Philadelphia’s Woodmere Museum to showcase ‘Haunting’ images

“Weird” and “tough” are not artistic responses that you’d expect from Dr. William Valerio, now about a year and a half into his tenure as Director at the Woodmere Art Museum. But the phrases emerged again and again during a visit with NewsWorks as the Woodmere installed its latest exhibition, Haunting Narratives: Detours from Philadelphia Realism, 1935 to the Present, opening May 12th.

“This exhibit started with me seeing this piece in storage,” Valerio says of “The Three Graces”, a small 1997 painting by Tina Newberry. A vivid, frankly unsettling subversion of the traditional image of the graces as beautiful women, the painting depicts a nude, emaciated, spider-like trio, swathed in dusky shadows under a red cloth drawn up against an amorphous landscape. The exquisitely painted bodies have gangling, oddly distorted limbs.

“What is this all about?” Valerio wonders.

It’s a fitting approach to the coming exhibition, which Valerio describes as tapping into a “deep history” of Philadelphia art, stretching back to realist painters in colonial days.

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Beginning with the work of Benton Spruance (1904-1967) and Robert Riggs (1896-1970) in the 1930’s and 40’s, whom Valerio terms “the great lithographers of their generation”, Haunting Narratives spotlights a strange but compelling detour in early-mid 20th-century American realism up through the present day. Painters contrast an initially inviting, hyper-realistic visual style with bizarre or mysterious narratives: realism “painted in a minor key”.

Ultimately, many of the exquisitely-rendered pieces provoke more questions than they answer.

For example, the exhibit includes two pieces from current PAFA instructor Patricia Traub, who specializes in painting animals.

“They’re beautifully painted, but the subject matter is enigmatic,” Valerio says. Enigmatic is putting it lightly: in 2003’s “The Conservator”, a full-figured nude in front of a black and starry sky is flanked by a placid goat on her right and a hefty antelope on her left. The animals are suspended upside-down alongside her, the woman cradling their hocks.

“It’s complicated,” Valerio says. Is she a “benevolent figure”? Despite their odd positioning, the animals look peaceful. Or is it a “weirdly sacrificial” image?

Traub’s 2005 “The Agriculturalist” features the rosy profile of a young man against another dense night sky. On a mysterious platform with no space for walking, a yearling calf moves toward him. The positioning of the figures evokes something like sexual tension at first, which dissolves on second look into a “symbolic, peaceful relationship” – or does it? How do the smooth, Botticelli-style youth (who, on close inspection, is tanned like a farmer) and the gentle calf relate to each other? The painting’s details lead to pressing questions of hierarchy and innocence.

Earlier works include Spruance’s 1939 “The 30s Windshield”, an imagined view from the front seat of a car that shows a grim landscape of falling bombs, a distant wall of bayonets, and ghoulish skeleton soldiers. Meanwhile, the car’s rearview mirror holds an old-fashioned agricultural idyll, as a farmer and his oxen plow a field.

More recent paintings influenced by Spruance and his contemporaries include 2007’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony” by Peter Paone (who will be offering a special lecture at Woodmere in conjunction with the exhibit on June 9th), drawing on a centuries-old biblical theme. Cast as the unfortunate saint himself, a blank-eyed version of the artist withstands a grotesque cornucopia of imagery, from oversized dice and sinister priests to a grinning trio of horses and a half-human figure who holds an apple while impishly licking live ants from her fingers.

Martha Mayer Erlebacher offers her 1999 “The Path”, an allusion to Renaissance-era studies of the human form that juxtaposed images of the same man, one view from the front and one from the back. In Erlebacher’s piece, a front-facing white man encounters a rear-facing black man on a mysterious outdoor path. Though the men’s positions mirror each other, the viewer is still left to wonder how or if the men are interacting, and savor the artist’s implication that despite their obvious differences, the figures represent a single man from different perspectives.

Another centerpiece of the exhibit is Bo Bartlett’s alarming 1990 “Madre del Nene”. Against an arid, vaguely sinister industrial backdrop, a man in a suit points his finger like a gun at the Jesus-like figure of a young female victim, her arm stained by a dripping stigmata wound. In the foreground, a young boy – is he complicit in the horror? – indicts the viewer with a piercing gaze. A careful study of the brushwork reveals incredible precision in some parts of the painting vying with a deliberate looseness in others.

Bartlett’s earlier study for the image is also on display, showing his original choice to paint the deceased figure as a man. To downplay a literal biblical narrative while still heightening the symbolism, he decided to change the apparently crucified figure to a young female.

“It’s a tough painting,” Valerio says, nonetheless drawn under Bartlett’s spell. “A lot of people say, I could never live with this in my house,” he admits. “But it’s great for a museum. It’s a work of art that wants to ask questions.”

“It does not add up, but it’s not supposed to,” he says of the exhibit’s most challenging imagery.

“Haunting Narratives”, the first show assembled by Woodmere’s new curator, Matthew Palczynski, opens on May 12th and runs through July 15th in conjunction with a retrospective of artist Salvatore Pinto, honoring his relationship with Albert Barnes.

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