Martha Mayer Erlebacher knew what she was doing when she painted a trio of exquisitely rendered human skulls against a lush backdrop of scarlet satin.
Woodmere Art Museum’s Director and CEO William Valerio, speaking with NewsWorks earlier this month about the museum’s latest show, “Just in: Martha Mayer Erlebacher,” pointed to the 2010 painting titled “War Game,” noticing that a scattering of bone fragments and bullets make up the foreground of the scene.
“And if you look very carefully, there’s a bullet-hole in the skull,” he added.
Visitors will enjoy the exhibit showcasing the Elkins Park artist, Valerio predicted, but because of paintings like “War Game,” they may also be “disturbed” by it, because of “the kind of imagery [Erlebacher] wrestles to the ground.”
Erlebacher, who died last year after a long fight with cancer, was born in 1937, and according to Valerio, became one of the country’s foremost figurative realists.
“Since the 1960s, Martha has been deeply involved in the reinvigoration of the idea of figurative painting,” Valerio explained, at a time when abstract expressionism dominated the art world.
That means that when prominent contemporaries were focused on abstract painting, Erlebacher seized a Renaissance-inspired visual world that gloried in human figures and thought-provoking still lifes. The artist often put her hyper-realistic nudes in dark, fantastical scenes that could never be mistaken for reality, but offered commentary on real human issues.
‘A family member’
Many of her works were already longtime residents of Woodmere’s permanent collection (along with those of her sculptor husband, Walter, who died in 1991), and others have recently been acquired through a donation from Erelbacher’s two sons.
“Martha was a real family member here,” Valerio said, describing the artist as a humorous person who wasn’t afraid of challenging themes. “She had a dramatic flair and wanted to create things that capture attention and get a rise out of people.”
The earliest painting in the show, 1971’s “Apollo,” shows an Italian Renaissance-modeled male figure as a “perfect unblemished specimen of humanity,” but later, her human figures become allegories for darker times.
The telling of ‘Orpheus’
One of the most striking of the collection is 1997’s “The Death of Orpheus,” for its gruesome take on the Greek myth.
The story of Orpheus varies a little from telling to telling, but most people know the first half of the tale. A transcendent musician, Orpheus loses his lover, Eurydice, to a snake bite. But he follows her to the underworld, where his playing impresses the King of the Dead so much that he agrees to let Eurydice return — if Orpheus promises not to look at her until they’re out of the underworld.
But Orpheus turns to look at her before the journey’s over, and loses her forever. He vows never to love another woman, and in one version of the story, takes a male lover instead. The women of Thrace can’t bear the loss of their musical Adonis, and they tear off Orpheus’s head and fling it in the river.
Erlebacher shows an angry crowd of female nudes waving ivy-wound clubs around the naked blond figure of Orpheus, kneeling on the shore while another man’s head floats in the water. Is it Orpheus’s lover? Or are we seeing multiple parts of the story all at once? Valerio doesn’t know.
“It’s outrageous in every way,” he said of the work. “It’s a very intense painting about social injustice and sexuality and beauty.”
But many of the pieces in the 15-work retrospective let Erlebacher’s lighter side come through, like a series of grape-cluster still lifes that she called her “trompe trompes,” after the hyper-realistic, eye-fooling French tradition of trompe-l’oeil.
“Martha had a real sense of humor,” Valerio said of the grape series. “They trick the eye as illusions of grapes, and they trick the eye because they’re not paintings of actual grapes.”
Look closely and you’ll see the artist was looking at plastic, wooden, alabaster or marble grapes, never the actual fruit: “She’s such a good painter you can tell the difference…she could be a trickster because [her technique] was so advanced.”
While the show does display works from every important stage of Erlebacher’s career, Valerio noted he’s reluctant to call it a retrospective. “The show is a tribute to Martha, a way of expressing thanks to Martha,” he added of displaying the many different sides she had as an artist.
“She was a very good person…funny, smart, supportive of young artists, a dedicated teacher, and someone I liked very much,” Valerio said.
Woodmere Art Museum’s “Just In: Martha Mayer Erlebacher” is on view Jan. 11 to March 2, with an open house on Monday, Feb. 17. For more information, visit the museum’s website or call (215) 247-0476.