Philadelphia

“Summer at the Morris Gallery”

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum

The five artists selected for the Academy’s neutrally titled “Summer at the Morris Gallery” exhibition have little more in common than the fact that they all, in one way or another, are exploring aspects of relief sculpture. Two, SID SACHS and BRUCE POLLOCK, ambled off the wall and down onto the floor with freestanding sculpture. WILLIAM WALTON and JOHN FERRIS appeared quite content to remain firmly on the wall. And MAURIE KERRIGAN clambered all over the place with an adventuresome sensibility that encompassed both three-dimensional and relief sculpture.

Sid Sachs relies on a simple visual vocabulary—circle, heart, fish—which he combines and alters in a number of ways. Most of his wall pieces are coils of industrial felt which have been overlaid with acrylic, or encaustic and lacquer. In some pieces, the underlying shape of the felt coil is allowed to peep through in a rough spiral; in others, it has been obliterated with a painted surface that looks as if it could graze skin. These pieces, particularly in their superficially messy finish and just-off geometry, have a lot in common with Gary Kuehn’s work. Sachs’ floor pieces all incorporate crudely sculpted fish: a pentential fishing rod has two of them lashed to a bamboo pole; a grim valentine has another fish bound to a wedge and mounted between two upside down hearts. In these floor pieces, Sachs seems particularly intent on constructing tableaux which beg for the attribution of content. His circles, hearts, and fish are all inviting symbols; it is interesting to see someone sniffing around narrative with such a spare lexicon.

Bruce Pollock’s sculpture deals with miniaturized architectural prototypes. The models which interest Pollock are all prosaically utilitarian ones which he romanticizes with opalescently colored surfaces. His basic sculptural unit is the cube; to this, he adds a gabled roof and, in one series, applied facades which refer to American roadside classics. The constructions have an iridescent patina achieved by layering on vivid enamels and then sanding them back to a motley of softened hues. The warm, almost tropical colors combine with the chilly formality of the structures to generate the visual ambiguity of dry ice. Two large wall pieces of enamel on pine echo the coloristic concerns of his architectural structures. One, composed of 14 overlapping triangles, looks like stylized vertebra. The other is shaped like a body shield but the colors give it the presence of an antic surfboard.

William Walton’s miniaturized wall sculptures all involve shelving devices which tend to swing up at a right angle. The shelves are formally odd combinations of bronze, wood, and steel. In several pieces, broken glass-stirrers rest tenuously on the shelves. It’s a neat reduction of large constructivist concerns and the most art historically referential in the show.

John Ferris was represented by two relief paintings and three watercolor drawings. In the paintings, skeletal houses made of twigs hover over painted landscapes which are seen from a bird’s-eye view and textured like illuminated manuscripts. In the more recent drawings, all that remains are the ghost houses; the background has evanesced and the color reduced to little more than a blush. Once literally floating, the houses now hold the paper with the assurance of architectural renderings. But Ferris is an architect who dabbles in alchemy, and the drawn houses have the added lure of cabalistic game boards.

Very few artists combine their materials with the loving abandon exercised by Maurie Kerrigan. Fresco is her dominant medium and she integrates it with jagged cedar frames, linoleum tile mats, carved driftwood, painted chamois, fabric and tinfoil. That Kerrigan can so consistently bring order to permutations of these disparate elements has to do with the seeming simplicity of her pictorial concerns which focus on empty stages and a curious menagerie of fish, turtles, and dogs. The stages are drawn and displayed serially; the creatures are done as fresco reliefs and tend to wander off the picture plane. In Nothing Happened Three Times in a Row, It’s a Charm, three stages with elaborately embellished but crudely drawn proscenia are divided into a triptych by the painted cedar frame. Each unit has an internal framing device composed of cut paper shrubbery collaged above and below each of the stages. The spearlike motif of the pastel shrubs is echoed in the more sharply articulated cedar spears which jut from either side of the exterior frame. In the First Goodyeard Flish Flight, a scalloped fabric canopy protrudes above the picture plane on which a pale fresco of a flying fish is portrayed. Clinging to either side of the frame are six fresco turtles; suspended from the bottom of the frame are a row of ten fresco fish. In both Nothing Happened and Flish Flight, there is an underlying edginess that addresses itself to artistic stasis and ecological disorder. Her stages are empty over and over again; her creatures are repeatedly menaced by being thrust into alien environments. Kerrigan balances this mordantly fanciful imagery with a kind of giddy decorative embellishment. It’s exuberantly pessimistic art.

Richard Flood