ART REVIEW: "PAFA Students Select: The Spaces They Inhabit"-Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Tucked away in the Richard C. von Hess Foundation Works on Paper Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PAFA Students Select: The Spaces They Inhabit is the product of a new course taught by independent curator Jennifer Zwilling called “Museums: History and Practice.”  In this course over twenty students have selected works on paper from PAFA’s collections for an exhibition surrounding the theme of space—be it physical or mental, literal or psychological.

Despite some interesting combinations of works, this exhibition only vaguely addresses ideas surrounding space, with many works related to space in a tertiary way. Placement next to more mundane works frequently diminishes more psychologically powerful pieces. The Spaces They Inhabit does not so much take a specific position about space as it does present different types of it. I would have liked for the works to relate with more depth to one another, less visually and more thematically, providing something more to chew on about the nature of space and how different kinds of it relate.
Kenyon Cox, Commerce: figure study, 1903 
Graphite on cream paper 
20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.64 cm.) 
Academy Purchase with funds from the H. J. Heinz, II Charitable and Family Trust, 1982.8.2

The organization of the works is predicated not on style, year or medium, instead favoring unexpected pairings and deliberate contrasts.  Nudes sit beside abstract works; close-up portraits hang alongside landscapes both real and fantastical.  Bruce Samuelson’ Untitled (Female Nude), Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Maroon Over Red) and Kenyon Cox’s [Commerce: Figure Study] form an interesting dialogue; the Samuelson and Cox works are nude figure studies, while the Rothko, which is placed in between them, is a bloody red and maroon abstraction.  It is as if the Rothko work contains the blood, flesh, and life of the nude figures placed alongside it. 

While the former nudes are headless, their bodies presented to us from the front, the girl in Yellow Dog by Thelma Grobes turns her back to us and looks to the side, refusing to acknowledge us, as if we are invading her space, even as the other nudes seem to welcome us into theirs.
Thelma Grobes, Yellow Dog, 1998 
Color etching with sugarlift, aquatint, drypoint, & scraping on Twinrocker handmade paper 
15 1/2 x 5 1/4 in. (39.37 x 13.335 cm.) 
Art by Women Collection, Gift of Linda Lee Alter, 2011.1.291

John Dowell’s The Myth of Being and Jeanne Jaffee’s One Strand form a pair of vertical compositions connected through negative space despite differences in medium: the former is a Chinese-inspired scroll painting, while the latter is a series of papier-mâché objects strung together. Instead of dealing with a created space, such as a room within a painting, these works use the lack of space to great effect.

Located in the study room, a highlight of the show is Evan Summer’s Storm, a textured and vivid painting depicting a heavy rainfall with a litany of blues, grays and whites.  The painting suggests an immediate, visceral space. I feel the power of the rain, nearly carved into the paper, engulfing everything in its path.
Evan Summer, Storm.

The centerpiece of the show is Seymour Rosofsky’s Untitled, a lithograph placed at the very end of the path through the exhibit, quite literally depicting interior and exterior space.  A male figure and female figure stand outside a house with their stomachs carved open; inside are a sailboat and a home, ostensibly a representation of where they would rather be.  While it is understandable that this brightly colored work is placed at the end of the show in order to draw attention to the last small room in the gallery, leaving it until the end is perhaps a missed opportunity.
Seymour Rosofsky, Untitled, 1973 
Lithograph on paper, ed. 2/10 
27 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. (69.85 x 49.53 cm.) 
The Estate of Seymour Rosofsky, 2013.17.6

The Spaces They Inhabit has almost as many student curators as works on display. It is as if every student chose a work that dealt with space.  The students in this course come from a studio art background rather than an art history background, evident especially in the strength of some of the formal connections among pieces in the exhibition. But perhaps the lack of contextualization that art historians bring to exhibitions explains the focus on individually powerful works at the expense of the whole.

While the generalized response to space in all its variations left me feeling a bit disappointed with The Spaces They Inhabit, there are interesting and surprising contrasts and comparisons among several works that deserve recognition and praise.  Perhaps an exhibition curated by those with art-historical backgrounds would lack the satisfying formal relationships generated by the arrangement of the works in this show.  Ultimately, it is quite commendable that PAFA would entrust space in its galleries to students at the Academy.