Two local talents at Gross McCleaf

"Paddle Boats, Manayunk," a 2011 work by James B. Williams, is among his works and those of Larry Francis that are on display in solo shows at Gross McCleaf Gallery until Feb. 28.
"Paddle Boats, Manayunk," a 2011 work by James B. Williams, is among his works and those of Larry Francis that are on display in solo shows at Gross McCleaf Gallery until Feb. 28.

Cityscape master's worthy successors

Posted: February 24, 2012

Does the late painter Francis Speight, our most dedicated observer of the 1930s and '40s Philadelphia cityscape, have a true successor today? Two local painters, either of whom might aspire to that lofty post, are Larry Francis and James B. Williams. In solo shows at Gross McCleaf, their recent work is now on display.

Francis, a Southwest Philadelphia native, is widely known for painting his urban landscapes on site, whether at Rittenhouse Square (including a recent commission for a European to take home as a remembrance of the city), at Governor Printz Park, in Chinatown, along the canal in Phoenixville, or more intimate small neighborhood scenes. The last are as close as you're likely to get to an encounter on the street with the artist himself, brush in hand.

Francis knows well - as did Speight - how to capture a scene's mellow light so it softens harsh outlines of buildings and grazes lightly the leaves of trees. At times he seems to go further than Speight, however, by using human figures not simply as accessories, but instead in an almost trancelike suspension, as if his landscapes with people are narrative paintings with the narrative arrested at an inconclusive point.

And like Speight, who was celebrated for his Manayunk scenes, Jim Williams also knows about the mellow light that blurs and softens buildings' edges and uses it to portray humid summer days in and around Manayunk.

Besides managing to avoid overfamiliar Manayunk views, what's most impressive here are two oils that make the case for taking Williams seriously: his richly colorful Paddle Boats, Manayunk and a sophisticated major piece, Fire Next Time. The latter is an ambitious exercise in reconciling ambiguity, geometry and gesture, adequately realized. It's an intelligent work.

Gross McCleaf Gallery, 127 S. 16th St. To Feb. 28. Tue-Sat 10-5. 215-665-8138.

Lava at Lawrence

There's talent galore in the exhibition "Volcano/Kaboom," which features catastrophic imagery by three artists at Rosemont College's Lawrence Gallery. While I hardly think the artistry in it will be taken up as purveying a fashionable kind of sensation, it's an unusual show and somewhat mind-expanding.

For me, the drawing in this display, especially the rough stuff with all kinds of mark-making on it, has considerable appeal. Hiru Sakaguchi in particular has enlarged the scale of what his drawings can do, and fantasy aspects get a big play, especially airplanes taking off from inside an active volcano (Sakaguchi lives near Philadelphia International Airport). Of marked interest is his Civil War naval battle scene in mixed-media.

Serena Perrone's large prints and drawings make an especially striking contribution here, while Alina Josan's images unify the show's two main branches.

Rosemont College's Lawrence Gallery, Rosemont. To March 9. Mon-Fri 9-8. 610-526-2967.

Honoring unsung heroines

"Women Collared for Work" features images of women from 1899 to 1999 who are admired by the eight female artists portraying them. This traveling show, now at West Chester University, originated at Coral Springs Museum of Art, Broward County, Fla., in 2009 and has appeared elsewhere in our region.

Some of its most memorable works honor unsung heroines who overcame obstacles connoted by the "collars" of the show's title. Leading the list are Bernice Davidson's life-size sculptures in basket weave technique, of a brave young Native American forced to relocate, and of two suffragettes, one black and one white, jailed in a right-to-vote march. These sculptures command much respect.

Ditto Margo Allman's championing the cause of Japanese American women interned during World War II; in her paintings, an abstract clarity defines them. Convincing in their dignity are Deborah Stelling's small, select mixed-media paintings saluting Eleanor Roosevelt and Georgia O'Keeffe. So is Ann Stein's celebration of the accomplishments of Frances Perkins, the female U.S. cabinet member, portrayed effectively by period objects and drawings.

Rosemary Lane's paper-cast wall-relief portraits honoring several vanguard artists of our time are catchy, while Wilma Balkin Siegel zeroes in on psychological portraits of five "Flower Children Grown Up," her soft sculptures cheerily saluting a form of development begging to be celebrated more often, namely good old emotional maturity wherever you find it.

West Chester U.'s New Gallery at Bull Center for the Arts, 2 E. Rosedale Ave. To March 9. Mon-Fri 9-4, Sat noon-4. 610-436-2755.

All together now

The display "Collective 34: Artists in Sync with Francine Shore" at Muse Gallery features dozens and dozens of canvases, each a foot square, painted by 34 participating artists. These small units have been installed into shapes that revisit the idea of collage.

It's a colorful sight, high-spirited and optimistic. This engaging cooperative effort helps explain why some of us have deep attraction for levels of sensual beauty seemingly devoid of practical use but - as can be seen in these tiny canvases brought together into a temporary abstract design - not devoid of meaning.

Muse Gallery, 52 N 2d St, Phila. To Feb. 26. Wed-Sun 12-5. 215-627-5310.

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