Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog


Sleepers in the Borderlands

The fruit of an unusual collaboration between visual artist Marta Sánchez and poet Norma Cantú, Transcendental Train Yard is a series of serigraph prints that create a verbal and visual landscape of dreams and memories. Their work occupies borderlands both literal and figurative, between the nations and languages, between the past and the present, between sleeping and waking experience. Sánchez was born in San Antonio, Texas, and is now based in Philadelphia, while Cantú, now based in Kansas City, Missouri, was born in Mexico and raised just across the border in Laredo, Texas. In the process of their long-distance collaboration, these two artists discovered the many resonances in their shared background that come through in the dream-like words and images of these prints.

Marta Sánchez, Loneliness/Soledad, 2004

Marta Sánchez, Loneliness/Soledad, 2004

Sánchez has long been fascinated by the train yards near her childhood home in Texas, which were so integral to the local landscape and to her own family history. It was the trains that brought her grandfather, a lion tamer from a circus in Mexico City, to San Antonio, where he met Sánchez’s grandmother. Cantú’s grandfather worked for the railway in San Antonio before the family moved to Mexico. These two artists have moved on parallel tracks, their lives and the lives of their family members crossing borders back and forth to forge a mestizo identity, a rich mixture of cultures and languages.

Eight of the ten prints published in the book Transcendental Train Yard are on view on the third floor in the Shanis Programming Space at the Art Alliance from October 25 until November 4. The suite begins with Soledad/Loneliness, which depicts the distinctive landscape of the train yard as seen through a shifting veil of memory and loss, and framed by the body of a woman whose grieving face hovers above the scene like a sorrowful moon as she embraces the figure of an elderly man. Sánchez’s print responds to the loss of her father, and Cantú’s poem was completed soon after her own father’s passing. The print evokes a shared grief that plays out across the landscape of the train yard, uniting the two women’s experiences and emotions across the distance that separates them.

Marta Sánchez, Prelude/Preludio, 2003

Marta Sánchez, Prelude/Preludio, 2003

In the pages of the book, these themes are laid out for the viewer in the first print, entitled Prelude/Preludio. A recumbent figure stretches across the composition, with train cars visible in the background as if through a window. It is not clear if he is dead or merely sleeping. The poem speaks of the “fiery gold crown sunset” and the moonlit arrival of trains, but also evokes a struggle between life and death. As Constance Cortez points out, Sánchez’s print recalls Frida Kahlo’s 1937 work, The Deceased Little Dimas, an uncanny painting depicting the body of a deceased child, dressed in a long robe and crown, surrounded by flowers. Rather than looking directly down on the figure with a detached, almost scientific perspective, as we do in Kahlo’s painting, Sánchez shifts the position of the body so that the viewer feels as though she is alongside the boy. Prayer cards with what appears to be the abstracted form of the Virgin Mary surround his bed, watching over him. Strong horizontal lines run along the length of his body, converging on the figure’s head, like the rail tracks of a dream landscape. In this borderland between sleep and wakefulness, between life and death, the train tracks and the rail yard evoke distant places and domestic intimacy, the journey and the arrival. The work of Sánchez and Cantú transforms the heroic landscape of the West, criss-crossed by train tracks and populated by men and machines that are constantly on the move, into a vast and mysterious interior landscape of shared memory and experience.

PORTADA ESTA Train-ebook-front-sm

A limited number of signed copies of the book, Transcendental Train Yard: A Collaborative Suite of Serigraphs, art by Marta Sánchez and poetry by Norma E. Cantú (San Antonio: Wings Press, 2015) are available for purchase at the Art Alliance.

Text by Flora Ward, Intern


Paula Winokur: Quiet Immensity

At the heart of Material Legacy, in the central gallery on the ground floor, is the work of Paula Winokur. Her quietly monumental porcelain forms ground the exhibition as a whole, rooting it in the clay of the earth and conveying a sense of the immensity and antiquity of the frozen landscapes that form the subject of her recent work. Like Lewis Knauss and Adela Akers, Winokur makes us aware of the slow passage of time. Rather than the human scale of minutes, days, and years, however, Winokur evokes the passage of time on a geological scale, emphasizing the almost inhuman monumentality of the landscape. Despite this, she also makes us aware of the power of human intervention–and invention. Winokur’s work draws attention to the difficult dichotomy of destruction and creation, the permanence and transience of human engagement with the earth.

Paula Winokur, Shattered Ice (2008)

Paula Winokur, Shattered Ice (2008)

Clustered together in the center of the room like ancient standing stones are the porcelain forms of Shattered Ice (2008). The apparent solidity of these forty-two individual pieces is deceptive, for they are hollow inside, composed of individual porcelain slabs. On the inside of the circle, the porcelain slabs are smooth, while their external faces have a rougher texture, as though exposed to the elements. This sharp contrast in texture between rough and smooth is highlighted by Winokur’s monochromatic palette of black and white, the pristine austerity of the white porcelain appearing both solid and fragile at the same time.

Paula Winokur, Aerial View: Glacier (Detail) (2015)

Paula Winokur, Aerial View: Glacier (Detail) (2015)

Winokur also experiments with perspective, putting viewers in the position of looking down over an expansive landscape. We see this especially in Aerial View: Glacier (Detail) (2015), placed on the floor to give viewers a bird’s eye view of the work. While this perspective removes the viewer from the intimate details of the landscape, Winokur also wants to draw us closer, make us aware of how our collective actions have a very real, tangible effect on the glaciers of the far north and south. While this piece emphasizes the dark side of the environmental destruction that humans have wrought, it also recalls ancient earthworks found across Europe and North America, such as the man-made but deeply mysterious earthwork known as the cursus, near Stonehenge in southern England. Human beings need not always be a destructive force; even a glance at our own shared past reveals a complex story of coexistence, written on the landscape itself.

Like all of the other artists whose work is on view in Material Legacy, Paula Winokur has an important legacy as a teacher for generations of artists in the Philadelphia region. She taught for thirty years at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, while her husband, who also works with clay, taught at Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art. The legacy of all of these artists is thus both material and intangible, and will continue to endure.

Text by Flora Ward, intern


Judith Schaechter + Warren Seelig: Shadow and Light

Material Legacy offers a diverse range of artistic voices across a range of media, from the hushed whispers of Adela Akers and Lewis Knauss’ textiles, to the vividly dramatic stained glass of Judith Schaechter and the absorbing abstractions of Warren Seelig’s textile-inspired sculpture. While at first glance the work of Schaechter and Seelig might seem radically different, the contrast between the pieces on view at the Art Alliance creates a productive visual dialogue that challenges and engages us. Both artists push the limits of technique and medium to immerse viewers in their own highly original worlds of shadow and light.

Warren Seelig, Shadowfield/Slate (2015)

Warren Seelig, Shadowfield/Slate (2015)

Judith Schaechter, The Battle of Carnival and Lent (2011)

Judith Schaechter, The Battle of Carnival and Lent (2011)

Hung at the viewer’s eye level, Seelig’s Shadowfield/Slate (2015) seems to stare darkly across the second floor of the Art Alliance at Schaechter’s monumental stained-glass window, The Battle of Carnival and Lent (2011). The colorful, action-packed window draws us in, our attention held by the complex detail of the composition. The title is a direct reference to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous 1559 canvas, The Battle of Carnival and Lent. Bruegel’s painting is a humorous take on the difficult transition from the free-for-all of Carnival to the abstinence of Lent, a time when Christians are supposed to refrain from the pleasures of the flesh in memory of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The carnivalesque costumes of the figures in Schaechter’s work evoke Bruegel’s battling peasants, but close examination reveals multiple layers of visual reference. 

Judith Schaechter, The Battle of Carnival and Lent (detail)

Judith Schaechter, The Battle of Carnival and Lent (detail)

Bodies litter the foreground, small black and white skeletons arising from them like the souls of the dead, while flames loom ominously in the distant background. We are confronted not only with an allegorical battle between excess and restraint, but also the cosmic drama of the Last Judgment, when the souls of the dead are judged at the end of time. The outcome is far from clear: two large figures in the foreground are locked in a battle of tug-of-war, while in the background, two child-like figures mimic their struggles on a smaller scale. This moral ambivalence is appropriate given the original context of this work, which was made for display over the entrance to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which served as a jail from 1829 until 1971.

Judith Schaechter, The Battle of Carnival and Lent (detail)

Judith Schaechter, The Battle of Carnival and Lent (detail)

Judith Schaechter, Prometheus (2011)

Judith Schaechter, Prometheus (2011)

Judith Schaechter, Noah (2011)

Judith Schaechter, Noah (2011)

Judith Schaechter, Mary Magdalene (2011)

Judith Schaechter, Mary Magdalene (2011)

A handful of other pieces in Material Legacy were also part of the installation at Eastern State Penitentiary, including Prometheus, Noah and Mary Magdalene. The strict vertical confines of these compositions were fitted into the narrow windows in the prisoners’ cells, their Biblical and mythological figures appropriate for the larger themes of sin, punishment and redemption. Unique among Schaechter’s artistic production, the stained glass panels from Eastern State Penitentiary were created to be viewed in an architectural setting, with natural light. This is the first time that these pieces have been shown publically since 2010-11, when they were in situ at the prison. Even then, it was difficult to see the intricate details of the composition of The Battle of Carnival and Lent. Now hung at the viewer’s eye level, visitors have a unique opportunity to engage directly with Schaechter’s work and enter the complex, colorful and morally ambiguous world of her stained glass compositions.

Looking across the gallery, the carefully poised, solidly opaque materials of Seelig’s Shadowfield/Slate contrast to the bright, transparent colors and frenetic action of the stained glass. Nevertheless, Seelig’s visual world is every bit as individual and absorbing as Schaechter’s. Seelig’s work occupies a unique place in between multiple media and techniques. The great-grandson of a textile machinery designer, Seelig has been pushing the limits of fiber and textile art throughout his career. While his use of three-dimensional space has a clear sculptural quality, the geometric armature of his shadowfields resembles the warp and weft structure of woven textiles. His series of shadowfields opens up the flat surface of the textile, transforming it into a dynamic matrix in which light and shadow dissolve the distinction between object and ground.

Warren Seelig, Shadowfield/Slate (detail)

Warren Seelig, Shadowfield/Slate (detail)

Warren Seelig, Shadowfield/Colored Light (detail)

Warren Seelig, Shadowfield/Colored Light (detail)

Light is as important in Seelig’s work as it is for Schaechter, creating shadows that produce an elusive three-dimensionality that dissolves against the flat surface of the wall. Shadowfield: Slate traps natural materials found by the artist on his seaside walks within a carefully structured web, the individual pieces casting a dense thicket of shadows against the wall. In vivid counterpoint to the opaque gray slate and its dark shadows are the colorful lucite sun-catchers of Shadowfield/Colored Light (2007). Here, the transparency of the medium underscores the important role played by light to create an expanded field of color, a kind of three-dimensional stained glass.

The juxtaposition of Warren Seelig and Judith Schaechter’s pieces in Material Legacy sheds new light on the work of each artist, encouraging us to reflect on their complex visual worlds.

Text by Flora Ward, Intern    


Adela Akers + Lewis Knauss: Veils and Screens

Material Legacy showcases a diverse range of media, including fiber, glass, and clay, from artists who are well established and highly esteemed in the Philadelphia area. In this post, we consider the relationship between two of these artists, Adela Akers and Lewis Knauss, by focusing on a handful of works currently on view at the Art Alliance. Adela Akers’ The Grid (2008) and Gold Inside (2008) resonate with four pieces from Lewis Knauss’ series, Sitting with Deborah, including Bayview (2012), Calm (2012), Glisten Clear (2013), and Still Fog (2014). These works ask us to slow down, look closely, and listen attentively. The horsehair in Akers’ weavings whispers to viewers, while the dense thickets of knotted fiber in Knauss’ work absorb sound, drawing the viewer into an interior landscape. The mysteries of memory and vision, the transience of place and time–these are some of the themes explored in the work of these two artists.

Adela Akers, The Grid (2008)

Adela Akers, The Grid (2008)

Adela Akers, Gold Inside (2008)

Adela Akers, Gold Inside (2008)

I focus on a series of pieces by Akers and Knauss that take the familiar if abstracted geometrical form of the window, drawing a veil or a screen over it with horsehair and bamboo. Akers’ 2008 works, The Grid and Gold Inside, share a similar palette of warm reds, standing out among the other pieces on the gallery walls. Looking more closely, we see that these two weavings are reversed mirror images of one another. The Grid uses a rhythmic pattern of gold foil wrappers to create a frame around an empty central square, while Gold Inside places these metallic foil fragments within the central square. The distinction between interior and exterior space, between subject and frame, is blurred, and the viewer is not sure if she is inside looking out, or outside looking in. In a 2008 oral history interview with the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian, Akers spoke about this quality of mystery, saying “there is something intriguing to me and mysterious about an opening, not because of what’s around it but what’s inside that I don’t see, that I don’t know; it’s the unknown.” The Grid and Gold Inside confront viewers with the unknown, drawing them into the mystery through a fine veil of horsehair and linen.

Lewis Knauss, Bayview (2012)

Lewis Knauss, Bayview (2012)

Lewis Knauss, Calm (2012)

Lewis Knauss, Calm (2012)

Lewis Knauss, Glisten Clear (2013)

Lewis Knauss, Glisten Clear (2013)

Lewis Knauss, Still Fog (2014)

Lewis Knauss, Still Fog (2014)

Upstairs on the second floor, situated like a gentle punctuation between the dynamic forms of Warren Seelig’s sculpture and the colorful drama of Judith Schaechter’s stained glass, is the work of Lewis Knauss. Four pieces from the series Sitting with Deborah stand out for their horizontal composition and relatively shallow projection from the wall. Instead of the dense thickets of fiber that surround them, Bayview (2012), Calm (2012), Glisten Clear (2013), and Still Fog (2014) appear like screens drawn between the viewer and an imaginary landscape on the other side, tantalizingly out of view. Like Akers’ pair of warm-hued weavings, these four pieces by Knauss form two pairs whose composition and coloring echo one another. Bayview and Glisten Clear are painted with metallic colors that subtly reflect light, while the bamboo weft of Calm and Still Fog look almost like window shades with their dense horizontal slats. In his artist statement for Snyderman-Works Galleries, Knauss has stated that he uses textile as a “medium to explore [his] memories of place,” while his meticulous artistic process evokes the patient looking required to truly be present in the landscape. Knauss offers this meditative experience of place to his viewers, drawing us in the textured surfaces that seem to suggest a landscape visible only in the mind’s eye.

Given the subtle visual resonance among these pieces, it comes as no surprise that the artists themselves have worked together. Lewis Knauss was among Adela Akers’ first students at the Tyler School of Art, where she taught from 1972 until 1995. Knauss received his MFA from Tyler in 1973, and taught at Moore College from 1982 until 2010. Both artists have strong ties to the Philadelphia area and have left a lasting legacy as teachers and active participants in the craft community. The exhibition at the Art Alliance represents a unique opportunity to see the work of these masters of fiber in dialogue, and in a larger artistic conversation that spans diverse media.

Text by Flora Ward, Intern