The most compelling work in this year's Woodmere Annual Exhibition is also, by far, the ugliest.
It is a more or less life-size, pink, nude torso of Vladimir Putin made this year by Tim Rusterholz. It is far from being the kind of strongman statue the Russian president himself might commission, but it has a very contemporary claim to accuracy: It is based on images the artist found on the internet.
Rusterholz does not claim to have actually sculpted it. He developed it as a three-dimensional model on his computer, and then used that file to slice through boards of pink insulation foam. That yielded slices of the dictator, which were laminated to give us the presence of the whole man — at least from the thighs up.
The finished product has a patched-together Frankenstein's monster look, which somehow seems appropriate, but its method also promises, accurately or not, verisimilitude. I hadn't thought Putin was quite as paunchy as he appears here, but because this method seems to eliminate the idealization that is part of all depictions of powerful men — especially naked ones — I am willing to accept that this is indeed his physique.
Only as I was driving home from Chestnut Hill did I consider that perhaps I should not have believed it so readily. Can there be such a thing as a crowd-sourced sculpture? Is this piece an accurate representation, or an example of a new menace: fake nudes?
What do we think we know, and how do we think we know it? That seems to be the question of the year, and Rusterholz's Putin makes us ask it.
The Woodmere Annual's promise is to provide a glimpse of what Philadelphia-area artists are thinking and doing right now. Rusterholz's Putin didn't exist a year ago, and the issues it raises didn't interest many people then, either. Whether anyone will want to look at it in five years is unknowable, but it does tell us something about this moment.
The exhibition always has a theme, set out by a guest curator, this year Harry Philbrick, former director of the Museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I have to confess that my heart sank a bit when I learned this year's theme would be politics. I'd have preferred a different one — truth perhaps, or beauty. But politics is such a universal preoccupation right now that I suspect artists would be reflecting on the subject regardless of the theme.
Here is Mia Rosenthal setting forth to do a drawing that showed each of the American presidents — all men except for Hillary Clinton. The election did not turn out as she expected, so she left the space blank. Then she did another drawing, of all the presidential candidates who won the popular vote. That allowed her to include Hillary Clinton, along with Al Gore and Samuel Tilden, while avoiding John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, and you-know-who. She's an artist in denial.
Here is Tilda Mann, interrupting the painting of a still life to watch President Trump's inaugural: "After hearing the inaugural address, I turned to my painting and blanketed the color with thick, textured darkness." The result, a pitcher sitting in the dark, appears to be more about depression than politics.
In a similar vein, Meg Wolensky's Considering Things is a skewed self-portrait in which the artist seems to be upside down and falling toward the viewer. She explains on a wall label that she started the work after the inauguration, when "I was feeling a sense of powerlessness and defeat as a woman and as a member of the queer community."
An annual is, by definition, a mixed bag. Some of the works — such as a fragment of Mat Tomezsko's New Movements, originally installed on the median of South Broad Street during the Democratic National Convention, and Rosalind Sutkowski's photograph with pink yarn frame of the Jan. 21 Women's March on Washington — are essentially souvenirs of the moment.
Other pieces deal with longer-term issues, including racism, global warming, and gun violence. The most ravishing piece in the show may be Emily Erb's enormous dyed-silk wall hanging, Neverending Story. From across the gallery, it seems to show intertwined snakes with complexly patterned skin. Up close, you see this "skin" is actually handguns, shown in chronological order of when they were invented. I suggest leaving politics behind and looking closer at the work as pure artifact. Erb achieves amazing precision and texture in a very difficult medium.
Likewise, Hilary Wang's tiny porcelain sculpture Ice Floes is presumably a response to climate change. I think it is seen best, though, as a gorgeous little white sphere crisscrossed with red channels. It looks less like arctic ice than a brain, though presumably that, too, should have a place in politics.
For most of history, art has been used as a tool of power, and, given the big role money plays in the art world now, that hasn't changed. Yet, when we talk about political art nowadays, we are generally talking about art from the left that challenges the status quo.
Trump and his supporters have challenged the status quo from a different direction, though, and the artists here seem to have nothing to say about it. Can art and what we now call populism have anything to say to each other?
One who suggests it's possible is Oscar Page Jr., whose style recalls Norman Rockwell, the definitive limner of mid-20th-century American solidarity. Page's 2016 painting Refugee shows a young boy cute enough for a cereal box, if only he didn't look so needy. The show also includes an earlier Page painting, Katrina (2006), in which a gun appears to be pointed at a young African American boy who is obliviously carrying bottles of water.
Seen today, after so many shootings of young black men, the painting suggests impending violence. But the boy is oblivious, caring only to get some water.
It's a powerful picture, and a message to other artists. If you want to deal with politics in your work, you have to get out of your darkened room, break through the post-inaugural funk, get out, and see what's going on.