My daughter and I zipped up (thank you Southwest Airlines!) to Philadelphia for a recent weekend to visit colleges. In addition to the college tours, we made sure to make time for a walk through the historic district, important stops such as Franklin Fountain (for ice cream – yes, it is worth the long line), and a handful of museums. As first time visitors, we accepted beforehand the trip would be a mere glimpse of Philadelphia and throughout the weekend we both mentioned hoping this trip is the first of many.
We visited the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Mütter Museum, the Penn Museum, and the one I have admired from afar for years, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) which will be the focus of today’s post.
This institution is both academy and museum. The galleries host outstanding visiting exhibits, student exhibits, and work from the permanent collection. Due to a history of training some of our countries’ most established artists, they permanent collection consists of work from past and current students and faculty who are now world renowned such as Cecilia Beaux, Alex Kanevsky, Vincent Desiderio and Thomas Eakins. There are various learning opportunities for students and professionals such as a Masters in Fine Art program, certificate programs, and post graduate professional offerings. They host provocative, educational lectures for students and guests – I only read about them from home but am determined to attend someday.
There are currently numerous excellent exhibits throughout the galleries. The one that most exceeded my expectations was “Chuck Close Photographs: Stretching the Boundaries of Photography.” I’ve grown up studying Chuck Close and wondered if his photography would meet the standards set by his long career of large penetrating portraits. If anything, he has topped himself.
The photography is insightful, beautiful, and disarming. I wrongly assumed that the photography is a recent focus for Close, but these photos span from 1964 to present and have been an important part of his painting process. So they were there all along and only recently displayed as a collection. My favorite, due to my fascination with her silhouette artwork, is the duo his presents of the artist Kara Walker. The photo of Walker is straightforward and intimate. Seeing her profile presented in the same format as her own artwork is powerful. Close has created an homage to the woman and to her artwork.
Hidden on the landing between two levels of the historic building is an exhibit titled, “A Collaborative Language: Selections from the Experimental Printmaking Institute.” I’m grateful to the man at the front desk who mentioned the cavernous little gallery space – I might have walked right past without his tip. As a mixed media artist experimenting with rudimentary printmaking techniques in my own paintings, this exhibit sparked my growing interest in the technique. The Experimental Printmaking Institute (EPI) draws established contemporary artists to its renowned residency program, which is where this exhibit was created.
The other exhibit that blew me away is “Beyond Boundaries: Feminine Forms.” There are many female artist exhibits currently on display across the country, but this one, well, these are long established idols. Jenny Holzer, Miriam Schapiro, Nancy Spero, Faith Ringhold all in one room – oh my! The exhibition showcases work collected by Linda Lee Alter and donated to PAFA in 2011. Her collection efforts were meant to make “corrections to historical biases that overlooked work by women” and this exhibition “aims to identify the various ways these artists subvert stereotypes of gender by embracing experiences devalued by patriarchal societies.”
This perspective reminds me of the mission statement of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. Some female artists do not want to be labeled as such. They prefer no gender identification in their title, “artist.” But I think an important consideration when considering these female based exhibits is the idea of women’s experiences in the world are different from those of a man. Therefore, the art they make can be inherently different and has often been overlooked throughout art history as unworthy.
I can’t conclude without a mention of one of the best dining experiences of my life. My daughter and I simply started at each other in disbelief over the service, the food, and the atmosphere at Morimoto. I find myself pulling for UPenn so I can – quite selfishly – return for more at this exquisite Japanese restaurant. As always, thank you for reading!