Past Perfect
by Edith Newhall
The Philadelphia Inquirer
June 13, 2010

Memories of lost loves, first cars, and childhood pleasures are rendered in paint, ink, colored pencil, and graphite in "I Can't Get You Out of My Mind," a group show of 14 artists organized by Philadelphia artist Hiro Sakaguchi for Seraphin Gallery. That this carefully considered gathering works as well as it does has more than a little to do with the fact that Sakaguchi's own work is informed by his own early memories and obsessions.

The show's theme seems most literally embodied in works by Phillip Adams, Michael Kowbuz, and Gretchen Diehl. Adams' Solipsist: Will , of a young man's face and the reflections of a suburban landscape in his sunglasses, made me think of early Philip Roth. Kowbuz's oil painting Honda (2009), of a smiling young man with his car, seems to have been based on a snapshot. You can't help wondering who took the picture. Diehl's pen and colored pencil drawing They're never who I thought they were. I'm never what they think I am, of a young woman looking up at balloons with the faces of men inside them, is all about obsessing.

Sakaguchi has included a few artists whose works are more like his own - the familiar turned fantastical - among them Michelle Oosterbaan's radiating colored pencil vision When Stars Unfold; April Loveday's untitled pen, gouache, and collage landscape of robots sliding along telephone wires in a field; and Marie Sivak's Hard Fact, a surreal drawing of a suitcase whose contents have risen like a genie to form a floating woman. Marie Ulmer's strange drawings of girls, made in the 1930s when Ulmer, now 92, was a UArts student, fit right in.

The aforementioned vanitas theme makes an appearance here, too, of course, in Casey Watson's whimsical ink drawing Jungle Skull - a skull shape made up of trees and wild animals - and Sarah Roche's solemnly beautiful ink painting of a woman inside a medieval suit of armor. 

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Hiro Sakaguchi is an honest curator. His curatorial statement for “I Just Can’t Get You Out of My Mind” at Seraphin Gallery reads: “I choose artists whose works I want to see again for selfish reasons.” Simple enough. And, as uncalculated as his curation may be, Sakaguchi still managed to weave together a diverse and talented group of artists he discovered in the Philadelphia-area, all of whom tackle conceptually and aesthetically complicated issues with ease. By using personal taste to navigate the curatorial process, one begins to understand just what it is that Sakaguchi is interested in: detailed, relatively small drawings and paintings, either landscapes or portraiture.

The cool, sparse work of Phillip Adams stands out upon entering the gallery. His surfaces are flawless, even jaw-dropping upon closer inspection. In the piece Solipsist Will, Adams places a figure at the bottom of the panel. The isolated figure stares back at the viewer, his environment appearing only as a reflection in his sunglasses. As the title implies, Solipsism is cleverly described through Adams’ use of space. Another piece by this artist, Exousia, suggests a middle-aged woman wearing a tiger skin on her head, though instead of being a fashionable accessory, the tiger-hat appears to be consuming her. Adams’ two, beautifully rendered pieces are perhaps the strongest work in the show, just through the sheer brilliance of his executions.

Other portraits include Michael Kowbuz’s Honda, a piece that is aesthetically reminiscent of Martin Kippenberger’s series Dear Painter, Paint for Me and Capri by Night. Kowbuz’s artists’ statement describes his interest in the relationship between cars and identity, but it’s hard to get beyond the nostalgic period reference of the late ‘70s – early ‘80s and into that investigation of cars and people. I would like to know more about Kowbuz’s fascination with and nostalgia for this particular time period and his interest in kitsch. Nonetheless, the work is funny, sad, and well painted, making it a notable contribution.

Next to Michael Kowbuz’s work is Erin Murray’s Ugly and Ordinary Light Industrial. Murray focuses on Philadelphia’s architecture via Robert Venturi’s architectural theories, such as Ugly and Ordinary, a term Venturi uses to describe a straightforward and functional building. Murray’s work certainly exemplifies this idea, for she meticulously paints industrial beauty. Sakaguchi writes of Erin’s work, “Erin chooses to depict something that people never pay attention to or may dismiss like empty parking lots or concrete walls.” Murray’s straightforward approach is more documentarian than visionary, however, as Sakaguchi continues, “Erin may be one of the best painters in the city”. And this assertion may indeed be true.

Epitomizing Sakaguchi’s loose criteria of an artist whose work one wants to see more of is Philadelphia darling, Marie Ulmer. The Philadelphia native, still actively making work at the age of 92, certainly deserves the attention. (In 2009, Candace Karch of Bambi Gallery and Janel Rivera Frey of Proximity Gallery curated a solo show “Tell All” of Ulmer’s work at The University of the Arts.) Her untitled Balthus/Darger-like watercolor of several figures, mostly women, engaged in a variety of “indoor” activities is fascinating. This particular piece, dating from the 1930s, not only preserves Ms. Ulmer’s personal history but also functions as a historical document. The piece left me wanting to see more of her work — a lot more.

There are many other pieces in this show that are worth checking out, from Casey Watson’s delicately painted Jungle Skull, to Brenna Murphy’s drawings made with hair, Domestic Objects, to Sarah Roche’s self-portrait, Portrait in Armor. Sakaguchi’s intimate choices for this 14-artist show are made even more personal by his curator’s commentary. He seems invested in the personal development of each artist, as well as the development of the art scene in Philadelphia. He writes about an artist as though he’s writing a dedication in a yearbook. It seems…sweet; an adjective that one rarely, if ever, uses in the art world.

“I Just Can’t Get You Out of My Mind” is on view at Seraphin Gallery until June 25, 2010. Hiro Sakaguchi will lead a discussion with several of the exhibiting artists on June 12, 2010 at 2pm at Seraphin Gallery.

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