A few days ago, I went to Philadelphia to see the acclaimed show, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. This exhibition was inspiring and illuminating, filled with information about Rembrandt's technical achievements as well as his innovative depiction of Jesus as a portrait of a living human being rather than an instance of a received visual type. In the seven, small portrait sketches of a young man described as most likely a Jewish neighbor of the artist and the painting called "Head of Christ" derived from them, the humanity of Jesus overshadows his divinity. This is Jesus as sensitive, thoughtful, and vulnerable -- not an icon or an idea, but a person that one might encounter on the street. In this remarkable departure from tradition, Rembrandt changed the way that people imagine Jesus even today.
The Rembrandt show was not the only treasure in the museum, however. While I was waiting for my ticketed entrance time, I stopped in to a gallery on the lower level where they had a show called Here and Now: Prints, Drawings, and Photographs by Ten Philadelphia Artists. I was especially entranced with a set of prints called “Round Robin” by Astrid Magdalen Bowlby. The suite of six etchings were all made from the same plate, reworked over and over again until the initially spare, open image became a dense, dark black that pulsated with the nearly-invisible forms of the previous states. It seemed to be a metaphor for the way that everything that happens leaves traces in our lives, however obscure the past may become.
Another intriguing set of prints were Serena Perrone's "Phantom Vessels and the Bastion of Memory V (fron the In the Realm of Reverie series I - VII, 2004-2008)". These large-scale woodcuts suggested some earlier, mythical, and slightly disturbing time, with serious-faced children playing in an unnatural landscape, or appearing as disembodied heads peeking out of trees, . A large, open portion of the frosted mylar, left untouched by surrounding the dense black of the woodcut, suggested a dreamy river upon which floated delicate silverpoint drawings of sailing vessels in full rig. As I looked at it, it seemed to speak of the tension between the awareness of a current, all-too-real danger and the ethereal, entrancing memory or hope of a better time or place.
It seemed that no matter which way I turned in that space, yet another clever, technically excellent, visually seductive artwork caught both my eye and my imagination. I was surprised and oddly pleased that all the photographs had been printed, digitally and impeccably, in large formats that allowed close inspection of each detail without any visible grain. I was delighted by the inventiveness and playful seriousness of Mia Rosenthal's drawing that visually catalogued all the breakfast cereals found in a certain supermarket, or a watercolor painting by the Dufala brothers that depicted hundreds of liter-sized soft-drink bottles floating improbably in an indeterminate space. Mostly, I was excited to see that there in Philadelphia -- and, I suspect in pretty much any city -- there are so many artists who engage the eye and the mind in equal measure. Such artists invite us to follow them on a journey which, like Rembrandt's exploration of the face of Christ, honors tradition while departing from outworn forms that keep us from living in the present.