by Robert I. C. Fisher
Artistically, Philadelphia has always been fertile aesthetic territory. From the innovative, probing realism of such nineteenth-century masters as Thomas Eakins to famous collectors like the Wintersteens, the McIlhennys, and the Arsenbergs- among the first Americans to break the ice by buying Monets, Matisses, and Duchamps-the city along the Schuylkill has always played off the contrast between its traditionally staid origins and its ongoing interest in the new. That interest was splendidly reaffirmed in "Contemporary Philadelphia Artists: A Juried Exhibition," a recent show (on view April 22-July 8) , at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This exhibition was the largest of three regional shows funded by the William Penn Foundation as part of Philadelphia Art Now. a three-year project designed to enhance the visibility of area artists. The show ranged from paintings to video installations and included photography. sculpture. and craft-%--the work of 129 artists selected from over 2,000 applicants. Like Philadelphia's most famous citizen, Benjamin Franklin, the exhibition was both suave and homespun.
One of the virtues of a juried show is that the works on display are on the credit side of the ledger, for, judged by a panel of experts, they have all passed muster. With such distinguished members as Anne dHarnoncourt director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Marge Goldwater, curator at the Walker Art Center; Howardena Pindell, a printmaker and former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; and AlIan Stone, a New York City art dealer, the quality had to be high. Among the artists touched by the wand of vested authority were numerous realist painters, and at the exhibition's opening, it was the work of these artist-Bo Bartlett's Transcendent Function, Renee P. Foulks's Entombment:Fitful Sleep. Mark Bullen's Gibbons. and Randall Exon's Mutatis,Mutandis that attracted some of the largest crowds.
If anything, this show proved how "regional art"- concept that has recently come in for some serious drubbing-has been assimilated to a national scene. Video installations, conceptual photographs, and abstract sculptures all revealed that the various tides of the New York City art scene are vigorously washing up along the banks of the Schuylkill. Indeed, there was little difference between such art,works and those on view in New York City's SoHo or Fifty-seventh Street galleries. Yet with the realist paintings, one could perceive a Philadelphian presence. Evocatively, almost disturbingly with a heavy interest in the dramatic not to say. theatrical-these works (several of which are illustrated here) seem to be imbued with the spirit of Thomas Eakins.
In the end the very number and varied tastes seen in 'Contemporary Philadelphia Artists" reveal that this city has an an scene as stable and as spirited as it has ever been. The Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Painted Bride Art Center, the Tyler School of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are just a few of the components that comprise the city's artistic vitality. For out-of-towners, the show was a promissory note on our future interest in the art of Philadelphia.