“Death by Water” by Peter Paone

by William R. Valerio

In art as in life, simplicity and directness are virtues. By way of encouraging all of the Chestnut Hill Local’s readers to join us at Woodmere for our open-house celebration of “Wild Flowers: Paintings and Drawings by Peter Paone” from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, I would like to describe a work of art in the exhibition that “speaks” with a clear, direct voice. I’m often asked, how do museum directors make choices about the art that hangs on the walls of their galleries? Often for me, visual and intellectual clarity is a determining factor.

Paone, who was born and raised in South Philly and resides on Westview Street in Mt. Airy, is an artist of extraordinary virtuosity. With virtuosity comes complexity, and Paone, who is a consummate storyteller, makes complicated, mysterious paintings that include flowers that morph into fantastical creatures, peacocks, black cats, vampires and the characters of Mother Goose.

Like all great storytellers, he knows how to capture attention and invent telling details. Like the many great visual artists in Philadelphia today who have grown out of our city’s realist tradition in the arts, he expresses his imagination through a precision of line, richly atmospheric textures and nuanced color.

Of the many great works in the exhibition, “Death by Water” (2004) stands out for me. Here, the storyline concerns a single dramatic gesture: A bouquet of flowers has been thrust upside down in a glass vase. Ribbon-like petals churn in deathly water, and spiked stems stand erect. One thorn is bright red, suggesting that the invisible hand responsible for the flowers’ watery death has paid a price in blood.

This particular detail – the red thorn – is crucial. I have pricked myself on many thorns, as most of you have, too, and in this way, the artist implicates the viewer in the narrative of the painting. A critical element is the single white flower that seems to climb its way up and out of the water. This lone survivor represents regeneration and rebirth. If you give the painting the time it demands, all of this rumination comes from the depiction of one defiant idea: flowers upside down.

“Death by Water” is one of many rich paintings and drawings by Paone on view at Woodmere. Let me again extend the invitation: Woodmere is a community museum, and I encourage everyone to join us for the opening of this fascinating, beautiful exhibition on Saturday.

William R. Valerio, Ph.D., is the Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO, Woodmere Art Museum.

Woodmere Art Museum is located at 9201 Germantown Ave. For more information, call 215-247-0476 or visit woodmereartmuseum.org.