My hometown doesn’t always get a good rap. John Denver once put it succinctly: “There ain’t nothing to do in Toledo on a Saturday night.” Talk about a bummer of a quote. But this isn’t entirely true. Toledo, OH boasts a minor league baseball and hockey team, one of the best libraries in the USA, and a nationally recognized zoo. But more impressive is its art museum.
Founded by Toledo glassmaker Edward Drummond Libbey in 1901, the museum contains among its many treasures two Van Gogh paintings as well as an Egyptian mummy. It’s one of my favorite places to visit. Part of the joy in making the trip to this free admission museum is eating at their fabulous cafe (you must try the Poached Salmon BLT), but even more so, visiting their featured exhibits. These temporary showcases have in the past featured such collections as the art of Star Wars, the art of comic books, and the hidden art of Da Vinci. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see what’s there.
During my latest visit they were showcasing an exhibit entitled “Drawn, Cut & Layered: The Art of Werner Pfeiffer”. I wasn’t familiar with the artist nor the art form of paper and was curious to see what it was about. I’m still not sure I entirely get it.
Upon entering the exhibit, I encountered this weird assemblage sculpture. My immediate reaction was that there was a ton of white, and that it was a little unimaginative. That last thought is what I tend to have when I first encounter a piece of abstract art.
The piece, titled Gallows, is made from books glued together and painted a sterile white. Holes are drilled into each book, through which a rope is strung through. These ropes are the means from which the books are hung on the wooden frame.
As with a lot of modern art, it’s easy to dismiss this piece as something that is nonsensical. But once the narrow minded onlooker (myself included) can get past this knee-jerk reaction, they realize there’s actually a thought provoking piece in front of them.
The first question I asked myself was what was Pfeiffer trying to say by showing this hanging of books. Is he implying literature is dead? In an era of YouTube and Facebook, the argument at least seems relevant. More so, the message is reinforced by the anonymity of the books, whose white purity has blotted out any traces of titles or other printed words. I kept wondering what books he had chosen for this creation. Were they hardbacks? Were they valuable? Great works of literature? Trash novels? It simply doesn’t matter because their content doesn’t exist anymore. And I, the viewer, am there to look at their lifeless bodies dangling from unfinished wood.
The piece is a stark contrast of natural and artificial. The hanging frame is crude and bare. It’s edges aren’t sanded. This makes the white of the books draw attention to itself. It’s an interesting piece to place in front of the exhibit entrance, and certainly establishes the theme I encountered throughout the gallery.
Immediately to the left of this piece was framed prints covering the entire length of the side wall. Again, what stood out was the whiteness of all the pieces. I knew this was an exhibit about artwork with paper, but I was imagining something more colorful.
I’ll admit that the prints above seemed a little generic to me. These were just snowflakes and other symmetrical designs. This seemed something ordinary that I could find through Google images. They were definitely the weaker pieces of the exhibit.
Fortunately, there were more interesting pieces to be found. Pictured above was a series of dimensional print constructions. What immediately piqued my interest was the weird geometrical designs that popped out from the flat backgrounds. Usually framed images are two dimensional, giving off a picturesque quality. Pfeifer’s creations, however, were alive and vibrant, an odd blend of familiar and unfamiliar shapes. Most were dual in nature, having two shapes appose each other–a death match of imagination. I could feel the theme of destruction reemerging.
This construction was titled Striped Clouds, but I dubbed it “The Peacock One”. Here we have a pristine example of the duality of the shapes. To me they resembled birds. The left shape is the peacock and the right a hawk in flight. They’re flying through the striped clouds and are in the act of a collision. Is this happy meeting, with the peacock kissing the hawk? Or is it the hawk going in for the kill? The chaos of the geometric design in the background would suggest the latter.
This piece, titled Pendulum, was interesting because it looked like it had a pencil glued to the surface. Again, we have a duality of designs–a contrast of the yellow pencil with the white corner piece at the bottom right of the construction. My thoughts kept going to the classic Edgar Allen Poe tale, “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Gallows was in the back of my mind, and paired with this assemblage of opposing constructions, reinforced this theme of death. Here we had paper, a technology through which words have been written upon and changed the course of history, being used to signify the end. What a gloomy outlook.
Throughout the exhibit there was the reoccurring motif of books painted white used to create assemblage sculptures. This piece, titled “Literary Infusion”, grabbed my eye because of its distinctive use of an IV bag and the continuation of the theme of death.
The metaphor is pretty on the nose. So much of Pfeiffer’s work feels this way. His pieces stimulates some intellectual thoughts but hardly creates a riddle that our minds love solving.
My immediate reaction was that this piece would have been strengthened if there was ink running through the IV, but alas, I’m not the artist. Heavy handedness aside, this was my favorite piece because of its uniqueness and sense of imagination.
In this amusing picture a boy is staring down the mysteries of art, this one a piece titled Delicate Balance. The kid is probably asking himself what the fuck is it? I often feel the same way. I come from a literature background and have a hard time talking about the fine arts with such a limited knowledge. My goal with this blog is to explore art in all its expressions, which is why I thought this exhibit would be a great place to start.
As I walked around, I felt curious not so much about the pieces themselves, but about the logistics of how they were transported. So much care must have went into transporting this collection. Such is the wanderings of my mind.
The last piece I would like to talk about was the one that felt the most meaningful. This construction, titled Out of the Sky: Remembering 9/11, is a response to the terrorist attacks on that fateful day. It’s a stark contrast to the others in the exhibit. Instead of white, we have the opposite black dominating. The figures depicted seem in agony as the geometric designs topple them. This felt like a religious painting from the Baroque period, like something Caravaggio would have painted with his use of the tenebrous technique.
I couldn’t help but feel the anguish of the lifeless creatures and wasn’t surprised New York resident Pfeiffer had witnessed the attacks. In the land of abstraction, this reflection of reality felt powerful. For that I was thankful.
I ended my day at the museum as usual. I took a few amateur photographs and looked at my favorite painting. The biggest joy of the art museum is not that it’s free or that it has an expansive collection, but rather the experience I feel when I see the arts alive and well. Pfeiffer may have a pessimistic view of how such things can survive a brain dead society, but I’d argue the fact that his work is displayed for the world to see is a confirmation that technology hasn’t killed the beast that is art–at least not yet.