Rob Lehr has had an enviable record curating exhibits at the Box Gallery on the third floor of Summit Artspace.
Lehr, of the Highland Square neighborhood in Akron, is a freelance artist and graphic designer. His artwork depicts suburban American life, including subcultures, social politics, urban lifestyles, classism and the influences of popular culture.
He has shown his work in more than 50 group exhibitions in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy and Australia. He is also the president of Vivid Plastic, an online designer toy store, and was the organizing genius behind the 2011 Box Gallery exhibit Paper or Plastic.
This year, his show is Clever Little Devils: Art & Advertising, which he said drew more than 500 to its opening. It will be open during the Downtown Akron Artwalk from 5 to 10 tonight for an entirely new set of viewers to gape at the wild and wonderful stuff.
Containing 89 works by more than 50 contemporary artists exploring the relationship between advertising and youth in America, the exhibit tweaks several controversial subjects, from guns to privacy.
Works from Mark Soppeland, Don Parsisson and other local favorites are on display, including outsider and out-of-state artists who have never before shown in galleries.
The artists — who range from local college professors to nationally known graffiti artists — based their work on advertisements consumed by children, teens and young adults. They’ve produced a compelling tale of what advertising teaches youth about culture in America.
Viewers will find everything from hard-core critiques of consumer culture to nostalgic re-creations of favorite childhood ads.
Lehr said the idea for this show came to him while he was an art student at the University of Akron Myers School of Art.
In 2006 James Victore, a visiting graphic designer, had a solo exhibition, James Victore Loves His Country. During his stay, he gave away yellow and black stickers that read “Advertisers think you’re stupid. Love, Victore.”
“After distribution of the stickers, I immediately noticed them appearing on notebooks, cars, and even bathroom walls,” Lehr recalled. “They spread like wildfire around campus.
“This idea of using conceptual art to talk about advertising really stuck with me. I began to see a connection between the street art movement and James Victore’s concept.”
Nationally known artists like Ron English and Banksy became key players in the early 2000s, using a subversive form of graphic graffiti to make commentaries about advertising.
This made Lehr curious about how other contemporary artists would approach the topic of advertising and what effects the media had on young people.
“In the summer of 2012, I had a small group exhibition named McSpiritual at Square Records in Highland Square. McSpiritual specifically discussed corporate fast food, advertising and youth culture,” he noted.
Since Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel have made it clear that a lot of thought, money and time go into making profits off immature and unassuming youthful audiences, “Clever Little Devils seemed like a logical next step in this investigation, and as I pulled artists together, I knew it was a theme worth exploring,” Lehr explained.
Fair warning: This show is dense, with scores of works spilling over not only into the second Small Box gallery, but into the reception area as well.
It’s obvious that contributing artists put a lot of thought into their work, from Parsisson’s video clips on gun ownership (one gun manufacturer touts the notion of setting up a practice range right in your own living room), to Erin Mulligan’s beautiful oil painting, The Poetry of Deception, which not only recalls 19th-century children’s book illustration styles, but demonstrates that even though something has been made to look beautiful, it may not be good, true or even possible.
Soppeland’s collage On the Side of the Angels recalls a phrase coined by Benjamin Disraeli in an 1864 speech about Darwin’s theory that man is descended from apes: “The question is this: Is man an ape or an angel? Now I am on the side of the angels.”
Before long it was extended to broader use, specifically to the moral view. As we can see, however, its original application is now seen as not only misguided, but uneducated.
Soppeland’s work is dense as a rule, but the works he built and assembled for this show with the help of his students at the University of Akron Myers School of Art are unusually so. Indeed, there’s almost no point in parsing every element in these pieces, unless you want to spend hours looking at just one work. Rather, decant the overall impression and let it wash over you.
If you haven’t yet visited The Box Gallery, tonight’s Downtown Akron Artwalk is a good opportunity to do so. Find out more at www.downtownakron.com/artwalk. You’ll come away with lots to think over and talk about — always a good sign in an art show.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.