Bill Knight | World-class art at Peoria Riverfront Museum



It’s a relief to return to the reopened Peoria Riverfront Museum and to roam its galleries –– especially to revel in world-class art, some with local ties.

Installed during the months-long pandemic shutdown, new exhibits presented through Sept. 5 are “Ken Hoffman: 50 Years in Peoria,” sponsored in the International Feature Gallery by Mary and Andrew Muir; “Mangelsen: A Life in the Wild,” sponsored in the Illinois River Gallery by PDC; and “The Sculpture of Ronald Bladen: ANGLE/EDGE/PLANE,” sponsored by Sharon and John Amdall, also in an adjacent space in the International Feature Gallery.

It’s natural to be at once humbled and comforted by such talents, people who can show nature in its magnificence in wild, whimsical and wondrous ways, whether through its creatures or less-animated surroundings.

By happenstance, a striking mood that resonates in works by Hoffman and Thomas D. Mangelsen is the world of animals. The feeling is one of eavesdropping on a conversation between Noah and St. Francis of Assisi, Dr. Dolittle and Aldo Leopold sharing insights on life and land.

Hoffman’s mostly large, sometimes multi-segment paintings are provocative and evocative, whether sober or light. A Peorian for 50 years, Hoffman here is mostly showcased from his output in the last 10 to 20 years. Animals used (more than depicted) include a cat, owl, butterfly, fish and horse.

Also including a few pieces of pottery, Hoffman’s exhibit occasionally has works using found objects and –– in a piece from a 1970 mural, “Bottle Collage” –– are somewhat reminiscent of a Warholian nod to consumer culture. But throughout, the colorful, brash paintings almost explode with swaths of thick applications of paint.

Highlights are “Puppy Man (Chuck Norris),” with a dog attired in formal wear; “Lard Help Us,” featuring a sympathetic pig; and “The Bear,” a riveting portrait of sorts.

Hoffman is an extraordinary expressionist, but the stroll to the Illinois River Gallery to experience Mangelsen’s realism is a seamless adjustment. Both share a fascination for and awe of animals.

Mangelsen, 74, enjoyed the outdoors as a youth and has had his photographs published by Audubon, National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines, among others. In photographs of polar bears, a Bengal tiger, an African leopard, a buffalo, an eagle, giraffes and more, he demonstrates the undoubted patience needed to wait for the moment, the millisecond, showing life. Standouts from these moments –– mostly of animals at rest or in action, but sometimes within the context of the greater environment –– are the solitary, distant bear in “Guardian of Knight Inlet,” the spectacular “Reflections of Denali,” the snow-covered bear, claws out, in “Mountain Outlaw,” an elk profiled against the backdrop of vivid colors in “A Change of Seasons,” and, particularly “Catch of the Day,” dubbed “the most famous wildlife photograph in the world.”

Bladen, remembered locally as the creator of “Sonar Tide” at the Civic Center, is presented in several intricate sketches and maquettes, or preliminary models, of his works-to-come. The minimalist, who died in 1988, specialized in massive structures, often with angular perspectives, and the material here stresses his immense impact, if not always the proportions of the original works.

Bladen’s decades of production range from “The X” (1965) to “Black Lightning” (1981), works of public art at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and Seattle Center, respectively. An outstanding piece here is Bladen’s actual piece “Chevron,” an arrangement of nine separate black metal triangles, on loan from his estate.

Finally, the collection encourages a new-found acknowledgment of “Sonar Tide” –– his last major public commission, fabricated under the sculptor’s supervision in Peoria –– as a well-planned blend of hard edges and a curving “wave” that perhaps conjures an appreciation of the area’s manufacturing heritage and its main natural wonder, the Illinois River.

Leaving the cool confines of the museum and its impressive displays, one is filled with reassurance, renewal and respect.

Now open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, the Riverfront Museum understandably has adjusted to sensible safety precautions, and all visitors and staff must wear face coverings and maintain six-foot spaces from others.

In coming weeks, another accomplished Peoria artist, the award-winning Preston Jackson, will be on display with the ever-evolving “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story,” made up of hundreds of distinctive small metal figures and buildings telling stories of the nation’s migration and immigration, hopes and opportunities, and fights for freedom and fairness.

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