Morris Gallery returns to Academy of Fine Arts

The historic art gallery relaunched after a five-year hiatus earlier this month.

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts alumna Mia Rosenthal never anticipated showing her artwork at her former university, where she saw art shows as a student.

Now her solo exhibition “Paper Lens” is displayed at PAFA’s Morris Gallery. The gallery relaunched earlier this month after a five-year hiatus, aiming to showcase modern artists and commission them to make new, original artwork.

“It’s great to be the first artist of the reopening,” Rosenthal said. “When I came as a graduate student, I had no expectations and I just wanted to learn. It really was a journey.”

The exhibition consists of drawings on paper, a medium that reflects Rosenthal’s journey as an artist. Rosenthal wanted to be a painter when she first came to PAFA, but her craft took an unexpected turn, she said.

“It was just this idea like, ‘Man, it would be so amazing to study painting and really see what I could do with it,’” she said.

But after coming to PAFA, Rosenthal quit painting and started working on paper.

Her adoption of this particular art medium was the prelude to “Paper Lens,” which is also the first solo museum exhibition of her career. The Morris Gallery proved an ideal location for Rosenthal’s show because it enabled her to experiment and pursue original work in the context of contemporary art.

“I’m used to showing in more commercial galleries,” Rosenthal said. “But it’s exciting to have the platform to do something I haven’t done before and [to] experiment, and you may not have the same freedom in a more commercial setting.”

The drawings in the exhibit are inspired by science—specifically, Rosenthal’s visit to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the largest machine in the world—and work to connect the universe to aspects of everyday human life.

Morris Gallery curator Jodi Throckmorton encouraged Rosenthal’s project.

“I asked Mia, ‘How does someone that does observational drawing make work out of something we can’t see? How does that look like?’” Throckmorton said.

The Morris Gallery’s theme this year focuses on how artists portray the invisible.

“It was something that kept coming up for me,” Throckmorton said, adding that working with Rosenthal also inspired what she wanted to curate for future exhibitions.

“It wasn’t like Jodi came to the studio and was like, ‘Oh here’s your show, which fits my already solidified theme,’” Rosenthal said. “It really developed at the same time.”

Throckmorton said she wanted Rosenthal to make new and creative art, a trend for exhibitions that will follow at the gallery.

“I do like to commission artists to do new things and to really be experimental,” Throckmorton said. “And that’s one of the ways I think the Morris Gallery can make a difference in Philly.”

The gallery first opened in 1978 to display the work of contemporary artists based in Philadelphia, but expanded to include distinguished artists like Nan Goldin, Laylah Ali and Robert Ryman. The gallery closed in 2010, before relaunching Oct. 9 with Rosenthal’s show.

The gallery was an agenda-setting force in the contemporary art scene, Throckmorton  said, and she wants to bring that back, whether it’s in Philly or on a national level.

“[When] people want to see contemporary art at PAFA, you’re used to going to the new building,” Throckmorton said, referring to the Samuel M. V. Hamilton building, which was acquired by PAFA in 2002 and houses contemporary art. “It’s a chance to get a wider audience interested in contemporary art.”

“This is a good way to present contemporary art to people who aren’t looking for it,” Rosenthal said. “You think of Philadelphia, and you think a historical city. And to show contemporary art in the mix, I think, is really important.”

Rosenthal’s “Paper Lens” will be on display until Jan. 3. Future artists scheduled to show their work include Emil Lukas, Alyson Shotz and Fernando Orellana.

Iman Sultan can be reached at

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