Parts Unknown: Stranger Beings at Emily Davis Gallery

Frank Oriti, Blast Over, 2018, oil on canvas

The core of Stranger Beings is a mind-bending selection of dozens of eccentric works gleaned, in sober fact, from the widely known collection of the Richard and Alita Rogers Family Foundation. Known also as the Hieronymus collection (so-called after Hieronymus Bosch, Renaissance master of the grotesque), the eclectic mix of art objects has been an ongoing labor of love for Rick Rogers, Akron-based software entrepreneur and arts benefactor. Also on view are paintings and objects made by six contemporary Ohio artists. The resemblance of the title to the popular Netflix series Stranger Things highlights the show’s affinity to a stubborn strain of modernity that runs, from the rediscovery of the grotteschi excavated in Rome early in the sixteenth century, as a sort of damning grace through subsequent Western culture. Metamorphosis, hallucination, the dread ferocity of the night, barely constrained by pedestal or picture frame, struggle to escape their own era, or any such limitation, into a dimension of dream.

It is an endlessly intriguing, oddly powerful exhibit. If alien artists put on a show of art about the inhabitants of planet Earth, the result might be something like this. There are many extraordinary creatures on view, but none seem more subtly unfamiliar than many of the depictions here of humans themselves. Whether it’s the materials, the dimensions, or the viewpoint, there is a disturbing strangeness in the proportion prevalent in this large and eclectic group of art and artists at The University of Akron Myers School of Art’s flagship gallery.

Aliens notwithstanding, Earth already has some of the weirdest artists imaginable—many of whom are included here—inventing their own sexually fraught myths and twisted sermonettes. Erin Taylor Mulligan (based in Canton, Ohio), for instance, in her small oil-on-panel work Death and Dreams (2016), depicts a pair of severed rooster heads with trout-like backsides, swimming/flying in a darkling star-smattered undersea (under-methane?) scene. Above their beaks they’ve sprouted glowing angler fish appendages, to light the way as they voyage, swishing their fishy tails, above countless avian carcasses, pale and jumbled on the ocean floor. It’s a flight of metaphysical exploration, if deeply pessimistic (or else a bit comic) in tone. Metamorphosis considered in this dim light is akin to torture, fraught with agony and creaturely outrage. Everywhere at the gallery, and in a spectrum of media—on the walls, on the floor, big and very small, rendered meticulously in charcoal, ceramic, wood, oil paint, precious metals—are the feverish cries that nightmares are made of, polished by the silences of obsessive attention.

Only some of the art here is polite enough to wear a frame. Near the exquisite oil paintings of Erin Taylor Mulligan and Rory Coyne (the Evanston, Illinois, artist’s From Agent to Prince shows a fairy tale quick-change tale in mid-state), a number of quite rude examples of phallic hardware are mounted on the wall in neat formation. The unattributed handles, hooks, door knockers and so on look like props from Fellini’s Satyricon; viewers may never again look at their own faucets and spigots in quite the same way. And there are other flights of fancy, especially when the curators turn to ceramic sculpture, which is a Hieronymus collection focus.

Melissa Cooke, I Love
Lipstick, Even in Black and White, 2009, charcoal on paper.

Nevertheless, in terms of sheer size and presence, both of the galleries that comprise Emily Davis are dominated by oversize portrait heads. Initially these works, executed in charcoal or pastel on paper, seem surprisingly conventional, though a longer look may tell a different story. These are by several different artists, each of whom has her or his own peculiar slant on the human condition. Melissa Cooke’s charcoal on paper I Love Lipstick, Even in Black and White (2009), renders a young woman’s face with a degree of distortion that only digital optics can readily account for. The nose and other features seem enlarged, swelling toward the viewer from a narrowed face, and the head as a whole is about four times life-size. She’s shown looking up, to the left. Her lips, with their black sheen, are slightly parted. It’s as if she has just taken a sharp breath, past the black of those lips that we understand are truly deep red—something has caught her interest, just behind and above us. The face and neck and shoulder-length flowing hair are beautifully drawn in a seamlessly burnished technique on heavyweight paper. The portrait looks a bit like a vast blow-up version of an old snapshot—or more likely, an enlargement of a contemporary selfie filtered with a black and white app. It feels a little nostalgic, a touch vintage, but at the same time is definitely of the moment; it’s holding its own in an eternal present of its own design. As an evocation of looming immediacy, of great big Intimacy, the portrait crowds into your personal space. Maybe it sparks some part of the brain that still remembers how it felt to be a child, confronted by a grownup. The work’s misfit-ness makes oxymoronic sense among all the other the monsters and backbrain combinatory activities.

At times the fare at Stranger Beings begins to seem something like the late Anthony Bourdain’s questionable culinary finds on his show Parts Unknown. Across from I Like Lipstick is a work titled Tender Food (2010) by Seattle artist Tip Toland, which features a large circular white platter displayed on the gallery floor. An androgynous nude person about three feet in length reclines on this surface, sans garniture, asleep or, as it may be, lightly sautéed. His (he has a little penis and testicles, but one wouldn’t want to over-determine the gender of this being) ceramic flesh is toned within the range of Caucasian skin; so, let’s say white meat; although there’s no assurance that he’s supposed to be dead. He lies on his left hip with an elbow cocked over his face, eyes shut, mouth open—he looks unconscious and content, and pudgy in a home-grown way. Given the title of the piece, it looks like someone or something fattened him up for reasons we can unfortunately surmise. Such imaginings are urged along by Toland’s technical virtuosity. The pint-size hermaphroditic chap seems, if anything, too real.

But hyperrealism has other uses. Three well-known visual artists currently based in northern Ohio, Mark Giangaspero, Katy Richards, and Frank Oriti, make convincing claims for the urgency of their own close readings of the human condition. Giangaspero is mainly an artist of the head and shoulders, at least in his work here. Working in pastel on fine paper, he inscribes larger-than-life portraits of the fronts and backs of the upper fifth (or so) of the body—the part that identifies us for documentary purposes, and which is the focus of polite attention in more formal social situations. There’s an authoritarian vibe to this choice, which the artist plays with by working in almost colossal proportions, emphasizing, too, the volume of the head as it sits powerfully supported by the sinews of the shoulders and neck, confronting the viewer. Something almost sinister or threatening is intimated by many of Giangaspero’s heads, which can seem like weighty shadows, eclipsing background detail, ominous against the light.

Katy Richards, Moist, 2018, oil on panel. Images courtesy of Emily Davis Gallery.

In contrast, Katy Richards’ quite small oil-on-panel works are all about the sheer physicality of human flesh. They climb into their subject matter, immersing the viewer in details of the body, dissolving formal and cognitive boundaries in a virtual landscape of fleshly substances—a world awash in saliva and tears. The sense of closeness in her work is all but clinical in its quirky objectivity (I’m thinking of a spit bubble in one, or the flawless rendering of mascara caked on eyelashes in another), yet pulls back into itself as if at the last minute, partly by virtue of the small size of her panel surfaces, in a systolic, diastolic back and forth of observation/comprehension. Often Richards paints just the lips and tongue and teeth (perhaps her own) many times, and other similarly isolated bodily areas and organs—an eye, an ear, or her two feet, shown almost like a pair of wings, with their heels clapped together.

Frank Oriti, widely known for powerful realist oil-on-canvas works portraying his Rustbelt peers and Gen Y-Z personal styles, including intensely detailed renderings of tattoos, made several small paintings with this exhibit in mind. The resulting studies seem to sink into the textures of human skin, bathing the eye in color and contemporary ink. Packed with identity and a sensual beauty that transcends personal choice, the small works on canvas and panel convey the oddly up-to-the-minute antiquity of body art, coiling along the side of a woman’s jaw, or around an arm, barely beyond touch.

Far more famous artists than these are included in the Hieronymus collection, several of whom are sampled at Stranger Beings. Look for Kiki Smith, David Salle, and Keith Haring—you’ll find them. And take time to examine the magnificent sampling of contemporary sculptural and utilitarian ceramic pieces. That said, this exhibit’s greatest strength must necessarily be the context and the exposure that it gives to some of the best realist and imaginative painters working in America today, especially those of our own region.

Stranger Beings is on view at the Emily Davis Gallery through November 22.