PAFA’s Got a Brand-New Bag
The Academy lifts itself into the 21st century.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ new acquisitions show “This Place Is Ours!” rightly deserves the exclamation point in its title.
The big show of more than 100 works of American art purchased since 2001 demonstrates a new vision at the once dusty Academy. In one fell swoop PAFA declares itself ready to be a leader as a repository for art that’s historically important, regardless of whether it’s in the Academy tradition of realism.
The show’s title comes from Jim Houser’s painting This Place Is Ours! which greets you at the entrance of the Hamilton Building. Houser’s enthusiastic embrace of ownership of place and time echoes throughout the galleries within.
Alice Neel, left, Clement Greenberg’s Daughter (Sara Greenberg) and Jane Irish, right, Dewey Canyon, III. I wonder why Sarah McEneaney is not in this show and, hey, PAFA, I’m hoping there are acquisition funds for some of her works!
One of the joys of this sprawling multigallery show is the smart hanging of works from different eras and regions to create new ways of telling a broader story about art history. New York artist Alice Neel’s brushy realist portrait of Clement Greenberg’s daughter is placed in between a cartoony 3-D painting by Chicago imagist Jim Nutt and a juicy painting about resistance to the war in Vietnam by local artist Jane Irish. This weaving together of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia—as well as politics, portraiture and surrealism—questions regional differences and begs for a larger, more inclusive story of art.
Paul Pletka, Los Hermanos de Sangre, detail. This work is a great mix of biker boy tattoo art and Latino Christian art. It’s too bad it’s situated in a small space where you can’t get back and really study it.
Paul Pletka’s Latino-influenced hyper-illustrational crucifixion painting paired with Raphael Ferrer’s Gauguinesque beach painting likewise questions what American art is and indeed what it means to be American. It’s also great to see Rob Matthews’ spiritually fueled altarpiece and George Tooker’s spiritually questing Dark Angel side by side. And the minimalist out-of-towners Robert Ryman, Willie Cole and Jennifer Bartlett pair beautifully with Philly’s Bruce Pollock, Astrid Bowlby, Kevin Finklea and Quentin Morris.
Sculpture is particularly vibrant in this show. Not to be missed are Nick Cave’s sparkly shamanistic Soundsuit (looking both stylish and completely otherworldy), Jane South’s 3-D virtuoso cut-paper space station, Tristin Lowe’s cardboard robot and Isaac Resnikoff’s carved wood geode.
Drawings by Huston Ripley, Ben Peterson, Rob Matthews, Randall Sellers and Peter Gourfain—also seen elsewhere in Philadelphia—look masterful here.
Of course the big kahuna in the show is Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, which the Academy copurchased with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Right now the work is enthroned in PAFA’s Victorian galleries in the Furness Building, where it looks truly at home. Also in Furness, Virgil Marti’s mushroom and flame black-lit wallpaper reminds you that contemporary art looks fantastic in this 19th-century architectural jewel.
PAFA’s readiness to engage in the 21st-century discussion about American art is welcome. Clearly the institute understands it’s a guardian of a bigger story than previously conceived. It’s worth noting that this show happens at a time of transition when PAFA’s top two positions are vacant. Let’s hope the new management will continue the Academy’s strong acquisition program.
“This Place Is Ours!”: Recent Acquisitions at the Academy. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Through Sept. 23. $5-$7. Samuel M. V. Hamilton Bldg., 128 N. Broad St.; Historic Landmark Bldg., 118 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600.