Artists Interpret Climate, Race, Gender Identity at Montclair Art Musuem

Montclair resident and nationally renowned contemporary artist Philemona Williamson has her first ever solo exhibition of 20 thematic oil paintings at Montclair Art Museum now, through January 7.

Philemon Williams (b.1951) Eventual Autumn, 2003. Oil on Linen 62×50 in. Courtesy of the artist and June Kelly Gallery, New York

Large and colorful, children populate her 20 wildly enchanting, entertaining and thought provoking canvasses. The works span Williams’ career from 1988 to the present. Often autobiographically inspired, there is action, play, emotion and of course her own narrative on the fluidity and ambiguity of age, race, class and gender – a frequent topic for these days.

The familiarity of her characters and the symbolism in her art is striking and accessible. One painting which stopped me in my tracks, “Eventual Autumn” (2003) depicts two adolescents who have dropped their toys in a backdrop of falling leaves. Are they two boys, a girl and a boy? You can’t really tell by their clothing or facial features, which seem mismatched. And the muted skin tones leave ethnicity and race in question. The two friends are holding hands; it seems the artist depicts identities and relationships in transition, yet to be defined. Does it matter? You may have seen this painting displayed on the exhibition’s flag banners around town – go see the painting for yourself.

Philemona Williamson (b. 1951) In the Studio, 2017. Composite photograph printed on Poplin. Photographs by Peter Jacobs Fine Arts Imaging. Image courtesy of the artist.

Passing through the exhibition’s first and second gallery, visitors are treated to the museum’s beautiful atrium which always affords artists a unique space for display. Williamson does not disappoint, with her first sculptural works conceived specially for the space. A collection of four large abstract “Topsy-Turvy Dolls”(2017) occupy the alcoves – folk art dolls without the typical dress – laying bare the textile figures of contrasting skin colors though of dubious gender. The message of unity and inclusiveness is clear – portrayed in a happy, comforting way.

Philemona Williamson (b. 1951) Limbs, 2016. Oil on linen. Collection of Philemona Williamson. Image courtesy of the artist.

The largest painting, “Limbs” (2016), takes a more impressionistic form showing the artistic process on the canvas of unpainted areas of faces and clothing, overlapping lines, and a rich palette – all which lends movement of children’s limbs in the limbs of a tree.

Finally, don’t overlook Williamson’s gigantic composite photographic mural occupying the museum’s Laurie Staircase. Here again the artist has taken advantage of the space to create a photographic collage of her personal sources of artistic inspiration, letting us all in on elements that touch her soul and by design, ours as well.

New York artist, Charles Burchfield, exhibits a different kind of inspiration for a lifetime of paintings, drawings and watercolors – a sampling of which, on loan from the Burchfield Penny Art Center in Buffalo, is featured at MAM – also through January 7.

Sunburst, 1929–31. Charles E. Burchfield (1893–1967) Oil on canvas. The Charles Rand Penney Collection of Works by Charles E. Burchfield, 1994. Reproduced with permission from the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation and the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Weather patterns, in all its permutations, is what directed the artist’s vision. As weather and light are constantly changing during the day, all of Burchfield’s works contain unmistakable motion and progression – you see wind, rain, heat, cold, sun, shade, light, darkness often all in one painting. A keen observer of nature, Burchfield said the best work is done in retrospection.

The exhibition is organized around the weather themes which inspired Burchfield: the sky, changing seasons, haloed moons, sunbursts, cloudbursts, heat waves and wild weather.

His drawings often contain notes taken on changing weather conditions – time lapse drawings over a 24 hour period. Some of the more turbulent paintings evoked a style of Van Gogh, but his art was influenced in part by Japanese prints as well as Chinese scroll painting, specifically the left to right narrative. Burchfield translated this aesthetic to design wallpaper during a period in the 20’s and 30’s, when the 9-to-5 combined with his studio work.

Fireflies and Lightning, 1964–1965. Charles E. Burchfield (1893–1967) Watercolor, graphite and white conté crayon with masking tape on joined paper mounted on board, Burchfield Penney Art Center. Purchase made possible with funds from M&T Bank, an anonymous donor, William P. and A. Laura Brosnahan, the Vogt Family Foundation and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, 1998. Reproduced with permission from the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation and the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Charles E. Burchfield (1893­–1967)

Considered a visionary painter of the 20th century, influencing many artists, eight years ago, the Whitney Museum featured a retrospective of his works. Burchfield translated his emotional reactions to weather in art, symbols and verse. Quotations from his journals, transferred on the museum walls, frame the exhibition. “The Burchfield exhibition,” says curator Gail Stavitsky, “is the perfect intersection of science and art. Notations on the artist’s sketches are scientifically correct. Descriptive labels for each work were written by a climatologist and an art historian.”

As part of the Weather Event exhibition, MAM’s Family Learning Lab on the third floor offers projects to learn about clouds, build a mobile, and contains a digital weather station.

A guided tour of these exhibitions can greatly enhance your museum experience. They are available every first Friday and third Sunday of the month at 2 pm, and at the monthly Free First Thursday receptions, at 6:30 and 7:30 pm.

Montclair Art Museum, 3 S. Mountain Ave., Montclair, 973-746-5555

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