State of the Art: Constructs, at Akron Art Museum

Jody Kuehner, DITCH (detail)

State of the Art: Constructs, on view through February 26th at the Akron Art Museum, is not to be missed. A bewilderment of massive installations and explorations of light, color, and sound, this exhibition completely transforms the space it occupies and offers something intriguing at every turn.

Spearheaded by curators from the Akron Art Museum and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the show includes a selection of 21 artists who collectively embody the present moment in contemporary art. The project began in 2014 when Crystal Bridges launched State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. A continuation of the project,State of the Art 2020, featured a new group of artists and opened at The Momentary and Crystal Bridges in February 2020. The exhibition displayed more than 100 works by 61 artists, including two–painter Amy Casey and photographer Lori Kella–from Northeast Ohio. That show has since been divided into three parts, called Locate, Record, and Constructs, and is traveling to Art Bridges partners across the country, including the Akron Art Museum.

According to the Akron Art Museum’s website, “the pieces address global strife, environmental issues, and personal identity. They cover nature, objects, humans, animals, and spirits. The details and contexts of these pieces vary—but altogether offer a collective artist glimpse at contemporary life.” It’s not an easy exhibition—it’s dense and there’s a lot to try to wrap your head around. However, these tough topics are approached in a way that is accessible. In between those moments of trying to figure it all out, we can focus on aesthetics and take in the multi-sensory experience.

Jena Thomas, In Search of Fun

Jena Thomas’ work examines how people are detached from the world around them. In Search of Fun and Beautifully Dirty filter the landscape through abstraction, similarly to how our brain does—looking beyond our surroundings and focusing on the task at hand. Thomas’ environments are stripped down to only the elements one might commit to memory. My favorite quality is how even the street signs are blank, showing how these tidbits are often forgotten even after seeing them time after time. These oil on canvas paintings pull the viewer back into the present and are a reminder to take notice of the world around us.

Cleveland artist Lori Kella exhibits two works in State of the Art: Constructs. Euclid’s Mirror and Slip into the Fog and Vanish (Painted Turtle) are inspired by the shoreline of Lake Erie. Kella builds elaborate models specifically for the purpose of photographing them. Photography is typically regarded as a more honest medium, providing a record of the artist’s surroundings. Kella’s work challenges this idea, as her creations are intended to seem somewhat fabricated. She intends to show how people have the power to shape both the models and the real landscape that the models evoke. Kella’s archival pigment prints work in perfect tandem with Thomas’ paintings, prompting compelling questions about how we exist in our world.

Edra Soto, Open 24 Hours

The artists who created immersive installations understood the assignment and took it miles further. Edra Soto used liquor bottles that she spent two years collecting in Open 24 Hours. The bottles hailed from East Garfield Park, a historic Black community on Chicago’s West Side. The plethora of cognac bottles she found led the artist to wonder why that liquor was so popular. She uncovered connections between African American communities and the consumption of cognac going back as far as World War I. Meticulously displayed in the center of the gallery, this work is a strong example of using found objects to tell a pre-existing narrative. There’s something quite beautiful about repurposing discarded objects to transform them into an unexpected story.

Alice Pixley Young, Geist Transmissions

The perfect complement to Open 24 Hours, Geist Transmissions by Alice Pixley Young turns the entire gallery into an eerie fantasy world. It references the architecture of the artist’s Cincinnati neighborhood, focusing on towering structures that carry cell and radio signals, water, and electricity. This work is best enjoyed in person for its full effect and to see how it interacts with the other works in the room. It’s mesmerizing, haunting, and beautiful. I knew as soon as I saw it that it would be impossible to forget.

A few rooms over, DITCH by Jody Kuehner is just as impactful but starkly different from Geist Transmissions. Cherdonna Shinatra is the artist’s drag persona and alter-ego. With her dance company, DONNA, Cherdonna clowns around in an exaggerated style to draw attention to queerness, feminism, and the “existential dread” of contemporary times. The installation is overwhelming, loud, and proud. A video plays, adding further movement and sound to the experience, and  a performance component took place for January 19-21.

Joanna Keane Lopez spent two weeks constructing A Poem for Blessing Clay in the gallery. The piece is a resolana, which is a Spanish word with many meanings, including “sunshine” or “a place to rest.” The didactic reads, “In New Mexican culture, a resolana is the sunny south-facing side of a building where people gather together.” The artist used adobe and natural-colored clays from New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas, and sourced additional materials from Ohio. A Poem for Blessing Clay also incorporates workshops and performances which will take place February 16-18. As a land art aficionado, it was a treat to see a piece like this enclosed in a museum.

Suchitra Mattal, Exodus

Exodus is another showpiece, woven from vintage saris by Suchitra Mattal. The work takes up an entire wall and is endlessly textured and colorful. The artist used saris from her Indo-Caribbean family as well as saris from the United Arab Emirates and India. By gathering these saris together, Mattal hopes the piece “connects diasporic communities of South Asians across the globe, giving voice to generations of women while also probing questions of displacement resulting from European colonization.” The craftsmanship is impeccable, and each fold and wrinkle provide further dimension and detail.

It’s a thrill to have such an expansive range of work by nationally renowned artists, with two Northeast Ohio artists among them, traveling to different venues with a stop in this part of the world.

The Akron Art Museum is open Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm., and Thursdays 11:00 am to 8:00 pm. Admission is free on Thursdays.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.