With Ellen Tiberino at center, African American Museum exhibit focuses on family circle

For Joe Tiberino, the new exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia is a kind of homecoming. He was there when the museum on Seventh Street in Center City first opened in 1976.

“I planned the first show here,” said Tiberino, dressed in a tuxedo and bowler hat. “The first show here was a retrospective of my wife’s work in ’76.”

 His wife, Ellen Tiberino, died in 1992 after a long bout with cancer. The new show, “The Unflinching Eye: Works of the Tiberino Family Circle,” has Ellen at its core, radiating out to an ever-widening circle of friends and prodigies, including Joe, her three children (Raphael, Ellen, and Gabe, all of whom are artists), and friends who used to visit the Bacchanal — Joe’s bar on South Street — and the rambling art compound the family built out of rowhomes in Powelton Village.

Some of the work on display comes from Ellen’s 14-year struggle with cancer. Her self-portraits such as “Fragmented Face” sometimes recall the work of Frida Kahlo. Her training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts shows in her finely composed figure drawings; the effervescent lines of “The Dancer” seem to almost float off the paper.

Her paintings tend toward thick brushstrokes and fleshy — sometimes grotesque — bodies. Her large painting of the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia is filled with anger and horror.

“A lot of my earlier work is brooding and dark,” said Ellen TIberino in an interview featured in the documentary “Tiberino” by Derrick Woodyard, currently in post-production. “When we’re young, I think we’re so eager to prove that we can deal with all the heaviness of life — it doesn’t mean that I just paint the negative. I can paint flowers, too.”

Documenting 50 years of the Philly art scene

The “Unflinching Eye” features work by Ellen Tiberino’s mentor Julius Bloch, peers Charles Searles, Kathleen Spicer, Danny Simmons, and the poet Pauil Grillo, who passed away in August.

As such, the show outlines a 50-year chapter of the Philadelphia art scene.

Ellen Tiberino’s daughter, also named Ellen, makes abstractions of tile and glass on boards. The younger son, Gabe, is a muralist working in a realist style (his work can be seen temporarily along 15th Street opposite LOVE Park). Rafael comes from a cartooning background. The large-scale paintings on view show scenes of the Tiberino compound, and a casual conversation over coffee between Jesus and the devil.

In his artist statement, Raphael says his work is “telling stories.” Which seems to rebel against his father’s statement in another gallery, “behind every authentic work of art is an idea, never a story.”

Joe Tiberino’s work is shown alongside his late wife’s, including the large “Ellen and Death,” a crowded painting of figures hovering over the naked body of Ellen, held in a manner similar to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” Painted shortly after her death, Tiberino recently found the painting rolled up in his cellar. He said he has no memory of having painted it.

Idealism and influence

Joe and Ellen embodied the bohemian Philadelphia lifestyle since the day they were married.

“When we got married, we had this thing where we were going to get to know one another,” said Tiberino, describing an “idealistic” home with no phone and no television. “We just did painting together.”

They both developed a thick, fleshy style of painting bodies, with waving lines outlining ripples of muscle and bone. Over the years their styles influenced each other.

“It was more than that,” said Tiberino. “A lot of times we would paint paintings together. Like, she had a commission to paint a large painting of Philip Randolph for a school they were dedicating to him. She didn’t feel like doing it. So I painted the painting and said, ‘Ellen, paint on top of it and make it look more like yours.'”

“The Unflinching Eye, Works of the Tiberino Family Circle” will be on display until March.

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