In Philly galleries now: Pottery from a Blue Ridge Mountain pair, Tyler's Bill Beckley, more

Detail from Bill Beckley’s “Elements of Romance” (1977), Cibachrome photographs, at the UArts Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery.

Potters Ellen Shankin and Donna Polseno met in 1977 and have remained in close touch ever since.

That’s easily accomplished, because Shankin, a former New Yorker, and Polseno, from Connecticut, have spent nearly four decades with their  husbands and families in a community of nature-loving artists and artisans in rural Floyd County, Va., with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop. Now, the two ceramicists are paired in a show at Swarthmore College’s List Gallery.

Swarthmore ceramics professor Syd Carpenter pointed List gallery director Andrea Packard to the duo. After visiting them in Virginia last fall, Packard selected some ceramics, wrote the catalog essay, and installed a show that looks remarkably like a conversation between two longtime friends.

It’s not that Shankin and Polseno’s works look alike. They don’t, except for a shared affection for Giorgio Morandi’s still-life paintings.

Camera icon Edith Newhall
“Red Gourd Form” (2017) and “Black Gourd Form” (2017) by Ellen Shankin, stoneware clay, at Swarthmore College’s List Gallery.

Shankin’s stoneware pieces, begun on a potter’s wheel, could have stepped out of a Morandi painting. They’re solid, simple forms made to serve a function — a pitcher, a vase, a teapot, cups. A few have lush, drippy glazes that reminded me of Pat Steir’s paintings. All are stalwart, modestly scaled, and hypnotically self-contained.

Polseno is as much illustrator as potter, decorating her porcelain bowls and vases with delicate images of birds and flower blossoms. A group of hand-built, archaic-looking standing female figures from 2016 is a surprise in this show, not least for Polseno’s use of unglazed Georgia brick clay in tandem with decorative glazed areas.

You can see that Polseno, who has spent her summers in Italy since 2007, has a familiarity with Etruscan ceramics. But she cites Morandi — and perhaps Jasper Johns and Saul Steinberg — in her two most recent pieces, from 2017, “tabletop” arrangements of vases, paintbrushes, and fruit rendered in somberly glazed clay.

In his foreword to the show’s catalog, Wayne Higby, the ceramic artist and Alfred University professor who introduced Shankin and Polseno to each other, muses on the connection between his former students. “What sustains such an enduring friendship? I think of: mutual respect, complementary but differently nuanced points of view, and the mystery of kindred spirits,” Higby writes. “When Donna and Ellen met, it was clearly not as strangers.”

Through April 8 at List Gallery, Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore, noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Information: 610-328-7811 or swarthmore.edu/list-gallery.

Revisiting a ’70s conceptualist out of Tyler

In 1970, on the heels of earning an M.F.A. from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, Bill Beckley, raised in Hamburg, Pa., did what any ambitious young artist would do: He moved to New York, to SoHo’s then-nascent art district.

At Tyler, he had studied with the legendary Italo Scanga, who introduced him to Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, and then-Whitney curator Marcia Tucker.

His timing was perfect. Tucker had already seen to it that Beckley’s work was included in the first conceptual art show in the United States, “Art in the Mind,” in 1969.  In New York, he joined with Gordon Matta-Clark, Rafael Ferrer, Barry Le Va, Alan Saret, and others to organize the first, much-talked-about exhibition at the 112 Greene Street Workshop. Beckley became one of the group of “narrative” artists (a term he coined), who mixed photographs with text.

An exhibit at the University of the Arts’ Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery offers a look back at Beckley’s color photographs, which derived their style from advertising and included mysterious, sometimes erotic written narratives that would never have passed muster at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach.

It’s fascinating to see their influence on such Pictures Generation artists as Richard Prince, and on Jeff Koons, who saw them in Beckley’s 1978 solo show at MoMA, when Koons was working as a guard there. (One of the works in this show is on loan from Koons).

Through April 20 at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, University of the Arts, 333 S. Broad St., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Information: 215-717-6480 or uarts.edu/about/rosenwald-wolf-gallery.

Works on paper … and potted

Camera icon James Oliver Gallery
“#68 Elle Fanning” by George W. Hasegawa, at the James Oliver Gallery.

The James Oliver Gallery and Hot.Bed, a space in the same building that Oliver runs with horticultural designer Bryan Hoffman, are offering an encyclopedic group show of works on paper called “International Variety.”

Some standouts include works by Ava Blitz, Collin Paul Burns, Nick Cassway, Victor Grasso, George W. Hasegawa, and Steven Mogck. Hoffman’s plant arrangements in the Hot.Bed space are artworks themselves.

Through April 14 at James Oliver Gallery, fourth  floor, 723 Chestnut St., 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 1 to 8 p.m. Saturdays. Information: 267-918-7432 or jamesolivergallery.com.