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Weekly update – Cheer up! Winter’s over in New American Voices II at the FWM


Crazy-happy collage paintings, mournful costumes, wizardly sculptures, and candy-colored sweaters with pleats — “New American Voices” at the Fabric Workshop and Museum is a four-course feast.  The works — by four featured artists who were in residence at the FWM recently — don’t really go together, but each artist is given so much space it’s like four solo shows.  I can’t say this often but you will find something to love here.

Jiha Moon, detail from one of her colorful pop-culture referencing paintings at the FWM

Sprawling through the museum’s upstairs and downstairs galleries and into the satellite space up the block, the works by Jim Drain (Miami), Jiha Moon (Atlanta), Robert Pruitt (Houston) and Bill Smith (O’Fallon, Illinois) explore big issues like race, chaos, pop culture and multiculturalism.  These mid-career artists with national reputations live in regions outside the major art centers of New York or Los Angeles.  They may not yet be household names but they could be.  Their objects are provocative and beautiful, and the subject matter more honest and thoughtful than a lot of what you see in Chelsea.

Bill Smith (right) talking with Ann Northrup about his work at the FWM opening

Bill Smith, whose work was featured last fall in the first “New American Voices,” continues to astonish with his computerized sci-art sculptures.  This time three works — each one a  “Magnetically stabilized, air driven, computer interfaced, chaotic emu egg pendulum” — deal with randomization and chaos by tracing the movement of an unstable egg atop a basin of water.

Another of Bill Smith’s emu egg pendulums at the FWM

The small tabletop water fountains evoke Victorian science experiments and alien life forms as translated by Hollywood.  With magnets as stabilizers and compressed air as the trigger of destabilization, a large black emu egg (part Faberge and part toilet-tank float with antenna on top) bobs in water held in a translucent hand-made basin that looks like a jellyfish with tentacles. Encircling the egg are tall thin carbon fiber rods with electrical contacts. At some point the egg rises to a position of instability and leans over, its antenna touching a rod and completing an electric circuit.  At that point three things happen: the point of contact is logged in a diagram and projected on the wall; an image selected by Smith (natural world images like a tiger, emu, elephant) is also projected; and finally, a sound plays in the space.

Smith, who spoke at the opening, is a modest and plain-spoken Midwesterner. He says in a gallery handout that  “Contemporary art’s subject is the universe,” and his work certainly takes that statement seriously.  The artist said at the opening that he studied biology and worked in a microbiology lab until he decided he’d rather do his research in the art laboratory, building functional objects whose form follows their function.

Jim Drain, Pleat Construction, 2011, detail. That’s the artist behind the big sweater.

If Smith evokes the chaos and randomness of the universe, Jim Drain’s industrially-knit sweaters evoke the world of planning, building, and design.  Drain has knitted up two pleated sweaters whose overall shapes evoke paper lanterns and whose pretty stripes of color remind you of tropical fish.  Embellished in the interstices with beads and patches of colored fabric, these oversized sweaters placed on armatures with arms outstretched, are not really about clothing.  They are about shape and color–think of them as knitted 3D paintings. Drain’s show also includes two room dividers and some blown glass lighting elements hung from the ceiling.

Robert Pruitt, Untitled Photograph, 2011, at the FWM

Near Drain’s work but not impinging on it, the costumes, sculptures and faux tintype photos of Robert Pruitt create a kind of meta-history museum about African Americans. Guns feature prominently, most of them fetishized, like in the “Headdress with AK47” in which a cheerfully-beaded toy rifle is embedded in a head-like sculpture made entirely of synthetic braided hair.

Opening at the FWM, the artists are lined up in the rear

You won’t find anger in Jiha Moon’s cheery collage paintings.  Their combination of Korean and American pop culture cartoon images with bright-colored cloth and even brighter touches of paint make for riots of color and celebration that blow away the winter blues.

Through the years, the FWM has worked with more than 400 local, national and international artists in its residency program.  As the residencies are great gifts to the artist, the exhibits that result, like this one, are fantastic gifts to Philadelphia.  Don’t miss this one.

New American Voices II, to Spring, 2011, 1214 and 1222 Arch St. 215 561 8888

Read this at Philadelphia Weekly.  More photos at flickr.  See Bill Smith’s emu egg pendulum in a video