To Hell and Back

John Sokol's artistic world is full of fire and brimstone, but it's one worth exploring.

John Sokol Akron Art Museum, 70 East Market Street, Akron Through September 17, 330-376-9185
"Man Eating Trees," by John Sokol, mixed media.
"Man Eating Trees," by John Sokol, mixed media.
Tar is good for paving roads and keeping roof tiles in place, but it has another function for John Sokol. The Akron resident paints with it. Sokol has been able to create serious art with this unprepossessing material, and the proof is now on view at the Akron Art Museum.

Sokol discovered new uses for tar when he was working on a construction site. But his real job is as an artist and poet. The 53-year-old has received national recognition for his painting, drawing, and printmaking; he is perhaps best known for his portraits of authors formed with excerpts of their writing.

The John Sokol exhibit focuses on two bodies of work. The first (and less interesting) is "Word Works," dating from the '70s. These are clever pieces that sometimes capably speak the language of late-'60s pop art. For example, there's a piece in the show called "Serial." It consists of a sequence of five miniature cereal boxes taped onto a white background. Artists like Andy Warhol created images like this in the late '60s. The result is derivative, though it proves that Sokol, as a young man, was immersed in the developments of the art world.

Far more impressive are the works dating from the late '80s and '90s. This is the so-called "Tar and Varnish" series. There are only two examples from this series (this abbreviated retrospective, in fact, has only eight works in all), but here Sokol is at his best. One piece is a brooding landscape inspired by Dante's vision of hell and the other a post-apocalyptic landscape where a mutated human figure eats trees. The combination of tar and varnish, with the darkness of the tar emphasized by the shiny varnish, helps to sustain the impression of a world where, in the words of poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder, "mankind has become a locust-like blight on the planet that will leave a bare cupboard for its own children." Sokol seems to share Snyder's worldview.

Sokol's "Man Eating Trees" is an environmentalist's cautionary tale. It shows a centrally placed human figure (albeit with a head that recalls Pac-Man) about to eat a tree. In the background there is a forest composed only of tree stumps. The sky is a dark brown color, and Pac-Man (in silhouette) is totally dark. The tree stumps, in this context, remind one of headstones in a cemetery, and ominously, this creature seems ready to devour the only living signs of nature that remain in this scorched landscape.

What is this gloomy work about? The title is ingenious and offers some clues. It can be read to mean either that this is a man about to eat a tree, or that (incredibly) the tree stumps in the background have somehow managed to eat the man. In other words, man can abuse the natural resources at his disposal (such as trees, wildlife, and fossil fuels) by consuming them indiscriminately, but this tendency is inevitable because the resources, in all their abundance, are so tempting. Sokol seems to be saying that a consumerist, Pac-Man mentality destroys nature and endangers human survival, too. Or, as Snyder puts it, "Everything that lives eats food and is food in turn . . . To grossly use more than you need, to destroy, is biologically unsound." No wonder this landscape looks like a cemetery.

Sokol reinforces this concept visually. The Pac-Man reference encourages the viewer to connect the desolate subject matter with contemporary life (without it, this might have been just filed away as another bad dream captured on canvas). In this piece, technique takes a backseat to message. This is an "idea" picture. The execution is not particularly expressive, but the work has been so carefully thought out, so well planned, that one gladly accepts the structural solidity, even though the details are not all that individual. One doesn't need to be an environmentalist to appreciate "Man Eating Trees." This is a disturbing glimpse at what a post-apocalyptic world devoid of life (Pac-Man doesn't count) might look like.

Taking the dark vision of man's fate one step further is "Rain of Fire on the Violent." This one, done with tar and oil paint, depicts a group of people suffering in hell. The title, taken from the 14th canto of Dante's Inferno, describes a rain composed not of cool water, but of balls of fire descending on sinners, who twist and writhe in pain. Sokol renders the flames vividly -- bulbous masses made up of thickly applied reds, oranges, and blues. In the poem, the rain is full of anger at sin, and Sokol, revealingly, deemphasizes the faceless human figures (again in silhouette) to emphasize the fire. Thus the painting is essentially about fire, anger, and some perceived sin. Despite the Dante reference, Sokol's emphasis is entirely different. Dante describes the sinners by name and dwells on what they did to deserve the punishment, but Sokol just depicts wrath.

Perhaps Dante was just the starting point for something entirely different. Sokol has suggested as much with respect to others of his works. In a piece like "Lovely Medusa," a charcoal drawing on paper, the artist took the Medusa myth and gave it a bizarre twist. In Greek mythology, Medusa was the vengeful, snake-haired mortal who turned all who looked at her into stone. Sokol makes things interesting by portraying Medusa as an innocent young woman whose face recalls that of Venus in Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." Thus he combines a myth about the goddess of love (Venus) with one about a vengeful mortal (Medusa).

The question is why. Sokol is a poet, and like all poets he is interested in putting (seemingly) dissimilar things together to form a new synthesis. Here he might be alerting the viewer to an idea that German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once expressed this way in a letter: "Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love." In other words, work like this is meant to remind us of those fairy tales in which dragons are transformed into princesses. Maybe Medusa wouldn't be all that bad if you could get to know her. Of course, since she turns every onlooker into stone, getting to know her is impossible. It's possible for an artist to speculate, though, and that's what Sokol does in this conceptually interesting piece.

Although Sokol is best known for works such as "Ezra Pound as the Cantos," this exhibit suggests that his "Tar and Varnish" series and his interpretations of mythology are far more substantial. It's an undeniably clever notion that Ezra Pound is his poetry, but that's all it is: a gimmick. Unlike some of the other works in this exhibit, this one relies on the visual equivalent of a one-liner.

Sokol, at his best, is capable of putting ideas together in stimulating ways. Whether it's an angelic Medusa, a Pac-Man figure who devours trees, or an image of Dante's hell -- where fireballs, not human beings, are the main emphasis -- he demonstrates a fine flair for creating arresting images that seem familiar despite their initial strangeness.

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