Figures From the Vault – A Celebration of the Body at SAMA

As the pandemic continues to disrupt the world, the art institutions, facing budget restrictions and dwindling visitor numbers, have to be creative in curating their exhibitions. Many look inward and deep into their own vault. The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA) currently features figurative art from their permanent collection. The result is a dynamic wide-ranging exhibition celebrating the human body.

Figurative work has never completely fallen out of favor in Western Art. Maybe we could argue that post-war expressionism outshines all other forms for a period of time; but in retrospect, figurative painters of that period like Will Barnet, Paul Cadmus and Jared French have found their own historical significance. SAMA has acquired some of the best paintings by Colleen Browning through the bequest of the artist. Naturally, a focus on magic realism can grow out of that endowment. Browning’s best-known graffiti-adorned subway car paintings combine the dreamy quality of daily riders lost in their subconsciousness and the saturated graffiti graphics, foreshadowing pop-art in the upcoming decades.

In the exhibition, Browning’s works are spread out. In Nine Times One from 1970, Browning painted the same three-quarter view of her face nine times, each in its own hue. Of course, she could have been influenced by Andy Warhol, but in the post-Instagram world, the work looks anew with her analog paint-brush filter. Through maneuvering values, colors and abstraction, she creates an array of self-portraits that are identical in facial features, but astonishingly different in moods.

I was intrigued by Barbara Adrian’s surrealistic “The Red Stairway.” Devoid of any contextual setting, it features a long red-carpeted staircase where a young lady has paused, uncomfortably, to watch a passing-by older gentleman turning to examine her. The same male figure is repeated twice further up the stairs, with identical hand gestures and clothing folds. The 1980s is far removed from today’s “Me Too” movement, but the painting’s sexist undertone gives me chills.

Rob Evan’s Refuge follows the same magic realism theme. In terms of its dream-like components, the oil on panel work reminds of Robert Vickery. It casts a dramatic mountainous night scene as the backdrop for an intimate baby shower in the backyard.  The tiny-scaled toys scattered around, the long shadow from the headlights and the hustling wind from the opposite direction, creating an eerie and lonesome atmosphere. Evan applies thick impasto of subtle colors, without losing the tight control of minutiae details. All things are loose, but time freezes.

The museum’s holdings strengthen its focus on magic realism with work by Paul Cadmus and Bo Bartlett. Despite both being works on paper, they exemplify what drew a century of artists to the human form – the infinite forms of contour, shape and movement and the mysterious spiritual quality within each rendering of the human body.

Unfortunately, the rest of the exhibition has an uneven quality that makes viewers wonder if every human body has been excavated out of the vault to make the show. It also suffers from a lack of a curatorial narrative for the orchestration and the juxtaposition of artworks. Walt Kuhn’s Acrobat from 1947 does not live up to the standards of the artist. Nor do I find it logical to view a mid-18th century Italian School painting of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife next to the work by Kamal Youssef in the 21st century. It is a nice copy of Carlo Cignani and would make sense if the exhibition could have a section of Baroque and Renaissance Art that goes with it.

But I do appreciate the broadly defined scope of the exhibition. For the first time, I saw Alice Worthington Ball’s work. “Last Rays after the Storm” was painted in 1905, the height of American Impressionism. We seldom see women artists from this era, except Mary Cassett, Cecilia Beaux, and occasionally Lilla Cabot Perry. Ball’s work is completely new to me. It is less about the female figure who opens the cabinet in a dark room than the textural coordination of fabric, ceramics, glass, wood and human skin. I have since searched her work online — A few auction records here and there with still life and landscapes. But none speaks for the enigmatic quality of domestic interiors of the Gilded Age. For once, I feel lucky that the exhibition digresses a bit.

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