Ellarslie exhibits are black and white and red all over

 Dancing with a Dog by Bill Hogan

Dancing with a Dog by Bill Hogan

It’s a black-and-white world on a sunless day in February. Fittingly, the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie is exhibiting Black and White… with a Touch and, adding to the “touch,” Sweethearts: Creative Couples, through March 8. The Black and White show, made up of works on paper and sculpture, is a drawing show, with a focus on the figure. The Sweethearts exhibit shows “how people who live, sleep, eat and work together influence each other . . . or not.”

Just like the cross fertilization among co-habiting artists, the two exhibits share common threads. Susan Hogan, who with her husband Bill Hogan is one of the “creative couples,” is also the co-curator, with Joan Perkes, of the Black and White exhibit.

Hogan worked for Jim Henson Studios, among other scenic designers and fantasy illustrators, in the 1980s, and since then has created a large body of figurative sculpture that suggests divas, goddesses, ancestors, guardians and ancient women. A third-generation artist, Hogan exhibited her figures in last year’s Philadelphia Flower Show.

Her piece in the couples show, “Time Traveler,” is a ceramic figure bejeweled with gold, holding a camera. Hogan was fascinated with something she read about editing old photographs, giving them a futuristic persona. “I’m interested in people of the past being watched by people of the future who bring them back and change them,” she says. She is interested in the mystery of the afterlife. The camera held by “Time Traveler” is, she says, a recording device.

On the opposite wall is a painting by her husband, Bill Hogan, “Dancing with a Dog Ain’t Anything Compared to Peace and Tranquility.” It is a complex piece, with two pointed sections at the top, and in one a man, indeed, is dancing with a dog. “It’s about embracing the beast,” says his wife, whose Morrisville, Pa., studio is across from her husband’s. The buildings were formerly a frame shop that the couple, who met through their artwork in Santa Fe many decades ago, adapted to studios.

When they met, “I thought, oh, this guy gets it, he speaks my language,” recounts Hogan. Although they do occasionally offer feedback to each other, it’s more about an understanding of why each other does what they do. Since establishing their adjoined studios in 2001, the door has always been open. “He threatens to close it so he can turn up the music.”

Among the Black and White artists is well-known Bucks County portrait artist Bonnie MacLean who, as a self-taught artist in the 1960s, made posters for the Fillmore Auditorium. Now collectibles, the posters are distinguished for their faces and expressions.

Although not in the Sweethearts show, MacLean and her late husband, the artist Jacques Fabert, also shared studio space for more than three decades. MacLean met Fabert in California, when she was his student at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Her portraits from the 1970s, on view here, reflect the fine training she received.

These days, MacLean has been painting chickens. “It’s a colorful subject matter, and cheerful after painting so many nudes. It’s hard to have a career painting nude portraits unless you’re Alice Neel,” she says, citing the nude self-portrait Neel made when she was in her 80s. “But I might go back to faces. I’ve always been interested in faces.

“A person is an amazing thing,” she continues. “I paint people because it’s the subject matter most fraught with the mystery of life. The eyes looking at nature and absorbing a sense of the immensity of something… it provokes, like poetry does. When a portrait is done well, such as one by Velasquez, you know you’re looking at a real human being.”

Raymond Mathis is attempting the same, albeit in a different form. “Through the physical gestures of my sculpture I am not trying to capture a scene or an image but rather the spirit of the human condition,” says Mathis, whose twisting, bending forged metal sculptures are a form of three-dimensional drawing.

One-time children’s book illustrator Mavis Smith is known for her egg tempera works, in which figures have a remote, slightly surreal quality. “For this show I am exhibiting my other love – drawing,” she says. “While the drawings in graphite on gesso mimic the delicate, precise nature of my egg temperas, I also really love to work large. I roll out yards of canvas or paper, tack up it up on the wall, and just have at it. Drawing in a large scale with charcoal and graphite has a certain immediacy to it. It’s very freeing. You get all dirty, and before long it’s like I am actually part of the drawing.”

Mercer County Community College professor of fine art Kyle Stevenson believes it’s the artwork, and not an artist statement, that speaks.

“In graduate school at the University of Delaware we were encouraged to write artist statements that were succinct and witty,” he writes in his counter statement. “We tried to write world weary little poetic masterpieces (as esoteric as they were hip) that were heavy with irony, yet light enough to make the reader feel that they were in the know. It seemed that as long as you wrote a piece about the deep underlying issues surrounding the ‘human condition’ that showed an uncommonly perceptive and clever voice for one so young, you were considered successful. We were also told to minimize the use of the word ‘I.’ I am still not wise or clever enough to write such a piece.”

Here he has five very small works, silverpoint and panel, that focus on the fine line of a rabbit, a ram, a rat and cumulus clouds.

There will be a Sweethearts: Creative Couples Gallery Talk Sunday, Feb. 15, 2 p.m., and a Black and White… with a Touch Artists Talk Sunday, Feb. 22, 2 p.m., at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie. www.ellarslie.org

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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