Art review: Four new exhibits at Canton Museum of Art

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Mermaid Vase, ca. 1944, Glazed earthenware with luster decoration, Waylande Gregory

The Canton Museum of Art is blessed with four rather congenial exhibits through July 20 — congenial in the sense that they go together … somewhat.

Congenial in that they all involve a certain amount of surrealistic whimsy and they all have ties to art deco, as well as the movement that preceded it (and is often confused with), art nouveau.

The largest of these shows is Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse, taking up all three of the main galleries with objects that can only be described politely as astonishing.

Impolitely, one might call these pieces overblown, hypersexual curiosities that were of a style, era and sensibility that we can only be glad to get behind us.

Gregory was a member of the Cleveland School, and an artist we haven’t heard much about until this exhibit, and now we may know why.

Gregory (1905-1971) helped to shape art deco design, creating one of the largest bodies of ceramic sculpture in modern times. If size mattered, he would easily be considered the most important American ceramist of the 1930s.

He was the first to create monumental ceramic sculpture in modern times. His sculptures measured more than 70 inches, weighed over a ton and were often displayed outdoors.

He was also among the first to bring commercial ceramics into the art studio. Later, he brought them out of the studio and right back into commerce again.

Premiering at the University of Richmond Museums in 2013, this exhibit is the first retrospective of his art, comprising more than 60 works including paintings, glass and ceramics, and notably four giant ceramic sculptures he created for Fountain of the Atom, a centerpiece of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.

This is a family newspaper, so we can’t show you most of those sculptures, as they are nude, and robustly so.

It’s now fairly well known that such classical artists as Bernini, Titian and Rubens created sexually charged images for the delectation of their more important clients.

Titian, for instance, had a standing order from the King of Spain for scantily clad saints and other “historical” subjects with similarly clad participants. Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy has long been cited as one of the most blatantly sexual images of the Baroque period, an era that had plenty of that stuff to begin with.

So we should not be shocked to see some of Gregory’s creations, yet because his figures are “idealized” abstractions based on the art deco principles of aerodynamics and geometry that he has infused with his own heated views on sexuality, they often come across as grotesque.

Born in Kansas, he graduated from the Kansas Manual Training Normal School in 1922 and moved to Chicago, where he went to work with sculptor Lorado Taft.

By the late 1920s and 1930s he had taken up the trend in American ceramics of moving decorative pottery to studio ceramics. It was at this time that he became a major figure in the Cleveland School, which from 1930 to 1960 was known for its sculptors, ceramists and watercolor artists.

From 1928 to 1932 Gregory was the chief designer and head sculptor at Cowan Pottery in Rocky River. There he created some of the pottery’s seminal works, such as Salome, Nautch Dancer and Burlesque Dancer. Salome, which combines the flowing, aerodynamic principles of art deco, won first prize at the 1929 Cleveland May Show. The last two pieces were based on the dancing of Gilda Grey, a well-known member of the Ziegfeld Follies.

In 1932 he became a member of the faculty at Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he developed a serious ceramics program. While there he created several notable sculptures, including Girl with Olive and Kansas Madonna.

Afterward, he went to work with the New Jersey Works Progress Administration, when he made the fountain Light Dispelling Darkness that can now be found in Roosevelt Park in Menlo Park, N.J.

The work, created to honor Thomas Edison, is based on the theme of knowledge dispelling evil. The figures ringing the fountain represent conquest, war, famine, death, greed and materialism fleeing the forces of science and knowledge. The composition laid the groundwork for his World’s Fair commission.

In addition to being one of the first studio ceramics artists, Gregory was also one of the first studio glass artists, creating enameled glass vases as well as stained glass windows.

During this time he also took studio ceramics back into commercial reproduction, creating flowing, highly stylized sculptures and vessels that were shown at retail outlets such as Tiffany’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus.

The shows that accompany Waylande Gregory, while not as potentially scandalous, are nevertheless lively and provocative in their own ways.

Artist Erin Mulligan has a significant regional following, combining a classical painting style with a surrealistic viewpoint and full-on fantasy subject matter to offer unique perspectives and subtle, wryly humorous commentaries on life.

Her show, in the museum’s upper galleries, features many of her meticulously painted signature works, such as Frabbit Apocalypse, Fire Breathing Rabbits, Laser Cats and the popular Katywite series about an “impossibly extraordinary cat.”

Works by the Raeders, formerly of Bath, share with Gregory the fluidity of his best pieces, while owing nothing to his sense of humor nor his sense of propriety.

Turning Wood takes us inside the curves, textures, colors and beauty revealed by George Raeder through his remarkable wood-turning artistry using gorgeous species of wood — works that are functional, decorative and even at times whimsical. The sculptures of Patricia Raeder seen in Earthly Creatures show delightful and fanciful play with animals.

And safe to say, in talking to your children about these works, unlike those by Gregory, you won’t be stuck with those awkward explanations.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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