Monday, May 25, 2015

Art: A 'Full Spectrum': 40 years of inclusion

Art Museum salutes Brandy- wine Workshop; Michener presents current art, and the artists on video.

"Family Ark," a print by John Biggers, one of the nationally known artists in the Art Museum show testifying to Brandywine Workshop´s significance to long-neglected or ignored minority artists.
"Family Ark," a print by John Biggers, one of the nationally known artists in the Art Museum show testifying to Brandywine Workshop's significance to long-neglected or ignored minority artists.
"Family Ark," a print by John Biggers, one of the nationally known artists in the Art Museum show testifying to Brandywine Workshop´s significance to long-neglected or ignored minority artists. Gallery: Art: A 'Full Spectrum': 40 years of inclusion
Forty years ago, Allan L. Edmunds founded the Brandywine Workshop to provide training in the graphic arts and exhibition opportunities for minority students and artists like himself.

To be reminded of how magnificently the workshop has succeeded in realizing this goal, you should visit "Full Spectrum" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The exhibition presents 54 prints from a gift of 100 that the workshop made to the museum in 2009 in honor of late director Anne d'Harnoncourt. The majority of those on view were created in the 1980s and '90s, with a relatively small group from the most recent decade.

They're almost all color prints, which means their collective chromatic energy is prodigious. This might seem like a minor point, but color, especially in such quantity, generates an infectious spirit of optimism, joy, and exuberance.

The vast majority of the prints are offset lithographs, a process more commonly associated with commercial printing. Yet in the hands of a master craftsman such as the late Robert Franklin, who printed many of these images, offset is no less a fine-art medium than the older and more traditional stone lithography, especially for color.

Eighty-nine artists are represented in the total gift, of which 53 are included in the exhibition. One is immediately impressed by how much talent, local and national, the workshop has attracted and helped to develop.

Over four decades, the atelier has attracted nearly 300 visiting artists, beginning in 1975 with Sam Gilliam, one of the country's most prominent African American artists. His 1993 print Harlem Nights incorporates a screen-printed element by Edmunds.

The number of nationally known artists in the show testifies to the workshop's significance as a place where long-neglected or ignored minority artists, especially African Americans, could work in an atelier sympathetic to their themes and modes of expression.

Besides Gilliam, the more recognizable names (at least to me) include Benny Andrews, John Biggers, Willie Birch, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Barkley Hendricks, Hughie Lee-Smith, Samella Lewis, and Alison and Betye Saar.

Add to this such local and regional talents as Moe Brooker, James Brantley, James Dupree, and Paul F. Keene Jr. and you end up with an energetic, emotionally resonant collection. There is so much impressive work in just this small show that one almost can't absorb it all.

"Full Spectrum" also documents a major evolutionary expansion of contemporary American art. When the Brandywine Workshop describes itself as "inclusive," it is speaking within this broader context; it has made possible the inclusion of minority artists in the national art dialog.

To understand the significance of this, one must recall how restrictive the art world was when the workshop came into being. Because of what Edmunds set into motion on Brandywine Street, art discourse is immensely richer.

Artists on camera. Before he retired as director of Doylestown's James A. Michener Art Museum, Bruce Katsiff conceived of putting on a high-level exhibition of current art. This idea became "Creative Hand, Discerning Heart," which the museum is presenting in two installments.

The first part involves 10 artists, the second 11; they were chosen by a combination of invitation and jurying. Most are associated with Philadelphia, and all could be considered top-rank within the region.

So the quality of work, at least in the first installment, is superior. For me, it is also familiar, in some cases excessively so, which is why I approached this show cautiously.

One problem that I sensed even in reading about the show before I saw it is that the theme seemed a bit contrived, perhaps because it was concocted after the artists had been chosen in an attempt to suggest a context broader than just 10 people the jurors happened to favor.

For instance, the museum observes that the artists of the first part are characterized as "seeker, storyteller, observer, and dreamer." Almost any artist in creation satisfies that description.

The 10 are Rachel Bliss, Diane Burko, Syd Carpenter, Susan Fenton, Catherine Jansen, Kate Javens, Celia Reisman, Peter Rose, Jack Thompson, and Robert Winokur. No obvious common denominators there.

One aspect of "Creative Hand" that intrigued me sufficiently to lure me to Doylestown was the fact that each artist would be featured in a five-minute video by John Thornton, installed in the section of the installation devoted to her or him.

This sounded like a variation of the "hidden panels" the museum used in the recent exhibition "The Painterly Voice." By uncovering the panels, visitors could receive additional information about the artists; the option to read, or not, was theirs.

I thought the videos might allow the artists to talk about how they made decisions regarding themes, materials, processes, and anything else that would render their art-making more understandable, and less intimidating, to the public. Achieving that would be a useful innovation, because artists aren't always sufficiently articulate about what they do, and how they do it.

The experiment didn't turn out quite as I had hoped. Thornton seemed more interested in making the artists seem like ordinary folks next door - which they are only to a point - than in extracting useful information.

Thus we get to meet husbands and wives, we tour Burko's elegant house-cum-studio, and we hear what Thornton's grandchildren have to say about Bliss' quirky paintings. (She's the only artist who doesn't appear on camera.)

Several videos do serve up some red meat; I found both Rose and Fenton illuminating. I didn't watch every minute of every one, so I may have missed some other good bits. Yet on balance I thought the videos needed more structure and a bit more effort to demystify art that, like that of Bliss and Thompson in particular, can be puzzling or even mysterious.

So what about the show itself? In Philadelphia it would be redundant, but for the Michener's constituency it's a splendid introduction to some of the most appealing and stimulating art being made in the region. Part II follows on May 18.


Art: Doylestown, Downtown

"Creative Hand, Discerning Heart" continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, through Dec. 30. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 10 to 5 Saturday, noon to 5 Sunday. Admission: $15; $13 seniors, $11 college students with valid ID, $7.50 for visitors 6 to 18. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.

"Full Spectrum" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Nov. 25. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, to 8:45 Friday. Admission: $20; $18 65 and older; $14 students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.
Contributing Art Critic
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