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GMG Presents: Morris Blackman: SAVE FOR FUTURE USE + Ed Bing Lee: The World on a String

Gross McCleaf Gallery is pleased to host the first major retrospective of Philadelphia-native Morris Blackman. SAVE FOR FUTURE USE features two galleries filled with sculptures, paintings, drawings, and more from Blackman’s prolific practice through three distinct periods of formal investigation.

Drawings and a small, painted self-portrait are among the earliest pieces in the exhibit and attest to Blackman’s draftsmanship and artistic training. His softly contoured graphite drawings depict various casts and statues that Blackman studied during his arts training. His self-portrait presents a young man in front of a field of bright yellow paint. His face in shadow, a critical gaze reveals the discerning and determined personality of Blackman as a young artist.

The largest work in the exhibition, measuring in at over 8 feet tall and 14 feet wide, comes from Blackman’s transitional abstract expressionist period from the late 1950s and early 1960s. While thick paint and brushy paint application easily distinguish this series from Blackman’s later works, the foundational forms are present in the spherical orbs that sit atop the dark structural shafts in the monumental triptych. The smaller abstract expressionist works contain linear gestures that seem to reappear in the later work as asemic writing. Primary colors also emerge as an interest during this period, a palette that carries through to the most recent paintings in the show.

Most of the pieces in the current show were created during the mature, later decades of Blackman’s career from the 1960s to present day; a time when the artist had largely isolated himself from the rest of the Philadelphia art scene and the gallery world. Brightly colored knobs, joysticks, and buttons protrude from intricate sculptural designs while asemic writing, color wheels, and gridded charts communicate encrypted instructions across painted surfaces. The works feel somewhat utilitarian, as though they exist as controls for a machine, or perhaps, they are board games or mysterious pictographs with riddles to be solved. Often made from found objects such as Styrofoam and wooden pegs, Blackman has arranged and transformed the pieces into delightful and surprising works of art. The generational, optimistic fascination of the space age is present and alive, the inspiration for the work seeming to arise from a time when the machines of the future might save the world. While this period of Blackman’s work feels hopeful and connected with science fiction, a drawing and a large satellite dish shaped target are all that remains of his magnum opus, a 12 feet tall and 38 feet wide painted relief sculpture.

Morris Blackman was born in Philadelphia in 1930. Taking an interest in art early in life, Blackman began art lessons at the Graphic Sketch Club, now Fleisher Art Memorial, at the age of ten. On his return from being stationed in Europe with the US Army, Blackman enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He received numerous prizes in mural art, figure drawing, and graphic art and two Cresson Traveling Scholarships, allowing him to travel through most of Europe. He had a solo exhibit at PAFA’s Peale Gallery in 1971 and participated in group exhibits at PAFA, the Marian Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, the Reese Palley Gallery in Atlantic City, and the Carlsson Gallery in New York. He taught at Fleisher Art Memorial and was a visiting critic at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. His work has been purchased by numerous private collectors and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

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“Knotting is one of the most direct techniques of the fiber arts. There is a minimum of equipment required––scissors, clamps, foam core boards, and a few needles of different sizes and with exaggerated eyes. But what is important is a vivid imagination, the willingness to experiment, cultivated visualization, organized planning, and patience.”

-Ed Bing Lee

Gross McCleaf Gallery is pleased to present a survey of knotted sculptures by Ed Bing Lee in The World on a String. The exhibition contains a selection from several of Lee’s early series: a grouping of fan-shaped works made in the 1960s and never-before-seen decorative rings from the 1960s and 70s. Additionally, colorful new works from Lee’s Chawan, or “tea bowl”, series and a linen hot dog from his Picnics series are on view, both representing contemporary developments in the artist’s decades of art practice.

Ed Bing Lee incorporates diverse sources into his imagery, including Pop Art, folk art traditions, fashion, art history, and iconic items of East Asian and American culture – such as tea bowls and fans, ice cream cones and cupcakes. Although his subject matter is often contemporary, his knotting techniques are ancient skills that were used in basketry and woven fabrics, predating recorded history by tens of thousands of years. Lee is a master of the specialized art of knot-making. Utilizing the Double Vertical and Horizontal Half Stitches most often, he includes additional knots as the subject requires, using The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford Ashley as a reference. Lee says, “The medium in crafts is the vocabulary.” He is fascinated by how threads, ribbons, and string can become limp or structured depending on the form. Thus, it is through the material possibilities that the forms emerge. 

In Lee’s words, “...art making is a combination of process, materials, and technique that capture ideas and ideals.” A simple line created by a length of string becomes a knot. A collection of knots form a shape. The shape then becomes a site of intimate conversation, pause, and reflection. At over 90 years old, Lee admits there’s so much more to make, so many ideas he hasn’t gotten to create yet. In the words of a Frank Sinatra song, he’s “got the world on a string, sittin’ on a rainbow, got the string around his finger, what a world, what a life, I’m in love.

Born in 1933, Ed Bing Lee started his career as a commercial fabric designer in New York and Philadelphia. He later taught at Moore College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, and the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Lee is the recipient of numerous awards including the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship, the Farelli Award for Excellence in Fiber, and a Pew Fellowship in Crafts. His work has been exhibited nationally and is included in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Daphne Farago Fiber Arts Collection, and the Franklin Mint in Los Angeles.