Observation and Invention: The Space of Desire

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Through April 6, 2014


By Julia Clift


Observation and Invention: The Space of Desire surveys 4 generations of perceptual painters from the Philadelphia region, most of whom taught or studied at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).  Scott Noel, a painter and educator currently at PAFA, curated the show.

Observation reveals a cross-section of artistic lineage.  One sees how new fruits are born from the passage of ideas and skills into new artists’ minds and hands, through direct mentorship and through indirect influence, as younger generations see the works of more mature artists while their own visions are developing. The show’s greatest success is its ability to enact the very phenomenon it investigates: while visiting the show, I noticed a pair of students making their way around the gallery, pausing at each painting to debate its merits.  They looked at the works deeply, cramming their noses into each surface then pacing back several yards—living proof that Observation, aptly housed in PAFA’s own building, pushes the torch forward.

The 26 artists represented are united by a common approach to perceptual painting, an approach Noel attributes to the influence of Edwin Dickinson. Dickinson emphasized the mystical space between perception and interpretation, what Noel terms “the space of desire.” Operating consciously within this realm, painters may generate works which transcend simple mimesis, remaining true to both their unique self’s lens and the objective reality of their depicted subject matter. Despite narrow parameters, works in Observation are diverse between artists; the idiosyncrasy and strength of each voice supports the curatorial premise while keeping the viewer stimulated. Yet few pieces compel a second look. Often the singular piece representing an artist falls short of the best examples of his or her oeuvre.  I’m thinking particularly of David Campbell and Carolyn Pyfrom, from whom I’ve seen meatier, stronger paintings, though admittedly only in reproductions.

Several selections were downright unfortunate, such as Ben Kamihira’s painting Fantasy II. The painting places the male artist squarely in the seat of power and creation, leaving the woman trapped between his body and the format’s edges, exposed and vulnerable. Kamihira uses the female body as a sex object on canvas; the painting passes off a voyeuristic “fantasy” to a viewer presumed to be complicit, much like pornography. It’s a misstep that compromises the show’s credibility.

Observation’s most impressive piece is Noel’s own Telemachus and the Sirens.  The brilliant staging of Noel’s characters gives rise to an engaging web of social dynamics that rings true, attesting not only to his skills in composing, but to a profound understanding of human behavior and much time spent with young men and women. His brush strokes, especially in the figures, are minimal and packed with information. Such economy reflects an ability to prioritize—to paint only those elements within a visual scenario which are vital to one’s overall impression. Forged in the space of desire, the painting reflects an artist’s authentic creative experience.

Julia Clift is an artist living and working in Philadelphia. She received her BFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 2009, and she is a student of the painter Odd Nerdrum. She currently teaches at Fleisher Art Memorial and the Simon Youth Academy in Media.