State of the Arts: The Philadelphia story

Bo Bartlett, Radio Flyer, 2012, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist and the PPOW Gallery, New York

You won’t find King Charles sporting Cher’s haircut, or any other ornate, high-stepping and wig and white-tight-wearing royalty in The Philadelphia Story: Contemporary Figurative Works Drawn from the Academy. But you will see an array of modernized strangers — casual, poised and even intimidating. And it’s better this way. Because when you don’t know the subject, the artists have to perform.

The exhibition, on display at the Asheville Art Museum through June 9, features more than 40 figurative works by 20 artists and former Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts students. They’ve rendered, cast and sculpted the human form, hitting the classical high points, but evading the historically drab. Some portraits flaunt their art-historical lineage through methodical brush strokes and flesh-like ceramic castings. Others dip beneath abstracted color planes and fractured forms.

The school was founded in 1805, making it the oldest art museum and school in the country. Despite more than 200 years of figurative history, Nancy Sokolove, the exhibition’s curator and an Academy graduate, chose from contemporary works only. They span from 1986 to a few as fresh as 2013.

Sokolove says the show is about looking at contemporary American figurative work. “[It’s] how the traditional, non-conceptual framework of the teaching/learning in the Academy’s classrooms has been translated by some artists to make works that are conceptual, not staid or boring,” she tells Xpress. The Pennsylvania Academy, she says, has an historic reputation for its figurative artworks.

Traditionally composed oil portraits, and charcoal drawings of figures in dark, shady settings are contrasted by animated-realism and pin-point, fine-line work, such as in Beth Foley’s “Gap.” Foley’s living room setting is one of domestic unease, if not personal conflict. A man sporting a pair of teal-striped Gap underwear, which lend the title, is sound asleep on the couch — passed out, rather.

Foley has painted hundreds of individual black hairs that wisp, curl and dot the figure’s lifeless body, while skipping other areas entirely. It would seem a subtle hint toward his physical-turned-paternal underdevelopment. A woman, visibly fatigued, shares the couch with him and their ostensible children.

She’s youngish, as is he, but well-groomed and fit in comparison. Sharp facial features, large blue eyes and blonde hair dangling from beneath a red bandana all hint at a promising, but sadly former lifestyle debauched by reproduction. You get the sense that she was a high school beauty. Now she’s sporting the type of maternity gown that cries, “I gave up a long time ago.” Her eyes gaze off to the right at a dimly glowing TV while she bottle-feeds an infant. You can only hope that it’s turned to Maury Povich.

Several of the works take on traditional, or classical approaches to rendering the human form while taking modern liberties. Nancy Bea Miller’s “Sarah With a Cell Phone,” depicts a posed female figure staring into the screen of a cell phone. The screen’s bluish-white glow casts across her mesmerized face.

Roger Geier’s slip-cast ceramic bust is traditional in technique, yet modern in approach. A closer look at the pink, flesh-like and headless form reveals a faint disruption. A thin white line turns out to be a tan line. Triangular patterns outline the breasts then stretch across the collar bone before wrapping around the neck.

With each piece the human figure shapeshifts, transitioning in and out of various states of realism and abstraction.

Charles Tisa’s “Head” and “Snoid” loosely maintain representational elements. The shoulders and head are there, but marred, defaced rather, by abstract markings.

Alexander Kanevsky’s oil painting “Large Nude With Several Pictures of Herself” gives a kaleidoscope-esque view of a reclining nude. The central figure stretches across the canvas. He’s repeated the form in new poses, half-rendered, scattered and reduced to planar, geometrical shapes.

Bo Bartlett’s “Radio Flyer” takes on representational portrait in a calming, subtly dreamed-up manner. He depicts a young girl, maybe 10 or so, seated in a cherry-red Radio Flyer wagon. She’s being tugged up a pale, yellow grassy hill by a largely unseen adult figure. A few triangular rooftops sunk into the cloudy background manage to creep above the hill. Each has a thin column of smoke pouring out, yet there’s not a chimney in sight. The landscape is meager, but manages to stretch for miles.

There’s a stillness to the painting. Everything has stopped, put on pause, just for this moment. The girl’s deadlocked stare controls the entire canvas, which is nearly 5 feet. But it’s a gaze that goes to your left shoulder, as to never make direct eye contact. A pilot’s hat hangs around her neck and googles, in the WWI fighter pilot style, are perched atop her head. It’s as if the wagon will take off at any moment. Even a distant neighbor has come to look.

Plenty of Academy artists, according to Sokolove, “have excellent technical skills and don’t apply them creatively.” It’s a problem that sweeps through the creative sector — art, music, theater, etc. And even more so in the academic setting, where learning is often a priority, pushing creativity to a secondary notion.

“I wanted to show that creativity coupled with excellent skills will equal dynamic work,” she says.

The Philadelphia Story is on view through June 9 at the Asheville Art Museum. For more information visit

This exhibition is Sokolove’s last, regarding traditional 2-D and 3-D works. She’ll finish few projects with the New Media gallery and help with scheduling several future exhibitions before relocating Atlanta with her family.

About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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