Walking through the retrospective "Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby" at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, it's quickly apparent why Higby has received the American Craft Movement Visionary Award from New York's Museum of Arts and Design, among other honors.
The 56 works in this exhibition - organized by Peter Held, curator of ceramics at Arizona State University Art Museum and Ceramics Research Center, where it originated (its recent most stop before Philadelphia was the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery) - eerily seem to have predetermined their own flow through the Alliance's second-floor galleries.
Now 71 and a longtime professor of ceramics at Alfred University, Higby has been following his own instincts since the late 1960s, transforming clay into personal visions born of a number of influences - Minoan pottery, which he saw for the first time in 1963 at the Heraklion Museum in Crete while traveling through Greece as a student; landscapes of the American west (he was born and raised in Colorado); Chinese painting and ceramics; and the 19th-century landscape paintings of American luminists.
From the beginning of his career - this exhibition's earliest work, Inlaid Plate, dates from 1967 - Higby was clearly beguiled by the possibilities of painting on a three-dimensional form, and he has continued to use glazes in much the same way a luminist painter might have used color. His glazed earthenware, raku-fired plate Blue Channel, from 1972, is as much a painting as it is a clay object; the same can be said of his Green River Gorge from 2002 - which also happens to be as much a sculpture as it is a clay object and a painting.
Higby's only departure from vivid color is seen in his series of porcelain slab sculptures, "Lake Powell Memory," which he began after a visit to Jingdezhen, China, in 1992, but even here he uses monochrome celadon glazing and intentionally cracked surfaces to dramatic effect.
Given the implications of monumental landscapes in his tabletop-scaled work, it's not surprising to learn that Higby has been commissioned to create three large-scale architectural reliefs since the mid-1990s. A 10-by-4-foot maquette for one of them, SkyWell Falls, an immense ceramic "tapestry" made for the Miller Performing Arts Center in Reading, Pa., cannot re-create the effect of seeing the actual work, which is 40 by 22 feet, but it's impressive in its own right.
Gregg Moore, a former student of Higby's at Alfred and now director of the ceramics program at Arcadia University, where he is an associate professor, has filled the alliance's first-floor galleries with Heirloom, an installation of his porcelain plates, slip-cast berry baskets, and other farmer's market containers, serving dishes, and a vase formed from porcelain facsimiles of kale leaves.
Through Aug. 3, Moore's earthenware plates, which incorporate images from Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie, serve their intended function as part of Table d'Hôte, a seven-course, family-style meal that is a collaboration between Moore and chef Pierre Calmels of the restaurant Le Chéri, which shares the Alliance's first floor. Dinners take place Wednesdays through Sundays at 5:30 p.m. and space is limited to 16 guests. The cost is $150 per person; for information, contact Le Chéri at Reservations@lecheriphilly.com or call 215-546-7700.
If you're not old enough to remember the world's largest, though sadly short-lived, painting, Franklin's Footpath, a vertical-stripe painting created by the Washington Color School painter Gene Davis in 1972 on our own Benjamin Franklin Parkway (and realized mainly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art's department of urban outreach), no problem. "Polly Apfelbaum + Dan Cole: For the Love of Gene Davis," a collaboration between Apfelbaum, a Tyler School of Art graduate (1978) who did see it as a teenager, and Cole, a more recent Tyler grad (2010), has brought it back, in a way. The two artists were paired by Tyler's Distinguished Mentoring Program.
Apfelbaum, whose own colorful textile floor pieces have been influenced by Davis' Parkway painting, makes the most Davis-like contribution to this show. Four enormous striped carpets woven in Davis' signature pulsing colors take up the entire floor of the front gallery; those stripes are echoed on the gallery's walls, papered in matching stripes. In a clever touch, one carpet's stripes are interrupted by gray shadow forms cast by Davis's paint bucket and rollers seen in Henry Grozkinsky's photograph of Davis working on Franklin's Footpath, shot for the June 16, 1972, issue of Life Magazine.
Cole's films, running simultaneously on the walls of the darkened back gallery, cast a mysterious, elegiac mood. They juxtapose a black-and-white still image of Davis painting in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Davis' colored stripes and moving images from the film Harold and Maude of a couple standing and conversing in a cemetery with those same stripes.
Apfelbaum and Cole have created a charming museumlike presentation of vintage photographs of Davis and his painting crew; chunks of painted asphalt salvaged by two PMA employees when the Parkway was resurfaced; Davis's studies for Franklin's Footpath; that 1972 issue of Life; a copy of the original Philadelphia Museum of Art news release announcing the painting's completion; and - who knew? - Davis' tiny Micro Painting of 1966, comprising three laminated layers of salmon-colored opaque Plexiglas.
"Galleries" by Edith Newhall and "Art" by Thomas Hine appear in alternating weeks.