Weekly Update – R. L. Washington and Phil Stein’s urban wonders at Sande Webster

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This week’s Weekly has my review of the two-person show at Sande Webster Gallery.  Below is my copy with some pictures. 

Painter R. L. Washington and photographer Phil Stein have their eyes on Philadelphia, and their works at Sande Webster Gallery are quiet monuments to city streets and ordinary people.

In his third solo show with the gallery, Washington continues to chronicle urban life—and people, especially—in dreamy works that approximate the real without giving you specifics. The artist doesn’t work from photos but from memory and observation. His scenes have a poetic concreteness—you feel their truth and accept these people and places as archetypes. Trained at Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) and the University of Pennsylvania, Washington’s works have the vigor of the Ashcan School painters and the humbleness and grace of Horace Pippin.

R. L. Washington, East Wind Blowing
R. L. Washington, East Wind Blowing

East Wind Blowing, one of the strongest works in the show, serves up a fashionable woman struggling with an armload of groceries, her head down, hair and clothes swept up by the wind. It’s a lovely, dignified portrait of Everywoman coming home after a work day.

R. L. Washington, Make a Move
R. L. Washington, Make a Move

Make a Move is a haunting vision of an elderly woman weighed down by plastic bags and about to sit down on a street bench. She stares at you and her fatigue—whether from world-weariness, illness, age or sadness—is poignant. It’s a beautiful sunny day, yet whether this woman is waiting for a bus or for a friend, she’s in the evening of her life and all alone.

R. L. Washington, Unfinished Business
R. L. Washington, Unfinished Business

There’s a mournfulness to Washington’s new paintings, all made within the last two years, a time, the artist says in his statement, in which his mother, father and an older sibling all died.

Phil Stein, Off Chestnut
Phil Stein, Off Chestnut

Phil Stein’s sculptural photo-collages in the gallery’s front space fracture the city’s buildings, roads and vehicles into fly’s-eye views.  Unlike Washington, Stein gives you street names and intersections with GPS-type specificity (13th and Market; 19th and Callowhill).  Yet his stutter-step presentation calls into question whether you’ve really ever seen the places you think you know so well. Stein’s picturtes are like 3-D puzzles.  Each image fragment is individually mounted on board or foamcore then placed in its location —  in effect re-building the street, architecture, cars and people.

Phil Stein, Market Street Bridge
Phil Stein, Market Street Bridge

Like a mirage on a hot day, “Off Chestnut” shimmers, its big tan building slightly off-kilter like a pile of Cuisinarted pixels.   “Market St. Bridge” is a mélange of architectural styles with 30th Street Station and the Cira Center behind the dense, dirty and gothic-looking bridge.  This would be a spooky picture without Stein’s jiggering of the edifices.  With the surgery he’s done, the image becomes vertiginous.  Work like this feels right for our cyber-cocooning age.  It’s intent may not be to get you to go outside and really look at the world in the flesh, bricks and mortar.  But that’s what you will want to do after seeing the show.

R.L. Washington: “Extensions of Presence” and Phil Stein: “Streets.” Through May 2. Sande Webster Gallery, 2006 Walnut St. 215.636.9003.

Tags

phil stein, r.l. washington, sande webster gallery

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