Composing With Art, Or, The Power of Curatorial Decisions
Growing up in Akron and loving art, I've come to know Akron Art Museum's permanent collection pretty well, and pretty personally, like when Lisa Marie Presley talks about dinner parties from her childhood. These works came to mean something to me long before the names of the artists meant anything.
Some particularly dear friends include three of Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes. I loved them immeadiately, but honestly never really studied them until I began printing, and was amazed to notice that they're actually wooden boxes, actually sculpture, not found objects, as well as the frankly shoddy print quality of the logos that makes them feel like the uneasy recipients of such tremendous aplumb, which of course hints at the idea that his art was the ideas, not the objects themselves. Oh art school.
Claes Oldenburg's pink Inverted Q which makes me chuckle when I see, as I distinctly remember waiting for the docent to pace just out of sight so I could sneakily sit in its perfectly seat-level pucker when it was outside on the old patio. I would have been maybe 9 or 10.
Chuck Close's Linda, which my mom christened "Akron's Mona Lisa" in an Akron Life Magazine for an article during the Close retrospective, her expression always notably less mirthful and more apprehensive to my mind.
More recently Doris Salcedo's Atrabiliarios (Defiant), an installation of shoes sewn painfully and poetically into the wall behind waxy smooth animal skin. I feel the sharp jolt of recognition still when I enter the room, just like the first time, that feeling that your own personal trauma is linked somehow, stitched into the larger tapestry of universal human suffering.
Perhaps my favorite piece in the whole collection is the (relatively) recent addition of the El Anatsui's Dzesi II which I adore, purely formally, but also conceptually. Rumpelstiltskin by way of Klimt, a trash into treasure glory writ large, completely grand even while being constructed of recognizably cheap, small components, and unfathomably portable. I imagine folding it up like fabric and fitting it into a suitcase. Efficient, effective transcendence. I still marvel at it. It's one of those works that make my fingers itch to get back into my studio.
I stopped by the Akron Art Museum recently to take in the Kaneko exhibit and, finding myself with the time, pushed on through the rotating galleries for a quick hello through the permanent collection, only to stop dead in my tracks in the large back room, in front of the Frank Stella I never much cared for. Diepholz, to my mind, was the opposite of the Anatsui, large and impractical, showy junk, impossible to move or maintain... I fantasize about taking a feather duster to it every time I see it. It announces CHAOS! with the unperturbed smile of someone who never has to clean up after themselves. I assume Mr. Stella made a model out of cardboard one afternoon to amuse only himself, and then an army of idiots came along and meticulously recreated it in steel, misunderstanding his notation, taking him completely literally. The artist called for the transformation of valuable raw materials into an unruly stack of garbage. It's meant to reference a racetrack; I see only a car crash.
That day, however, for the first time ever, I didn't hate it. In fact, I stood there for some time taking it in. I got lost in the negative space between layers. I noticed an exuberant joy in the colors, in the whimsical brush marks and electrified gestures. I looked back at the Anatsui on the adjacent wall, trying to recalibrate, to get my bearings. I looked up at a hanging sculpture, an Untitled Steve Keister that is new or at least new to me, and saw in it a Tinkerbell attempting to enlighten me, to bridge some conceptual gap in my mind between the Anatsui and the Stella. I felt the voice of the curator emanate from the Masonite form "Go ahead, Christina, take another look." I did. Diepholz looked... fresh. It looked new. It looked alive with some sort of internal logic that transforms chaos into energy. I'd seen it countless times, but never saw it look like this. Had they restored it? Had the colors shifted? Had my own perception of color shifted enough to make this work make sense?
A full five minutes in the room is when I finally noticed the walls were not white. In this room only (I peaked into the adjoining rooms to check), the walls had been painted a muted seafoam-gray-taupe. Subtle, but it completely reanimated the collection. Everything in that room looks like it belongs together now, Ursula von Rydingsvard's stunning wonder rzeski, Matthew Kolodziej's Good Neighbors, even Alma W. Thomas's subtle Pond - Spring Awakening... all the oranges and earth tones are set off marvelously by this wall color and look years younger, like furniture refinished, the sticky gooey atmosphere of time lifted, everything moving with renewed vigor and elegance and brought into balance, roaring works tamed and easily overlooked gems given a microphone.
It was a moving lesson in the raw power of curatorial decisions, to recompose these old friends into a new chorus, set against a color that quietly finds new life in and new context for these works. Stark white room after room can feel like death, and so even a subtle shift can feel like works that were hospitalized are alive again and speaking. At least 6 works are now as transcendent to me as the Anatsui, and like bumping into an old friend with a great new haircut, I'm looking forward to conversing with them again.