 11.
List Gallery, Swarthmore College, 12 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. 610-328-7811 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Through Dec. 16.
'Catching Fire'Stephen Estock's paintings from the last two years, at Schmidt/Dean Gallery, are probably also the result of magical thinking, writ abstract. The heavily worked surfaces of his paintings, which seem burnished rather than spontaneous, speak of repetitions, verses, mantras.
The star of his show is Catching Fire, made this year, in which a pale yellow green ascends to orange, and then to a scorched red. But there are several sublime works here, not the least among them an early, tiny, inimitable painting from 1998, Small Red.
Schmidt/Dean Gallery, 1719 Chestnut St., 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 215-569-9433 or www.schmidtdean.com. Through Jan. 12.