Having enjoyed Cheryl Harper's satirical painted stoneware busts of political figures in past shows, I assumed her first one-person show at James Oliver Gallery would be made up of the Obamas and Clintons and perhaps a John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, whose distinctive mugs would seem ripe for caricature (the Obamas and Clintons are here, anyway; more on them later).
Instead I was surprised by Harper's "Convenient Vanities," three-dimensional still lifes composed of ceramic versions of giant soft drinks, snacks, and cigarettes, most of which are homages to her friendly local 7-Eleven. She even sewed the appliqués on the fabrics on which her unhealthy goodies are arranged.
Fortunately, Harper can't help being her ruthlessly truthful self. Despite her stated weakness for the occasional prepackaged snack, her modeled forms of food, drink, and cigs aren't remotely tempting or luscious in the manner of Wayne Thiebaud's slices of cake or Will Cotton's painted and sculpted confections. And they're anything but careful facsimiles of their subjects. Claes Oldenburg's expressionistically painted plaster cheeseburgers, pack of Winstons, and a squashed 7-Up can from the early 1960s come to mind, as does early Red Grooms.
It's clear that Harper wanted to align her ceramic tributes with the tradition of vanitas painting by placing them on her appliqués, but the ornateness of her sewn cloths makes a distracting base for her contemporary-looking objects. She gets it just right with an edition of cartoony, painted ceramic Marlboro packs (which she fastidiously wrapped in cellophane) displayed in a sterile glass case.
The back half of the gallery offers a mini-retrospective of Harper's political figures of the last decade: Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice as inscrutable sphinxes; a smiling Barack Obama looking like a young Nelson Mandela's twin; a stern-faced Michelle Obama; a pudgy Bill Clinton with the late Buddy; and more. They're as entertaining as ever and their presence here makes sense. Not so the two woodblock prints mounted to two canvases, from 1993, which, though beautiful, bear no obvious relation to this show.
James Oliver Gallery, 723 Chestnut St., 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays. 267-918-7432 or www.jamesolivergallery.co. Through Jan. 15.
Close to home
Over the three years since Anne Canfield had her last solo show at Seraphin Gallery, she has moved entirely away from the fairy-tale narratives in faraway lands she used to suggest in her paintings to depictions of exceptionally ordinary, everyday places - particularly houses and their immediate environs - that shimmer with an uncanny otherworldliness. In her current Seraphin exhibition, "Fugue State," de Chirico's haunting surrealism seems an influence, as do Peter Blume's early, odd, hyperreal scenes (see the current Blume retrospective at PAFA).
Her latest, small oil-on-panel paintings, as exquisitely rendered as before, reveal aspects of domestic life that hint at a homeowner's taste and show how a strong individual aesthetic might override the most quotidian surroundings.
In . . . with white gloves on, out of the dream in which they are still alive (2014), Canfield has painted a daytime view of the backyard of a suburban house. In the immediate foreground is a clear aquamarine pool that appears to be illuminated, with grasses and water lilies growing in it that stand at attention solitarily, like weird science experiments or dissonant musical scores. The variety of houseplants and their different containers on a plant stand in Euphoria No. 1 also bring to mind a musical composition.
Seraphin Gallery, 1108 Pine St., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 215-923-7000 or www.seraphingallery.com. Through Jan. 4.
Many hands make light work
The Philadelphia painter and writer Bill Scott has assembled a group show, "Lilies, Figs, and Folly," for Cerulean Arts that reflects his own aesthetic, of course, but leaves room for anyone's walls.
This is a huge exhibition (35 artists) for this fairly small gallery, but the installation of paintings, grouping common themes (or non-themes), has perfect pitch.
Some standouts: the late Jane Piper's airy, oil pastel-on-paper Still Life With Striped Chair, Aubrey Levinthal's humorous, in-your-face oil painting Giant Salad, Susan Van Campen's impressively fluid watercolor Blackberries, and Catherine Mulligan's dark and mysterious riff on childhood, Still Life With Stuffed Bear.
Cerulean Arts, 1355 Ridge Ave., 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Though next Sunday.