Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

Changing States–Linda Cordell’s Animal Figurines

Some of Linda Cordell’s figurines, assembled in a line-up before being arranged in the second floor galleries of the Art Alliance. From left to right: “Goat Drip,” “Pink Tumor,” “Foo Dogs,” “Slap Dog,” “Sanguinary,” and “Pugnacious.”

Liquid and solid, wet and dry, heavy and weightless, funny and frightening–Linda Cordell’s ceramic sculptures occupy a shifting middle ground between each of these binaries. The ten works the artist selected for A Curious Nature offer slightly surreal pairings of porcelain animals, such as dogs, squirrels, and even a bear, with pieces of domestic furniture. Cordell’s demented animal figurines are strangely at home in the setting of the Wetherill Mansion, a former private residence. While I cannot imagine Samuel Wetherill, for whom the mansion was built, owning one of Cordell’s figurines, perhaps he enjoyed the porcelain animal figurines produced by the famous Meissen factory in Germany throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as this Bolognese terrier made around 1900. Cordell takes the long tradition of saccharine animal figurines and turns it inside out, exposing the messy reality of animal bodies and the distorting effects of domestication.


Figure of a Bolognese Terrier. Made ca. 1900 by the Meissen porcelain factory, Meissen, Germany. Original model by Johann Joachim Kändler, ca. 1750. From the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Animals have figured prominently in porcelain production since the early eighteenth century, when porcelain was first produced in Europe in Meissen under the patronage of the Elector Prince of Saxony, Augustus the Strong. Together with more functional items for food service, the Meissen factory produced countless figurines depicting bucolic shepherds and shepherdesses, as well as floppy-eared dogs and other domestic animals. The subject matter of “uncivilized” people and animals contrasted with the precious medium of porcelain, known at the time as “white gold,” and with the abundant wealth and sophistication of the figurines’ owners. These porcelain “noble savages” can be seen as expressions of contemporary Enlightenment philosophical debates about the nature of humankind–are humans naturally depraved, making us little better than animals, as Hobbes would have it, or are we fundamentally moral creatures? While the meaning of what it is to be human has long been expressed through contrast with animals, Cordell’s figurines go beyond this anthropocentrism to suggest the very real effects of this thinking on the bodies of animals themselves.


Detail of Linda Cordell, “Slap Dog.” Porcelain, wood, foam, resin, and paint.

Cordell’s animals convey a sense of frustration and even rage at the confines of domesticity, and their bodies are distorted by violent resistance, disfiguring disease, or bodily disintegration. Cordell achieves these effects through the skilled manipulation of materials. Most clay–earthenware and stoneware–is heavy, while porcelain was developed to be finer and lighter, with more plasticity and translucency. Cordell embraces these qualities, creating gravity-defying details like the flying drool in “Slap Dog.”


Linda Cordell, “Goat Drip.” Porcelain, wood, foam, resin, paint. 26″ x 28″ x 13″.

Cordell also incorporates lightweight foam in some of her pieces, such as “Goat Drip.” Reddish colored resin pools on the table underneath the snarling animal, transmuted into bubbling foam as it moves through the wood to beneath the table. The brightly colored enamel strikes a discordant note against the muted white of the furniture and the pale green celadon glaze of the porcelain figures. The ensemble of resin, foam, and porcelain blurs the boundaries between liquid and solid, still subject to gravity and yet resisting it.


Linda Cordell, “Culled Lamb,” 2016. Porcelain, plastic, paint, wood. 44″ x 24″ x 10″

Although the porcelain is the main event, Cordell’s sculptures are multi-media, and the furniture pedestals on which the animals are positioned has been carefully selected and adapted. Unlike traditional frames or pedestals, which aim to be invisible and to focus attention on the work of art, Cordell’s pedestals often overwhelm the porcelain creatures poised atop them–or even caught within them. In one of her more recent works, “Culled Lamb,” the lamb has been positioned inside the shelves, the wood closing around its neck and trapping it. Cordell seems to be drawing attention to the disconnect between human and animal, domestic and wild through the dynamic between the porcelain figure and its pedestal.

For all their technical virtuosity, these are not easy works to look at. I feel at once drawn to and repulsed by Cordell’s animals, and they leave me with a lingering sense of discomfort, like being reminded of an inconvenient truth. And perhaps that’s the point.

For more on Cordell’s process and thoughts about her work, check out this video interview with Cordell at her South Philadelphia studio:

“American Bison” – A Royal Entry for a Majestic Beast

Last week, Emily White’s monumental “American Bison” arrived at the PAA. He’s now happily resting in our downstairs gallery, but his entry into the building was pretty dramatic. Check out these photos, taken by Frank Porras!

Come visit “American Bison,” as well as the other critters that are part of A Curious Nature, from October 6–December 4!


A Curious Nature at the Art Alliance – October 6 through December 4, 2016

This fall, some curious creatures are coming to the Art Alliance. Opening October 6, A Curious Nature brings together the work of Linda Cordell, Tasha Lewis, Caitlin McCormack, and Emily White. Using a diverse range of media, these artists explore our relationship with nature through the lens of the animal kingdom. Whether real or imaginary, wild or domestic, animals have long been defined by their interactions with humans, which shape everything from their physical habitats to their symbolic cultural meanings. Together, the artists of A Curious Nature probe the human/animal dichotomy, troubling the traditional anthropocentric understanding of animals that values them solely for their usefulness to people. In the galleries of the PAA, the creatures of A Curious Nature will talk amongst themselves, creating a conversation that spans species and artistic media. If we look and listen closely, we just might learn to appreciate animals in new ways.

Emily White, "American Bison," 2011.

Emily White, “American Bison,” 2011.

Downstairs, sculptor Emily White’s work confronts us with the darker side of human intervention in the natural world: extinction. A monumental bison made of wood and fiber in the central gallery stands in harsh juxtaposition to the fine woodwork and plaster of the Wetherill Mansion, a reminder that the mansion was being built in the early twentieth century, when American bison were being slaughtered in huge numbers. On the ceiling, a flock of now extinct carrier pigeons are frozen in flight. In the front gallery, White’s textile cowhides cleverly play with the craft tradition of quilting and the practice of skinning animals. Moreover, her quilted hides look almost pixellated, drawing attention to the dichotomy of the digital versus the handmade.

Upstairs, Linda Cordell, Caitlin McCormack, and Tasha Lewis explore similar themes on a somewhat smaller scale. Cordell’s unorthodox porcelain figurines present domestic animals like dogs not as sweet and harmless ornaments to the home, but rather as oozing, organic, and strangely threatening creatures that seem ill at ease in a domestic setting. Her porcelain animals bleed, drool, and decay, pushing the boundaries of her ceramic medium and suggesting the negative, distorting effects of domestication upon animals’ bodies. Nearby, McCormack’s crocheted imaginary animal skeletons look like miniature Jabberwockies, fanciful creations that would be at home in any Lewis Carroll tale. Playfully juxtaposing traditions of taxidermy and crochet, McCormack suggests the limitations of our attempts to understand animals through practices like dissection. Finally, Tasha Lewis’s textile installations of butterflies, bones, and other wildlife likewise reference scientific practices that structure our relationship with animals, such as taxidermy, photography, and museum display. Her fragmentary animal bodies look as though they are emerging out of the wall, giving them an uncanny, lifelike quality.

Over the coming weeks, we will be following the artists as they install their work. In the next four posts, we will share our discussions with the artists, as well as our own reflections about the work in A Curious Nature. Stay tuned!

Frames of Memory

Until August 14, the Art Alliance hosts Memoria Aperta, the first solo show in the United States of work by multi-talented jeweler, goldsmith, and glass artist Barbara Paganin. Paganin hails from Venice, and the rich and layered references in her work speak to the eternal mysteries of La Serenissima, a magical city filled with glass and mosaic, memory and history. The works of Memoria Aperta consist of elaborately crafted brooches and neckpieces. While the brooches were shown in 2014 at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, the neckpieces are being shown for the first time at the Art Alliance. These monumental yet intimate works are a tour-de-force of the jeweler’s craft. Building on the fragments of memory evoked by the smaller-scale brooches, these neckpieces function like frames waiting to be animated by the bodies and memories of wearers and viewers.

Paganin’s titles for these neckpieces make the parallel to picture frames clear–indeed, one is even entitled “Cornice” (“Frame”). Likewise, allusions to memory are clear in titles like “Nontiscordardime” (“Forget-me-not”) and “Contenitori” (“Containers”). The neckpieces are composed to discrete units–delicately perforated oxidized silver compartments filled with a range of miniature objects–connected by small metal circles that look almost like the links in chain mail. Protective and talismanic, these neckpieces evoke their absent wearers, as well as the absent owners of the eccentric fragments that fill each compartment. Is this the absence brought about by death, or simply the absence of missing or lost items–a kind of lost-and-found in the form of jewelry? Paganin leaves these questions open, although the muted palette of soft purple, gray, and off-white evokes mourning and a Proustian nostalgia for times past.


One of my favorite pieces in the show is the playfully named “Sotto il cavolo” (“Under the Cabbage”). This neckpiece never fails to provoke a response in visitors. It consists of alternating fragments of romanesco broccoli preserved in dental acrylic, and coffin-shaped oxidized silver compartments filled with miniature porcelain babies, complete with articulated limbs posed in eerily lifelike ways. Seeing the coffin-like compartments and uncanny paleness of the dolls’ porcelain skin, many viewers conclude that this neckpiece alludes to the death and loss of a child. Upon closer examination, however, clear allusions to birth and regeneration emerge alongside these references to death and decay.

The title alludes to the old wives’ tale that babies are born under cabbage leaves, while the shape and coloration of the romanesco broccoli evokes the shape of the female breast, complete with nipples. The repetition of these elements, which alternate along the entire circuit of the neckpiece, inspire an almost rosary-like engagement with the wearer, ritual touching accompanied by prayer to the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the imagery is meant to protect a mother, or perhaps it is meant to be a charm for a would-be mother, inviting the blessing of hoped-for children. The body of the female wearer also has the potential to transform the meaning of the piece, depending on her age and fertility.

These multiple layers of meaning are folded into both the making and wearing of the piece, and speak to Paganin’s skill as a jeweler and a storyteller. The ambitious scale of her neckpieces expand the vision of the brooches in Memoria Aperta, creating embodied memoryscapes that speak to each of us in different ways.

Text by Flora Ward

Barbara Paganin: Memoria Aperta is on through August 14, 2016. The Art Alliance is open Tuesday–Sunday, noon–6 pm. Suggested donation: $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors.

Glass: Monumental & Miniature


Jessica Jane Julius, Absorption Screen, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

Climbing the stairs of the Art Alliance, we move from the open spaces of the first floor galleries to the enclosed, windowless second floor. Once on the second floor landing, our gaze is drawn towards what appears to be a shimmering mirage. A pair of lights illuminate the far wall of Gallery C, and we might at first think that we are looking at some kind of projection on a screen. Appropriately entitled Absorption Screen, Jessica Jane Julius’s work pulls viewers in. Coming closer, the mirage becomes concrete and real, no virtual screen but rather myriad tiny glass reflective beads affixed to the wall. These beads are the material used for airport runways and roads, guiding planes to land safely and marking the lines within which cars must travel. Julius uses this medium in a way that gently subverts its more industrial applications, creating an abstract field of muted colors that absorb viewers’ attention as we move closer to see the minute details and step out again to grasp the whole. This installation is site specific and therefore transient: its lifespan is that of the exhibition.

Moving into Gallery D, we see Megan Biddle’s Force Field, a series of delicate glass spheres attached to a thicket of steel rods by small but strong magnets. Looking closely, we can see the glass spheres gently swaying, but miraculously they do not fall. Another series of drawings by Sharyn O’Mara hang directly across the gallery. O’Mara created these small-scale drawings while walking, their meticulously formed ink circles evoking the glass spheres in Biddle’s work.

Three monumental installations by Amber Cowan dominate Gallery E. Cowan takes pressed glass objects made in the early twentieth century and transforms them into otherwordly ensembles that distort their domestic shapes almost beyond recognition. In the center are three large glass bowls, all made from identical smokey gray pressed glass, in whose depths rich dark reds flicker with the shifting light. Looking to the far wall of the gallery, we see Cowan’s Milk Glass Installation 1, in which we can still see the original forms of the glass objects she transforms through flameworking and hot sculpting. It is as though these humble vases, pitchers and vessels are gently melting, the first part of a metamorphosis into the dense thicket of glass we see on the opposite wall in Cowan’s Gray 80. In contrast to the relative simplicity and legibility of the other works in this gallery, Gray 80 is a veritable horror vacui of glass forms that crowd the vertical space of the wall. Peering at the details, we might expect gnomes to pop out from under the stylized toadstools and thick leafy landscape of the piece.

Moving to the last gallery, Gallery F, Jessica Jane Julius’s large Static Puddle Series 01-04 draws the eye, calling attention to the liquid nature of glass. These puddles seem to hover away from the walls, giving them a lightness and transparency like that of clouds. Like the lifecycle of water as it moves through the ecosystem from liquid to vapor to clouds, Julius draws attention to the protean nature of glass. Next to them, Megan Biddle’s Convergence plays with the liquidity of glass by creating a rigidly geometric structure, two panels of clear glass with converging black lines, like a Renaissance exercise in perspective. Biddle has used a technique known as slumping to create this piece, a difficult technique in which glass is melted gently over a solid mold.


Megan Biddle, Drift and Drag, 2015-16.

As we leave this gallery, we pass by a series of digital prints by O’Mara and cyanotypes by Biddle. While the former technique is very modern, cyanotype is an early photographic technique similar to a blueprint, often used in the context of scientific studies. The cool blues of these works harmonize together and draw attention to the shifting shapes of the natural world.

As a whole, the works on view in HUSH explore the myriad facets of glass as a medium that allows us to reflect on the world around us, on both a literal and metaphorical level. The quiet monochromatic palette and technical intricacy of these pieces draw us in, asking us to focus on what is in front of us, rather than persisting in the state of perpetual distraction that is so common in our technologically saturated world. The ensemble of work also speaks to the relationship among the artists themselves, as they manage to explore these issues together even as each artist expresses her own creative vision.

HUSH is on view until April 24, 2016. The Art Alliance is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 6 pm.

Text by Flora Ward

Glass: Medium & Metaphor

HUSH is a collaborative venture that arose among four artists who currently teach at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University: Megan Biddle, Amber Cowan, Jessica Jane Julius and Sharyn O’Mara. Together, the works on view at the Art Alliance ask for quiet reflection in moments of stillness that are increasingly rare in our busy modern lives. Beginning in this blog post with the pieces on view on the first floor galleries A and B, the next post will take the reader upstairs. I draw connections of theme and technique in hopes that visitors to this exhibition will be inspired to see other relationships and resonances among these works.   

In HUSH, glass is both an artistic medium and an organizing metaphor. The work of all four artists is united by its technical difficulty, the resulting labor-intensive processes that quite literally push and stretch the limits of the medium. Glass has been fused, sintered, flame-worked, pressed and pulled, all of these varied techniques playing with the uniquely protean nature of glass that ranges between solid and liquid states. Even works not made of glass manage to convey some of the qualities of this medium, transforming it into an abstract concept as well as a material reality. The works on view at the Art Alliance explore a series of dichotomies inherent in glass itself: movement and stillness, transparency and opacity, liquid and solid.


Sharyn O’Mara, Untitled (Wall Drawing), 2016

Upon entering Gallery A on the first floor of the Art Alliance, our gaze is immediately drawn to the solid marble fireplace and the delicate glass pieces that extend from the wall like the very thinnest branches of a tree, spreading from the mantle almost all the way up to the ceiling. As they climb the wall, the glass projections diminish in size and fade in color from a pale gray into an eggshell white that gently fades into the wall of the gallery itself. As the viewer moves around the room, the shadows cast by the glass pieces move, too, transforming the wall into a shifting field of glass and shadow. Artist Sharyn O’Mara calls this piece Untitled (Wall Drawing) (2016), appropriate given the way the shadows mimic the improvisational movement of the artist’s hand, loosely sketching her subject. Behind the seeming casual improvisation of this piece lies hours and hours of meticulous work to create these glass pieces and affix them to the wall. O’Mara used powdered glass caked on a flat surface before firing, and when you look closely you can see that the individual pieces have one side that is slightly flattened as a result of this process.


Detail of O’Mara’s Untitled (Wall Drawing)


Within the same gallery is another series of works by O’Mara, eight small pieces of vellum painted with an ink wash and mixed media, eponymous with the exhibition as a whole: HUSH #1-#8 (2016). Roughly the size and shape of the pages of a book, the abstract marbling on these pages recalls that found in books, but also evokes the natural forms of geology with its layers and seams. O’Mara asks viewers to look through the transparent surface of the vellum, even as she frustrates our attempts to see through the surface with layers of ink.

A similar frustrated transparency is apparent in the other series of works in this gallery, the glass and steel ensemble by Megan Biddle entitled Further for Now (2012). Biddle has taken glass panels and broken them, filling the cracks with steel and layering the broken pieces atop one another until the glass becomes nearly opaque. With their sturdy steel frames, these pieces feel almost industrial, like relics of a now-defunct factory. 

Moving into the second and larger of the ground floor galleries, Gallery B, the space is dominated by another of Biddle’s pieces, four slabs of concrete, mica and glass entitled Lithosphere (2016). Despite their airy title, these pieces are overwhelmingly solid and heavy, like a broken poured concrete floor. Round pieces of glass relieve the heaviness of the concrete, resembling clear bubbles. But these bubbles are solid glass, calling our attention to the dual nature of glass as both a fragile and sturdy medium. A subtle coating of mica makes the surface of these concrete panels shimmer in the light, dissolving their solidity somewhat.


Megan Biddle, Lithosphere, 2016

The works on the wall surrounding Biddle’s massive Lithosphere all engage similar themes of solidity and fragility, transience and transparency. Sharyn O’Mara’s series of three large pieces of glass mounted in steel frames consists of ghost forms etched into the surface of the glass after the firing process, which burns away the organic matter leaving only traces. We stare at these massive works and only get a hint of the subjects that inspired them, reminding us of inevitable loss and disintegration. Amber Cowan’s elaborate flameworked glass Rosette in Milk and Ivory (2013) takes a now-discarded American industrial product, pressed glass, and transforms its domestic shapes into an otherworldly ensemble of organic forms. The meticulous detail draws the viewer in, and while it is possible to recognize some of the humble pitchers, plates and other kitchenware that Cowan has used, they have been rendered unfamiliar through a laborious process of gently pushing and prodding the glass with a flame until it transforms into something rich and strange. Jessica Jane Julius uses letter forms from different typefaces to create abstract compositions that draw attention to the constructed nature of language. Finally, Sharyn O’Mara’s Untitled (cut drawing) (2015) uses semi-transparent wax paper to create a drawing in negative space, similar to her wall drawings in the previous gallery. This lace-like sheet of white paper mounted on a white ground plays with negative and positive space, and the viewer struggles to discern whether the composition appears in the solid wax paper or the pieces that have been cut out of it.

Together, the pieces on view at the Art Alliance draw viewers into a quiet world of reflection, which is no less demanding for its quiet hush. The four artists have truly integrated their work throughout the exhibition across both floors of the Art Alliance, and the themes, materials and techniques of the pieces on both floors resonate with one another. The next post in this series will look more closely at the works on view in the second floor galleries.

HUSH is on view until April 24, 2016. The Art Alliance is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 6 pm.

Text by Flora Ward