For whatever reason, Akron Art Museum chief curator Jan Driesbach noted, “people who visit Language in Art seem to spend extra time with the art, looking at it and talking about it.”
Perhaps it’s because the art talks back.
Language in Art, organized from the museum’s permanent collection by Driesbach, is on display through Sept. 14.
During the 20th century, art began to absorb words into its growing list of subjects (objects as well, some would argue). Driesbach does a terrific job of explaining the trend: “Seeing words playing a visual role in the making of art begins with [Pablo] Picasso and [Georges] Braque at the beginning of the 20th century — that pretty much seals the deal for the use of words in art, where words really function alongside the visual elements as opposed to being an illustration or identification. …
“My inspiration for the exhibit was Kristen Cliffel’s The Dirty Dozen (2010), which she gave to the AAM in honor of [former director] Mitchell Kahan when he retired.”
Pointing to a giant pink and chocolate-hued confection in the middle of the Judith Bear Isroff Gallery, Driesbach expounded upon her appreciation of Cliffel’s work: “She lives in Cleveland where she makes these big, huge, luscious chocolate-covered and frosted cupcakes from clay, along the tops of which are sayings, such as ‘You dream too much,’ ‘What was I thinking?’ and ‘How long is forever?’ — questions regarding society’s expectations of women.
“She loves to bake and has three children, and she talks about when she wanted to be the best mother, the best wife, the best ceramic artist and the best baker. A lot of these are about the frustration with the ideals set up for women in society and what any one of us can reasonably do.”
Driesbach used Cliffel’s work as a starting point to search the collection for other pieces that “had taste and language in art in common. They also had to have a particular scale, and the words had to play a fundamental role in the composition,” she said.
“What I discovered is that we have some wonderful prints and photographs and sculptures, many of which have not been on display for a while. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring some of the collection out on view and to relate some of the people in new contexts.”
Driesbach has spent a lot of time in Northern California, and knows from first-hand experience that a lot of the ceramic artists there were at first making ceramic sculpture.
“[Cliffel] is truly making ceramic sculpture, kind of parallel to what Robert Arneson was doing at UC-Davis in the 1960s. She said when she was growing up in Cleveland that the Arneson sculpture of Jackson Pollock at the Cleveland Museum of Art was always one of her favorite sculptures.”
The Arneson sculpture in the exhibit, Nuke News (1983), shows an incinerated head. It’s displayed alongside A Nuclear Warhead (1983), a drawing of a similar subject in conte crayon, India ink, pencil and pen on paper.
Arneson often used text in his sculpture. Both the drawing and the sculpture are covered in words: “arms race v. human race,” “endangered species” and “one for the Gipper.”
However, the slogans and wordplays, such as “man unkind,” that define the contours of the skull in the drawing are used more sparingly and to different visual effect in the sculpture.
Ed Rusha began as a commercial artist, has often mixed form and content, and is more attuned to letters and type on a page.
“He talks a lot about the look of art on pages,” Driesbach noted. “And in this group of images, rather than using a single word, he’s using a very mundane conversation that he’s overheard, or from movie dialogue and platitudes.”
Shusaku Arakawa trained both as an artist and in medicine in Japan. When he was 25, “he arrived in New York City with $14 in his pocket and Marcel Duchamp’s phone number,” Driesbach recalled. “Not that long after he met Madeline Gins, his future wife.”
Together, they forged careers as writers, artists and architects. They are best known for their idiosyncratic architecture designed to attempt to prevent aging and forestall death.
“When he died in 2010,” said Driesbach, “Gins said ‘This mortality thing is bad news.’ Most of us would agree.”
William T. Wiley taught with Arneson for a long time. He worked in Northern California as well.
“In the 1960s there was virtually no art scene in Northern California,” Driesbach said. “Except for some kind of co-op gallery situation, there was no art market. But Wiley had a charismatic high school teacher who introduced them to Native American culture and showed them how to put together portfolios for art school.”
Wiley’s work is “full of wordplay — ‘New Branch of Torture,’ ‘Win A Peg Dominion’ referencing a hotel in Alberta — is punning and often inscrutable,” Driesbach said.
In conjunction with this exhibit the museum has planned “Art on the Rocks: Mojitos, Margaritas and Cupcakes with Kristen Cliffel” at 6:30 p.m. June 12. Join Cliffel for drinks and cupcakes as she discusses her artwork, including The Dirty Dozen. Free, but registration required at https://akronartmuseum.org/eventregistration/491. For adults 21 or older.
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or email@example.com.