What do nineteenth-century landscape paintings have to do with contemporary Philadelphia art? Are there common thematic, aesthetic, or stylistic elements that can be extracted upon viewing the works, or are these works merely imprisoned within their respective centuries and cultures? Of course threads from previous art historical ideas can often be found in contemporary works of art, but can art from radically different periods and cultures sit comfortably side by side in a gallery space without seeming confused or haphazard? Two Philadelphia institutions, the Schwarz Gallery and InLiquid Gallery, are addressing those questions in a collaborative exhibit entitled Traditional Meets Contemporary (November 19-February 26, 2020) at the Schwarz Gallery, a joint celebration of the Schwarz Gallery’s 90anniversary and InLiquids’s 20anniversary.
The Schwarz Gallery, founded in 1930, initially opened on the Atlantic City boardwalk. During the Second World War, it moved to its Philadelphia location, where it eventually became recognized as one of the nation’s most important sources for artwork of Philadelphia artists from the founding of Philadelphia to mid-twentieth century. Robert D. Schwarz, who joined in 2002 and became the gallery’s third-generation president, acknowledges his interest in supporting the contemporary art scene and notes anewfound collaboration with InLiquid. For this exhibit he focused on creating pairings and connections between disparate paintings, accentuating common aesthetic and thematic qualities. He worked together with InLiquid to find visual commonalities between works from his gallery and contemporary works from InLiquid in the joint anniversary celebration. A closer look at several of these pairings shows how they seem to uncannily illuminate each other’s essence, almost as if visually speaking for each other in a whimsical, playful way that crosses the confines of historical context and style.
Upon entering this newly renovated space, two large paintings at first glance seem unrelated, one by Herman Herzog (1832-1932) of a realistically portrayed rushing waterfall clamoring over rocks and broken branches entitled Alpine Landscape, and the other, a colorful geometric lined contemporary abstraction by Michele Kishita entitled Nature’s Optimistic Revelry. Though the vibrant orange and blue tones of Kishita’s painting mirror the subtle palette of colors in Herzog’s work, it is the thematic kinship that sparks a true sense of connection. Kishita makes correlations between the wood grain of her panels and the water that created it. She states: “I am struck by Hokusai’s landscapes and how he transformed the fierce dynamism of waterfalls into an evocation of roots, rocks…revealing how water’s mutability gestures toward the essential impermanence and transience of all things.” The blue, green, yellow and purple seem to convey facets of water, rushing and transforming itself under and through the bright orange roadblocks just as Herzog’s powerful waterfall crashes through the rocks and branches. And perhaps there is another layer of connection between these works, that of the transformative power of nature to not only change the landscape but also to change ourselves.
Upstairs in the gallery, another pairing captures similar kinship across centuries of art. James Hamilton’s Steamboat at Sunset (1874) sits next to Lee Lippman’s contemporary work Loading on the Delaware. Clearly the thematic elements of boats on water are similar. Hamilton’s work captures the reflection of the setting sun on the water, contrasting a rocking boat against powerful waves with colors and atmospheric rendering reminiscent of Turner. Similarly, Lipmann’s work more abstractly captures a ship loading dock off in the distance with a wide swath of blue-green water commanding the forefront of the painting. The emphasis on the vast foreground of water in Lippman’s work seems to speak to the power of the water in the same way that the roiling red waves in Hamilton’s painting contrast with the linting, off-kilter little ship, again possibly conveying the power of water over the manmade ships and harbors. These paintings seem to express similarly profound ideas, albeit through differing visual language. Whimsically placed contemporary sculptures by Thomas Miles which seem to convey both a ship and a whale, (though their names may suggest otherwise: from left: Fred and Ginger, and Horney Boy) sit comfortably on an antique buffet in front of both, adding further layers of connections across languages of art.
Throughout the gallery are interspersed works by two other contemporary artists, works which add to the common themes of the transforming effects of nature as well as ideas on impermanence and change. Leora Brecher’s sculptures (from left: Wind and Yearning II) sit below another painting by Kishita (Confluence I) and a painting of the Philadelphia Waterworks by Nicolino Calyo (The Schuylkill River and Waterworks, c1835). Brecher’s white twisting, gyrating forms reminiscent of tubers, or roots, seem to be almost in movement, squirming, perhaps as if due to unseen natural forces. As she states: “My fascination with the natural world is my constant. I am drawn to the transforming effects of wind, water, and fire as they speak to the passage of time.” Perhaps just like the paintings above it, in which both paintings of Philadelphia waterways done centuries apart speak to notions of time, her work adds visual depth to this notion by the language of sculpture. Peter Cunicelli’s twisting earth-colored vessels, (from left: Yellow Vase, Blue Bottle, and Low Wide Vase) placed in front of another realistic, calm waterfall by Herzog, (Deep Leap Falls, Dingman’s Ferry,) echo Herzog’s color palette. Cunicelli states “These elements, contrast, movement, and sensuality, provide the basis for my ceramic work. As in nature, there is often a clear delineation between light and dark.” Undulating contrasts between shade and light seen in Cunicelli’s elegant vessels seems to echo the contrasts of light, of rock and water in Herzog’s work.
Walking through this exhibit is a joyful, thought-provoking experience, one where unanticipated connections come to light. These paintings and sculptures, though coming from vastly different time periods and historical contexts, utilize the timeless language of art to convey themes as weighty as the inexorable movement of time as captured by the natural world, the transformative power of nature, and the emotional resonance of the natural world. But mostly, they are just plain beautiful and harmonious to behold. And the passage of time marked by change, of 90 years and of 20 years, to be exact, is exactly what we’re celebrating here, isn’t it?
Traditional Meets Contemporary runs November 19-February 26, 2020 at the Schwarz Gallery, 1806 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia