Galleries: In Woodmere's Annual, paintings rule

"A Tune Without Any Words," (2012), oil on panel by Anne Canfield, at the Woodmere Art Museum.
"A Tune Without Any Words," (2012), oil on panel by Anne Canfield, at the Woodmere Art Museum.
Posted: June 16, 2014

Since the arrival of director William Valerio almost four years ago, the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill has undergone stunning improvements, not least the transformation of the museum's unfocused summer juried exhibition into a serious examination of contemporary art. This year, the museum has made yet another bold step in the right direction, inviting one of the city's most admired artists, the painter Sarah McEneaney, to be the juror of its 73d Woodmere Annual.

Unlike last year's exhibition, the first in the annual's history to have had two jurors, McEneaney's show of 51 artists is a reflection of her aesthetic alone, which has given it a specific personality.

It is also beautifully installed (no surprise, as McEneaney has worked as a professional art installer and designed the layout of this show) and composed mainly of works that hang on the wall and complement one another in color and scale, as opposed to last year's more amorphous melding of sculptures and paintings. The works in this annual set off sparks together, even the quietest of them.

Paintings rule, especially colorful ones containing patterns or landscapes, or both, as well as works that borrow the flattened pictorial space of early Renaissance painting and American folk art.

American modernists are invoked in several of McEneaney's selections, too, among them painters as diverse as Florine Stettheimer, known for her sprightly, eccentric images of her intellectually elite New York circle of the 1920s, and the Philadelphia abstractionist Arthur B. Carles (there's an abundance of pink in this show, used by both artists). The spirit of Pennsylvania self-taught painter Horace Pippin, a favorite of McEneaney's, also hovers over the show's darker, solitary works.

On the other hand, you never forget that this is a show of contemporary art.

McEneaney's affection for the urban landscape, even for works much like her own paintings, is evidenced throughout, as is her taste for modest, unpolished art and quirky personal depictions of contemporary life.

What I found myself attracted to - and I think of this annual as less about "standouts" than teasing out shared interests among a group of artists, many of them presumably unknown to one another - are works that articulate McEneaney's taste without necessarily looking like her paintings.

Anne Seidman's two abstract works, one vaguely resembling an intersection of a street and a wall, the other a collision of faceted geometric shapes, echo the colors and deliberate awkwardness of McEneaney's paintings, as do Mickayel Thurin's small, expressionistic portraits of women, and Jennifer Bell's densely scrawled self-portraits of concentric lines made while experiencing post-concussion syndrome. Micah Danges' color photograph/collage of a bathroom seen through a window partially obscured by a vining houseplant looks as though it could be an element of a McEneaney. Becky Suss' huge painting of her grandparents' stark, modernist living room, with a West Highland terrier stretched out on the white carpet, painted in a taut style reminiscent of Will Barnet, recalls McEneaney's depictions of her animal companions in her own house.

Lynne Campbell's two small paintings, distant views of a black cat navigating snowy landscapes, capture a lonely mood and independence that made me think of Pippin and McEneaney. So do Paul Rider's color photographs of derelict buildings, and Eli VandenBerg's poignant ink drawing of personal objects and souvenirs, Some Things From 10 Years Together.

And there are renegades - Anda Dubinski's large charcoal-and-conté drawings of plants and other forms from nature run amok, and Gerard Brown's almost solidly black ink drawing of geometric forms, all of which use darkness to powerful effect (Pippin again).

McEneaney's taste in sculpture would seem to run to the small and representational, judging from the three sculptures she selected: H. John Thompson's disorienting wood reconstructions of a staircase and windows; Christina Day's found Polaroid cameras given custom trimwork and a couple of coats of white paint; and Kathran Siegel's painted carved-wood figure of a smiling man carrying a skewered heart that has dripped blood onto his sweatpants.

The Woodmere has included two paintings by McEneaney in the first gallery, along with several studies for those paintings, as a way of introducing her work to the uninitiated. In addition - and let's hope this becomes a tradition - McEneaney was asked to choose works from the museum's collection that seemed relevant to her own artistic practice. Her selections of paintings by Edith Neff, Judith Schaechter, Tina Newberry, Cynthia Carlson, Jimmy Lueders, Julius Bloch, Louis Sloan, and Sidney Goodman make a fascinating, insightful coda to her show.

Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays (several galleries are closed Sundays between 3 and 4:30 p.m. for concerts). 215-247-0476 or Through Sept. 1.

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