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Any gallery full of objects made by the late Ohio ceramicist Kirk Mangus is likely to be a sort of rodeo, a roundup of beautifully rambunctious, animistic ceramic explorations that might need a lasso or a treat, just to keep still. That is, Mangus made objects so interesting and energetic that each seems to exist in its own spatial domain, actively resisting the easy clichés of gallery presentation. But MOCA Cleveland Associate Curator and Publications Manager, Rose Bouthillier, who organized the current survey of well over 100 ceramic vessels and works on paper by Mangus titled Things Love, didn’t need to hogtie any of the KSU professor’s work in her elegant sampling of his diverse output, and no doubt it helped that Bouthillier was expertly advised by Eva Kwong, Mangus’s wife, a highly regarded ceramicist in her own right and longtime colleague of her husband at Kent State University. Actually, Bouthillier’s installation responds sensibly to the subconscious-freighted, prat-falling aplomb of Mangus’s willful oeuvre, partly just by telling it to keep its hands to itself and stay in line. The exhibition at MOCA marshals some thirty or so smaller objects on a shelf running the length of one gallery wall. This approach allows a relaxed taxonomy of shapes, sizes, forms and techniques to emerge and serves as a lucid introduction to Mangus’s work, compressing and linking examples gleaned from nearly four decades of intensely creative activity.
Mangus was noted mainly for his strange and wonderful ceramic vessels, which he made along with many large and small drawings during his extended career – unapologetically clumsy, gorgeously physical objects imbued with a sense of life and humor. He made small cups and three-foot tall urns, and pots and bowls of every size, all squatting defiantly between a demon-riddled version of utility and a more purely narrative, sculptural presence. More often than not these objects feel like things that just woke from a sleep of respectable usefulness, wanting to start a conversation, play a prank – to act out the energy of their dream. And many are frankly animals, or gods – like household gods, lares of classical ancestry, posted at threshold or hearth. They have ears and eyes and noses, snouts and fangs and even horns, and seem powered by a goofy ferocity akin, perhaps, to the manic dance program of Max’s “wild things” in Maurice Sendak’s beloved early 1960’s drawings. Mangus fluently combines ancient animistic impulses with a flippant disregard for canons of formal aesthetic balance or ceramic “art” seriousness in general. Among the results are his kindergarten-style late 1970’s Flintstone Cup series and the stumpy flat-bottomed Dog Cup from the 1990’s. Brushily painted in muddy, fingerpaint-like strokes, the dog’s nose rests on pedestal or table, rising briefly to sketch his muzzle and head, cutting across to an ear-like handle. The dog’s eyes stare out sideways, watchfully, just below the rim.
Mangus earned his iconoclastic blend of “Bad Painting” era, Neo Expressionist stylistic tendencies honestly, mixed as it is with a Zen-influenced regard for the humble experience of objects and people as they plod through life together, and the aesthetic depth and potential of so-called “ugliness.” He was, for one thing, the son of a husband and wife team of artists – Chick and Nizza Mangus – and grew up on a small farm in Sharon, PA, which boasted a couple of kilns. As a mature artist Mangus rarely ran across an artistic approach that didn’t interest him (other than Minimalism), an openness that perhaps began with his parent’s lifelong friendship with the noted ceramicist Toshiko Takaesu, who had been one of Chick’s teachers at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Following their student years at RISD, Mangus and Kwong, now married, pursued graduate studies at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. There Mangus encountered some of the persuasive, anti-formalist visual art that would continue to underwrite his basic stylistic manner. At WSU he found painters like his mentor there, Patrick Siler, plus a range of influences wafting up the coast from UCLA. Ceramicist Robert Arneson was one of these, and painters like Roy de Forest, whose vernacular-driven work made constant reference to comic strip drawing and narrative devices. Later Mangus would adapt those ideas, mixed with equally heady influences from non-Western sources like the manuscript art of northern India, as well as Mayan and Buddhist tropes, to any surface he happened to be working on. The all-over sgraffito decorations incised in a white slip glaze on his mid-1980’s two and three-foot tall vase-like stoneware vessels Family on the Farm, Life on the Streets, and Man on the Farm combine an almost James Thurber-like whimsy with the Art Brut primitivism of Dubuffet. His drawings, which streamed irrepressibly onto large sheets of paper, perhaps while whole populations of ceramic works cooked for a week in one of the hillside anagama kilns that he and Eva built, take on a more epic subject matter. The Lost at Sea series of watercolor and ink on paper illustrations detail an Argonaut-type adventure featuring a boatload of mythical creatures, animals, knights, and probably strippers. In one episode their boat is seen splashing through a sea that churns with toothy fish, hard by a narrow coast of giant stone heads – as if Robert Arneson had redone the megaliths on Easter Island.
A number of Mangus’s larger urns and jugs occupy several low platform pedestals at MOCA. Rabbit Girl and Girl with Mask (both from 2008) are stoneware vessels about a foot and half tall and wide. Their eyes are blue, their lips are red, their flesh partly pink, though there are also leopard-ish spots involved, and pop-up animal ears. Their charm is undeniable, and they appear to know it. Their lidded gaze is replete with self-satisfaction and a touch of scorn. These young ladies, and all the many other characters and creatures here, are funny – and would be even funnier if they weren’t also markedly uncanny, like tribal ceremonial masks, or an especially sincere carved turnip carried in a festival for the dead, on an old pagan night. I’m thinking here of one untitled entity that rests lightly across the gallery on the long shelf. Its small face emerges from the cement-like surface of a rough, gray-green stoneware vase, only half a foot tall. Mangus has caused pea-sized eyes to sprout and declare a presence, which glances slightly downward. There’s a sideways slit of a nose, too, and a mouth that almost smiles. The expression overall is subtly covetous, and the slight indentation of the lips seems to bank an inner fire, like a cat waiting to spring on a vole. And then there’s a chin of sorts, an extra folded bulge that seems to tuck in the latent laughter that is mingled with the soul of every living thing, the laughter sealed inside the trouble and need of the world, punctured and punctuated by a great gnashing of teeth, and at last setting the world free.
Douglas Max Utter is an exhibiting painter and arts writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. He received the Cleveland Arts Prize, Lifetime Achievement in 2013. He lives on the East Side near an abandoned observatory, with his cat Spanky and a lot of unsold paintings. View more articles by Douglas Max Utter.