Article by Claudia Berlinski
Akron Art Prize sounds like a very prestigious event for the most elite of artists. Well, being that it has a $5,000 cash award and five $1,000 awards you could say it is prestigious. However, elite it is not. Any artist 18 or older may enter this competition, and the winners are decided by public vote. This aspect alone has bred some criticism in the past about it being a popularity contest. And, to a certain extent it is – but it allows everyone to have a voice, not just creative intellectuals. We can only hope that the general public is truly voting for what they believe is good art, and not just their friend’s art.
I visited two of the five venues and made some observations about my favorite pieces. The work I chose is work for which I felt empathy, and could put myself in the place of the artist.
Akron Glass Works
The Wonder Bread Wedding Gown, her second marriage… she rises again! It was the yeast I could do.) by Judy Krew could not be denied your attention in this space. It is very much a treat for the eyes in its red, yellow and blue glory – making the viewer giggle with child-like sincerity. This piece is an impeccably crafted gown – yes, an actual dress – made from mostly Wonder bread bags. Other carefully selected materials used to construct the dress are a Wonder bra, sequins, feather boa and other such shallow feminine adornments. The materials seem appropriate as the general feeling of the piece is making satire of the second marriage. It is fraught with clever puns and innuendo. The title, of course, reinforces the humor and then brings us back to the adult world of snarkiness and cynicism. One can’t help but wonder (no pun intended) if this was made in reference to the artist herself, or as an observation of life in general. And, the longer we ponder this, the sadness emerges from beneath the humor – and therein lies the hidden beauty of this piece.
Forest Triptych by Eileen Dorsey is just as it sounds – a three-paneled piece depicting a view from within a forest. The two side panels are darker, crowded with trees, flanking a center panel that makes way for a penetration of light being emitted from the clearing beyond. The image has a photographic realism from a distance, with the warmth of sunlight drawing us to view it more closely. The paint is impasto, creating a dynamic textured and abstract surface making the piece as appealing up close as it is from a distance. The artist skillfully uses a balance of warm and cool colors that, along with the tactile surface, implies the damp, earthy environment of a woodland thicket. It makes me feel the way I do when I actually escape the rush of daily life for a respite into the natural world.
43 Furnace Art Complex
Zeber Martell Side Gallery
My favorite piece from these two venues is Anonymous by Melissa Markwald. This is a rather large portrait, at approximately 4.5 ft. x 3 ft. As indicated on the artist’s statement the image is based on a discarded photograph – a practice I personally love. The use of vernacular photography is something I have explored in my own work and in the classroom – it runs the gamut of potential. The size, although quite large for a portrait, is perfect because it demands your attention without being confrontational. The image is rendered with what seems like an inherent skill – the brushwork is effortless and fresh and lyrical. Anonymous is the opposite of what often occurs in the copying of photos. What so often turns out awkwardly and lifeless Markwald has breathed new life and personality into – as if painted from a single sitting with a model. The artist so subtly uses warm and cool neutrals, which help to further the viewer’s connection with the humanity of the subject. The artist imagines the subject’s name to be Molly, and I imagine Molly to be someone who is fun and loving and has a story to tell. I cannot help but wish I knew her.
A second piece at Zeber Martel that caught my attention is He Came to Bring a Sword by David McDowell. This piece is made of leaded and stained glass lit from behind with an LED light box. The subject matter is based on the Nativity according to the Book of Revelation – a topic of which I know nothing. The artist states that the piece attempts to show the Nativity as God’s “D-Day Invasion of Earth”. The choice to use leaded and stained glass for this subject was a brilliant decision because, of course, it is a direct nod to the stained glass windows of churches. The glowing backlight really infuses the piece with energy, as does the dynamic composition and relief surface. The characters in this narrative (God and the dragon) nearly jump out of the glass in a roiling display of battle. The sky is a fractured variety of blues, adding to the action of the tale. Simultaneously, the diminutive Nativity takes place unknowing and seemingly protected in the very bottom of the image area. I feel like the artist achieved his intention in creating a theatrical and dynamic scene. It makes reference to, not only, the Bible but medieval storytelling, Harry Potter, and other such legends of magic.
Artwalls at 43 Furnace
Upstairs at 43 Furnace Complex a painting titled What Once Was Gold by Christopher Kirch caught my eye. It is a portrait of a man constructed of primarily linear elements. This linear brushwork forms a maze-like pattern on the surface as it builds the necessary detail to form facial features. The negative space around the head is, as the title makes reference, the pattern painted in gold. The sheen of this surface draws attention away from the face, which is rendered in cool grays and browns. It creates a nearly negative shape of the person depicted, and it takes a more thorough examination of the painting to notice what is happening there. My initial reaction reminds me of the struggle we must have all experienced at least once when encountering the homeless – to only see the person as a blank figure, and not to really look into their faces. The matrix and color of the face create a texture of weathered wood or peeling paint – something in the process of deconstruction. The eyes seem out of focus and convey a sense of loss. It is reminiscent of the self-portraits by Van Gogh in which surface gives way to the revelation of the person’s psyche. Does the gold, then, represent this unidentified person’s past, or future, or what might just be out of reach?
I couldn’t wait to run to the other venues to see what those locations had to offer – and was not disappointed. In fact, my reaction was the opposite, and I left that evening satisfied and excited for the future of this competition. My overall observation about this year’s entries is that there is more good art – which, over time, given consistent quality work, will raise the prestige level and become less about the person and more about the work.
For more information about the venues and Akron Art Prize, visit Curatorial Collective’s previous post about this epic event. You have until October 4, 2014 to cast your vote! Don’t miss your chance to influence Akron’s art history.
Claudia Berlinski is an artist who teaches at Youngstown State University. She enjoys photographing clouds and dabbles in printmaking/collage. She previously wrote art reviews for Dialogue magazine which was a vital and vibrant print media source for the visual arts in the Midwest. You can contact Claudia at email@example.com.