YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — These are the final days for a collection of powerful exhibitions at Youngstown State University’s McDonough Museum of Art that demonstrate the institution’s commitment to edgy, thought-provoking art that expresses diverse points of view.
There’s not much time left to see them, so let this quick recap serve as a last minute notification of the fine work to be seen and as a record of the experience to be seen online.
The headline component of the McDonough shows is “Open Storage,” an exhibition of recent small- and large-scale abstract paintings by Matthew Kolodziej, a professor at the University of Akron and one of northeast Ohio’s more compelling artists.
The Kolodziej exhibition focuses on small- and large-scale paintings that fuse a general abstract-expressionist style with aspects of landscape and mapping.
From afar, Kolodziej’s paintings may resemble the all-over patterns in Jackson Pollock’s drip-and-pour paintings, which combine massive gestures and tiny marks made with tiny strands and droplets of liquid paint.
Kolodziej’s paintings, on the other hand, result from hand-painted or sprayed markings combined with passages of thick paint or impasto, creating calligraphic thickets and grids of color and line that defy easy interpretation.
The paintings are puzzles or riddles that cannot be solved and that is the source of their power. Suggesting landscape or still life imagery while restraining any particular resolution or focus, Kolodziej’s paintings keep the eye and mind searching for solutions to the mysteries they evoke.
In a wall text, Kolodziej explains that his paintings derive from handcrafted and digital responses to archaeological and architectural sites, which he then transforms into fragmentary collages. Images can be derived from “a propped ship’s sledge, a patch of stairs from an excavated facade, or a field of rubble”.
Kolodziej’s process is reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ famous instruction that an artist should do: “Take an object / do something with it / do something else with it.” to repeat or mirror his motives.
New to the McDonough exhibition is Kolodziej’s 2021 installation of large-scale black-and-white paintings hanging like curtains from the high ceiling of a large, central gallery, or draping an interior corner like abstract wallpaper or fine-grained graffiti.
Scattered with squiggly scrawling marks resembling some sort of unfathomable handwriting, the large paintings dematerialize and camouflage the surfaces and spaces they inhabit. They also signal a sense of boundless energy, as if the artist could decorate his surfaces ad infinitum from here. Each painting unlocks a fragment of this feeling of never-ending flow.
The traditional paintings on canvas in the exhibition have a more discreet, jewel-like quality, as their arrangements suggest push-pull relationships and tensions between compositional elements, including linear elements reflecting the edges of the canvases or perhaps a vase or bouquet of flowers.
Particularly satisfying in these works is the way Kolodziej exploits the spatial qualities of sprayed marks, which appear blurred and out of focus, with sharp and colorful passages of troweled and heavily textured paint that paradoxically appear sharply focused.
The resulting contrasts give the paintings an unusual and appealing visual complexity. They attract attention because they put the eye and mind to work in search of an enticing solution that remains unattainable.
Also of note at McDonough now is a series of tender and wistful photographs by Donald Black, Jr., of black children growing up in troubled neighborhoods on Cleveland’s East Side.
Black captures images of his attractive school-age students lighting sparklers, doing wheelies together on their bikes, or watching the cloudy sky roll across Lake Erie. The photographs portray the innocence and beauty of childhood while pointing to structures of captivity, including fences, battered houses, and crumbling pavement.
Also of note is a series of printed drawings, originally made in ink on paper by Minneapolis-based Piotr Szyhalski, that capture his daily reactions to the coronavirus pandemic in bitingly satirical imagery.
The series morphed into a 21st-century version of a plague diary, a literary form made famous by Daniel Defoe in his 1772 book A Journal of the Plague Year, which chronicled the 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London.
In a no-prisoner manner, Szyhalski spears political responses to the pandemic in images that focus on the struggles of key workers, the lies and distortions of anti-vaccination opponents, and the role of disease in the destruction of native populations in North America over centuries relate conquest and colonization.
“I can’t breathe!” says one poster, which then goes on to say, “If it’s not COVID, it’s the police.”
“All of this will one day feel like a dream,” reads another poster, which shows waves of flaming light emanating from the silhouette of a man’s profile. Let’s hope the artist is right.
How are you: Exhibitions at the McDonough Museum of Art, Youngstown State University.
Where from: 1 University Plaza, 525 Wick Ave., Youngstown.
When: Until Saturday March 5th.
Entry: For free. Call 330-941-1400 or go to ysu.edu/mcdonough-museum