Art: A scavenger hunt at ICA

'Ruffneck Constructivists" at the Institute of Contemporary Art is a textbook example of an exhibition that requires an instruction manual, so much so that even if you read all its expository material you might still feel lost in space.

There are a few clues. The group show is guest-curated by Kara Walker, an African American artist of considerable reputation. That suggests a theme that addresses cultural experiences outside the ken of most typical museumgoers.

"Ruffneck" denotes the antithesis of polite or genteel, while "Constructivists" suggests a relationship to those early modernists whose architectural sculpture was space-defining. Walker confirms this analysis: "Ruffneck Constructivists are defiant shapers of environments," she says. "Whatever their gender affiliation, Ruffnecks go hard when all around them they see weakness, softness, compromise, sermonizing, poverty, and lack; they don't change the world through conscious actions, instead they build themselves into the world one assault at a time."

If that sounds intimidating, don't worry; with rare exceptions, this show of 12 artists, at least within its chosen cultural parameters, isn't nearly as transgressive at it sounds.

Some of the work is slight; some is simply puzzling. The most bizarre and provocative of all is a wall installation by a Chicago artist named William Pope.L that consists of 688 slices of bologna pinned to the wall in a grid pattern.

At the center of each slice, the artist has pasted a photographic portrait head of a person he identifies symbolically as a Jew.

Together they allegedly represent one percent of the Jewish population of Philadelphia. It's impossible to tease out what this piece is supposed to convey, other than racial hostility.

The most powerful and least obscurantist works in the show are brief videos by Kahlil Joseph and by Malik Sayeed/Arthur Jafa. See these first, and the landscape that the Ruffnecks inhabit and describe will become more recognizable.

Back to basics. "500 Years of Italian Master Drawings" at Princeton University Art Museum doesn't require any orientation, even for observers who aren't conversant with biblical, and particularly Catholic, mythology.

For artists who lived during the Renaissance and baroque periods, drawing was as fundamental an activity as breathing, the foundation of all two- and three-dimensional art.

By imposing this template on its imposing collection of about 1,000 Italian drawings, the museum has created an abbreviated survey of drawing genres and techniques that is consistently instructive and, for drawing partisans, thoroughly enjoyable.

More than 70 artists are represented by about 100 works. Many aren't as familiar as the stars - Bernini, Veronese, Michelangelo, Guercino - some of us discovered in Art History 201; this isn't a "greatest hits" kind of production. Yet the level of achievement is satisfyingly high, whether one is looking at sketches, more developed studies, or fully finished drawings.

Thematically, the show is unified by emphasis on the human figure, whether solitary or in a group, whether in repose or in action.

Among single figures, Bernini's rendition in red chalk of a male nude is sublime; among group studies, one is transfixed by the vitality and complex equilibrium of Luca Cambiaso's study for The Return of Ulysses.

The Italian ideal of drawing as basic to all the visual arts, from painting to architecture, persists, but it's no longer the only model for sophisticated art-making. However, while artists still draw, generally they don't do so with the incomparable fluidity, economy, and mastery of line that one finds among the Princeton masters.

It has been observed many times that drawing is the purest, most immediate form of visual expression, that because a drawing is unmediated it brings the viewer closest to the artist's thinking and emotional state.

This opportunity to stand at the master's elbow, as it were, is this show's ultimate pleasure. And 100 drawings is a comfortable number, filling without being tiresome.

Speaking of masters . . . Philadelphian William Daley, who will be 89 on Friday, is an artist of remarkable vitality and enthusiasm. His large unglazed stoneware vessels would be physically demanding to produce even for someone much younger, yet he refuses to put his feet up.

At the moment his visibility has crested in the city. A show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance celebrates his seven decades as an artist by presenting two pots from each of those decades.

It runs for only one more week, through next Sunday, but it offers an inspirational lesson in consistency over time. The show includes screening of a film, Mud Architect, by Thomas Porett in which Daley reveals his creative process through commentary and practice.

Daley is also included in a small show in Gallery 119 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called "At the Center: Masters of American Craft." He's represented by five pieces, two owned by the museum. Not the strongest presentation one could wish for, it's up through March 23.

Finally, Daley's career is examined front to back in a recently released 272- page book, William Daley: Ceramic Artist by former National Gallery of Art curator Ruth Fine and others, published by Shiffer. The color photographs are especially luscious.

All this attention is well deserved, though even at this stage of his career and at his advanced age Daley has been denied ultimate validation, a full retrospective at the Art Museum. The museum honors local artists rarely, yet if anyone in the city deserves this honor, it is he.

 


Art: Here and Now - and Then

"Ruffneck Constructivists" continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 36th and Sansom Streets, through Aug. 17. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 11 to 6 Thursdays and Fridays, 11 to 5 Saturdays and Sundays. Free. 215-898-7108 or www.icaphila.org.

"500 Years of Italian Master Drawings" continues at the Princeton University Art Museum through May 11. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, to 10 p.m. Thursdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.


edward.sozanski@gmail.com

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