By Becky Raspe
The Akron Art Museum is currently home to a section of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s “State of the Art” exhibition, on view through Feb. 26, 2023.
“State of the Art: Constructs” at the Akron Art Museum features 21 of the 61 total artists in the exhibition, with works meant to expand on how contemporary art created throughout the country reflects the present time and how those moments connect to one’s sense of self, the place they live and planet we all inhabit.
Jeff Katzin, associate curator at the Akron Art Museum, tells Canvas the show created by Bentonville, Ark.-based Crystal Bridges Museum was first created and organized in early 2020 as a traveling exhibition. Crystal Bridges, which was founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, had three curators travel the United States, seeking “art that would best represent the moment and what’s being made in the United States” both within major cities and in communities “off the beaten path,” Katzin says.
The Akron Art Museum exhibition features three Ohio artists, and two are from Cleveland – Lori Kella and Amy Casey. The third, Alice Pixley Young, is based in Cincinnati. To travel the show, Crystal Bridges broke the exhibit into three parts featuring 20 artists, 20 artists and 21 artists. Katzin adds the museum primarily chose the “Constructs” section because of the Ohio connections.
Connecting micro to macro
Pulling from the intellectual idea of a construct, or a collection of small ideas that build into one large concept, Katzin says broader ideas are what drives the show – especially larger, intangible concepts like happiness and morality.
“It’s really about these big ideas that govern everyday life and how people relate to each other,” he says. “That’s the sense of the word ‘Constructs’ in the title. It is apt for this section of the traveling show because the word does seem to suggest there are big ideas that factor into our everyday lives. And if we, as humans, have the power to build these ideas, we also have the power to take them apart, examine them and maybe even rebuild them to create a future for ourselves.”
Within that general ethos, three sub-themes permeate the exhibition: planet, place and self. Katzin notes exploring that journey from the macrocosm to the microcosm shows it’s all a connected experience.
“As it turns out, those things are all somewhat interwoven because of the way we think about ourselves,” he says. “Living on a planet that we depend on has ramifications on how we think of ourselves as individuals. It’s that sense of smallness, that feeling you get from looking at a starry sky and thinking about it all. You can travel from macrocosm to microcosm very quickly. So, while the themes are perhaps seemingly different, there is a nice continuity between them.”
Cleveland contributions to ‘Construct’
Both Cleveland artists, Casey and Kella, have work on display in the “planet” section. Kella, who resides in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood, has been creating art professionally for over 20 years. She recalls getting a visit from the Crystal Bridges Museum’s curators in 2019 and being interested in the exhibit’s concept as it relates to her work.
“A lot of my work is about world-building, in which I can use the miniature scale to think about larger global issues,” says Kella, who works mostly with paper dioramas that she then photographs as though they’re real scenes. “I am looking at the environment and using my photographs to think of that, especially in Cleveland’s Euclid Creek area. What is great about the exhibition is your work as an artist can have this individual take on the theme, but when you’re looking at it as a whole and seeing your work in a larger context, finding that common thread is exciting and interesting.”
Kella has shown at the Akron Art Museum before, most recently in its “Continuum: Historical Resonances in Contemporary Art” show that ran from July 15, 2021 to Feb. 27, 2022. Katzin says having her in the museum again for “Constructs” made sense.
“She creates meticulously constructed dioramas and makes them strictly to be photographed,” Katzin says. “On one hand, her images are very convincing and perfectly to scale with really creative uses of natural materials. But at the same time, her work is essentially monochromatic. The idea is not to fool you into thinking you’re looking at the real thing, but to display a balance between what is controlled by people, like constructing your own environments, and what isn’t, like natural growth and the general flow of nature – and how the natural world can be as fragile as a paper diorama.”
Casey, who also lives in Cleveland and has been a professional artist for over 20 years, says her visit from the traveling curators was exciting, especially since the exhibit allows her work to be shown with “a lot of interesting artists.” Casey’s paintings are detail-oriented, mostly of fantastical buildings and larger-than-life foliage and surrounding nature.
“One of the paintings I know is in the show is a long, narrow piece called ‘A Force of Uncertain Things,’ which was created at the end of 2019 and very much inspired by the uncertainty of the times,” Casey recalls. “Though it was made at the end of 2019 and feels like a tranquil time in comparison, it was still very exhausting to live it and think about my place in it all.”
While Casey says she doesn’t show work in Northeast Ohio often, Katzin says having her work in “Constructs” allows viewers to think outside of the box.
“(Casey) can be very exacting as a painter and very detail-oriented,” he says.
“That really lends itself well to paintings of building and architecture, which became the characters in her work. In many of her pieces, there is a sense of movement and narrative you wouldn’t normally get out of architecture. The scale is inverted and the buildings seem very tiny, and the trees, mosses and grasses are gigantic in comparison. It reverses the usual relationship between what is built and what is natural.”
The other artists in the exhibit hail from all across the U.S., specializing in mediums like painting, sculpture, performance art, video, weaving and photography. With such a wide swath to experience, Katzin says he hopes visitors come away with an understanding of art and how it can relate to the current moment in history.
“I hope that we help to bring our community examples of the country’s best contemporary art, to inspire people in our community to push themselves, to push their art making and to keep it right on par with anything else that someone might think is cutting edge,” he says. “We have this moment that I hope is enriching and brings a sense of optimism. Art isn’t dead. It remains very responsive and vibrant. It continues to add in new materials and techniques, and that is something really exciting to be involved in.”