Art review: Two abstract exhibits at Kent State

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art
 and architecture critic

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Lorri Ott's Last Summer is part of the N.E. OH Abstraction show at Kent State University School of Art Galleries Downtown Gallery.

Northeast Ohio isn’t exactly a hotbed of abstract art.

Quite the opposite, and that’s a cause of chagrin and dismay among the practitioners of this most recent of art styles. Those who work in the abstract mode say there are few in our area who truly understand and appreciate what they do, even among those who run upscale art galleries.

We are rich in art schools, however, and they continue to make the effort to reveal what it is about abstract art that’s so worthwhile and fascinating.

The Kent State University School of Art Galleries is exhibiting American Abstract Artists: A Selection and Abstract Painting in Northeast Ohio. The first consists of 23 works by 19 artists who participated in the 75th anniversary American Abstract Artists exhibit in 2011. These artists were asked to submit five to six images each, from which co-curators Scott Olson and Gianna Commito assembled the show.

The second was curated by Martin Ball, KSU associate professor of art, to accompany the first exhibit and to show, according to Ball, “the diversity and strengths of abstract painting in Northeast Ohio.”

American Abstract Artists is on display at the School of Art Gallery through Nov. 22. Abstract Painting in Northeast Ohio is on view through Saturday at school’s Downtown Gallery, 141 E. Main St., Kent.

Ball said in curating Abstract Painting in Northeast Ohio, he “also wanted to show generational spread, from established artists, such as Oberlin’s John Pearson — who has been exhibiting nationally and internationally for more than 50 years — to younger, emerging painters, such as Cleveland artist Dana Oldfather.”

The artists featured in Abstract Painting in Northeast Ohio are Commito, Mark Keffer, Steve McCallum, Erik Neff, Oldfather, Olson, Lorri Ott and Pearson.

In American Abstract Artists: A Selection are works by Susan Bonfils, Marvin Brown, Gail Gregg, Daniel G. Hill, Gilbert Hsiao, James Juszczyk, Cecily Kahn, Marthe Keller, Irene Lawrence, David Mackenzie, Manfred Mohr, Judith Murray, Raquel Rabinovich, David Reed, Edward Shalala, Vera Vasek, Merrill Wagner, Stephen Westfall and Nola Zirin.

Ball is a member of American Abstract Artists and participated in the celebrated collective’s American Abstract Artists International: 75th Anniversary. It is a democratic, artist-run organization founded in 1936 in New York City to promote and foster understanding of abstract and nonobjective art. It has produced more than 120 exhibitions across the United States and abroad. Its programs have established the organization as a major forum for the exchange of ideas and exhibiting abstract art.

Nothing helps to understand abstract art as much as being an artist; almost any artist of whatever stripe can relate to the focus of an abstract artist, which tends to stress, but isn’t limited to, the formal elements of art itself.

Thus we see in Gilbert Hsiao’s Slide an electrifying and delightful investigation of the optical effects of converging lines, and in Merrill Wagner’s 6 Brands of Naples Yellow, we have a Neo-Dadaist investigation of weights, measures and materials, à la Marcel Duchamp’s Tout Fait, in which he visually proved that not all foot-long rulers are equal. In this case, Wagner demonstrates that not all paint is what it purports to be, especially the last color, which looks, to my eye at least, more yellow ochre than Naples yellow.

In David Reed’s Color Study #41-2, the oil and alkyd composition on illustration board sparkles like a Bach partita, and like it consists of the exploration of a certain key in successive tones, by itself and altered by white, the high-to-low keyed range of a certain red and green, each of which can be seen in successive overlapping layers, as though they’re reflections being viewed through glass.

Ott, until recently an adjunct professor of art at both Kent State University School of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Art, explores the serendipity and vagaries of dissimilar materials, in this case plastic resin poured over a geometric abstraction painted in pretty pastel hues. She often paints off-canvas as well, creating polymorphic shapes by pouring polymer resins over loosely aligned compositions and briefly manipulating the form.

Oldfather says on her website that she tries to give form and weight to ephemeral things, such as love, discovery, rage or liberation. “I examine the transitory nature of comfort, power, security, and how they intersect,” she writes. “Reacting to the startling juxtaposition of the natural and man-made world that we move through each day, I am drawn to the combination of wild and tamed, sweet and dangerous, solid and ephemeral, full and empty, agricultural and architectural.”

Her work contains surrealistic elements, with stairs going nowhere, except perhaps into incomplete architectural structures, and wirelike armatures supporting nothing save amorphous shapes and spaces. We are reminded not so much of ephemera as anxiety dreams and their seemingly endless warrens of blind passages and Escherlike escalators.

Abstract art is best appreciated when we approach it with a bit of knowledge, but that needn’t always be the case.

The works in these two shows can be appreciated for their unique, sometimes ironic, often ebullient expressions and ideas, ruminations and observations. In that, they are like music, literature and dance: they have something to say. We just have to be willing to receive the message.

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

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