Big show, big ideas: The eighth annual May Show at Lakeland Community College
Out of 520 items submitted by 222 individuals, 93 pieces by 75 artists were accepted for display in the eighth annual May Show at Lakeland Community College. This might sound like an imposingly high number of works to take in at one time. However, the quality of the pieces assembled will energize viewers as they make their way through the gallery.
A majority of the works on display are paintings. However, photography, ceramics, printed digital art, sculpture, carving, fiber art, jewelry, and miscellaneous mixed media are also represented.
The most striking three-dimensional work is also the most whimsical, Gadi Zamir’s “Scissors Head Dragon Trimming May’s Flowers.” The towering wooden totem is painted with the likeness of the titular landscaping serpent. The piece showing the most impressive technical mastery is a painted wood carving, Tom Baldwin’s “Oscillated Ant Bird,” a natural history museum-quality rendering of a Central American insectivore.
However, the most thought- and conversation-provoking pieces are hung on the walls. As is to be expected of any open-ended group show, a wide variety of touchy matters are broached. In the May Show’s, the two most topical subjects addressed are immigration and voting rights.
Nancy Lick’s watercolor “Ellis Island Immigrants” challenges viewers to expand their mental image of the huddled masses who passed through the New York’s most famous migration center. Against a sepia background, two black African women clad in robes and headscarves sit. They watch the viewer, and smile. In the age of Trump, it is a quiet but powerful reminder that immigrants, people of color, and immigrants who are people of color have always been part of our messy republican experiment.
Lawrence Krause’s “Mandated Voter I.D.:Laura” satirizes the extra layer of bureaucracy statehouse Republicans have placed between citizens and their ballots in Ohio and 33 other states. The painting shows a woman’s unsmiling face in portrait and in profile, along with her address, voting precinct, and unspecified ID numbers. The image is housed in a custom frame featuring a handle to facilitate easy carrying, allowing Laura to haul the painting to her polling station next November.
A framed, hand-painted ID would, of course, be unwieldly. But that is the point. Voter ID laws can depress voter turnout by up to three percent in some of the states they are enforced. That may not sound like a lot, but it can equal tens of thousands of individuals. And overrepresented among those who are disenfranchised are groups already lacking legislative representation—racial minorities, low-income individuals, the elderly, students, and the disabled. Krause represents the logistical and financial difficulties voter ID laws pose to voters with physical awkwardness.
Lick and Krause’s two pieces could be thought of as the May Show’s “editorial page,” as they are the two most politically overt works in the show. However, other contributing artists make thoughtful explorations of apolitical life-and-death issues.
The visual nature of is the topic of James March’s “Untitled #5 Op Series.” It is an experiment in op art, a tradition of abstract painting that uses optical illusions and quirks of color vision to create special effects. The Midwest’s most prominent op art practitioner was the recently departed Julian Stanczak, and “Untitled #5” can be considered an accidental tribute to him.
However, March’s painting stands on its own merits. It is both aesthetically pleasing and technically proficient. It attractively pairs horizontal black and white stripes with five colored strokes in blue, purple, green, orange, and black again. At most distances and most angles, the horizontal stripes seem to vibrate both up or down and side to side. Sometimes, the vibration seems to go in all four directions at once. It is humbling, to be reminded that a few lines of acrylic on canvas can confound the systems we use to navigate the world.
Judy Takács’ triptych self-portrait “Guardian Angel of the Good Death” turns the pains of her own autobiography into a moral plea. As explained in a soul-bearing blog post, Takács was moved to paint “Guardian Angel” in the midst of grief for her parents, who died just months apart last year. When it became clear both were in terminal condition, Takács resolved not only to ensure the goodness of their last days, but also that of their ultimate massing. Because of her efforts, both she and her sister managed to be “in loving attendance” during their father and mother’s final moments.
Though Takács writes the experience of ensuring good deaths for her parents offered “absolute closure,” it is clear that closure came at a cost. In her painting, Takács presents herself in three species of anguish. On the left, she holds her head and stares blankly ahead, drained or shocked into a stupor. Her middle self clutches her chest and claws her garments, performing an ancient action of grief. On the right, Takács averts her gaze from anything in particular while she wrings her hands.
Death is a taboo, and most of us start thinking of it too late in life. By publically baring her grief, Takács—along with other taboo-breakers like The Order of the Good Death and a growing number of physicians—prompts us to ask what our good deaths would look like, and what we should want for our loved ones. It is important work.
Takács is not the only one to consider first things and last things. The biggest surprise of the May Show is how many artists chose to represent religious themes. I say it is “surprising” not because religion isn’t conducive to aesthetic expression. Indeed, most societies’ very first cultural artifacts are ritual fetishes, and the majority of humanity’s oldest writings are sacred texts. Yet in the contemporary West, artists skew to the left, and lefties skew towards secularism. However, religion remains a live option (or even an indispensable one) for many, and an important fact of social life even for those of us who don’t believe in it. The May Show reminds us of this, displaying expressions of varied religious experiences.
In Donald Boncela’s acrylic portrait we meet “Daniel,” a man in in traditional Anabaptist garb—a broad hat, neckbeard, collared shirt, and overalls. Using only black, white, and gray to render his subject, Boncela underscores the simplicity and hardiness Daniel no doubt strives to embody.
In the photograph “Hell Awaits You,” Gabriel Gonzalez captures a sextet of street preachers whose sign promises “HELL AWAITS YOU” to atheists, witches, drunkards, sodomites, and the “general heathen,” among others. In the foreground, a boy huddles under a blanket stares into the camera, eyes evincing confusion and mild terror. The preachers fear of the depraved world even as they seek to convert it, and the boy fears their huffing about sinners in the hands of an angry god. We scare each other, but for now uneasy peace exists between fundamentalists and the rest of us.
Joe Stavec’s enigmatic painting “The Decision Was Made” juxtaposes biblically-inspired imagery with the mundane. In the foreground, seven pink, plump men in suit jackets sit. None speak. Heads hang low. Their arms hang at their sides or in their laps. In the background, a father holds his son on his shoulders as they stare out onto a canal. A man in a yellow shirt and green slacks walks away from them, on top of the flowing water.
It’s not obvious why this miracle is occurring. There’s nothing on the other side of the water but dirt paths and dry, yellowing grass. The overall effect is similar to that of magic realist writing, in which the surreal and fantastic coexist alongside everyday drudgery, unremarked upon.
The prophets of the Old Testament weren’t inoffensive parish pastors, but provocateurs out to shake their countrymen out of complacency. It is in this sense that Michael Costello is “prophetic” in his printed digital collage “Urban Worship (Matthew 6: 24-34).” The verses in Costello’s title are those in which Jesus warns his followers that no one can serve two masters, and that following God means abandoning earthly wealth. Costello’s image, paired with this allusion, is an indictment of the customer service mindset of many modern churches.
In “Urban Worship,” a thin white woman sits cross-legged in a yoga pose. She is at the bottom of a blue-carpeted staircase. To her left, an attractive couple beams as the father lifts their blonde son into a stroller. To the woman’s right, a flock of geese flap by.
The waterfowl surely are the “birds of the air” of which the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel says “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” The geese are a little dirty, but clearly well-fed. There is an earthy charm to them. To contrast, the smiling family on the woman’s left—on the sinister side—has the pretty-but-bland look common in stock photos printed on brochures. In an ecclesiastic setting, they bring to mind the brochures printed by “hip” churches with coffee bars, architecture fit for stadiums, and hymns accompanied by electric guitar.
The stairway terminates before an open doorway which swings apart to reveal two hands cupping a lit candle. The flame suggests the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or just a generally spiritual vibe. (Catholics in particular light a lot of candles.) Therefore, the pretty carpet leading up to the candle implies effort has been made to ease the way to righteousness. Sure, it’s an uphill climb, but there are handrails, and your footfalls are cushioned by soft carpeting. This is feel-good Christianity in Joel Olsteen’s style, and Costello isn’t having it. One doesn’t have to share Costello’s faith to be repelled by such smarminess masquerading as wisdom, and to appreciate that goodness requires sacrifice.
Lakeland’s gallerist Mary Urbas has accomplished no small feat by bringing together dozens of diverse creators, and arranging their wares in such a way that they do not distract from each other. The May Show thus succeeds in what it sets out to do, and is an important sampling of the work being done in Northeast Ohio.
At 7 p.m. Thursday May 25, there will be an awards ceremony in the Lakeland gallery. Over $4,000 in prize money will be distributed among the show’s top artists, as judged by Dr. Louis A. Zona of the Butler Museum of American Art. The event will be followed by a reception featuring a cash bar and live jazz performance by members of LCC’s music faculty.
The May Show runs through July 14 at the gallery located on the first floor of the Dr. Wayne L. Rodehorst Performing Arts Center. The performing arts center is also known as “Building D” on Lakeland Community College’s main campus. The campus is located at 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland. For more information, go the gallery website.