We’ve all heard about cursing the darkness. But here, in one of the Academy Art Museum’s (AAM)latest exhibitions, we view images and read the text In Praise of Shadows – that is, in praise of darkness to varying degrees. The first we encounter in AAM’s Lederer Gallery is Japanese artist Utagawa Kunisoda’s mid-19th century color woodblock print titled “Scene from a Kabuki Play.” The text accompanying this and other artworks, which are far more contemporary than “Kabuki,” presents a narrative dialogue about what we see before us. Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki recalls his childhood introduction to kabuki as an exaggerated theatrical form that survives best in dim lighting that veils its lack of subtlety. The next woodcut, “Tenderness,” by Kiyoshi Saito (1968), suggests a shadow play of hands performed by parents to entertain their child with an elongated figure of a hen – warm and harmless.
As the art in “Shadows” strays further from the Japanese source material, the dialogue changes, too. Prolific African-American printmaker Dox Thrash’s 1939 mezzo print “Charlot” deploys ink throughout his haunting portrait by way of reverse facial features – somewhat like a photo negative – created through gradations of relative light amid the dark for a surprise bump-in-the-night effect.
Louise Nevelson, the American sculptor who died in 1986, once said that the color black makes any material look “more distinguished.” Maybe she was thinking of tuxedos. Her “End of Day” painted-black wood structure juxtaposing angular shelving with curved objects implies a puzzle of pieces that don’t fit. Go figure.
While Australian artist Kate Breakey’s nine charming images are not accompanied by textual commentary, it may be because her photographic technique speaks, as the saying goes, more eloquently than a thousand words. From her “Shetland Islands” to her “Lunar Eclipse,” Breakey’s magical photo on art glass with gold-leaf effects brings a shimmering glow to each scene she captures. Even the “Reclining Nude” (from behind) seems imbued with pixie dust. Her “Lone Tree, Midlands, UK” cries out for company while her “Two Trees, Kew Gardens” appear to embrace one another like a couple that inhabits a forest all their own. And whether they are five birds or seven finches, the arboreal inhabitants of Breakey’s winged casts pose regally, as does the lone hummingbird in perfect nectar-beak profile.
I would say Kate Breakey’s show-stealers – including the succulent “Five Figs” still life – are worth the price of admission, except that it’s free at AAM.
Photography reigns in the gallery across the hall as Will Wilson presents portraits of representatives of many Native American nations – Cherokee, Apache, Navajo, Ogala, and Hopi- augmented by autobiographical details for each person he photographed from 2013-2018. All images are large black-and-white archival prints that look candid though most if not all, are likely posed. They are displayed here by way of the Art Bridges Collection, available to small- to mid-range museums.
Kottie Gaydos’ “Untitled Cairns,” created just this year, occupies the space in the center of the Healey Gallery floor. They represent the fragility of the human body through porcelain vessels dipped in an emulsion. I expect we’d all be vulnerable if immersed in a painterly emulsion, but her point is well taken. We’re more vulnerable than we admit.
LaToya Hobbs, a Baltimore-based painter and printmaker, presents a small survey of her woodcut portraits of Black women – 13 of them in the two small galleries just off the courtyard entrance to the museum. These works, according to her artist’s statement, “use figurative imagery to facilitate an ongoing dialogue about the Black female body in the hope of showcasing a more balanced perception of our womanhood – one that dismantles prevailing stereotypes. Through portraiture,” she adds, “I explore themes of beauty, spirituality, motherhood, and sisterhood.”
To that end, the first image we encounter is “Lunar Blessing,” a 2017 black-and-white figurative study of a reclining woman who, judging from the radiant beams emanating in all directions from her aura, is deep in dreams. The next print is a Hobbs self-portrait. Is the artist observing the sleeping subject to her right? Keeping them company in the first gallery is a smiling “Angelia,” imbued in a green-on-chartreuse swirl in this 2011 portrait,” while “Stargazer (Thea)” from 2022 presents a face of wonder at the sky above.
Entering the second gallery, “Sharbreon’s Joy” (2019) catches your eye, if not your ear, with her bespectacled laughter, while in contrast, next to her, “Herera Woman,” a 2015 linocut, frowns in stern disapproval. “Delita Study #1,” from 2019, shares her portrait space with two male face masks that have her attention. “Crowned” (2021) describes the effect of a young woman’s fabric headdress pushing her hair up into an elaborate bun. Most of these highly individualized portraits are of women looking askance. They are not peering into our eyes. But “Rose” (2019) is an exception. It struck me that she was about to challenge me in a staring contest. As I am forced to blink, and she is not, Rose wins.
During the winter just behind us, teen interns who participated in Academy Art’s program went through the museum’s permanent collection to serve as curators of “(Dis)Connection,” now on exhibit in the upstairs hallway gallery. Each artwork selected by the 13 teen-terns is accompanied by text that explains why the piece appealed to them. Here’s a sampler:
* Of Will Barnet’s “Cat and Canary” screenprint – reminding me of Warner Bros.’s Sylvester and Tweety Bird, Kate Lorentz writes: “There is a strange understanding the two animals have with one another, a connection between two very different creatures – not to mention predator and prey.”
* Of Alison Saar’s “Rise” linocut on letterpress, Ed Tilghman comments: “ ‘Rise’ is a prime example of her mission as it was created during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. . . . [The Black woman’s] stoic expression, bold lines, and use of red pulls me in to recognize the serious issue of racial injustice.”
* Of Judy Chicago’s “In Praise of Prairie Dogs,’’ an 11-color lithograph, Leslie Monter Casio observes: “This piece resonates with me as it pushes me to consider the connection that humans have with nature and how we are inextricably linked. Far too often . . .we are ignorant of the consciousness of animals; we are much more similar to them than we think.”
* Of Clarence Holbrook Carter’s “Jane Reed and Doris Hunt,” a 1950 lithograph depicting two women walking along or crossing a railroad track, Sophia Principe shares this: “The print makes me feel as if I were present in the scene, walking with the mysterious figures after a long day. I can almost feel the wind chilling my face.”
* Of Sam Robinson’s “7 AM, 90 [Degrees]” 2004 oil on canvas, Aviyah Durante relates emotion: “This picture invokes darker feelings of frustration in me. . . . We can infer that Robinson was not only trying to showcase his own story with this piece but the meaningful connections that one has with home.”
These thoughts and much more helps connect us with the art that teens selected for “(Dis)Connection.”
“In Praise of Shadows: Jun’ichiro Tanizaki and Modern & Contemporary Art” and “(Dis)Connection: Selections from the Permanent Collection by AAM’s Teen Interns,” through July 16, and“LaToya Hobbs: Woodcuts” through July 23, all at Academy Art Museum, 106 South St., Easton; academyart.org
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic now living in Easton.