Saturday, July 12th, 2003

Greetings from Ohio. . .Wish You Were Here!

Greetings from Ohio. . .Wish You Were Here!

Lois & Richard Rosenthal, Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, designed by Zaha Hadid.
Lois & Richard
Rosenthal, Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, designed by Zaha Hadid.

When I decided to leave New York City for the flatlands of central Ohio, my friends and acquaintances wondered if I had lost my head. “Why,” they asked, “would you leave New York City if you want to write about art?” As if no good art worth writing about existed outside Manhattan. Why Ohio? Other than the draw of cheaper rent, I already knew that great art could be found here. The state’s three major cities-Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati-may not be widely acknowledged as cultural and artistic trend setters like New York and Chicago (at least, not yet anyway), each in its own way has built unique and expanding arts communities that continue to bring in (and produce) the best and the brightest artists and exhibitions.

Possibly the most liberal location of the three C’s, Cleveland once was referred to as the “mistake on the lake” -a name borne from not only its proximity to Lake Erie, but also due to its roughshod economic history and an infamous chemical fire on the Cuyahoga River. This “mistake” reversed its reputation by creating a downtown scene that turned Cleveland into a model of urban rebirth.

Three art venues top the list in Cleveland. The first is the Museum of Contemporary Art or MOCA (formerly the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art). Founded in 1968 by gallerist Marjorie Talalay and Nina Sundell, daughter of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, the venue had access to cutting edge art from the start. It remains committed to presenting major shows of current art by the artists who frequent the pages of Art Forum and Art in America. The oldest art venue in the city is The Cleveland Museum of Art, established in 1913. In the throes of its own major expansion designed by architect
Rafael Vinoly, the museum is focusing on smaller, more frequent exhibitions. “The History of Japanese Photography” and the “Charles Isaacs and Carol Nigro Collection of American Photography” are the most recent, with latter highlighting the recent acquisition of 22 images that range in date from 1850 to 1911. The collection includes an 1850 montage of daguerreotypes from Southworth and Hawes titled Medallion Portrait of a Woman. This is a unique piece indeed, with an oval-shaped central image of a woman surrounded by various profile views. Given the rarity of the daguerreotype, finding multiple images in one piece is a unique example of the technical excellence and unique approach honed by Southworth and Hawes during photography’s infancy.

In an effort to put more focus on contemporary art, The Cleveland Museum of Art has instituted its first contemporary art curator. More significantly, the museum created a small gallery space for rotating exhibitions of current art. Titled “Project 2.4.4” the space’s exhibition schedule is kept flexible so that it can respond more immediately to current art. The most recent show was titled “Metascape” wherein contemporary artists dealt with the traditional theme of landscape in completely untraditional ways. Works included pieces from artists such as Benjamin Edwards who also participated in “Painting as Paradox” at Artists Space last fall and Julie Mehretu, whose work was also included in “Drawing Now: Eight Propositions” at MoMA QNS last winter.

Where to find the most contemporary of the contemporary in Cleveland? Why, at SPACES of course. SPACES was founded in 1978 by artists who, like many artists at that time, either lacked the credentials to show at major venues or the commercial draw that warranted gallery exhibitions-or both. Designed to help artists who are new in their careers, are experimenting with new ideas or are under-recognized, SPACES is often the first place to show an artist’s body of work. With a miniscule budget of around $400,000 per year, SPACES originates six shows per year-three of them curated and three non-curated group shows.

“Elements: Matter, Body, Mind and Spirit,” the venue’s current show, features new work by four artists who “attempt to visualize the metaphysical” through works of sound, video projection, sculptural installation, weaving, and translucent works on paper. One artist who approaches this theme in the most literal manner is Deborah Carlson. With ideas rooted in Hindu spirituality, Carlson weaves, binds and hangs richly textured and colored works of wax, wood and fiber such as Wonder Drop (2002). These works evoke the sacredness of scrolls, tapestries and other handmade or primitive religious symbols. The physicality of their materials reminds us of the role symbols play in our attempt to connect with the supernatural. These are spectacularly crafted. Which is not to say that the works of Jee Sun Park (her sculpted, repetitive and phallic wood forms resemble the work of Eva Hesse) and Peggy Kwong-Gordon (delicately powerful paintings on translucent paper) are not crafted just as marvelously, only that they require a different interpretation of “metaphysical” -a definition that is more about the abstract nature of time versus the supernatural.

On June 2 The Columbus Dispatch reported that AmericanStyle Magazine ranked Columbus as one of the top 25 arts destinations in the United States. Finishing at No. 12, Columbus placed ahead of Pittsburgh (No. 13), Cleveland (15), Baltimore (23) and Atlanta (25). Topping the list of favorite venues for Columbus was The Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts, which regularly showcases the work of prominent contemporary artists and hosts lectures and symposia by influential critics and artists of recent years. Examples include the recent exhibition “From Pop To Now: Selections from the Sonnabend Collection” and lectures by performance pioneer Marina Abramovic and art critic Carter Ratcliff. Also mentioned were several galleries in the city’s popular Short North Arts District: the Rebecca Ibel Gallery which features the work of established U. S. artists in all media, the Hawk Galleries
and its amazing, technically resplendent works in glass, and the Riffe Gallery, which showcases the work of Ohio’s artists and curators and the collections of the state’s museums and galleries.

Forced to reduce exhibitions and staff due to budget constraints, the Columbus Museum of Art is still producing quiet, but stimulating exhibitions as well. The current exhibition “By George! Columbus Celebrates American Master George Bellows” is one such exhibition. Born and raised in Columbus, Bellows (1882-1925) is considered one of the finest artists of his generation, and the museum is the world’s foremost repository of works by the artist. This tribute exhibition showcases its collection of the artist’s paintings and lithographs. Divided into four themes:Columbus, New York, New England and sports, 60 works demonstrate the diversity of Bellows’ œuvre.

In Polo at Lakewood (1913), the swooping gestures and suspended motion that identify Bellows are evident-the handling of paint will be familiar to those who already know of the diagonal energy in his more widely-known image Stag at Sharkey’s (1909, Cleveland Museum of Art). Also present in Polo at Lakewood is Bellows’ use of blue and white for intense, almost gleaming light. White horses bounce off undulating green pastures, bright white spectator’s dresses flip-flap in the wind. This image demonstrates Bellows’ move from a Social Realist approach to a modern approach given his exposure the European trends displayed in the Armory Show of 1913. Through this and other glowing canvases, the exhibition is a sentimental homage to one of Ohio’s favorite sons.

With a rather tame exhibition schedule at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, and the Taft Museum’s renovation, the biggest buzz in the Queen City is the grand reopening of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). The building, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, is the first and only major museum expansion project designed by an independent female architect. Now a freestanding structure, the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art provides spaces for temporary exhibitions, site-specific installations, and performances through its distinct role as a kunsthalle. The new galleries are of varying sizes and ceiling heights that allow for connections and interlocking designs that offer numerous spatial configurations meant to accommodate the sometimes-enormous scale and diverse media of contemporary art.

Recognized contemporary artists such as Vanessa Beecroft, Janet Cardiff and Yinka Shonibare are featured alongside established and emerging artists from around the globe in the CAC’s reopening exhibition “Somewhere Better than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art.” To better explain the premise of this lengthy title, the CAC’s press release quotes philosopher Michael Foucault: “There are…in every culture, in every civilization, real places….in which all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted,” he wrote in 1976. Labeling these sites as “heterotopia”-specifically the territories defined by institutions such as birthing centers, prisons, fairgrounds, and mental hospitals-these sites are spaces in which people can analyze and critique troubling aspects of society, and consider
possible alternatives.

Foucault? In Ohio?
Setting a certain standard for ideas in art in this very conservative city is noting new for the CAC. The Center established itself as a leader in 1940 as one of the first American institutions to exhibit Picasso’s Guernica. The Center continued its pioneering tradition by featuring the work of hundreds of renowned artists early in their careers including Laurie Anderson, Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Nam June Paik, I.M. Pei, Robert Rauschenberg, Kara Walker and Andy Warhol. Most notably, the Center was at the center of an important First Amendment legal case in 1990 when it successfully defended the right of Cincinnati’s citizens to view an exhibition of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.

The idea behind this grand reopening exhibition is clear and the building is spectacular, but the exhibition can be a tad overwhelming. Works inhabit all six floors, each serving as an exploration of the relationships among society, place and art and encouraging direct interaction between the Center’s audiences, works of art and the building itself. A sense of order is conveyed by arranging works according to four key themes: the social construction of identities; discourses of social order; changing patterns of social relations; and social encounters organized around shared experiences of the sublime. The works reflect the role of contemporary art museums as places distinct from all others, in which “outside” culture is both represented and critiqued, and unique social activity is created.

With so many works and so many ideas, the exhibition functions as a contemporary historical survey. Oxymoronic for sure, and with so many works in so little time with so many ideas and references, one can get lost in the intellectual soup. But hey, at least we’re thinking.

Cheap rents there may be, but cheap experiences these are not. All over the state, unique art experiences can be found, and you don’t have to fight the subway crowd to get there. Call them “cow towns” if you will, but Ohio’s cultural centers hold their own against larger metropolitan cities. The art is beautiful. . . wish you were here!