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  • Carol Taylor-Kearney

Catching Up with Cerulean Arts Collective

Cerulean Arts began as a gallery for fine art and crafts and studio for art education. Painted the signature blue of its name, Cerulean has been a pop of color and culture on Ridge Avenue, along with its neighbor The Divine Lorraine, since 2006. Recently, Cerulean has expanded into the building next door and expanded its programming as well through the Cerulean Arts Collective. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Collective.)

Every four weeks the gallery hosts a special, curated collection of artists’ works and every five weeks each of five different Collective members are given a space to present a body of their most recent endeavors. This season, the gallery has hosted group exhibitions around the art of Sidney Goodman and selections of works by artist and teacher Bill Scott. As this review is an attempt to catch up with the dealings of Cerulean Arts Collective so far, I will talk about the third rendition in a follow-up entry.

The inaugural exhibition in the Collective galleries was from July 1st through the 29th, 2017. It was BIG—an invitational that included the art of over 60 artists who have been affiliated with Cerulean Arts Gallery. Many of these artists have had multiple exhibitions at Cerulean, offered classes through their studio program, and are names familiar to the art world of Philadelphia and beyond.

As with most galleries, Cerulean was closed for the month of August but reopened to introduce us to the first group of Collective members: Elaina Posey, Sean Carney, Kathleen Craig, Janice Merendino, and Michelle Soslou. The exhibition spanned September 2nd to the 30th. The overall theme for this group seemed to be “materiality”. By this I mean that each of these artists have used the stuff of making an art piece in a way that corresponds to the message or theme of the art piece.

Elaina Posey presents work that has a lot of personality. Heavily textured with paint, numerous geometric shapes are piled to create mountains against a solid ground. These paintings, though not extraordinarily large, feel big and confrontational. Their compositions are exquisitely balanced, and the color and texture are sensuous and inviting. Maybe because they are done in acrylic, there is an impenetrable quality to them, and also a playfulness—like rubber that has been molded and squeezed.

The paintings of Sean Carney, though not large, more the size of documents, are concrete and substantial. Made of wood panels that are carved and, rather than painted, stained. The imagery is of city streets and photograph-like. The compositions are casual, sometimes a little tilted or off-centered. This aids to their snapshot quality. I can recognize areas of light and shadow, all the same there is no light source. Because of their textured surface from carving and the faded color of the stains, they feel organic, like the shapes and surface just erupted out of the wood. All these qualities put together means, for me, that the work is solid and stolid—like they are a piece of a tree telling me what they have recorded from their observation point.

Kathleen Craig’s paintings feel intimate. The paint in oil is approached to make broad areas and lines of layered color. Some of the strokes flow while other colors are scumbled over. In either case, I am aware of the painter’s hand. The shapes made often have softer edges and are more recognizable as objects in an everyday scene or a landscape. But they are also fully abstracted to become paint—meaning color compositions. What is really wonderful about placing these juxtaposed ideas of real and abstracted is her way of creating a narrative, too. For example, in her almost monochromatic painting “Cookies, Milk, Blue Vase”, brighter, darker circles are drawn over what appears to be a plate. Are these the ghosts of the cookies that have been eaten by the owners of the four half-full glasses of milk?

At first glance I took Janice Merendino to be inspired by Chinese and Japanese scroll painting. One reason is that they are attached at the top and hang down directly from the wall; another is that they are filled with ink brush marks often resembling tassel patterns or calligraphic marks. But Merendino also adds various weighted papers, also marked, and colorful drawing in pastel. There is a sensibility of time and movement, or more precisely of a moment of time: the material (paper) is fragile speaking to ephemerality, the marks are quick and fade away, the lines often are swoops of varying weight and crispness. Their format and imagery make these works highly decorative specimens that seem to relate to the theater or ballet, an experience of itself that may mimic in a heightened way a moment from reality.

Michelle Soslau presents us with mixed media works that hint at atmosphere and water, partly because of their use of the color blue, partly because of their layering of imagery like traced netting, and partly because of their loose handling of paint and other materials. They make me wonder and I experience them as a dream or a memory. There is imagery I recognize like boats, birds, waves, clouds and actual small objects like feathers, sand, and string. But these do not stand out. Rather, they quietly sit, doing their part in the composition that feels casual yet deliberate, like noticing your breath—sometimes you can feel the heaviness of it, sometimes it is shallow, and sometimes you notice that you are holding it. These are rhythms like a poem. A poem perhaps to the vanished, but in any case, a very personal statement.

The second iteration of Cerulean Arts Collective Members exhibition included artists Leslie Fenton, Maria DiMauro, Sandra Benhaim, Ruth Formica, and E. Sherman Hayman. The common thread among the works of these artists appear to be “fragments”. Theses fragments may be pieces of paper or other materials, pieces of a narrative, or segments of colors.

Leslie Fenton’s art works are made up of many pieces of distressed papers and acrylic. This not only gives them an undulating surface and interesting texture, but even in the most saturated in color, a tie to Nature. Her palette includes blues, orangy-browns, whites, and blacks recalling rocks and sky, sea and piers, and these areas in a variety of seasons. The scraps that fit together to make these works are torn, mostly in angular geometric shapes, and retain their edges. This adds to the tumult—like the pieces are windblown or came together like leaves in fall or seashells on the beach. But because of the careful organization I am also reminded of quilt—a crazy quilt to Nature.

Maria Di Mauro presents fragments in two different but corresponding ways. All the art works are carefully observed and delineated drawings—some of scenes with type making them appear as though they are pages from a storybook and some of objects like an empty nest, a rag, a damaged glove. All of the images are related to human activity: The storyboards show a bygone relationship; the nest, rag, and glove accumulated debris. Memory attaches to them, not so much records, their formality feels like portraiture. These are portraits of abandonment.

Sandra Benhaim makes work that brims with color. I say “brim” as opposed to “explodes” not because they are full of color (they are) but because the works themselves feel contained and controlled. And that is saying much because the work is so exuberant. But this is serious play with bold color, a density of materials and layering, the sudden diagonal in a composition that at first look seems to be facing us head-on. One of my favorites, a triptych called “Blue Trio”, illustrates Benhaim’s oeuvre. Three small white squares hold various strokes of blue, green, and yellow. Each presents a world of its own, yet they also perfectly fit together—and could be fitted together in various ways.

Ruth Formica paints from life as she experiences it—not necessarily as expected or recognized, not necessarily even objects. Her subject matter can range from flowers to a cat to a sensation like a sound. Her paintings in oil or gouache are vivid and well composed with shapes and patterns that may become identifiable. Surprisingly, though idiosyncratic, these art works do not feel strange. Rather, they are imaginative reactions to the world itself.

At the entry to E. Sherman Hayman’s exhibition space was a card about gun violence. And guns and parts of guns appeared as motif throughout. These are structural pieces reminiscent of portable altarpieces and beautifully done. But I did not feel a sense of homage to gun culture. Rather, many of them expressed a story that involved a gun but no part of the story—either in the title or in the piece itself—told the ramifications of the gun. Are these artifacts that indicate the high regard most Americans feel for the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms? Could the artist be expressing the seduction of the gun as an object? Or are these the product of a nihilistic culture?

To see more art work by these and other artists, stop by Cerulean Arts 1351 Ridge Avenue Philadelphia or go to .

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