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CONTRIBUTED IMAGE Roger Hane (1939 - 1974), CONTRIBUTED IMAGE Roger Hane (1939 - 1974), "The Horse and His Boy" ("The Chronicles of Narnia"), 1971, acrylic on canvas. Collection of Robert Hunsicker

Just 'Fantastic'

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 by PAUL WILLISTEIN Focus Editor in Focus

Allentown Art Museum exhibit has 'Edge'

"The Tempest," "War of the Worlds," "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Star Wars," "Alien," "The Hobbit" what these icons of popular literature, stage and screen have in common or rather "uncommon" is "At The Edge: Art of the Fantastic," through Sept. 9, the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley.

"At The Edge," according to guest curators Patrick and Jeannie Wilshire, is "the most comprehensive exhibition of fantastic art to date."

More than 160 original works from 1797 to the present are spread over three galleries, the Scheller Gallery, Rodale Gallery and Fowler Gallery, on the museum's second floor. Approximately 25 percent of the work predates 1940, with an emphasis on the golden age of illustration (1880 - 1930).

According to the curators, "At the Edge" is "the first exhibition to place this genre in its correct art-historical context as an evolution of the great realist painters of the past."

With "fantastic art," or "imaginative realism," the artists portray "ancient myths and legends, modern-day fantasies in the form of divine interventions, the imagination, the dream state, the grotesque, visions, and the 'uncanny' as common everyday elements," the curators state.

"At The Edge" is one of the most important exhibitions ever mounted at the Allentown Art Museum.

One comes away with an exalted sense of the human form and humans' place on earth and in the universe.

The art is heroic, larger than life. The work is visionary.

Young readers perhaps first experienced the work on book covers and in illustrations, posters and motion pictures. The artists give flight to the words of Shakespeare, H.G. Wells, C.S. Lewis, J.R. R. Tolkien and more.

The work stands alone, apart from its inspiration. The exhibition conveys a sense of wonderment, compared to, say, the bewilderment stirred up by some contemporary art exhibits.

"At the Edge" can be seen as a reassessment of realism, figurative art, technique and craftsmanship and its importance in the midst of the abstract and nonrepresentational art movements.

There's an Old Masters' sense in, for example, the work of Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. Theirs are, indeed, "moody masterpieces."

The exhibition charts a clear course from the inspiration of the magnificent language of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" to the disturbing dystopia of H. R. Giger, whose "biomechanical morphs" influenced the art direction of director Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979).

The exhibition includes sculpture, mixed media and masks. Yes, that is the blue face of Neytiri from writer-director James Cameron's landmark "Avatar" (2009).

There are many such pleasures to discover here.

The exhibition is absolutely cinematic. It's as close to stepping into a movie as you're likely to experience, short of Imax 3D.

Some of the artists whose work is in the exhibition live or have lived among us. There are works by the Lehigh Valley's Boris Vallejo and Julia Bell, including a work she did for the exhibition, and the late Frank Frazetta, "the most important imaginative realist painters of the second half of the 20th century."

See "At The Edge" before it closes. Go with a friend or family member. This eye-popping exhibition will give you lots to talk about. It's an exhibition that is just, well, fantastic.

Gallery talk, "A Grand and Beautiful Castle" - Howard Pyle and the Fantastic, 2 p.m. Sept. 9, with Mary Holahan, Curator of Collections, Delaware Museum of Art. Tickets: allentownartmuseum.org, 610-432-4333, ext. 110