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Art Review: Artists from state provide exciting show

Saturday, May 26, 2001

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

As the title suggests, there is recognizable imagery in the paintings of "Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism in Pennsylvania Painting, 1950-2000." But there is also great variety in the way the 21 artists in this stimulating exhibition at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Loretto, present their material.

It's obvious that such a subject and time span can't be definitively addressed by only 21 examples, even as fine as these are, but the exhibition's organizers -- a consortium of Pennsylvania museums -- don't profess to do that.


The museum is on the Saint Francis University campus in Loretto, north of Route 22 near Ebensburg.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

The museum will be open today and tomorrow.

Admission is free.

For information, call 814-472-3920.

The exhibition opens next at the Erie Museum of Art (June 23 - Sept. 16), before traveling to venues in the eastern part of the state.



SAMA Executive Director Michael Tomor opines in the exhibition catalog that Pennsylvania has had a prominent role in the development of Realism in American painting. Then he invites visitors to reach that same conclusion by examining, within the show's historic context, contemporary works of art by "select" artists.

Major names are represented with works that have become part of the world's visual memory: From the East, Andrew Wyeth's "May Day," a call for interior reflection exquisitely represented by a patch of delicate spring blossoms that illuminate a dark forest; from the West, one of Andy Warhol's energized celebrity diptychs ("Aretha Franklin"), which highlights the impact power of splash and surface.

It's exhilarating to glance from a James Wyeth (Andrew's son) to a Philip Pearlstein, from Henry Koerner's masterful, if scandalously autobiographical, "Oh, Fearful Wonder of Man" (on loan from Carnegie Museum of Art) to a portrait by Alice Neel of Clement Greenberg's daughter Sarah that is as much a comment on the critic's advocacy of Modernism over realist work such as her own.

Perhaps even more of a treat for the seasoned museum-goer are seductive works by artists with established reputations who aren't as widely exhibited. Rob Evans' somber but exceptional "Cicada" presents a life cycle in three panels, beginning with a child holding a burning sparkler against a background of fireworks, through naturalistic if oversized cicadas on a tree, to the back edge of a wheelchair that's exiting a hall strewn with toys. An erotically displayed but not overtly sexy woman in Ben Kamihira's haunting "The Glove" slouches into the browns and greens of her room like a feline in a jungle. The elemental nature of social relationships is formidably proposed in Martha Mayer Erlebacher's "The Bow," an evocative scene of primitive ceremony with classical underpinnings. If one reads the subordinate figure as female, a new dimension is added to the artist's statement.

The viewer mingles with the anxious, exotic crowd standing beneath Sidney Goodman's startling, life-sized "Elephant," shares the day-end melancholy of John Moore's penetrating "Erie Evening," or enters the surreal allegorical parade of Bo Bartlett's superb "Dreamland."

Laudable is the inclusion of artist-educators such as Patricia Bellan-Gillen of Carnegie Mellon University and Ben Gibson of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania -- accomplished and part of the dialogue, but operating generally in a different sphere of influence.

As one would imagine, choosing which artists to include was not an easy task, and it was compounded in this instance by the way the exhibition came about, via a committee composed of Tomor, Erie Art Museum Director John Vanco and James A. Michener Art Museum Director and CEO Bruce Katsiff. Also suggesting names were Westmoreland Museum of American Art Director and CEO Judith O'Toole and Stanley Grand, former director of the Sordoni Galery at Wilkes University. The 21 artists exhibited were selected from more than 200 given consideration.

The other artists shown are Diane Burko, Roy DeFazio, Barkley Hendricks, Richard Mayhew, Peter Paone, Nelson Shanks and Neil Welliver.

Tomor, who first arrived at SAMA as curator, has been a persistent champion of artists who choose to work outside of prevailing trends, particularly those who stylistically fell under the vaguely defined umbrella of "Magic Realism." The endeavor is worthy, even radical.

This exhibition, as O'Toole writes in the catalog, demonstrates "the commitment of the artists represented to Pennsylvania's Realist tradition -- even in the face of overwhelming critical absorption with abstraction during the second half of the 20th century."

The exhibition catalog contains full-color illustrations of each painting (plus one not in the show) accompanied by informative essays by scholars familiar with the artist. Unfortunately the same care wasn't given the artists' biographies, which contain such egregious errors as birthing Warhol, Pittsburgh's most famed native son, in Cleveland and citing Koerner's place of death as Pittsburgh rather than his native Austria.

While regrettable, these oversights shouldn't detract from the overall accomplishment, nor discourage the planning of similar exhibitions, catalogs and accompanying programming. It's no secret that nonprofit arts organizations are notoriously understaffed and underfunded. As their contributions become appreciated by a larger audience and more demands are made upon them, we can only hope that private and public sector support will rise accordingly.

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