Fortunate we are to have in the Philadelphia Arts Alliance a venue for the presentation of craft and of the arts.
The Alliance is presenting this year in its magnificent venue which is the former house of the founder of the Alliance (1918), Christine Wetherill Stevenson, the work of four artist artisans.
Each uses expert artisanship to portray the being and fate of certain animals. Here are three of the four.
The artist looked at these animals and recalled their histories.
There is the artisanal labour-intensive and time-freighted translations of this view through the choice of materials and techniques.
And then there is our view of the art in the context of what we remember and feel and know of these animals.
All in all, we could come out of this exhibition conflicted, strangely anxious. Perhaps even annoyed because there is politics in everything and we are in an unusually sensitive state with our national politics. Because these artists are saying something and what they are saying is their considered view and we may not think much room has been left for discussion, argument.
We could also think: and so what?
That we come away, on the contrary, alert to the point of uplifted has to do with the skill of the craft on show here, the clarity of the thought behind the craft. Not loud or pushy. The animals do not prowl. The birds, hunting and carrion, are not out for us. The fossil forms are not big like that of Tyrannosaurus Rex to make us feel again the apprehensions of museum childhood.
In other words, expert and aesthetically potent realizations in forms we can understand and appreciate of concepts in the artists’ minds which clearly relate to our world, our lives, our responsibilities as human animals.
These works stay in your mind.
**Hands to work and hearts to God is a guiding precept, of course, of the American Shakers whose artistic/artisanal work in premodern North America display a supreme excellence grounded in their religious discipline and cultural concepts.
Not loud or pushy but excellent.
A presentation as of white gold filigree work or carved ivory in small vitrines; and delicately strung together so that your eyes themselves become tender and you look very closely.
Mansion of Prodigies, 2015, crocheted cotton string, glue, velvet, steel pins, antique chest of drawers. Caitlin McCormack.
This creature is positioned on a vintage chest of drawers.
A drawer in the chest of drawers. So familiar a sight for some of us: a piece of old crochet, lace, tatting from some extinct endeavor.
Detail of Kindertide, 2014; crocheted cotton string, glue, velvet, steel pins. Caitlin McCormack.
A name for this piece to twinge your heart because the species is extinct.
The Web in Her Nest, 2016; crocheted cotton string, glue, velvet, steel pins, antique lace remnant. Caitlin McCormack.
An evocative title because it links two nouns – web and nest – which we normally associate with different animal species. It points to the consanguinity of all animal species including ours and to the uses made by our species of our language to appropriate everything to ourselves. For we have both webs and nests and empty nests even. Because we have dominion.
The apparent disorder of this construction shortened my breath momentarily because we are all, as organic creatures, both in order and in disorder.
A textile and mixed media taxidermy.
I have always pretended that the taxidermic obsession of our ancestor Victorians was as strange to me as some of their other death obsessions.
But here Tasha Lewis has remade this flesh and bone in mixed media so that we have time to stand and think: what did we do, if anything, with these animals while they lived that we want them with us now that their breath has gone?
Ram Skulls, mixed media, Tasha Lewis
Falcon, 2013, mixed media. Tasha Lewis.
The artist has suspended this falcon between imprisonment and free flight.
Which brought to mind the close association of falcons with men, both free and trained for the hunt. From one moment to the next in the company of and dependent on men and then free and in flight.
Ravens, 2015, Carcass, 2015, mixed media. Tasha Lewis
The artist represents a reality and a mystery: that life feeds on life in order that life continue. The blue falcon also represents this.
It is, of course, Dionysus who is the archetype of this principle (inextinguishable life). This work is timely because his time – Autumn/Winter – has come again. (Spring is also his time!).
But yet, to what extent have we humans disordered the chains of being? At what point is this disorder fatal to our species?
The Swarm, cyanotype prints, Magnetic, thread.
Tasha Lewis’s butterflies are moving towards the room of her beautiful rams’ heads and who can blame them?
This blue is the main blue of indigo and indigo, of course, is a plant bearing a gift appreciated in diverse cultures on several continents.
As all animals presented here have borne and bear us gifts which we should remember. Because, until further notice, we have dominion.
Texas Longhorn Cowhide Quilts, cotton, batting, thread. Emily White.
American Bison/Prairie House, 2015, red oak, cast iron, wool. Emily White.
Emily White’s extraordinary and massive sculpture to evoke the near-disappearance of the American bison, massive themselves and brought to near-extinction after the arrival of colonists in the west of the United States. This entailed, of course, the destruction of the economic life of the indigenous peoples of the United States.
The artist has united with her bison the building of houses on the prairies. These were also very sturdy and the way of life associated with their builders has withstood the passage of time and weather.
Fleet, 2015; Finnish birch plywood, cast aluminum, hardware. Emily White.
Above the bison/house, Emily White’s passenger pigeons, now extinct in the flesh. They appear silver-bronze against the light. Ethereal almost because extinct. You can see through them.
As exact, as symmetrical, as beautiful as are these constructions of these birds in flight, the artist reminds us that this extinct bird was itself a marvel of construction with the mystery of its internal GPS as with all birds and so many other species.