(re)FOCUS: Mary Carlson, Karen Kilimnik, June Leaf, Ellen Lesperance, Helen O'Leary, Liliana Porter, and Ana Tiscornia

January 23, 2024

Jan. 27–April 20, 2024
Reception: Friday, Feb. 2, 5–7:30

Philadelphia Art Alliance
251 S. 18th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Instagram: @philartalliance

Gallery hours
Tuesday: by appointment
Wednesday–Friday: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Saturday: 12 p.m.–5 p.m.

Philadelphia Art Alliance at UArts is proud to present (re)FOCUS: Mary Carlson, Karen Kilimnik, June Leaf, Ellen Lesperance, Helen O’Leary, Liliana Porter, and Ana Tiscornia, an important multi-generational group exhibit that features varied works that probe the human condition through singular images and handmade processes. No one style is represented here, but rather a panoply, with feminist and world political allusions, art historical references, wry appropriation, DIY bricolage, and craft sensibilities in a range of media. For Leaf, Lesperance, and O’Leary, this will be the first time they have been presented locally.

(re)FOCUS is an exciting and essential component of the important city-wide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia Focuses on Women in the Visual Arts—a grassroots feminist project and one of the first large-scale surveys of the work of American women artists—which culminated in over 150 exhibitions, panels, lectures, workshops, and demonstrations.

Taken together, the personal historic mythologies and structures of these seven artists provide a compelling visual chronicle of the enormous strengths, diversity, politics, and subtle sensitivities of women working today.

(re)FOCUS was initiated and organized by Judith K. Brodsky, Diane Burko, and Marsha Moss. The exhibit at Philadelphia Art Alliance at University of the Arts was curated by Sid Sachs. A catalog for the entire city-wide project, Philadelphia Focuses on Women in the Visual Arts 1974–2004, with essays by Brodsky, Burko, Robert Cozzolino, Ruth Fine, Imani Roach, and Judith Stein, will be available.

About the Artists

Born in Wisconsin in 1951, Mary Carlson was educated at the School of Visual Arts.

Her early installations incorporated heraldic flags and natural history forms rendered in a variety of materials. Her more recent endeavors incorporate ceramic figures derived from Renaissance and medieval painting sources, such as those by Zubaran, Giotto, or Fra Angelico. Extracted from two-dimensional pictorial space, the intimate scale of her figurative sculptures and small grottoes are sensitively rendered in ethereal glazes, providing the observer with an uncanny psychological experience that is filled with an intense dynamic of residual yet tender content. Size in this case does not affect impact.

A Philadelphia native born in 1955, Karen Kilimnik first showed locally in 1986, only three blocks from the Art Alliance. Her witty and whimsical canvases are characterized by a hybrid sensibility blending romanticized versions of Old Masters, thrift shop Rococo, and fan magazines that create an enchanted fantasy world of glimmering delight and knowing innocence.

Her early work often utilized scattered images and theatrical environments that combined ornamental elements and glamorous props. These decorative concerns extend to today, through her use of spectacular glitter and faux gems adhered to the surfaces of her paintings. As one of the main artists responsible for the resurgence of figurative painting in the early 1990s, Kilimnik often developed semi-fictional characters or adopted pseudo-identities informed by fandom, collapsing fantasy and reality in on itself. By drawing on diverse sources, Kilimnik produced nuanced and playful pastiches of historical codes and symbols. Further, one can consider these charming masquerades as functional homages and adaptations of high and mass culture more than appropriations fueled by the theory of cultural exhaustion.

For over seven decades, June Leaf has created a visionary and carnivalesque realm of human experience via photographs; narrative drawings; paintings; and handmade, kinetic sculpture, all in active states of metamorphic flux. Often working simultaneously on paper, canvas, and metal, Leaf has invented an extensive personal canon of symbols and archetypes that may be comically funky or poignantly tragic, depending on the period in which the work was made.

Leaf was born in Chicago, studied at the Institute of Design (New Bauhaus), and became an influential source of Chicago Imagism. Along with Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, and others, Leaf became a model for the Monster Roster and, arguably, an early influence on Claes Oldenburg. She lived in Paris before moving in 1960 to New York, where she continues to live and work, along with spending summers in Nova Scotia.

Ellen Lesperance was born 1971 in Minneapolis. Her work often references the labor traditions and heritage of women fiberworkers in actual hand-knitted works and schematic paintings related to Bauhaus fabrics, Pattern and Decoration painting, and the body. As such, she revisits and empowers the legacies of generations of anonymous women who toiled in practices that were once neglected as culturally insignificant, but are vital to our culture. Her clay Tanagra figures also have a feminist bent that pay homage to Amazon warriors and contemporary feminist activists such as Yevgenia Isayeva, Pussy Riot, and Pipilotti Rist.

Irish-born Helen O’Leary’s mysterious ramshackle assemblages are cobbled-together amalgams of support and subsistence. Reconfiguring armatures from found wood, O’Leary’s works are stuccoed over with handmade paints scavenged from specific locales that reveal their transcendental histories like minimalist arte povera icons. Blurring the boundaries between object and image and construction and restoration, they refashion studio castoffs into elegiac stoic abstractions bearing echoes of a poignant past. Her constructions repair the wounds of entropy and are hopeful and conciliatory.

Liliana Porter was born in Argentina in 1941. She studied in Mexico City and Buenos Aires before moving in 1964 to New York City, where she co-founded the New York Graphic Workshop with Luis Camnitzer and José Guillermo Castillo. Ten years later in Italy, she co-founded the Studio Camnitzer, an artist’s residence studio near Lucca. She also taught at the Porter-Wiener Studio, the Printmaking Workshop, State University of New York (SUNY) Purchase, SUNY at Old Westbury, and Queens College. Beyond printmaking, Porter has worked in a wide variety of media, including painting, drawing, video, theater, and public art. Her innovations often employ drawn abstract lines with concrete imagery.

In installations, Porter often uses toys or decorative figurines, the interactions among which insinuate dark foibles of power. The photographs shown at the Art Alliance, for example, use ceramic avatars as surrogates to explore the human condition. Do not be misled by her borderline kitsch—in those documents, she elegantly balances chaos with the need for order.

Ana Tiscornia was born in Uruguay in 1951. Influenced by an uncle who was an architect, Tiscornia studied architecture in Montevideo. During repressive military dictatorships, she discovered an engraving school, the officially sanctioned meetings of which allowed her to discuss political ideas and develop her style.

In 1986, Tiscornia won prizes at the 2nd Biennial in Havana and the 34th Municipal Salon in Montevideo, and earned a scholarship to study at the Académie de Paris. Emigrating from Uruguay to New York City in 1991, she built on her growing sense of Latin identity and explored her complicated familiarities with dictatorships and emigration while questioning humankind’s place in the urban environment.

After turning to curating and teaching in 1996, she is now professor emeritus at SUNY College at Old Westbury and currently lives in New York. Her recent constructions reference deconstructed architectural ruins, and by implication, political upheavals in her native country. They are installed on walls and are stark and timely evocations of pandemonium and repair, disaster, and despair. Though informed by personal experiences, these works unfortunately now seem broadly prescient to the tragic images we see daily from the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

Tiscornia and Porter have collaborated extensively in videos and public installations including Untitled with Sky, a permanent installation at the MTA Scarborough Metro North Rail Station, New York. Their joint exhibitions include works at Johannes Vogt Gallery, New York, New York; Galería del Paseo, Manantiales, Uruguay; Galería Beatriz Gil, Caracas, Venezuela; Galería del Paseo, Manantiales, Uruguay; Galería Casas Riegner, Bogotá, Colombia; Point of Contact Gallery, Syracuse, New York; and Georgia State University, Atlanta.