Walking through the museum survey Kirk Mangus: Things Love in the Mueller Family Gallery at MOCA Cleveland (through January 18, 2015) the work felt as if it were trembling. Objects with so much energy and life contained within them were being held against their will in the clean, organized gallery. And like children forced on stage for a kindergarten Christmas recital, the work grudgingly performed for the world. The audience, however, was in love, even if no one was singing on key, everyone was awkward, and that one poor kid forgot his lines. Kirk Mangus’ work charms the viewer through helpless imperfection calling for unconditional love.
Above image: Kirk Mangus: Things Love. Exhibition view. Photo: Tim Safranek Photographics.
The exhibition was organized by Rose Bouthillier, MOCA Cleveland’s Associate Curator, along with the help of Eva Kwong, KSU professor, ceramic artist, and Magus’s wife. The survey features over 100 objects made by Mangus throughout his life that exemplify his prolific creative practice and expansive range of techniques and styles. He received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, an MFA from Washington State University, and Mangus was a beloved and dedicated teacher for nearly 30 years at Kent State University.
The show was carefully designed to highlight Mangus’ energetic gestural style as well as his range of aesthetics. The space was composed symmetrically, effectively offsetting the unpredictable nature of the work. One entire wall featured a single shelf of about 50 pieces in a line. I walked up and down that wall a dozen or more times trying to fathom how a single artist could have made so many radically different sculptures.
“The shelf begins with Mangus’s Flinstone Mugs, which he pinched from a solid piece of clay. With their lumpy forms and “messy” glazing, they propose engaged use with a heightened awareness of the weight, texture, and peculiarities… The shelf ends with two earthenware skulls. These evoke Mangus’s thoughts on the ephemerality of life: ‘Part of the aesthetic of beauty is imperfection, and sadness is integral. We’re all going to die, but isn’t it beautiful?’”
This convoluted stylistic taxonomy was the perfect introduction into understanding the essence of Mangus’s art and creative practice.
Mangus’ body of work is a technical, symbolic, and aesthetic library. Exploring his exhibition felt like sitting down to a convoluted meal composed of soup from Japan, fruit from Latin America, pasta from Italy, and wine from South Africa. The last century made it accessible for developed nations to live like kings with food, objects, clothing, and information deriving from any corner of the planet, and the Internet has only made this easier. Mangus’ work embodies the decadence of this modern phenomenon, oozing with a satisfied passion for infinite curiosity. His work was often inspired by his travels to China, Japan, Korea, France, Italy, Finland, and Lithuania where he lectured and often worked with local artists learning techniques, which were then integrated into his own art.
“Mangus is known for his playful, gestural style, roughhewn forms, and experimental glazing. A graphic sensibility, heavily incised surfaces, as well as custom stamping and applied decoration, give the pieces a bustling physical presence, while signature motifs including animals, plants, and bodies, team with life. In his approach to craftsmanship, Mangus sought to re-negotiate concepts of beauty and mastery, proposing an unguarded, impassioned way of thinking, making, living, and loving.”
In the center of the gallery a square pedestal held four cartoonish head-bottles including Untitled (Girl with Dog Mask). They all carry the amateurish, unfinished style that Mangus became known for. The exposed and fired making process that never reaches a conclusion creates an intriguing narrative and a sense of myth like that of a beloved celebrity immortalized by an early death. The sculptures appear eternally content with their existence, wearing a fearless expression of thin smiles and a comfortable gaze, possibly put at ease by their masked anonymity.
Found on facing walls at either end of the gallery are paintings, drawings and sketchbooks by Mangus. They describe a facet of his work that is on the opposite end of his creative spectrum from his Flintstone Mugs. While his cups are about objecthood, weight, and stream-of-consciousness making, all abstract concepts, his drawings are specific in subject matter, styled, and portray clear representative narratives. Many of the paintings, like Cry and Kiss, translate the raw feel of his sculpture into literal thematic rawness— a woman being kissed by a massive bug, or a bear with a sword holding a creature hostage in a wicker trap. Understanding how his works on paper relate to his mugs reveals the boundaries of the creative space that Mangus worked within.
Mangus’ art precariously balances an acute awareness and a rude, nearly insulting, disregard for conventional art aesthetics. His cultural references and breadth of techniques combined with this “dumb” aesthetic draw you in just to dish out a backhanded compliment. His work says, “Congrats, you noticed how profound I am, but if someone as basic as me can understand this, what the f*** took you so long?” His unapologetic work humbles the viewer, encouraging them to seek an expanded understanding— an ultimately rewarding journey.
As a Northeast Ohio native (and lover of ceramic art) I am excited that MOCA Cleveland and its new identity, a geological space ship building that wedged itself perfectly into the Earth in 2012, is progressive enough for such a show. Unfortunately, the partnering exhibit, which takes up 75% of the museum’s show space, is an underwhelming documentary-style exhibition of drawings about culinary experience. In one sense this was great for Mangus because his exhibit is the highlight. On the other hand, it would have been great to see his work paired with artist contemporaries, particularly the likes of David Altmejd, Louise Bourgeois, and Henrique Oliveira, from the museum’s 2012 inaugural exhibit.
Please read our accompanying catalog review of this exhibition.
Justin Crowe is Writer-at-Large for CFile.
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