Since that wonderful 1940 George Cukor movie, The Philadelphia Story, the phrase Philadelphia Story has become a punning way for media outside our fair city to report on our doings. artnet.com had a column called Philadelphia Story that I wrote for several years. And here’s a recent Philadelphia story on a Cleveland website — it’s about the Phillies.
Artist/curator Sarah Roche‘s show, Philadelphia Story, now at Woodmere Art Museum, actually debuted at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey last October so the show’s title made a lot of sense — a show of Philadelphia artists in a New Jersey space. While the title is somehow a little too thunderous for a local exhibit of paintings and painted objects by 17 Philadelphia artists, the exhibit is a good one.
An unabashed celebration of narrative painting, Philadelphia Story is strong in old-style Philadelphia academic painting from observation, and the walls are full of figures, animals, portraits, architecture — classic subjects in this city as elsewhere. There are also a few cartoon-like works and a couple of painted constructions. Philadelphia is a painting town, says Roche. And it is, although increasingly the city is also a video town and a FLUXUS-inspired one-night event town with performances, ad hoc or planned, taking place in the various collectives.
It’s nice to see familiar works by Sarah McEneaney, Ira Upin, Kate Javens, Bob Scheib, Frank Hyder, Susan Moore, Anne Canfield, Jane Irish, Rob Matthews, Roche, Mark Shetabi (Roche’s significant other), Hiro Sakaguchi, Charles Schmidt and Sidney Goodman — a list that mostly reads like a who’s who of established and up-coming local painters.
The surprises are in Upin’s portrait of himself and his wife — a kind of double Ascension portrait — and in works by three lesser-known artists. In this highly serious show, Upin’s easel-sized painting with its weird psychedelic ambiance is more deadpan Big Lebowski than prim and proper Philly. The renegade work seems to embrace its inner kitsch. In fact it is great to see kitsch in this show, because that, too, like narrative art, is ascendant. Kitsch’s acceptance is a curious phenomena that needs a show all its own. Kitsch Philadelphia Story, maybe — somebody should organize it.
Three lesser-known artists also serve up nice surprises — Pamela McCabe, Jen Packer and Mike Cole. (Disclaimer, Packer and Cole were students of Libby’s and mine at Tyler in 2006.)
McCabe, (wife of Sidney Goodman), has two large oil on linen works that embed what look like ancient Chinese religious imagery in a world of grafitti wildstyle loop-de-loops, puffs of smoke and whooshy colors. There is an almost giddy virtuosic manner here and something cartoony. The artist doesn’t show her works, says Roche, who paid McCabe a studio visit and coaxed the paintings out of her for the show. It’s a shame because I’d love to see more.
Cole’s photo realist scrapbook paintings investigate small town Pennsylvania’s culture of quietude, family and hunting. Beautifully painted, the jumble of images also pulls from pop culture, namely Star Wars — a boy of a certain age’s all-time favorite source material. There’s not much pop culture in this show so it’s good to see it. In other venues in Philadelphia you will find pop culture screaming, leering and winking at you from walls, floors and pedestals as young artists duke it out with the culture even at the risk of losing. Few can be Andy Warhol subduing the culture at will and making something more of it. But it seems everybody is trying these days. See one of Cole’s Star Wars paintings here.
Packer marches to her own drumbeat. She seems to be channeling the old masters through her personal experience. Her brooding self portrait with its classical colors and composition is Romantic. And while it’s not really like his work at all, the backwards/forewords-looking work is a little like Kehinde Wiley‘s also Romantic paintings of ghetto-dressed models posing in old masterly compositions.
About this show, I’ll quote what they used to say on tv, There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.
Kudos to Roche for this nicely-curated and thoughtful show. There’s room for many more Philadelphia Stories to be told.