A living contrast to Bucks County's painters of yore

Jane Irish's "The Conver- sation," part of her La Salle show on the Vietnam War and its impact.
Jane Irish's "The Conver- sation," part of her La Salle show on the Vietnam War and its impact.
Posted: February 17, 2012

Mavis Smith is a Bucks County painter and illustrator with a popular local following. In a way, she's a natural - as a mid-career living artist with a solo show, "Hidden Realities," at Doylestown's James A. Michener Art Museum - to provide balance for the Michener's comprehensive "The Painterly Voice," a milestone event featuring a century-and-a-half of Bucks County painters from the past.

Yet my initial reaction to Smith's show was dismay: Was placing her work alongside those renowned Pennsylvania impressionists of yore simply a dramatic gesture, a symptom of today's taste for progressiveness combined with a desire for celebrity. Could she handle that?

The title of the large show, "Hidden Realities," evokes the subjective in the visual arts that accompanied rediscovery of the human figure in art decades ago. And "enigmatic calm" well describes the themes she chooses and paints meticulously in egg tempera. Her dominant, oft-recurring subject is a beautiful young blond woman, seen head on and up close, as if in a self-portrait.

Although interested in color, Smith works harder to capture light-dark values that control the considerable degree of spatial illusion she's after. The exhibition rambles enough that we can see her combination of color and internal design fairly often falling short of the energetic rigor that marks the best of her work on display here. In several figure paintings, color appears to have worked better; these images are full of illusional and compositional assurance.

So in all, a mixed bag, but one in which the best parts are very good indeed.

James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S Pine St, Doylestown. To May 20. Tue-Fri 10-4:30, Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5. Adults $12.50 215-340-9800.

War time

It's taken Jane Irish 10 years to come into her own as a Vietnam War artist. Her exhibition "Jane Irish: War Is Not What You Think," at two locations on the La Salle University campus, tells the remarkable story of her journey by examining the war's impact and continuing relevance today. During that decade, Irish did historical research at La Salle's Connelly Library, studying the specialized rare-book and manuscript collection that its librarian, John S. Baky, had compiled on the war. She also made two visits to Vietnam.

The portion of her show at La Salle Art Museum features ceramic vases, colorful travel sketches, and her large mural work with its profuse symmetry of translucent colors and torrent of collaged text, all askew. Meanwhile, at the other location, the library, which owns 20,000 items related to the Vietnam conflict, one finds paintings and ceramics by Irish and a huge pile of books on the war.

This project's relation to the international art world derives from Irish's attempts to re-create bits of Vietnamese terrain as three-dimensional aesthetic objects in the form of substantial ceramic vases and painted scrolls. Hers is an audacious act that transcends style. Postmodern discourse gives Irish the opportunity to revise history as a subject for both painting and claywork.

I would have to say that she's seized that opportunity, and run with it. Such heartfelt and professional achievement deserves wide recognition.

La Salle U. Art Museum, Olney Hall, 19th & Olney. Mon-Fri 10-4. 215-951-1221; La Salle U's Connelly Library, 21st & Olney. Mon-Fri 8-5, Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5. 215-951-1293. Both to March 29.

Legacy of difference

Since Daisy Rockwell left academia in 2006 - a Hindi scholar, she headed the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley - she has been painting small portraits of iconic political figures, including some from South Asia and the Middle East (Nehru, Saddam) chiefly by referencing newspaper and Internet photos. This work is now at Twelve Gates Arts.

Rockwell is a granddaughter of Norman Rockwell, master of American genre scenes. Her artwork is sometimes the very opposite - he made the everyday iconic, she aims to bring the iconic back to the everyday. (I recall several sculpture exhibitions by her uncle, Peter Rockwell, in Philadelphia decades ago. A Haverford College graduate, he still has family members studying at Haverford. And her father, Jarvis, to whom she dedicated her new book, The Little Book of Terror, is an artist as well.)

Rockwell's range of subjects here is quite extensive, from a dour portrait of a Taliban leader to scenes of visits to South Asia by President Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and her sister Lee Radziwill. The two women are shown together, happily riding an elephant. But most of the other images are small brooding works, a few in lurid colors, which creates a dense, moody atmosphere rather than textural weight. The mix of cultural, religious, political and personal references to the subcontinent is somehow not confusing. And the portraits function as compelling, decipherable records of personal anguish filtered through a patchy, transfiguring screen. Therein lie both their despair and their art-historical interest.

Twelve Gates Arts, 51 N. 2d St. To Feb. 25. Tue-Sat 11-5. 215-253-8578.