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Portrait acquisitions on display in Akron Art Museum’s Stare

2/13/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Roger Durbin

Shown is a work by former Akron resident Angelo Merendino from his photo-documentary, “The Battle We Didn’t Choose, My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer,” which is on view in the Akron Art Museum’s Invitation to Stare: Photographic Portraits.
August Sander’s “The Painter Heinrich Hoerle” is on view in the Akron Art Museum’s Invitation to Stare: Photographic Portraits.
Photo courtesy of the Akron Art Museum
DOWNTOWN AKRON — The Akron Art Museum’s Invitation to Stare: Photographic Portraits exhibit, on view through June 1, features recent acquisitions that are, for the most part, being exhibited for the first time.

The show does much more than that, however. The 32 portraits assembled and displayed by Arnold Tunstall, manager of collections and curator of this exhibit, is a complex, visually compelling and nicely conceived art idea well worth a trip to the museum.

Tunstall said in a walk-through interview he looked through the large collection of images for nearly a year to narrow down the number of photographs to the 32 on exhibit. His idea for the exhibit was to get at the notion of intimacy — either between the photographer and his subject, the quickly captured image of a stranger or the subject matter itself that is either caught or manipulated by the artist.

There’s a quote by photographer Diane Arbus on one of the walls that states, “One of the risks of appearing in public is the likelihood of being photographed.” Her work often makes good on that, for she catches people sometimes at the worst moment. In this exhibit, there is a work showing a young, disheveled-looking boy with an unflattering expression on his face and a toy hand grenade in his hand. In real life, you probably wouldn’t stare, but in this exhibit you have a clear invitation to do just that.

More importantly, the works in the exhibit are “significant” in themselves, Tunstall said. It doesn’t matter in these cases whether you know the artist or not. Tunstall said the works very clearly speak for themselves and capture the main idea as only really good art and photography can.

In another photo, one of a young woman sitting in a hospital setting looking hurt, sad, frustrated and mostly angry, you get the idea that she has not had good news. The portrait is by former Akron resident Angelo Merendino, and the subject is his wife, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer who ultimately did not survive the onslaught to her body.

The work is its own incredibly powerful and haunting message. Merendino will be coming to the museum April 3 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the photo collage of their story in a talk called “The Battle We Didn’t Choose, My Wife’s Fight with Breast Cancer.”

There are photographs by famous artists (such as Arbus and Walker Evans) and of famous people. Cleveland-born artist Janet Macoska captured an image of singer David Bowie when he appeared on the stage at the old Coliseum years ago. Even though it was taken midperformance, you would never know that. The portrait seems posed and deliberate. As Tunstall noted, that speaks to her level of artistry.

Photographer Sylvia Plachy did what lots of parents do — she took photos of her son as he was growing up. It turns out he is Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody, who is seen with a huge bubble gum bubble exploding on his face.

In some cases, the photographers are a big part of the story. There’s a photograph by Vivian Maier, a woman who was employed as a nanny for more than 40 years, but who also took more than 100,000 photographs that she had never developed. No one ever saw them until they were recently discovered, and now she is recognized as a significant artist and one who recorded the sights of city life through the people she captured on film.

A film about Maier called “The Vivian Maier Mystery” will be shown in the museum Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m. describing her life and work.

Every photograph in Invitation to Stare has a story. The thrust, however, is that these intimate looks at people — sometimes strangers on the street, sometimes odd-ball folks and sometimes people caught in emotionally distracting situations — are really invitations to look at the moments.

The exhibit is neither arranged thematically nor chronologically. Tunstall went by a more intuitive method. On one wall he has grouped several photographs and described them as a kind of made up family. Others were moved around based on where they looked the best and least distracting to other images. It all works, for it is an impressive display.

Two other events associated with the exhibit are planned. Tunstall will present “Art History 101: Photographic Portraiture” April 17 at 6:30 p.m., and the documentary “Disfarmer” will be shown May 29 at 6:30 p.m.

Akron Art Museum, 1 S. High St., is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. General admission is $7 for adults, $5 for students and senior citizens (65 and older) and free for children (17 and younger) and members. Gallery admission is free every Thursday.

For more information, call 330-376-9185 or visit www.akronartmuseum.org.


Roger Durbin is professor emeritus of bibliography at The University of Akron and an avid art enthusiast. To contact him, email r.durbin@sbcglobal.net.

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