Art review: La Wilson and Mark Soppeland at Harris-Stanton Gallery

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art 
and architecture critic

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What is it about artists from Northeast Ohio that they so often choose whimsy as a basis for their work?

Two rather prominent ones — and their whimsical progeny — are on view through Nov. 24 at Harris-Stanton Gallery in West Akron’s Pilgrim Square.

The show, La Wilson & Mark Soppeland, captures the essence of the work of these sculptors, especially their wry sense of humor.

Wilson, who was born in 1924 in Corning, N.Y., and now lives in Hudson, works with assembled bits and pieces inside boxes, creating works of art that give us an insight not only into her strict Catholic upbringing, but into her subversive sense of humor that on the surface may often seem quirky or capricious, but upon closer examination almost always has a bit of a bite to it.

Obedience (1991), for instance, contains both a rosary and a gun.

“First I collect — anything that appeals, for whatever reason,” writes Wilson in her artist’s statement. “Then I start putting things together, usually in a box, and what often happens is that these everyday mundane things change their essential nature when juxtaposed in unexpected ways with other material.

“The transformation intrigues me, and it is always a joy when the viewer is able to take the journey with me.”

Wilson works in a wonderfully organized studio just outside her kitchen, with cupboards, drawers and shelves full of favorite things that she repurposes and reassembles throughout her works: children’s alphabet blocks, pencils, crayons, pastels, brushes, erasers, children’s toys, plastic eating utensils, pins of various sizes and purposes, nails, rosaries and other religious symbols, dice and other objects from games of chance, metal typefaces and a variety of letterpress fonts, to name just a few.

Soppeland, born in 1952 in Panama City, Fla., is a distinguished emeritus professor at the University of Akron. He works with found objects, often old lighting fixtures or discarded objects that he can turn into lamps. But his aren’t ordinary lamps; they are reflections not only of Soppeland’s wildly inventive mind, but his dry wit and insubordinate views of establishment culture.

These views are often expressed not only visually, but verbally, in the titles of the works: The Adventuress of the Secret Society; The Shrine of the Hand; Guardian of the Secret Door (this last one includes an impressive set of deer antlers).

Soppeland’s workshop similarly contains drawers and cabinets full of children’s toys and games, secondhand jewelry, toy soldiers, and discarded light fixtures.

In this exhibit, Soppeland has for the first time included several collages, which he has framed himself. Nearly all of them are created by attaching the collaged pieces to the back of glass, an unusual approach that necessitates that Soppeland work backward, putting the topmost elements on first, then proceeding to add other, secondary and tertiary layers behind them, a process not unlike reverse glass painting.

Soppeland’s collages fit nicely with his sculptures, especially since they are both associated with systems of belief, a point he drives home in the collage (actually, decoupage) and light sculpture work, The Sphere of Dreams.

In fact, the collages so clearly resemble icons — Russian, Greek or Eastern Orthodox — that Soppeland may wish at some point to consider making special, icon-like frames for them.

Both artists have been exhibiting in and around Northeast Ohio since the 1980s, and Wilson’s record goes even further back, to the 1959 May Show of the Akron Art Institute, where she won an honor award. In 1993, Wilson won not only the Cleveland Museum of Art May Show $1,000 sculpture prize, but also the Cleveland Arts Prize.

Soppeland has received several honors as well. In 2005, he was awarded a distinguished professorship by the university, and a Lifetime Achievement Award as artist and teacher by the Akron Area Arts Alliance.

Wilson and Soppeland exhibit well together, a congeniality not missed by Harris-Stanton Gallery, which has exhibited the two together four times now.

In fact, this exhibit could be viewed as a mini-retrospective for Wilson, in that at least one work, In the Beginning, dates back to 1967.

Both artists call to mind the children’s nursery rhyme, “What are little girls/little boys made of?” except that both seem to fall into to the snips-and-snails category, and their works often contain (if not puppy dog tails), then at least on occasion a rabbit’s foot or two.

Viewers are often heard chuckling to themselves as they walk around looking at the works, and often as not, falling in love with one or two.

And what’s not to love? They tug at our foibles and our delight in the pompous brought low through humor.

Long may they reign.

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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