Don't overlook these two small Art Museum shows

Ralph Eugene Meatyard photo "Untitled" (1960s). His masked humans are unusually haunting. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard photo "Untitled" (1960s). His masked humans are unusually haunting. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
Posted: June 18, 2012

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art decides to open an exhibition in midweek, we know it's going to be something special. So it is with "Visions of Arcadia," an exploration of that mythical paradise organized around three monumental masterpieces by Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse.

When "Arcadia" opens Wednesday, it will immediately overshadow several smaller exhibitions that have been on view at the museum for a while, but that shouldn't be overlooked.

Two of them feature more than 100 works on paper, mostly prints, by Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), whose name might sound familiar, and a suite of disquieting photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-72), probably known mostly to photographers, collectors, and historians.

Although Kent was a writer and left-wing political activist (he won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967), as well as a painter, he is remembered mainly for his graphic work.

He was also an intrepid adventurer who traveled extensively in the northern latitudes — Newfoundland, Greenland, Alaska — and even to Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America. Consequently, his art, painted and printed, features a number of stark, high-contrast landscapes and scenes of Inuit life, such as whaling.

The selections in the exhibition, drawn entirely from the museum's extensive collection of his art, demonstrate the false dichotomy between illustration and high art.

Kent produced images for a number of literary classics, including Candide, Beowolf, The Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick, and the plays of Shakespeare. Typically, these are executed as bold masses demarcated by delicate lines.

This is Kent's essential aesthetic, and it translates perfectly into elegant ink drawings and especially into wood engravings in which the masses are rendered in velvety black.

His prints and drawings are classical in their reductive clarity, existential purity, and evocation of timeless ideals. Kent's life and his work, which typically evoke "man against nature" or "man against fate," blend seamlessly.

The show also includes some lithographs like Big Inch, which depicts men lowering a massive pipe into a ditch. Consistent with the artist's political philosophy, the image is mock-heroic in style and spirit.

Even more revelatory of Kent's political passions is The Smith Act (1951), in which a woman is being burned at the stake. (The law criminalized advocating overthrow of the government by violence, or belonging to any group that supported such action, like the Communist Party.) He further expressed his political creed in the 1937 wood engraving Workers of the World Unite, in which a laborer attacks bayonets with a spade. Kent wasn't the only American artist who imagined such statements of protest; such populist pacifism was consistent with the mood of the Great Depression.

In large part because of his politics, Kent fell out of favor during the McCarthy period of the 1950s and has remained a pariah to this day. Yet, the technical skill and emotional intensity of his work deserves revival periodically, lest he be forgotten.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard earned his living as an optician, not as a photographer, yet in a career that lasted only about 20 years, he created a body of work whose language is instantly recognizable, psychologically powerful and memorable.

Meatyard was born in Illinois, but as an artist is identified with Kentucky; he lived the last 20 years of his life in Lexington. He moved to the state after Navy service and began to photograph in 1950, mostly on weekends.

The quality and originality of his work led him to exhibit with such front-rank talent of the time as Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, and Aaron Siskind. He didn't have a solo show until 1959, in New Orleans; death from cancer in 1972 cut short a career of considerable promise.

His exhibition consists of a thematic group of about 40 photographs called "Dolls and Masks," made between 1957 and 1968. All the prints are pretty much of a type, people (family and friends, adults and children), wearing masks and posed in spooky environments — derelict houses, cemeteries, and dark, forbidding woodlands.

Some compositions are primarily still-lifes, consisting of dolls and/or masks hanging on tree limbs or immersed in foliage. Meatyard worked with a palette of shadows of varying density, and uses flashes of light only to accent the actual and metaphoric gloom.

The tactic of masking humans is elementary, even simplistic, and hardly unique to him, yet in some indefinable way, his method results in unusually disturbing and haunting evocations of mystery and the ineffable.

The situations are essentially realistic and prosaic — people posing as they might for family snaps. But the use of grotesque masks transforms familiar clichés into disturbing fantasies that would wake you from your sleep if they were dreamed.

The masks are so transformative that they overpower the familiar elements in each scene. Meatyard isn't exactly a surrealist, but he does push one's imagination beyond comfort.

Once you see these images, they linger in your head for a long time, in my case since I first saw some of Meatyard's work more than 30 years ago. Encountering them again reinforced my initial impression, that he had struck an atavistic chord of psychic distress that continues to reverberate.

If weather permits, you might stroll around the Sol LeWitt garden that runs down the slope from the museum's west entrance toward the Italian fountain. This joint project of the museum and the Fairmount Park Art Commission translates a typical LeWitt wall drawing into flowers.

The concept is inspired, because LeWitt's drawings would appear to be perfectly suited to such adaptation. However, the realization is less than satisfactory.

First, the monumental scale proves to be impractical. Because, at nearly 19,000 square feet, the garden is so large, it's difficult to see the intended effect from ground level.

Also, the need to provide for continuous blooming of the garden's four colors — red, yellow, blue, and white — means there are always conspicuous green intervals in the rows of color.

On top of that, the 19 varieties of plants differ in height and character. Instead of the precise geometry of a LeWitt drawing, the garden projects a scraggly randomness in which the rows themselves, in four directions, tend to dissolve.

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.


Two at the museum

The Rockwell Kent exhibition continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through July 29. Ralph Eugene Meatyard continues through Aug. 5. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $16 general, $14 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for students with I.D. and visitors ages 13 through 18. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.

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