Art Review by Steven Litt
The art world suffered a significant loss a year ago when Kirk Mangus, the much-beloved head of the ceramics program at Kent State University, died of a cerebral aneurysm at age 60.
The extent of that loss has been made abundantly clear by the handsome, judicious and tenderly sifted retrospective on Mangus’ work on view now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
MOCA associate curator Rose Bouthillier, who first met Mangus during a studio visit in 2012, just a year before his untimely death, has assembled a career overview that captures the artist’s ebullient, unruly energy.
On view are scores of burly, rough and rustic ceramics, watercolors, ink drawings and sketchbook pages that convey an image of Mangus as a restlessly inventive maker of art objects brimming with a strange and wonderful vitality.
Mangus’ work is a mash-up of traditional and invented vessel forms bordering on the grotesque in the aggressive ruggedness – if not crudeness – of their imagery and surfaces.
Examples include the large 1989 watercolor, “Multi-Eyed Guardian,” which depicts a fanged, sweating, blue-skinned humanoid monster sticking out his long black tongue as he stands in front of a wall of fire. Appealing and goofy rather than sinister, the guardian seems like a creature that has popped out of a child’s cartoon.
The same mixture of fright and delight comes across in the glazed earthenware sculpture, “Skull with Teeth,” from the 1990s; or the towering 1987 sculpture “Lakeside Femme,” a simplified abstraction of the female body that qualifies as positively Stone Age in its exaggeration of sexual anatomy.
A native of Greenville, Pennsylvania, Mangus grew up in Sharon, near the Ohio border, where his parents, Chick and Nizza, taught art in local public schools.
As Cleveland art dealer William Busta writes in the show’s catalog, the Manguses settled on a small farm where they used a barn as a studio and built kilns to fire ceramics.
Mangus’ father studied in Cleveland with the important Japanese-American ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu, who taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1955 to 1965.
When Takaezu visited the Manguses’ farm during summer breaks from teaching at Princeton University to work in the barn studio, Kirk loaded and unloaded the kiln for Takaezu, according to Busta.
Mangus also spent summers in high school as a scholarship student at the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975, where he met his future wife, Eva Kwong, now an associate professor of ceramics at KSU.
Mangus completed a master of fine arts at Washington State University, Pullman, in 1979, and moved back to his family’s farm in 1981. Teaching stints at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and the Cleveland Institute of Art led to a tenured position at KSU, starting in 1985.
Mangus’ style grew out of his reaction against the icily reductive logic of Minimalist art, which permeated art schools in the 1960s and ’70s. At the time, the severe geometric constructions of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Tony Smith and others were considered the essence of the avant-garde.
Kansas State University art historian Glen R. Brown points out in his perceptive essay in the exhibition’s catalog that Minimalism had only a slight impact on ceramics during the time, but it dominated sculpture and painting.
Nevertheless, in reaction to Minimalism, Mangus developed an approach that revived the hell-for-leather physicality of Abstract Expressionist painting from the 1950s, but without a desire to strike a tragic or heroic pose that was pervasive in that earlier movement.
Instead, according to Brown, Mangus embraced the anti-authoritarian “Bad Painting” movement of the late 1970s along with the cranky, wisecracking and irreverence of California artists such as William T. Wiley and Robert Arneson.
Over the years, according to Brown, Mangus drew on additional influences including Dick Tracy and the comic drawings of R. Crumb, plus deep dives into the history of Chinese, Japanese, ancient Roman and pre-Columbian ceramics.
Mangus also developed a menagerie of strange and wonderful creatures that came to populate his works. They included figures resembling Mayan deities; childhood pets; female warriors with feline faces; insects of all kinds; mounds of squiggly worms; and grinning, day-of-the-dead skulls.
All of these creatures and characters appear in Mangus’ drawings or on the rich, complex, wildly colorful surfaces of his ceramics.
The effect is something like a cross between the work of the children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Philip Guston.
Bouthillier beautifully organized the one-room Mangus retrospective in several handsomely installed segments.
One involves a single long shelf on which Bouthillier placed 44 individual ceramic creations that chart the full inventive range of Mangus’ imagination, including the colorful “Skull With Teeth” and a series of vases inspired by ancient Greek and Roman vessels that appear to be buzzing with bees and bursting with blossoms.
Other vases sprout grinning skulls recalling ancient Mayan imagery or feature surfaces decorated with colorful splatters of glaze, as if Jackson Pollock or Guston had stopped by the studio for a visit.
Mangus was a devoted draftsman who loved incising linear images and patterns in his ceramics, often by carving deep lines that created an alligator-skin surface.
The second portion of the show focuses on several plinths loaded with larger ceramic objects, including the vividly glazed “Femme” sculptures, which blend surreal, biomorphic abstraction with caveman humor.
Finally, the show dwells at length on Mangus’ drawings and watercolors, which appear to have functioned like the gas jet at a steel mill – a way to burn off excess energy.
He drew a woman vomiting after drinking too much at a party, a multi-eyed sci-fi monster emerging from a swamp and a mythological character dining on a mound of gooey worms.
Reducing this imagery to words may make it sound simply gross. But Mangus’ art is always pervaded by good will, humor and affection. He cherished imperfections, whether in the grotesque monsters he imagined or the rumpled, peanut-shell surfaces of his ceramics.
It was, as Brown writes in the show’s catalog, Mangus’ way of embracing the imperfection, unpredictability and transience of life – an artistic message made all the more poignant by Mangus’ sudden death last year.
By mounting an excellent artistic sendoff for Mangus, MOCA has done him and Northeast Ohio a wonderful service. The only shame is that Mangus isn’t here to see it.
What’s up: “Kirk Mangus: Things Love,” a retrospective.
Venue: Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
Where: 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.
When: Through Sunday, Jan. 18.
Admission: $8. Call 216-421-8671 or go to mocacleveland.org.