Four Decades celebrates John Ollman’s captaincy of blue-chip gallery Fleisher-Ollman. With some 90 works of drawing, painting and sculpture by acclaimed self-taught artists and contemporary artists influenced by them plus antique craft works by native Americans and pre-Columbians on display, the show is museum quality.
Fleisher-Ollman has become known for mining the local emerging-artist scene; the gallery’s annual emerging-artist invitational this December is another must-see. Ollman himself was an early champion of outsider artists (now called “self-taught”), and Four Decades seems to be a demonstration of what he saw in them and of how their status has changed—just the price list, from modest four figures to astounding six figures, is a decent marker.
Ollman began his career at the Janet Fleisher Gallery when employers advertised jobs in the newspapers and applicants hand-wrote cover letters to apply—in a nice touch, Ollman’s own cover letter from 1970 is in a small frame on the wall near the gallery office. It’s both history lesson and encouragement for anyone wanting to launch a gallery career.
With bright colors, concrete imagery and often mesmerizing patterning, the works by these artists communicate as directly (and sometimes as subliminally) as advertising. This is narrative art, and whether or not the story is clear, the urgency of the need to tell it is. These are not works riddled with erasure marks—they seem to have just poured out with confidence.
William Hawkins’ thick, muscular painting “Trail Riders,” from 1982, shows two tiny cowboys on horseback in a mountainous landscape. It sounds like a quintessential image of the American West, but it’s moody, ominous and dreamlike, with undulating horizontal stripes of blue, black and white as the land, huge black almost-abstract birds in the sky and cartoonish twin red mountain peaks. This piece wears its maker’s vision as clearly as it wears his signature, in big block letters at the bottom.
It’s great to see contemporary street artist Phil Frost in this mix. Frost’s installation “Open Heart Ascension” uses pattern painting to anoint and beautify a phalanx of found objects—nine glass water jugs and the hand-made pallet on which they sit. The piece complements the highly patterned Native American works in the show—in a move that recalls the eccentric, hodgepodge installations of Alfred Barnes, Ollman has set out some Native American and Peruvian vessels and Pennsylvania Dutch decorative works in the gallery. He seems to be stating that art is a universal and timeless stream flowing through cultures, and it’s persuasive.
Through Nov. 27. Gallery talk by John Ollman, Nov. 13, 3pm. Fleisher-Ollman Gallery. 1616 Walnut St., Suite 100. 215.545.7562. fleisherollman.com