There are some exceptionally fine, largely little-known contemporary artists working in Philadelphia. Two of them, both of whom will be represented in the "Contemporary Philadelphia Artists" show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art beginning April 22, are featured at Gallery K.
Sculptor Lanny Bergner and painter Mark McCullen represent what appears to be a large contingent of these artists whose works' central concern is organic form -- or at least is inspired by or derived from natural objects. This specific influence is amply evident in Bergner's meticulously crafted mixed-media pieces. Made mostly of synthetic materials, they resonate of things one might see in pond water under a microscope. But at their actual size, they festoon the gallery like specimens from a museum collecting trip to another planet.
All of Bergner's extraordinarily simple forms, constructed of silicone, hydrocal, wire mesh, stone and pigment, are on close inspection remarkably complex. He builds his seemingly ubiquitous shapes -- bulbous, tailed forms of tadpoles or spermatozoa and twisted spirals and cones -- out of a network of overlapping parts. Opaque or shiny black globs of silicone are spattered over painted patterns or screen giving the whole an amazing intricacy and depth. The irony of the dialectic provoked between the organic-seeming forms and their synthetic composition is obvious and urgent.
McCullen's encaustic and oil compositions and sensitive drawings are dynamic renditions of a world reduced to the basics and complement Bergner's sculptures beautifully. Thickly executed imaginary landscapes, these surrealistic visions recall some of Max Ernst's wilder visions.
In "Shark Bait," for example, what looks to be a white linen-swathed coffin rests on jagged red rocks by a solid-looking sea. The water appears to be frozen in the act of cresting in a wave that, once released, will wash it out to sea. Other paintings depict curious plants and topographical features, such as living volcanoes or organic ice cream cones.
Both artists create a world that is patently synthetic, yet as plausible and touchable as a city.
'Tough Issues' at Gallery 10
Timid gallery-goers beware! It's time once again for the annual Gallery 10 feminist angst group show. This one is titled "Tough Issues." These predictable cyclic hodgepodges of wildly inconsistent artifacts are not so much art exhibits as displays of women's encounter group catharsis. They give political art a bad name -- hard to do considering its already suspect reputation.
Here are all the by now familiar devices to draw attention to the woman's lot in life: female effigies distorted with what is portrayed as the unbearable bloody anguish of childbearing, canvases numerically detailing lifetimes of humiliation and suppression of self, and summonses to the eradication of malekind. Much of the work looks positively unhygienic.
Sculptor Jill Lion gives the Freudian concept of penis envy a neoclassical twist with her rather optimistically endowed soapstone sculptures, while Jo Ann Crisp-Ellert creates a stained windowlike tableau of pictographs replete with a real stethoscope and crutch in a work titled "Battered? For Help Call 202-529-5991."
Sudie Rakusin checks in on a more militant note with "I am in the World to Change the World, Kathe Kollwitz," a painting of what looks to be a dangerous, leopard-eyed Amazonian virago in African attire brandishing a wand (or club) with stuck-on crystals. Nearby, Marilyn Banner offers the found-object sculpture "Soul Ladder." Presumably intended to detail more horrors attendant to the condition of being female, it comes off instead as unsightly trash on a ladder.
There are two very fine works in this show, however, and they stand out from the general and oppressive anguish like bright beacons of controlled and genuine artistry. Perhaps the most moving work is Mildred Baldwin's simple, unpolished but moody and haunting little painting, "Daddy's Socks," depicting a black woman hanging socks to dry over a bathtub. Second only to this is a striking vertical abstract of glowing colors by Carol Lukitsch titled "Looking for Light While the World Is Burning."
Robarge at Arlington Art Center
One fine thing about the Arlington Art Center is that it regularly hosts outdoor installation works by area sculptors. The spacious lawn in front of the old school that houses the center is ideal for the purpose, as anything placed there is visible to all who commute via Wilson Boulevard.
One of the better such installations the center has mounted recently is Arlington resident Marc Robarge's two-piece work "Houses of Light." Robarge's templelike constructions have been seen before by the District's public, most notably a piece similar to the works now on display that was included in a Washington Square group show last year.
Robarge makes Norman-window-shaped shelters of sorts out of wood, bark, aluminum, glass, prisms and mirrors. His principal concern is how people perceive interiors, and the way those interiors relate to people's concept of home, self and the world at large. The two shelters that constitute "Houses of Light" are similar on the outside: covered in bark and looking like medieval roadside altars.
Step inside, though, and it's a whole different story. One of the shelter's interiors is lined with irregular bits of black glass; the other is tiled with small squares of mirrors that fracture the viewer's reflected image rather like David Hockney's Polaroid montages. At the extreme corner of each is a translucent plastic column that appears to glow. The interesting thing about these two structures is that, when facing into them, even though they are open to the world behind you, you feel as though you are cozily ensconced in an inner sanctum, womblike and safe.
It is of course an illusion. But it's a convincing one, and isn't that a big part of what successful art is all about?
Lanny Bergner and Mark McCullen, at Gallery K, 2010 R St. NW, through Feb. 16.
Tough Issues, at Gallery 10, 1519 Connecticut Ave. NW, through Feb. 23.
Marc Robarge, Houses of Light, at the Arlington Art Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, through July 27.