Searing Text, Raw Material: The Morgan Conservatory National Juried Show
The National Juried Show at the Morgan Conservatory annually impresses by showing the possibilities of paper as a material. That’s true once again in the 2021 version, curated by SPACES executive director Tizziana Baldenebro and University of Akron director of galleries Arnold Tunstall. But this year the exploration of materiality is bolstered by a strong component of text—searing text. In one example, that is not only a comment on the words themselves, but a literal description of the artist’s technique.
The text for Micah Kraus’s Ember (Won’t Be Water / Fire Next Time) was burned into rag paper using gunpowder, in the manner of Cai Guo-Qiang. It’s not the first piece you see on walking into the exhibit, nor the largest, nor the Best of Show, but between the medium and message, this winner of one of the Morgan Paper awards is certainly the easiest to remember. The text is clearly outlined by the burnt brown speckles where the gunpowder flared.
The Biblical allusion in Ember has lots of cultural resonance: Charles Johnson’s song It’s Gonna Rain comes to mind, as does the spiritual Mary Don’t You Weep, which contains the lines “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, the fire next time.” Of course it resonates with James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time, and finally the Bible itself in the story of the 40 days and nights of rain by which God –setting aside Noah and pairs of each animal species—cleared evil from the earth and started from scratch. Lately the fire has been interpreted as the threat of Global Warming.
Most of the exhibit feels more personal. Katie Garth’s cyanotype-on-mulberry text, Becoming Smaller, takes the kind of poetic, confessional thought written by hand in a diary, and through the labor of the cyanotype process underscores the implicit pain and loneliness: “Sometimes I thought about becoming even smaller: reorganizing into dots of water and light, filtering down into nowhere and nothing, not needing to be cared for at all.”
Indeed, several works both look inward and highlight the power of medium to intensify a textual message. In Range of thought, John Sullivan gives his text literal and figurative depth by casting the words in pulp, distinguishing each phrase of the statement with a different shade: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” With perhaps a quarter-inch of relief, it’s almost like the text is etched in stone.
Speaking of self-evaluation, Henry Gepfer’s woodcut Broadside I effectively looks in the mirror with the realization that “What I Wanna Say and what I’m Gonna Say Are Not The Same.” The message is set backward in large, all-cap, sans-serif italics—stark, plain, urgent– reversed out of a rainbow roll from cyan to pink. The framed piece is about the same size as the mirror over your bathroom sink, and so it viscerally has that association.
Nearby is a second piece by the same artist–Gepfer’s seemingly happy-go-lucky message, “Life Goes On,” printed on a stack of free, take-away sheets. But the kicker is that the stack of paper is tall enough that its edges can contain the near life-sized portrait of a face, perhaps the artist: Front, sides and back, each on a different side of the stack. If the piece is successful—if visitors to the gallery are in fact motivated to take a sheet away—the face –perhaps the artist–will gradually disappear. Ultimately we’re all dust to be scattered to the wind, but of course, life in general goes on.
As we have come to expect, the Morgan’s national juried show once again lives up to the full name of the organization (The Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory and Education Foundation) in that it thoroughly explores the potential of paper as a material.
Many of the most intriguing works that do that are not hung on the wall, but presented on pedestals, or hung from the ceiling. Such is the case with Tatiana Ginsberg’s intimate sculptural work, Vajra / Doorknob: Hanji paper in the form of two delicate doorknobs, and the shaft between them. If you’ve been in old houses, you’ve probably seen doorknobs like this—the knobs themselves made of glass or brass, connected by a steel shaft through the latching mechanism. The translucence of the hanji is one of several compelling qualities about the piece. The delicacy of the form will have you wondering how the artist did that, almost in a ship-in-a-bottle kind of way. And text on the shaft—the part one would never see if a set of doorknobs were installed and in use—reads the meditative line chanted to enable transcendence, as from one state (or room) to another: Om mani padme hum.”
Kayla Story-White’s work uses the translucence of paper in a different way, hanging from the ceiling, graced by daylight streaming in from the Morgan’s old factory windows. The largest piece in the exhibit, it consists of 27 sheets of paper, each made from a man’s shirt, and impressed with one, too. It’s all one color, just the pale white paper pulp, but the light through the contours shows the clear definition of every wrinkle, seam, and button. Maybe it’s a commentary on relationships, or the day-by-day, shirt-by-shirt passing of time. It is certainly a beautiful use of paper as material.
Laurie LeBretton’s Getting to Quiet, No. 2, hangs from the ceiling like a cascade of elbow bends in pipe, perhaps muffler pipes. Teddy Milder’s Pueblo Openings fills a pedestal with forms evocative of building blocks or bricks, or what the title describes—fragments of a pueblo, carved not out of the earth, but of delicate flax paper.
A lot of the work in the show uses highly specialized paper, made for the purpose of art, or even for the occasion of the specific work. That is not the case for Jonah Jacobs’s piece, Stomata #1. The colorful, sculptural work is made from recycled cardboard tubes, which give its depth and overall structure, augmented with cotton swabs, plaster paper, and other materials, tinted with ink in a warm palate of reds, oranges, yellows and greens. If you don’t know the word “stomata,” you might think this is pure abstraction, or that it looks like a carpet’s knap under a microscope, or some kind of fungal growth. Stomata are actually little holes in the surface of a leaf which help plants breathe. Google it and you’ll see that this is a reasonably good representation of the microscopic things.
Best in Show is Miranda Maher’s set of drawings, each of which traces the (straightened) path of a waterway, through lakes, across continents. Any reasonably aware person from the region would likely recognize the shapes of Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, even without the marked sites along the way, as all that water of the Great Lakes basin travels out the St. Lawrence Seaway toward the ocean.
If you want to know about the potential of paper, or how people are using it, or to see some tremendous examples about how a medium can work with content to convey a message, this show is a great national survey. And if you want to see how Cleveland artists fit into that current national dialog, the Morgan’s National Juried Exhibition is great for that too.
The Morgan Conservatory National Juried Exhibition is open April 9 – May 22, 2021. Hours are Thursdays and Saturdays 10am-4pm, or by appointment