AKRON, Ohio — This is a painting called Man Eating Trees by John Sokol, and it’s on display in the Akron Art Museum, which I found accidentally while exploring downtown Akron during my trip to cover the James Madison football team.
Originally, I planned to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which is less than an hour north on Interstate 77 from Akron, but I woke up at 7 a.m. the day before and had a 7 a.m. flight the next day. So I stayed in my hotel room, excluding a brief run to the lobby for free breakfast with the other bed-headed Cuyahoga Falls Country Inn lodgers, until 1 p.m., sleeping in a dim room and wearing no pants. Instead of rock and roll, I did fine art.
The Akron Art Museum, founded in 1922 in a library basement and then called the Akron Art Institute, occupies a sleek, space age-looking building characterized by glass and poking architecture out of place in the cement despair of downtown Akron. The museum juts from a clutter of disused parking decks and struggling storefronts. Cars and foot traffic are rare. But, had there been sunshine, the museum would have glowed.
There are two main galleries, one with older art and one with newer art. The highlight of the older art was an Ohio-only section. It was local; it was something I couldn’t get anywhere else, and I discovered a man named William Sommer, a modernist painter born in Detroit in 1867. He died in 1949. Museum fuzz watched this gallery pretty hard, so I couldn’t secret-agent an iPhone photo. (Museums frown on the picture-taking of art, as I learned at the National Gallery in Washington during a Munch exhibition in July when a power-aroused rental guard fascistically told me, “No pictures.”) The Internet will fill in.
Another piece in the Ohio-only gallery depicted downtown Akron in the early 1930s, entombed in snow and lit by neon. It was painted by Raphael Gleitsmann (1910-1995), who was born in Dayton and was a member of the “Cleveland School,” a group of artists from Ohio that I had never heard about until visiting the Akron museum.
Another favorite from the Ohio section is this piece depicting a thunderstorm. It’s by Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), who, according to the info plaque next to the painting — which confronts you as soon as you push through the glass door to the gallery — wrote notes on the backs of his work. For this painting, titled Spring Thunderstorm, the note said, “It almost seems as if the thunder-clap caused the peach tree to burst into bloom.”
The Akron Art Museum had art from more well-known and non-regional artists, too. I counted three Andy Warhols — including that Elvis print you may have seen (there’s a version in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va.) — two Edward Hoppers and one Chuck Close. The online gallery features Cezanne, Chagall, Litchenstein and de Kooning, none of which I noticed in the actual museum. Also in the online gallery I found a Zelda Fitzgerald (F. Scott’s wife). It’s of crepe myrtles and from the 1930s.
There also were several lithographs, many disturbing with strange, hybrid Art Deco/Gothic overtones.
But in a sparsely arted gallery on the museum’s second floor hung the Man Eating Trees. It was done in tar and varnish on canvas as part of a larger commentary on humanity’s pillaging of the environment. The painting is literal and figurative all at once. There were two chairs set about 15 feet back from the piece, one pushed six inches beyond the other because a gimped septuagenarian used it to rest. I sat in that chair and covertly smart phone-photographed the painting.
I’ve always been drawn to dark things. When I was about 13, before vampires were sparkly and immune to sunlight, I read three Anne Rice novels, starting with Interview with the Vampire. I’m attracted to ghost stories, hauntings and the unsettlingly mysterious. I consider Tim Burton’s Batman films, admittedly because of my macabre leanings, more Batman-ish than Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Burton’s are more in line with the twisted tenor of the comic, although Heath Ledger’s Joker could have fit snugly in Burton’s gnarled dream of Gotham City.
Man Eating Trees is nightmarish on a primal level. It’s darkly mythological, evoking wrathful, wrathful gods whose rage is ancient and festering, and in the painting, they’re unleashed to smite us for our wantonly incompetent stewardship of their Earth.
And the inside of the Akron Art Museum.