You might call them “the doors of perception,” and they are an integral and innovative aspect of “The Painterly Voice,” the expansive exhibit of Bucks County impressionism on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, through Sunday, April 1. Immediately when you start looking at the paintings you will notice something you may never have seen before in a museum. The title of each piece and the artist’s name are identified on a panel, set on the wall to the side of the painting. But that panel is really a “door” hinged to the wall next to the artworks. If the viewer chooses to learn more about the painting, he has the option of opening the “door” and reading about the artist and context of the painting. Or he can opt not to, and just spend time absorbing the painting.
This unique presentation of information behind “doors” to enhance the viewer’s understanding of the artwork, including the descriptive text itself, is the brainchild of exhibit curator Brian H. Peterson, the Michener’s chief curator. An engaging photographer and writer, he wrote the text in a conversational way, hoping to connect with the viewer/reader in a more personal manner than museumgoers might be used to. This is not “artspeak” or academese, but rather a warm, intimate narrative that guides the viewer through the sizeable collection. Indeed, you feel like a knowledgeable but not-pedantic friend is walking you through “The Painterly Voice.” It is Peterson’s distinctive voice, which also comes through in prose, that colors his 2009 memoir, “The Smile at the Heart of Things: Essays and Life Stories.”
Walking the galleries of “The Painterly Voice,” sometimes you can even hear Peterson’s sense of humor. One alcove in the exhibit is dedicated to a sampling of modernism, and an excerpt from the text reads, “But jeez Louise, folks! There’s more to life than pretty landscapes.”
“You learn how to write in a certain style in college and that style is useless unless you are talking to other scholars,” Peterson says. “You have to learn to write for people. It’s a pet peeve of mine at museums and shows, when you look at the writing, and it’s often so dry. Also, they won’t talk about the painting, but the provenance of the painting.”
In his professional travels and experience, he has interacted with other curators and museum professionals, absorbing new trends in the presentation of exhibits. He has observed that this non-scholarly way of presenting information has been adopted by science museums and aquariums. “Across the country, others are way ahead of (art) museums,” Peterson says. “This has not penetrated into the mindset of the people doing (art) exhibits. So, I’m taking what other museums have been doing and applying it here.”
In addition to the panels of text, viewers can also scan QR (quick response) codes on the panel labels with their smartphones and access even more information.
With more than 200 paintings by some 50 artists, “The Painterly Voice” features works by William Lathrop, Daniel Garber, Edward Redfield, Fern Coppedge, and other legends of the Bucks County painting tradition, drawn from the finest work in regional collections. All together for the first and (so far) only time, the exhibit is housed in three of the Michener’s largest galleries.
Interestingly, as one walks into the main gallery, where the works of Garber are displayed, the text reads (and again, you can hear Peterson’s voice), “Perhaps you’re muttering to yourself, ‘I thought Bucks County painting was all about landscapes. Why are we starting out with a portrait?’ Reason 1: Wow, what a portrait! It’s a picture of William L. Lathrop by Daniel Garber, two of the most famous Bucks County painters.”
Stroll around the corner and you’ll find “Tanis,” which is probably Garber’s most famous piece. Painted in 1915, it is the artist’s almost pointillistic presentation of his daughter standing in a sunlit doorway, wearing a gauzy sundress, as the spring foliage flows toward the horizon.
Next to it is another large work, “The Studio Wall,” which may be titled for the shadows on the wall, but also showcases the artist’s ability to paint texture as though you can reach out and touch it. Garber’s wife was the model for this work from 1914, and she wears an ivory kimono adorned with floral embroidery, and a yellow sash around the waist. The viewer is drawn to the contrast between the delicate fabric and the model’s strong hands, as well as the deep, bluish green of the vase she holds.
In contrast to the sunny warmth of these two paintings is George Sotter’s snowy night scene, “Silent Night,” which evokes the chill and silence of winter’s long, dark nights. As much as we might shiver through those long eves, we love the stars that come out on still evenings, and Sotter has captured the luminous skies, the purplish tint to the snow, and the delicacy of the candlelight in the windows of the stone home.
If you open the “door” and read the text you learn that this painting once sparked a burst of song — yes, right in the gallery — when it was last exhibited in 2002. Peterson writes: “One day I was walking through the galleries, and a docent stopped me and said, ‘Brian, did you know about the singing?’ During a tour of the gallery, she had paused in front of the Sotter and talked for a minute or two about the painting and its title. Suddenly someone started singing, and soon the rest of the group joined in: ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. . . ’ I walked back to my office with a big smile on my face. A painting that makes people want to sing. Amazing!”
What’s fun for visitors who love Bucks County, the Delaware River, and its river towns, is that you’re already familiar with the scenes in some of these paintings, including Phillips’ Mill barn, Bowman’s Hill, a street in New Hope, many views of the river and canal, even the train to Trenton crossing a railroad bridge.
In Redfield’s striking “The Burning of Center Bridge,” the bridge that’s been mostly destroyed is of similar vintage and design as those that span the Delaware today. The actual fire took place on July 22, 1923. Redfield sketched the scene on an envelope and painted all the next day, finishing up with a few minor touches the next.
Born and raised in Montana, where his father was a geologist and his mother a schoolteacher, Peterson originally came east to study composition at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-’70s, but all the while was experimenting with photography, which he had discovered in 1969. He received his bachelor’s in music composition from Penn in 1981, then earned an MFA in studio art, with a specialty in photography, from the University of Delaware in 1985.
Since 1980 he has had more than 30 solo exhibitions of his photography in galleries and museums spanning the east coast. His work is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the State Museum of Pennsylvania, among many others. Before coming to the Michener in 1993, Peterson taught photography at the University of Delaware, Swarthmore College, the University of the Arts, and the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.
Peterson has received two fellowships for visual artist criticism from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and his critical writing on photography and painting has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, American Art Review, and the Photo Review. He was the founder and project director of the Photography Sesquicentennial Project, the Philadelphia area’s major cooperative celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of photography; the project ran from 1988 to 1990.
At the Michener he has curated numerous historic and contemporary exhibitions in an array of subject matter and genres. He was the editor and author of the noted 2002 publication “Pennsylvania Impressionism,” co-published by the Michener and the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Peterson lives in Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Helen Mirkil, a painter, poet, and teacher.
The concept of gathering all of these Bucks County artists together for an exhibit has been in the back of Peterson’s mind for some 20 years, and he is pleased to be able to give viewers a sense of the Bucks County body of work. “This show attempts to demonstrate the depth of the whole thing,” Peterson says. “It’s hard to get a sense of this with an individual artist or even a typical group show with just one or two paintings by an artist. The idea for this was to have a happy medium, kind of a group and solo show.”
He is most gratified that his chatty but informative script for the show, and the way it is being presented, has been so well-received. “Writing the script has been the most fun I’ve ever had,” Peterson says. “I just thought, ‘Why not treat it like a blog? Why does this have to be this impersonal voice?’ So it’s me just talking to people, like I do normally. I wrote the script last summer, and I was very unsure of how it would turn out, since it is so unashamedly personal.
“I wanted to work into (the text) these serious things floating in the background, but I tried to do it in a friendly way,” he continues. “I am really shocked and amazed that the response has been so wonderful. I think people really appreciate being talked to normally, like talking to another person. It’s a rare opportunity in curatorial life to have this chance to do something that’s very personal. Usually you have to bury your personal interest for the greater good. This time, my personal interest struck a chord with the greater good.”
“The Painterly Voice,” on view through Sunday, April 1, the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown. Museum hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. For information about numerous gallery talks and lectures, as well as to view the exhibit’s online catalogue visit the website. 215-349-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.