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Happiness, Liberty, Life? Politics and Art

July 22, 2016 - Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts - APhiladelphia Cornucopia, 1982, by Red Grooms (photo: Harry Saffren, 2016).

Politics and art have been bedfellows in America from its beginning, dating back to the woodcuts Ben Franklin published in Poor Richard’s Almanac. But never have they been as informative as the paintings and sculpture in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ (PAFA) current exhibition, Happiness, Liberty, Life? Politics & Art.

Note the question mark in the exhibition’s title. The works on display ask more questions than they answer.

How does art created 10, 20, or even 50 years ago speaks so loudly to issues that dominate headlines today? Is the current presidential race taking us forward or “back to the future”?

While there is no doubt that the exhibition was intended to coincide with Philadelphia’s Democratic National Committee Convention, it serves a much higher purpose. More than half the artists on display are women, and it is their take-no-prisoners work that is worth the visit.

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Compare and Contrast

The exhibition juxtaposes two images at the entrance to set the theme. One is a huge oil painting by John Neagle, Pat Lyon at the Forge, 1826; the other is a mixed media piece, Double Vision, by Chitra Ganesh. Ganesh’s work is one of 16 Protest Fantasies relating to her exploration of gender and sexual politics. Neagle’s oversized oil painting depicts a wealthy Philadelphia industrialist as a humble blacksmith. What do these seemingly unrelated works have to say to one another? Plenty. Both deal with the same phenomenon: the struggle to define American identity through fantasy. As anyone keeping up with the presidential race will recognize.

Also at the entrance is In Our Words: Native Impressions, 2016, a collection of colorful woodcuts by Lucy Gange and Nicole Donnelly that combine statements of 13 North Dakota Native American tribal members with a recurrent image of a Native American woman’s face.

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  • roz warren August 25, 2016 at 6:23 pm