Sunday, March 20, 2011

Akron Art Museum: Major coup with Escher exhibition

AN EXHIBIT CARD at the Akron Art Museum quotes the artist M.C. Escher as asking:
"Are you really sure that a floor can't also be a ceiling?"
After viewing the 130 works by the late Dutch artist that currently hang compellingly in teasing challenges to your wits, you may conclude that only a person of Escher's extraordinary talent could get away with asking that question. And to his credit, the answer must be yes - or maybe no. One can never be certain that what you are seeing is actually what you are getting from him.

Since the show, appropriately titled Impossible Realities, opened on Feb. 12, more than 10,000 visitors have streamed to the museum to see up front the originals of what they may have only seen on calendars, greeting cards or posters.

The artist has puzzled us with stairways that lead to nowhere and circular imagery that has no beginning nor end.

The art history books have given scant attention to Escher, perhaps because the experts never seem to agree on whether he is an illustrator or a crossover from some other genre. Indeed, you can buy an Escher book at the Museum shop that taunts you by asking, "artist or graphic artist?"

But it doesn't reach far for an answer. If we could sketch the question in as an image on paper, as Escher might, you would find yourself hopelessly at a loss for a clear explanation. (Or, check Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, a strange composition of nudes in bubbles or peering out from odd containers.) Still Escher. who died in 1972, does force one to consider another physical order to the universe which is valid today in the political upheavals and bizarre political rantings that are alien to the many who prefer a saner world.

A good example of how Escher unapologetically disrupts our stream of consciousness is Metamorphose II, inspired by a Italian coastal scene strongly suggestive of Positano. Here, a cascade of white buildings with red tile roofs descends to a castle in the sea. Fair enough, but the castle also represents a chess piece with other pieces beyond it and more - an ever-morphing series stretching to 12 feet! At the same time, the white buildings are illusory. The roofs form stairways. But look again, stare if necessary, and roofs become floors at the base of houses above it. It is optical trickery created by an artist who once described his work as "a game - a very serious game."

Count this show as a a major coup for the museum, which is only the second American gallery to present the Eschers (the first was in New Britain, Conn., home of the Greek owners who stationed them in Athens' Herakleidon Museum, where the collection will return upon leaving Akron.)

From the AAM's director Mitchell Kahan, to its staff, there are circular smiles for the attention the rare collection has gained during its stay here. So much, in fact, says curator Ellen Rudolph, that an extension of the exhibition is being considered beyond the scheduled May 29 closing.

For now the AAM is also showing a collection of Herman Leonard's superb photographs of American jazz artists; and Cleveland artist Sarah Kabot's spacious graphic installations that create "interventions" in human perceptions - optics that change our awareness of what we see.

Hooray for the Akron Art Museum for this once-in-a-lifetime experience! Allow yourself enough time to examine the wonderful Escher drawings to decide how this artist has re-ordered the planet for you. You can look at the commercial reproductions of his work in your more leisurely moments at home.

1 comment:

Mencken said...

I read a quote once, I think by Auguste Rodin, who said something like, "Today everyone is a genius, but no one can draw a hand". Escher could not only draw a hand, but hands drawing hands.

One of the reasons I respect Escher's work is because it doesn't require the usual tedious "artist's statement" to explain what you're viewing. Escher's blend of craft and cleverness will always foster some resentment and derision from the "art" community.

But as Paul Simon once sang, "One man's ceiling is another man's floor".