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  • By Carol Taylor-Kearney

Joy, Joy, Celebration, and Joy at Cerulean Collective

Each month I look forward to visiting the Cerulean Collective. This month promised a re-visit to three artists whose work I had seen and written about from previous exhibitions —Sandra Benhaim, Kathleen Craig, and Janice Merendino; and two artists who are new to me—Joe Bowling and Ronnie Bookbinder. So I went with some expectations and was completely delighted! The artists that I know had expanded their oeuvre. The artists I didn’t know expand the offerings of the Collective. So let’s start with the “familiars”…

In her last showing at Cerulean I said “Sandra Benhaim

Pathways Redux by Sandra Benhaim.  Oil, oil pigment stick, oil pastel on canvas, 36" x 48"

( makes work that brims with color.” And they still do. She has worked in mixed media as well as oils and on surfaces from canvas to panel, paper to vellum, in painting and collage. Now, any and all of this experience is pulled together for fresh and invigorating abstractions where every line and splash of color has a purpose. In the collages, for example “Composite 3”, clouds of reds, whites, purples, and blues float over a washy light blue sky. A thin gray line, like a pencil score, connects to a small tri-colored triangle. It makes me aware that this may be, as the title suggests, a composite of different papers. But everything is so finely integrated it reminds me of the carefully crafted collages of Lee Krasner and of natural phenomenon like high and low weather systems converging.

"Composite 3" by Sandra Benhaim.  Mixed-media collage on Bristol vellum, 12" x 12"

Benhaim produced many collages with this skillful weaving of layers and papers and some of her paintings had this quality, too-- the quality of something meeting something meeting something, and so on. I wish that I could attend their get together, however, I am

happy to observe it! But my two favorites pieces were right across the entry to the gallery, the sparkling “Pathways Redux” which reminded me of flowers reflecting on the surface of a moving stream and “Fortuitous”,

"Terra" by Sandra Benhaim. Mixed-media collage on archival paper, 6" x 5.5"

which reminded me of Mardi Gras, particularly after a parade when the confetti and ribbons and streamers are blown into the corners of the world. Small sprinklings in larger shapes and fields occur throughout this body of work—and it was nice to see pieces that communicate to other pieces as though working out a process of communication. This is made particularly evident in collages like “Terra” that is a little different colorwise. Greens with some yellow suggest ground and trees while blues, violet, and even black striate for sky. A lone dot of red floats into the black about ¾ up the page. It is in a position that calls my eye to see a small white word—“at”. Suddenly an exploration of a landscape becomes a specific moment as well.

Entering Kathleen Craig’s ( room of paintings I immediately remember what I wrote about her show previously, “What is really wonderful

about placing these juxtaposed ideas of real and abstracted is her way of creating a narrative, too. “ At the time, I was trying to describe her scope, which I am pleased to say has only

"Milk and Cookies 2" by Kathleen Craig.  Oil on n canvas, 36" x 36"

increased. Originally, it was interiors and still lifes like her "Milk and Cookies 2 with an empty pitcher, half filled glasses of milk, drawn circles on a plate for cookies, a bowl of painted circles for fruit and drawn banana shape along with a table and chair. One is left with a sense of presence and vanished, an aftermath of a snack. She creates a synergy between drawing and painting as a way of describing. Plus she has added some landscapes and figures, too. She positions her work between representation and abstraction like Milton Avery; her color experimentation could also give Matisse and de Kooning a run-for-their-money. And even as Avery and Matisse and de Kooning were willing to give up total, specific representation for the benefit of the painting, Craig does this as well. Moreover, and I mean this as even a bigger compliment, she gives us intimacy. When I look at her work on the wall I think of a quote by Mark Rothko about Milton Avery, “What was Avery's repertoire?… Whatever world strayed through his studio: a domestic, unheroic cast.” In this show Craig’s cast includes tables and chairs, milk and cookies, fruit and vegetables, turtles, dogs, and fish. How can you not love that! Most of these paintings are middling to middling-large in size, but they feel bigger, enveloping. This is because the expanse of each color area. And similar to the work by de Kooning and Matisse, both the glow of the paint and the precision of the composition let you know that she reconsiders and reworks. For instance, “Dog on Orange Rug” depicts a sizable w

hite dog with yellow markings sitting on an orange rug in a space with a blue-gray floor, warm beigy wall, and a red table. The table has a white plate with an orange on it and toward the back leg of the table is a roundish object—perhaps a dog toy. The space in this painting is very odd and not just because the colors and application of them flattens the space out. But the dog whose head is cut off by the tabletop has legs that go beyond the legs of the table. This would place the dog spatially in front to the table which, I might add, corresponds to the position of the rug. And there are other inconsistencies. All the table legs are of varying sizes which would make for a very wobbly table. And the table top has a slightly different reddish shape attached to it which starts and stops and starts again then folds into the red area. Is this a leaf to the table or the underneath or maybe a cloth? But then again, I am not sure if it drops down in front of or behind. On the front edge of the table is a white plate with an orange. Fortunately, there is just enough of a line of red to place it securely on the table. But fear not viewers, there are games afoot. Craig does not use literal descriptions or logic to figure her paintings. These are works assisted by the pus

h-pull of Hans Hoffmann’s color theory and the attraction of your eye. Warm and saturate colors come forward, cooler and mixed colors go back. Larger shapes dominate over smaller ones and the bottom of a painting is the floor and part of our space while the top is up and away from us. And Craig is generous giving us entry into the painting at the front, right while also giving us a visual jest: see that toy on the floor, see the orange on the table, see the orange-slice pattern on the rug. Do you think that big dog might knock that orange off the table and chase it around the floor like a ball when it decides to move? All indications say “YES”. And that is the thing. Kathleen Craig not only gives stability to her paintings by playing with color—its size, shape, overlap, position on the canvas, but does it in such a way as to anticipate action by having our eye move from color shape to color shape. I am closing with “Turtle Still Life” because, aside from its whimsy, lets just the right amount of drawing in to the painted color composition to keep things in place.

Janice Merendino ( was in the first exhibition of the Collective and her art works continue to be elegant. “Their format and

"Untitled #18-01" by Janice Merendino.  Pastel and ink on paper, 44" x 12"

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, “ is how I described them. And they are still scroll-like in the fashion of their layout. But they have become more individualized because she has presented each in its own frame, a light wood, natural and demarcating. Still, they seem related to “kakemona”, the vertical scroll found in the tokonoma, a niche or alcove reserved as a room for contemplation. But instead of a partnering flower arrangement, Merendino has given us Artist

"Untitled #17-08" by Janice Merendino, pastel and ink on paper, 43" x 12"

Notes, a sentence, almost a poem, about each piece. It is a lovely offering, one that she did with some reluctance as to its effect on the viewer’s experience. So let me say, “Janice, thank you. Giving me these notes only served to enrich my experience more.” For example, “Untitled #18-01” has many of the characterics of Merendino’s artwork: calligraphic marking, several distinguished areas, a dancing “tassel”. The upper portion is ombre, darker at top to lighter as it moves down the vertical paper field. Into this appears a dark tuft of ink with long, undulating strokes twirling to the bottom. It is reminiscent of a tassel, a favorite motif of Merendino’s. Within this larger tassel appear small, wiry knots that recur, and thus relate to the pouring stream of ink. These knots float in and on striates of horizontal strokes that go light to dark, light to dark, light to ultimately dark. The layers of transparency to ultimate darkness, especially when compared to the ombre of the upper portion makes me think of sky and sea, and this sea has depth. The composition is beautifully balanced with interest everywhere: the bottom section grounds us, the upper section moves us up into space, the middle section has action. Add what is said in the Notes, “An imperfect murmuration, birds and fish express their discontent with their changing environment.” Now I can contemplate even more the dark cloud above sinking the poor, little structures caught in it and the level depths to which they are traveling to that black void. But don’t think this is all an exhibition of either environmentalism (although many pieces allude to this subject). These are not political propaganda but personal statements by a deep observer and thinker. Some, like “Untitled #17-08” are fanciful. The piece is separated into three parts: a white square at the top, a dark square at the bottom, and a length of action in-between. The top square is interrupted by a dark rectangle in which is a section of a glowing, golden sphere. The bottom section is delineated by a dark line from the middle section, a gray gradation moves from lightest at top to darkest below. The area in between has a yellow cast and is filled with vertical stripes and flowers—the exploding kind like daisies (or they could even be her tassels disheveled). The Note, “How do flowers look in the light of a yellow moon?” is almost a haiku. May I suggest “How do flowers look in the light of a gold moon? Merendino paints.”

The last two artists rounding out this Cerulean Collective group are Ronnie Bookbinder, a painter, and Joe Bowling, a sculptor. Both have contributed an interesting dynamic.

Ronnie Bookbinder ( presents us with

"Laughs Café" by Ronnie Bookbinder.  Acrylic on canvas, 20" x 24"

mostly urban scenes. Her paintings are made up of color layers that beautifully melt and meld into each other. One of the problems with Bookbinder’s work is that the images of them cannot and do not do them justice-- there is too much chromatic aberration—so it is a must for you to see the actual work. So, about the actual work… In the hallway just outside her gallery is a painting that suggests, but is somewhat different from, what will be seen inside and is a perfect set up. “Laughs Café” grants us a view of standing upon an entry into a restaurant scene. Whether I, the viewer, am inside looking out (which is how I felt) or outside looking through arches to an adjoining space, I do not know.

"On an Island" by Ronnie Bookbinder.  Acrylic on canvas, 24" x 30"
"Along the Road" by Ronnie Bookbinder.  Acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"

What I do know is that there is a big “L” and “C” between the arches. Golden in color, they gently lift from the purplish-gray of the building surface which resembles stucco due to its grainy painted texture. The ground on which I stand is yellow and patterned like terrazzo. The scene on the other side of the arches is cool in color, blues and violets, with the background in an atmospheric blue. One of the things I like in Bookbinder’s work is her use of an accentuating black line. Here, it appears along the top of the arch and in some of the figures. These lines act as structural supports of this and/or that, delineating and organizing while also moving the eye along. Sometimes they are arrows, sometimes separations between planes, and sometimes details in what is pictured. Bookbinder is definitely a painter who likes to move paint. But she is comfortable and successful in using other techniques. For example, in “On an Island” she blocks our vision of a lively scene of buildings by placing a stenciled chain-link fence pattern. Because the pattern blotches and fades in a random way it becomes descriptive and integrated. In general, there is a quality of flickering color which makes the paintings glimmer. This is even more apparent because she will place a more solidly rendered structure (like that aforementioned arched-wall or fence) somewhere in the foreground. A painting that is the most different is “Along the Road” which features a city seen from a distance. In the right corner is a grassy knoll overlooking an open greenway with a blue river running diagonally from bottom left to upper right. Crossing the river at the upper portion is an arched bridge that is accentuated by those black lines found in the other works. Along the distant horizon that dips down on the left side are city buildings that dissolve into the blue of the sky. In many ways it reminds me of Philadelphia from the Fairmont Park section of the Art Museum. But “Along the Road” ties less into this actual world and more into an idyllic dreamscape.

You cannot leave Joe Bowling’s ( ) gallery without

feeling bemused. His work fuses engineering and art. In the hallway, seeing so many wheels I could not help to think of Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel”. But when I walked into the

gallery and his sculpture waved at me (“Hello Hands”), it was Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeests” that came to mind. That is not to say that Bowling’s work could not be off-putting. The crackling “Not a Spine” resembles vertebrae in the pieces that make it up and the undulating side-to-side wave motion could make you think of a snake. Still that cracking sound it made I felt down to my very joints. Another more dangerous specimen is “God of Fire” which has to be experienced through video. A steel structure holds a series of wood

"Hello Hands" by Joe Bowling.  Rubber, wood and steel, 17" x 17" x 4"

matches in a herringbone pattern. Light one match and watch the movement of the conflagration-- an incendiary dream! Fortunately, some of his pieces are stationary and draw power and beauty through materials and repeated pattern. “Not a Man” has three circles, two coils, and a variety of rods both bent and straight. Made of steel that may, for some, resemble a figure but for me reminds me of a drawing in the air a la Alexander Calder’s wire sculptures. And like Calder, most of the work has a playful edge partly due to its materials—lots of plastic-- and partly because recognizable objects transform because of movement. Near the door is a piece that seemed related in its sportiveness, but slightly off in other ways. “Disconnected True Love” is a collaboration with ceramicist Janet Street. A bearlike creature is clutching the air with a small humanoid on its back. The pair stand on a flat metal plate supported by pole structures. More posts and a large broken chain—all appearing to be rusty—are beneath and connected to the bear. The bear is green while the humanoid is

lavender. Altogether, it looks like a circus balancing act, both funny and fraught. And even though the figures are ceramic, the way their finish is flat rather than glazed makes for a dull sheen. What pushes this piece toward the style of the other works in this exhibition is that it has a feeling of deadpan eccentricity.

All this artwork and more is available through January 13th at Cerulean Arts Collective galleries at 1355 Ridge Avenue Philadelphia. Cerulean is open Wednesday – Friday 10 am – 6 pm, and Saturday and Sunday 12 pm – 6 pm. Also, I have included the link to each artist’s Cerulean Arts page after their name. Check them out!

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