An exhibition of new works by the former CCAD president displays a revived sense of creative freedom, even as he faces the biggest challenge of his life.
The series of new paintings by former Columbus College of Art and Design president Denny Griffith provokes some unusual responses from viewers. They use words like "aliens," "brutal," "bloody" and "funny." Artist Tim Rietenbach loves the paintings and calls them "oddly biological" and "slightly perverted sexually." The curator of the show, CCAD's Michael Goodson, refers to the creatures depicted in the paintings as "gaping, mothership yoni images." (Go ahead, look it up.) Griffith himself playfully calls them "amoebas."
Large in scale, brilliantly colored, slightly cartoonish and boldly erotic, the figures in the paintings inhabit a surreal landscape. They float, walk, wiggle or stand, supported by Dali-like crutches or appendages, suspended from Calder-like wires, and reaching tentacles into earth and sky. They are, as Griffith says, an invented species entirely their own.
They live, as the title of the new exhibition at CCAD's Beeler Gallery, which runs Jan. 8 through March 31, suggests, in Another World. And they appear to be, says Griffith, extraordinarily joyful.
"This stuff's pretty frisky," Griffith says. "By and large, it's happy work. I really have fun making them."
This frisky, joyful quality may be unexpected to those who know the story of Griffith's life over the past two years. Griffith, 63, announced in the fall of 2013 that he would retire from CCAD in the spring. He had been the school's president for 16 years, and the announcement was met with dismay at the school and in the community, as Griffith is both beloved and widely admired. Then, in February 2014, Griffith was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer that affects the bile system.
Before receiving the devastating news, Griffith and his wife, Beth Fisher, had planned to sell their Eastmoor home and move to North Carolina. Fisher would leave her job as a vice president of the Columbus Foundation. Griffith, who maintained a robust studio art practice throughout his tenure at CCAD, was looking forward to more time for his art and his family. Instead, the couple was forced to regroup. Griffith wanted to stay in Columbus for treatment. They went ahead with the sale of their home and Fisher's retirement, but bought a condominium in Columbus. The move to North Carolina had to wait. Griffith's art studio, however, did not.
Rather than tapping the brake, Griffith put his pedal to the metal, producing a body of work that is startling in size, both numerically and physically. The 17-plus paintings in the exhibition, all of them painted in oil on top of encaustic, or beeswax, represent only a fraction of the work Griffith has produced in this series since he began it in October 2013. The scale, too, is impressive: some of the pictures are as large as 10 feet tall by 10 feet wide. The show also will include a number of related works in acrylic on paper.
In a recent interview in his Arena District studio, Griffith's familiar quick smile and infectious laugh were unchanged. And while he acknowledged that his strength has been sapped by his illness, he was quick to get up from his drop cloth-covered easy chair and haul out paintings stacked along a wall to show and discuss them.
This work, he says, has preoccupied him almost since the moment he announced his retirement. Since he wrapped up his work at CCAD in June 2014, he has been coming to his studio almost every day. "There's days when I really force myself to come down here," he says. During chemotherapy, when he felt his worst, it was hard work. "Just to get up and walk to the easel took a lot. Paint a little bit, then sit down and rest."
But it was necessary. "This stuff," he says, gesturing toward his paintings, "enables me to get away from the worries of the cancer."
"Being here makes me really sane. My most important relationship in the world is my wife. But this sustains me."
"It's like anything you do," says his wife, Beth. "If you're an athlete or a runner, you've got to keep running. If you play the piano, it's important to keep playing. Being an artist is the same way. To be able to be in the studio every day and think about this problem, which is the work that you're creating, and where you want that work to go, having that time has given him the ability and the freedom to push the work and see it mature much more quickly than it would have otherwise."
"Perhaps there's been a little bit more urgency," she continues, "but he's always worked quickly and been really focused, and he knew where he wanted this work to go. Now he's had the time to really push it there."
While most of the new works were created while Griffith battled cancer, he makes clear that he began the series before his diagnosis. Almost everyone has an experience with cancer in the family or with a friend, he says, so it is natural that they should seek a personal connection to the paintings. "People will bring to bear against any work of art the stuff of their own life in an effort to read the work. I can see perfectly well that they do look like amoebas and cell forms," he says, perhaps causing viewers to think of microscopes and medicine. But "these paintings," he says, "are not cancer paintings."
The curator of the exhibition puts an even finer point on it. "This work is not about being sick," Goodson says. "It's about being alive.""I WAS ONTO SOMETHING"
As Griffith tells it, the paintings in Another World began with a trip to Chicago and a Dollar General steam iron. It was October 2013, and Griffith faced a turning point. He'd announced his plan to retire, and was looking forward to more time for making art. He wanted to experiment. "I was having this seminal moment when I felt like I could give myself permission to do whatever I wanted to do," he says. "I wanted to make a break."
During a visit to Chicago, he went to an old friend's apartment and found himself staring at a couple of 20-year-old works of his own that were hanging on the wall. The two pictures, like much of his work over the past two decades, were fashioned from beeswax that had been melted, imbued with color, and poured or painted onto boards. But while Griffith's work had long been largely abstract, these were different: each included a landscape dominated by a single figure.
"I'd forgotten about this body of work," he says. "They were kind of totemic forms. They could have been mask shapes, but they really weren't. There was a central form, and a kind of incomplete horizon, and the colors were pretty vivid. I looked at these two paintings at my friend's apartment and said, 'Man, I was onto something there.'"
When he returned to Columbus, simmering with inspiration, Griffith bought a cheap iron, grabbed an encaustic painting he'd abandoned and got to work. "I took this steam iron and flattened out all the wax that was on the surface, so I had a brand new surface to work on," he says. "I knocked out a painting that has this sort of lonely little form standing against the horizon. That was the beginning of the development of the language of a family of creatures that live in this other world." The painting, "10.18" (2013), is included in the exhibition.
Griffith kept going. He refined the beings in successive paintings, all done in oil paint over encaustic-covered gatorboard, a synthetic panel that is rigid and light, and allows him to easily move large compositions. The forms grew smoother and more well-defined, and their shapes became more complex. They developed spots, stripes, fins, orifices and a variety of supports and suspension wires. They evolved.
Some artists maintain an enigmatic silence about the content of their work, preferring to let the art speak for itself. Not Griffith. He won't tell you what to see in the paintings, but he's happy to tell you what he sees. "There are elements in these paintings that are meant to sustain the life in this other world," he says, pointing to one of his latest works. The figure in the painting rests, as many do, on a tripod-like support structure. "They have props and they have rigging and they have places that they suck energy up out of the ground.
"They have little cilia," he continues, "and there's stuff going on in these that seems to be growing or wiggling. The cloud forms that come in, those are probably sperm or happy penises. There are vaginal-"
He stops, laughs. Some of the figures do, indeed, have orifices that resemble vulva. They are, he says, "joyfully reproductive. There's a fecundity to this work."
He quickly adds, "This is all Denny's playful mechanics of this other place." Others may have their own interpretations of the figures. He hopes they do.
As evidence, he pulls out his iPad and plays a video made by a recent CCAD graduate that animates the shapes of one of the paintings from the show. In the short clip, a sperm-shaped cloud curls around a figure and penetrates it, seeming to impregnate it. It ends with new forms-babies-emerging and plopping to the ground. When the student was planning the video, he says, "She wanted to know how far she could go. I said, 'Probably not far enough to please me!'"
"I just wanted to give people the idea that it's OK to look at these things and imagine this stuff happening."
CCAD professor Tim Rietenbach feels the turn in Griffith's art sprang from more than just restlessness or a desire for something new. Making art while serving as a public figure, especially a college president, is inherently inhibiting. "Denny's always been an interesting artist, but he's also made some relatively safe work in the past," he says. "This latest work really departs from that safety zone."
"Before, you couldn't separate his prominent position in the community from the work, and that's why this work is so much better," Rietenbach continues. "It says, 'I'm not going to rest on that.'"THE CULTURE-SHAPER
Griffith counts scores of individual and group shows on his resume. Still, for him, this exhibit is a big deal. "This is, for me, the most important show I've done in my life," he says. "It's coming back home to the college's biggest, nicest venue. I'm excited to have people see the work."
In addition to the CCAD show, Hammond Harkins Gallery in the Short North will mount a concurrent exhibition of Griffith's work, including both encaustic paintings and works on paper. CCAD will publish a book in conjunction with the show. Developer and collector Ron Pizzuti selected two of Griffith's new works to hang at the Joseph, his art-filled boutique hotel. After Another World completes its run at CCAD, the exhibition will travel to Cincinnati to be mounted at the nonprofit Weston Gallery.
It's not surprising that the arts community should rally in support of Griffith's new work. The Delaware County native has been an important contributor to the Columbus and Ohio arts communities throughout his career. A graduate of Ohio Wesleyan (BFA) and Ohio State (MFA), Griffith has mingled art-making and arts administration for more than 40 years. Prior to stepping into the CCAD presidency in 1998, he worked for 13 years at the Columbus Museum of Art and before that, for the Ohio Foundation on the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council.
While making his mark as an artist, Griffith made his mark on the city as well. During his time as president of CCAD, the college doubled its footprint, increased annual giving six-fold and transformed itself and its neighborhood into an "urban learning village." Griffith conceived of changes small and large, from painting the doors of all campus buildings red to commissioning and installing the iconic 10-story "ART" sculpture.
Griffith describes his work in the community as "secular evangelism" both for the college and for the transformational power of art and design. He made it his mission to build up the role of design at the college and increase employment opportunities for CCAD grads both by honing students' business acumen and by prodding the corporate world to think more strategically about design. He supported this mission through deep engagement in the business community, serving as a member of the high-powered Columbus Partnership as well as other boards, such as Experience Columbus. Last year, the Columbus Foundation named him the winner of the 2014 Spirit of Columbus Award.
His message and his work have played an important role in Columbus's 21st century renaissance, a renewal that helped reverse the so-called brain drain of prior years, with more college graduates staying in Central Ohio, landing Columbus on lists such as Huffington Post's 2015 "Best Cities for Creatives." "His years as an arts professional here [in Columbus] changed us," says CMA sirector Nannette Maciejunes. "He made us a better place."
Wexner Center for the Arts director Sherri Geldin agrees. "In terms of arts leadership, nobody holds a candle to him," she says. "He is universally recognized as a fantastic communicator and a culture-shaper. He has, time and time again, stepped up in collaboration with other civic leaders to help tell the story of Columbus in a more vivid and dynamic way."
Students who attended CCAD during Griffith's tenure credit him for planting the idea that Columbus could be a good place to make a life-and a living-as an artist. "Denny was the model," says Adam Brouillette, a 2002 CCAD graduate. Brouillette wondered why so many of his classmates were moving to Miami or New York or LA to begin life as an artist. "I remembered Denny saying that we should be proud of this place we were living in and that the art college shouldn't be an island . . . He came to CCAD when it was a tiny little art school and said, 'I want to make this an important part of our community.'"
"I'm just a painter," Brouillette recalls thinking, "but maybe I can affect the community and figure out a way to help people around me or make the environment around me a better place." He founded Junctionview Studios, a collection of 44 artists' spaces in an old Grandview warehouse, and Couchfire Collective, a group that works to promote awareness of the role artists play in civic development. Ten years later, Junctionview was razed by developers and Brouillette took the lead in founding another collective, Tacocat Cooperative. He served as chair of the Ohio Art League and helped found Independents' Day, an art and music festival that drew 25,000 people last year. He also started branding and marketing firm littleINDUSTRIES-all while continuing to produce art. Griffith, he says, helped him and other CCAD graduates learn "not to look at business like a dirty term. You can still be an artist and be a successful business person."PUSHING THE WORK
It was not always obvious to Griffith that he could combine art-making and professional work. When he was offered the job as CCAD president in 1998, he thought he might have to give up painting. "It was such a big job," he says, "with so much potential for change and growth and satisfaction and all those good things, I said to myself, 'If this is the break point where I have to give up making work, I'll have to make that sacrifice.' "But lo and behold, I didn't." A few months into the job, he began to find time to return to the studio.
How? Simple, he says. "I don't play golf. I don't watch sports. On Saturday afternoons, when people are glued to the TV watching three football games, I'm in the studio."
Griffith says, too, that encaustic is "one of the dirty secrets" of his ability to make art in short bursts of time, even between meetings at CCAD. "It goes on fast, you work it fast, you scratch it and it looks pretty elegant."
Dating back at least to first-century Egypt, where wax portraits of the dead were sometimes placed on mummy cases, the medium had a revival of sorts in the late 20th century, when tools such as heat guns and electric warming pans made working with wax less daunting. Artists love it for its tactile qualities, the ease of sculpting and altering a surface, and the optical effects that can be achieved by layering the partially translucent wax, with or without pigment.
"What attracted me to encaustic was its versatility," says Bexley artist and CCAD grad Chris Rankin. "If you talk to a dozen different encaustic artists, every one of them will be doing something different with it."
In Griffith's new works, the surface is prepared with a layer of encaustic, which Griffith heats in an electric griddle, colors by adding pigment, then spreads with a squeegee over a horizontal surface. He has to work quickly because the wax hardens in less than a minute. After it hardens, he places the board upright on a giant easel and begins painting in oil on the wax. The wax is mostly hidden, but it adds texture and sculptural elements. "There is some archeology to these works," Griffith says.
Griffith loves the way paint adheres to encaustic, its texture, and a difficult-to-describe luminousness the wax imparts to the paint. "It's a lot of gesture, a lot of play, a lot of interplay of surface, transparency, translucency and vivid color."
Another World is the result. "I'd like to keep making this stuff for as long as I can," he says, noting that one thing he dreams of is turning the figures he's been painting into sculptures. "I haven't worn out my enthusiasm for what's going on in these pictures yet."THE GOOSE AND THE SWAN
In the spring of 2014, as Griffith was completing his service at CCAD, the graduates selected him as their commencement speaker. But he was in the hospital on the day of the graduation ceremony. Vice President for Student Affairs Dwayne Todd read Griffith's speech to an audience of graduates wearing green ribbons in support of Griffith.
In the speech, Griffith's last as president of the college, he recounted the myth of the "swan song," and Aesop's fable, "The Swan Mistaken for a Goose." In the fable, a cook goes at night to the barnyard to fetch a goose to slaughter. Blinded by the dark, he grabs a swan instead. Threatened with death, the swan sings-and, revealing himself by his song not to be a goose, is saved.
"The swan saved himself by singing beautifully," wrote Griffith. "It saved itself through art."