Akron Art Museum shows reveal interracial resonance in works by two leading NEO women artists

Nov. 10, 2023

AKRON, Ohio — Art museums across America increased the number of exhibitions on Black artists and Black subjects in response to the racial reckoning sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.

The trend raises questions about whether museums are truly serving Black artists or whether the new enthusiasms are designed to provide better PR for white-dominated institutions. A related issue is whether the commitment to Black artists will be long-lasting.

A pair of shows on view now at the Akron Museum suggest a new way of thinking about how to promote interracial understanding, racial equity and fresh perspectives on contemporary art.

“Spirit & Matter,’' one of the two shows, focuses on recent work by sculptor Barbara Stanczak, 82, a native of Germany, a former longtime instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, (CIA), the widow of globally admired Op artist Julian Stanczak, and a highly gifted artist in her own right.

The other show, titled “Locusts,’' encompasses a new body of work by Amanda King, 34, a Pittsburgh native, and a social justice advocate now based in Cleveland. King uses photography and recorded sound to document the death of her paternal grandfather William C. King, Sr. during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the funeral that followed.

The title of King’s show refers to the Biblical Book of Joel, verse 2:25, in which the Jewish prophet states, “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter.”

A special alchemy

Taken individually, the two shows, on view through Feb. 4, would say a lot about how Stanczak and King evolved personally and professionally during the pandemic, during which they made much of the new work on view.

Taken together, however, the shows have a special alchemy. They tell stories about how the artists view life and death, transitions and loss, faith and resilience. And they encapsulate trends in modern and contemporary art, ranging from mid-century modernism to contemporary photography and installation art.

Despite their different life experiences and artistic methods, King and Stanczak together have produced an exciting, thought-provoking artistic experience that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

That wasn’t precisely the intention of Jeffrey Katzin, the Akron museum’s senior curator, who said the two exhibitions were conceived separately but scheduled roughly to coincide in two of the museum’s smaller adjacent galleries.

But there’s a lot to unpack here — some of it obvious, and some of it less than apparent at first glance. Most importantly, seeing the two shows together suggests ways in which art museums could do more to break down racial, cultural and social barriers by encouraging viewers to see commonalities and overlaps among diverse artists.

A new freedom

First, let’s take a closer look at Stanczak. Born in Germany in 1941, she moved to the U.S. in 1960 to help her grandfather paint church frescoes, according to “View” the Akron museum’s magazine. After discovering that she had more to say as a sculptor than as a painter, she taught at the Cleveland Institute for 37 years, from 1976 to 2011.

Stanczak’s sculptures often involved revealing abstract shapes latent within chunks of exotic stone by carving and polishing them to bring out the forms they suggested to her. The newer work in the Akron show indicates that Stanczak experienced something of a breakthrough after her husband’s death in 2017.

Julian Stanczak, born in Poland in 1928, was a World War II refugee, who, as a child, lost the use of his right arm after he was severely beaten in a Soviet labor camp.

Nevertheless, he developed astonishing facility as a painter of vibrant geometric abstractions that made him a globally recognized progenitor of Op Art in the 1960s. After the movement quickly fell out of favor, Stanczak continued in relative obscurity to pursue his vision of geometric and optical art in Northeast Ohio, while teaching for decades at CIA.

Before his death in 2017 at age 88, Stanczak had the satisfaction of seeing his work rediscovered by the art world with a flurry of exhibitions and books that drove up prices for his work.

Meanwhile, in recent years, Barbara said in an interview Tuesday, she spent more and more of her time caring for Julian, who continued to work in the big, light-washed studio attached to the rear of their home in the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills.

Even so, Barbara said, “I never gave up working. I stubbornly held on to my sense of individuality and my own way of creating.”

After her husband’s death, Barbara experienced a creative breakthrough. Already accustomed to a relatively solitary life with Mocha, her 6-year-old poodle-pointer mix, and her cat, Kicia, which is Polish for “kitten,’’ she said she was largely unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She repurposed the workspaces in her husband’s studio and fashioned more than a dozen of the sculptures on view in Akron. The works include shards of carved and polished alabaster, made from 2015 to 2019. What feels new, however are works made largely between 2018 and 2022 from salvaged chunks of aging or diseased elm and maple trees.

Enlisting friends and family members to haul heavy pieces of wood, Stanczak sliced the tree fragments sideways or lengthwise to reveal cavities eaten away by rot or chewed by insects.

She sprinkled powdered pigments she had kept from her fresco-painting years into the swirling cavities eaten by bugs, highlighting the mesmerizing patterns and textures they left behind. She also carved sections of tree trunks into geometric abstractions with mottled and textured surfaces, or stacked them in towers of curving, nestled forms that sometimes resemble leaf petals, or the squiggly pseudopod contours of tiny organisms glimpsed through a microscope.

In one assemblage, Stanczak assembled sections of a diseased elm to resemble a curlicue dragon crawling across the gallery floor. The flanks of the wooden monster are painted green accented with slender curving lines of brilliant red. The vibrant complementary colors scintillate against one another like the eye-tingling hues in her late husband’s paintings.

Unlike her earlier works in wood, which could appear more highly finished and resolved, the more recent pieces radiate a sense of playfulness and roughness, along with the freedom and fluency sometimes experienced by older artists in a phenomenon art historians have called the Late Style. Examples include the later works of Rembrandt, Titian, Claude Monet and Henri Matisse.

“I’m still relatively healthy for my age, and I can do whatever I want to do or imagine doing,’’ Stanczak said. “I don’t feel alone. I have Julian at my side all the time. So he is with me in spirit with support and advice and making me more patient,’’ she said. “I feel surrounded by love and peace and positive energy.’’

Exploring grief

Stanczak’s works are displayed in a white-walled gallery flooded with light. King’s work, in contrast, envelopes a viewer in a dark, sheltering space with walls painted in a deep shade of blue black.

The exhibition is comprised of photographs taken at St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital, where King’s grandfather died in February 2021 at age 96, while being treated for a COVID-19 infection. Also on view are photographs of King Sr.’s funeral and written family testimonials, accompanied by recordings of prayers, singing and eulogies at his funeral.

As Amanda King said in the museum’s “View” publication, “the hospital that my granddad passed in allowed for only one family member to be with their loved one. I had the task of comforting my granddad and keeping the family informed. Being a photographer, I could document this for my family. It allowed them to experience what I experienced in a way that is dignified and beautiful.”

King is widely known in the Cleveland arts community as the co-founder and creative director of Shooting Without Bullets, an educational arts program that has become a creative agency providing opportunities for young artists of color.

She is the daughter of Ruthie D. King, the director of administration for the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority and William C. King, Jr., a lawyer and pastor of Christ Memorial AME Zion Church in Youngstown. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College and a law degree at Case Western Reserve University, King embarked on a career in the arts.

King said in an interview that her grandfather’s ambition to become a doctor after graduating from Lincoln University, a historically Black institution outside of Philadelphia, was thwarted for reasons rooted in racism. William King became a postal worker instead. He lived a quiet life of faith and community service, inspiring his three children and six grandchildren, King said.

Previous works by the artist have focused on anti-Black racism. In the Akron show, however, she transports viewers into a personal world of grief, loss and prayer. In the context of a racially divided national culture, the show is a testament anyone could identify with, regardless of race.

King’s photography is tender, respectful and minimalist. She immerses viewers in the bedside world of a hospital room, photographing electrodes taped to her grandfather’s chest, and the sight of him receiving a COVID-19 vaccination that failed to save his life.

Photographs of the funeral that followed include a riveting image of Ruthie King’s hand raised in a gesture of prayer and parting. A textile suspended from the gallery ceiling is printed with a photographic image of King’s casket in his open grave.

The casket bears a simple, unadorned cross, as does a neon sign on the façade of the hospital where King Sr. spent his final weeks. These images evoke Christian faith in resurrection and eternal life after “going up yonder,’’ as King put it.

Beyond grief and death

Grief and death are not the usual topics for contemporary art exhibitions, but King approaches her subject with dignity and restraint. Her exhibition explores facets of the COVID-19 pandemic that are separate from but related to Stanczak’s experience. Both artists are responding to the death of loved ones in ways that illuminate the experience of being human.

Stanczak’s aesthetic is rooted in mid-century modernism and the biomorphic surrealism that emerged in European and American abstraction in the 1920s and ‘30s. Yet, like King, Stanczak has used photography as a basis for her work. The Stanczak show includes images of flowers, pine needles and other natural subjects that have inspired her sculpture.

King’s inspirations include the Pop Art imagery of Andy Warhol, whose work she discovered while growing up in Pittsburgh and visiting the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Arguably her new installation bears a kinship to Warhol’s somber images of shadows and skulls, often exhibited at the Pittsburgh museum.

On Sunday, the Akron Art Museum will open “Retold: African American Art & Folklore,’' a large exhibition drawn from the Georgia-based collection of Wesley and Missy Cochran, parts of which were shown in Cleveland in 2009.

The Cochran show will no doubt be artistically powerful. Yet it also fits the post-George Floyd trend toward embracing Black artists and African American art in ways that can raise questions about institutional agendas and longstanding commitment.

The twin shows by Stanczak and King in Akron suggest that museums could find new and more creative ways to promote interracial understanding and appreciation. As the two exhibitions demonstrate, the results could be marvelous.

By Steven Litt,