on view through July 13
by Aubrey Levinthal
Stories and Dreams, the survey show of Jessie Drew-Bear currently on view at Woodmere Art Museum, depicts the life’s work of a woman quietly doing radical things with paint. It is well-suited for this small museum of Philadelphia painters, which is quietly becoming a resource in providing comprehensive shows that extend outside their familiar milieu of a few years ago. Drew-Bear, an artist who spent a prolific 23-year painting career in Philadelphia, is underrepresented in present dialogues. Born in 1879 in England, she immigrated to Philadelphia in 1905. Over the next forty years, Drew-Bear owned and operated a successful flower shop at 1800 Chestnut Street. In 1938, when Drew-Bear was nearly sixty, her daughter Joy gave her a paint set, a gift that would mark the beginning of her career as a productive and dedicated painter who would go on to have 15 solo exhibitions.
Although she had some guidance in a few classes taught by well-known Philadelphia painter Arthur B. Carles and a month of study under Fernand Léger in his atelier, Drew-Bear labeled herself as “self-taught” in exhibition catalogues. Rachel McCay, this exhibition’s curator, believes it is important to distinguish this term as pertaining only to her lack of a traditional arts education. Drew-Bear was a woman who sought to involve herself actively in an artistic community and was most likely well aware of many of her contemporaries. It feels antiquated to use terms like “primitive,” “naïve,” and “outsider” – as many have done in critical response to Drew-Bear’s exhibition – as a way to close down untaught artists’ participation in the greater discussion of art-making. Today, in 2014, numerous artists like Farrell Brickhouse and Katherine Bradford are working in visual languages that embrace sincerity, imperfection, and awkwardness in paint as a way of expressing a more humanist perspective.
In Drew-Bear’s work in particular, there is an instinctual understanding of form – creating tension, exercising restraint, and maintaining balance (as unstable as it may be). Maybe the reason that artists are employing this more intuitive language now is because form, as a taught skill, has become stale and distant. In many of her paintings, formal decisions dealing with space, composition and color can be noted, but these choices are in service of making deeply personal pictures. Her subjects include scenes from her own travels: a “portrait” of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, underwater scuba trips, interiors and balcony views from her home on Addison Street, and a pile of poodles at a dog show, each depicted with highly particular but increasingly odd scale shifts, points of view, color, and hidden details.
The show includes 67 paintings spanning 1938 to 1961, organized thematically through the exhibition space. In the first room, early paintings illustrating Alice in Wonderland abound along with paintings of opera singers on stage and some early travel scenes. In a gallery talk on the exhibition, McCay noted how Drew-Bear’s early subject matter is, by nature, fantastical. Whether illustrating this book filled with its whimsical cast of characters or depicting costumes and stage sets, the expressive freedom that Drew-Bear enjoyed is clear. Although the execution is solid, with impastos of color built up nicely in certain passages, the Wonderland series includes some of the most conformist and predictable works in terms of scale and depth. The stage-set pieces, like Opera Star Rosina Galli, are something of a bridge between these weaker works and more personal creations. Miniature free-floating ladies’ heads with multi-colored hats, blossoms with human bodies, and ornately designed flower fence frames exemplify the play that would be fully embodied in later work. When working this way – instead of pulling imagery from the fantasies of others – she is able to make extremely unconventional decisions and, as a result, more sophisticated pictures.
On the opposite wall, Untitled (Venice) creates a tenuous perspective through the strong diagonals delineating the water from the square, fences and gondolas just barely tethered to the composition through the vertical force of lamp posts and columns. The viewer is left with a somewhat precarious viewpoint, floating just above the scene. Color is used to describe the space, the richest, blue-green in the foreground waters and a pale, complementary pink on a faraway palace. When given time to look closely, viewers are rewarded with strange, felt moments of narrative. Six birds converge on a solitary figure in one corner; in another space, two tourists sit waiting for their boat to depart. There is restraint in this picture, particularly in the palette, that brings to mind the work of modernists like Janice Biala or Winifred Nicholson, indicating a conscious understanding of how to manipulate form.
In archival photographs accompanying the exhibition, Drew-Bear can be seen at age 81, dining with multiple well-dressed men on a cruise ship, and learning how to scuba dive in her 70s. It seems her work is at its best when depicting elements of real-life events, and the most engaging pieces in the show seem to be of subjects that Drew-Bear felt a certain ownership over. Still Life: Cocktails, with its beautiful pink champagne glasses and boxes of candy set on a rich, black background, includes a floral arrangement that possesses the same energy as her painting of Venice fireworks. The objects take on personas and dance in the space, as if seen in that precise moment when taking a first bubbly sip of lightheaded party atmosphere in, something she surely did frequently.
The showstopper is Dog Show, completed the year before she died. Drew-Bear owned many poodles throughout her lifetime and seemed to have a real predilection for the breed. In this painting, a modest 16 x 20 inch canvas, at least 25 poodles crowd the picture plane. The canvas becomes the gray surface on which these many dogs, made of thick piles of paint, rest and pant, and look out at you quizzically. The tactile nature of the paint becomes groomed fur begging to be pet, and the painting becomes sculptural. This engagement with dimensionality through paint remains an important consideration for contemporary painters, such as Ying Li, Trudy Benson and Jason Stopa, an ironic nod to the endurance of work made out of personal investigation rather than trending methodologies. It is also a reminder that work made with necessity is compelling, regardless of whether the artist was formally trained. It is careless to see these fantastical, bizarre arrangements without a comprehensive, critical eye, discovering the nuance in how these paintings are put together.
At her best, Drew-Bear does not lose sight of her own visual impulses for using form at the service of expressing her experience. As a result, this body of work has a feeling of timelessness while maintaining the narrative of an individual life and vision.
Aubrey Levinthal is a painter living in Philadelphia.