Cleveland could trademark the metallic gray of its winter skies when the cloud deck merges with phreatic plumes from the fissures of growling steel mills. Such scenes exemplify what remains an extraordinary juncture of nature and human engineering in this city, despite the ravages of the rust belt’s decline. When December casts its pall over Cleveland’s indomitable skyline, and the Cuyahoga River’s hunkered bridges, the molten grind that built it all is palpable.
That ingenuity is reflected across the the city’s art sector today, anchored by the world-beating Cleveland Museum of Art (founded in 1913) and the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, or moCa (opened in 1968) which recently presented a comprehensive and exquisitely curated exhibition of Margaret Kilgallen’s work titled ‘that’s where the beauty is’. Of other large venues, SPACES is a storied organization that balances support for local artists with national and international range. Its initiatives include residencies for artists and critics, public outreach, exhibitions at its expansive Hingetown headquarters, and financial assistance to local creative workers. The Emergency Relief Program in response to the impact of Covid, and the Urgent Art Fund supporting work addressing issues at the cultural vanguard, are of particular resonance and help SPACES to retain its edge as an engine of nimble innovation. Across the street is Transformer Station which was originally a substation of the Cleveland Railway Company. Its 2013 repurposing has that instantly recognizable mid-scale gallery architecture—sleek glass and concrete—that asserts Cleveland’s civic proficiency with the architectural language of contemporary art.
During the presidential election last year, Transformer Station hosted ‘Nina Katchadourian: Monument to the Unelected’. The project featured a phalanx of political campaign signs set up outside the gallery—another grouping was placed at moCa. The advertisements carried the names of the previous fifty-eight failed presidential candidates from the leading parties, with plans to add 2020’s runner-up. So by now Donald Trump should be where he belongs on the loser’s roster. On a blustery day, the plastic banners swayed and rippled in the wind. Reading them was not unlike wandering through a cemetery making out the epitaphs on tombstones. This too was a graveyard—for hopes, longing, fears, successes and failures that we’ll never know. Even the signs for still-living politicians had a funereal tone, as if after such crippling defeat they have become the ghosts of spent ambition.
The Sculpture Center supports Ohioan makers (and artists from further afield) with exhibition opportunities, and its yearly SculptureX (SX) symposium. Recently TSC exhibited two sculptors and papermakers in ‘Aimee Lee and Sarah Rose Lejeune: A consolation of things.’ Lejeune’s spectral, poignant rocking chairs lay buckled and skeletal on the floor of the subtly lit Main Gallery, while Lee’s work—including towering, illuminated, but delicate paper-brick structures—occupied the Euclid Gallery. Housed in the same complex—although a separate non-profit—is the remarkable Artists Archive of the Western Reserve which collects and cares for the work of Ohioan artists through research and exhibitions in its AAWR Gallery, and off-site venues.
For all of this impressive enterprise there have also been some scheduling choices that seem counter to the great promise of these marvelous buildings. The timing and appropriateness of Martin Creed’s neon text, Work No. 3398 EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT (2020) commissioned by moCA, is an example on two counts. It’s been on view since July 2020 just after moCA canceled Shaun Leonardo’s exhibition ‘The Breath of Empty Space’, due to the concerns of local activists that pictures of Black and Latino males (including 12-year-old Tamir Rice, from Cleveland) killed by police brutality, fetishized and decontextualized their subjects and risked re-traumatizing Black audiences. It was a difficult but instructive moment. Responsible stewardship of such imagery is a vital component of public remembrance, private permission, and cultural estimation. If it isn’t handled sensitively by museums, working in care with invested constituents, they risk turning the murders of Black individuals into double killings—first bodily life is extinguished, followed by institutional annihilation of spirit and personhood.
Martin Creed’s sentiment is an echo from the scriptures of the anchorite mystic Julian of Norwich, and her enduring 14th-century meme “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The United States is currently roiling over the searing open wounds of racist legacies particularly in majority African American cities such as Cleveland. On moCa’s website we read that “Creed’s sculpture is at once a hopeful, familiar, and reassuring phrase, and a gentle nod to the challenges lying ahead amid the current uncertainties.” This anaemic attempt to align the work of a rich, white, European male artist—for whom everything probably is going to be alright—with today’s profoundest structural disease exposes its irrelevance, and the museum’s misstep. The problems that are splintering America are far beyond the reach of “gentle nods” and “hopeful phrases.”
Secondly, why spend funds on Creed at all when Cleveland has so much locally oriented activity to distinguish and assert its own appetites? His gas station art—when you’re running low, fill up and leave without having to think about it—doesn’t attempt to plumb Cleveland’s potential as a hub of creative innovation capable of attracting widespread attention or fomenting vigorous new ideas. It’s something that Fred Bidwell and the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art that he established in 2018, proved is possible. Planning for the second iteration, postponed until 2022, is underway. With its very first edition it became one of the most impactful expositions in the country, and a powerful declarative statement of Cleveland’s intentions.
Performing aesthetic CPR on Creed’s moribund art could give the false impression that Cleveland (or any city) is a kow-towing backwater for artistic flotsam and jetsam. Rather than wearing London’s 1990s Brit Art hand-me-downs, institutions ought to seize upon what is happening in the vicinity, and why it is happening. To this point, moCa’s upcoming exhibition ‘The Regional’ (organized in conjunction with the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati) is a more symbiotic initiative. Deploying moCa’s resources to advocate for over two dozen artists based in the American Midwest is a fruitful move toward fulfilling the museum’s role as artistic midwife to homegrown talent. That the exhibition’s title sounds like an Amtrak service is a wonderful reclamation of a pejorative long-used to confer disdain on smaller cities and rural scenes.
Similarly, ‘Laura Owens: Rerun’ is at Transformer Station under the auspices of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It will close today after a three month stay. Owens is one of the most prominent and underwhelming artists in America. Her work could be described as bilious confections of infantilized froth plastered with undead pop-cultural devices; bits of feral text scavenging around for some meaning, and smears of bright, diarrhetic ink that stagger about like drunk Rorschach tests. But, as Muriel Spark wrote, “if you like that sort of thing, then that is the sort of thing you like.” Owens is neither deserving nor undeserving of her renown—she’s just fortunate. But as her fame metastasizes, fueled by the critical superpowers that are heaped onto her efforts by compliant critics, the work itself is increasingly unable to bear the load of such sycophancy. Like most successful artists Owens isn’t at all essential to art history, but it’s too late to matter after so much investment.
However, perpetuating that process of institutional branding and forgoing more relevant opportunities for the tenuous scrap that Laura Owens lived in Ohio thirty years ago—as both venues promote—isn’t going to cut it. If marquee artists are to be invited to town, whose practice would be synchronistic to the city and its predicaments and successes? How could Cleveland benefit from a visit, instead of being a notch on an artist’s resume after they’ve already checked-off the Whitney?
If Cleveland’s commercial gallery sector is relatively thin, that only means opportunity to establish untried approaches. Kaiser Gallery’s first exhibition ‘Switch’ opened in December 2020, and featured artists who use technology to create mesmerizing effects with light. Here is Tanya Kaiser, owner, director and curator on the gallery’s founding principles:
“It went beyond providing an accessible platform outside of New York because accessible galleries are vital in every city. The structure as a hybrid international gallery was solidified during the protests and political discourse of 2020. It became clear that art was needed as a catalyst to encourage those difficult conversations in a positive and supportive way. Kaiser Gallery is half for-profit and half non-profit. We do not charge submission fees, in order to reduce monetary restrictions on interested artists. We showcase a variety of voices on pertinent topics, and will publicize statistics of our exhibiting artists to ensure our accountability. Our exhibiting artists hail from around the world to help broaden the perspective and discourse that we offer.”
Abattoir has a fine balance between local and national practitioners, and makes connectivity between artists a central feature of its programming. The gallery is inviting and relaxed, yet its aims are lean and dynamic. Lisa Kurzner and Rose Burlingham are the founders.
“We decided to open the gallery to support great art in our region and to expand the relationships between Cleveland and the national art scene. Cleveland has great institutions, but a small and locally-focused gallery scene. We opened last June and began our program with two-person shows—artists who have a visual or conceptual connection—trying to create a dialogue between them. Hildur Jonsson, a notable artist here, was our opening show with Kaveri Raina—a younger artist from Columbus, now based in New York. In addition to highlighting emerging artists, we want to support the careers of great artists from the area and identify them for a new generation of collectors. Through our shows and additional programming, we hope to increase collecting activity in the region.”
Intriguing concepts are to be found throughout Ohio. In Kent, Gazebo is (for now) an under-the-radar space run by Shawn Powell, artist and assistant professor at Kent State University; and Annie Wischmeyer, curatorial consultant at Curated Storefront and the 2022 Front International Triennial. It is a playful yet challenging space located on their bucolic property which could itself be the subject of a Michael Raedecker or Peter Doig painting. The project’s name is literal, so artists must find ways to adapt to the little summer house by the lake. It is the kind of refreshing, unpretentious venture that’s provocative for artists to consider, with the potential to cultivate critical investment. Wischmeyer and Powell describe the genesis of their space:
“A few months prior to the pandemic, a friend who was visiting from New York suggested that we should turn our gazebo into a gallery. We laughed off the idea at the time. But several months into lockdown, we missed visiting galleries, the community, and conversations about work, and suddenly the idea didn’t sound so absurd. Our gazebo, situated in our backyard, was the perfect space to put on shows in a socially-distanced manner, and Gazebo Gallery was born. This project space has allowed us to share work we admire both regionally and nationally with our community and the university population, giving us the opportunity to continue conversations around art. Even with the pandemic slowing down and the prospect of returning to some sort of normalcy on the horizon, we have programming planned through next fall and we expect Gazebo to continue.”
Building momentum in, and about, a city might encourage its artists, critics and curators to stay and devote their energies to the region. In turn that can ignite the kind of curiosity that draws focus away from Los Angeles or New York, helping to devolve equity and criticism across the national art grid. For it is only with pride and insistence on the validity of art made by and for resident art workers and audiences that latent potential can be fulfilled. Many vibrant art scenes across the country are burdened by a sense of inferiority that they don’t offer artists what New York does. But any concerns that Cleveland isn’t New York ought to be set aside. After all, we mustn’t hold that against the Big Apple.
Cleveland, Ohio and the Midwest sit at the crossroads of our era’s most pressing circumstances. These include the consequences of industrial output manifested in contaminated aquifers, toxic landfills and the environmental racism that is so often synonymous; fair regeneration of urban landscapes, without rampaging gentrification compounding the hurt; the civic and bodily harm inflicted on communities of color caused by white supremacist hierarchies; and a political schism between the Buckeye State’s rural red and urban blue counties. What are the social and cultural tectonics widening that divide and how might they be bridged by cultural interventions? And within the art economy itself, decay-porn has become a cliche, but how do art and action contribute beyond the rotting prettiness of the Midwest’s crumbling built heritage towards practical discourse and progression? Furthermore, being Ohio-based provides an opportunity for viable and sustainable creative living that would be prohibitively expensive in the largest metropolitan centers.
Art and artists are integral to the development of solutions here that could become national blueprints. And when one considers the concentration of cities, each with their unbreakable commonalities, distinctive characteristics, populations of art workers, and intellectual reservoirs, all within a relatively compact area—Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, Findley (home of The Neon Heater) Detroit, Dayton, Cincinnati, and on to Lexington, Louisville, Bloomington and Indianapolis—the possibilities for a new constellation of integrated productivity in the art firmament are limitless.
The Midwest as a re-emergent global nexus of heavy manufacturing—the foremost in the United States—is a reasonable proposition. Perhaps it won’t be based on iron or steel this time, but on art—a far more durable material with which to build resilient architectures and glittering futures.
Darren Jones is a Scottish-American art critic. He is the US Editor-at-Large for New Art Examiner, and a regular contributor to Artforum. He is a recipient of an Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant. Jones teaches Curatorial Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. He lives in Fire Island Pines and Key West.
With thanks to RA Washington, Allison J. Evans, and Carlos Rigau for their perspectives.
Volume 35 no 5 May/June 2021