Justin Brennan in his studio at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Justin Brennan has a lot on his mind, and as his thoughts take form, so does his art

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Buenas Noches” (2017); 34.5 x 34.5 inches; enamel, spray paint, charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Buenas Noches” (2017); 34.5 x 34.5 inches; enamel, spray paint, charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Reaching milestone ages often induces a certain amount of self-reflection – something to which 40-year-old Justin Brennan can attest.

When asked his age, the soft-spoken artist chuckles and immediately acknowledges he’s been “thinking about things.” Later, when asked what the future holds, he confesses, “Being 40, you start to question everything.”

But thinking about things seems to be a creative sweet spot for Brennan.

He draws inspiration from personal relationships. He churns day-to-day interactions in his head, ruminates on them in his studio – a long and narrow room carved out of the PopEye Gallery-curated Survival Kit space on the third floor of 78th Street Studios – until it’s time for paint to meet canvas.

Cerebral musings fuel his work, and at the moment, his artistic tank is full. His evocative new series of portraits, some 20 of which will be on view starting in July at HEDGE Gallery, is evidence.

Greeted at eye level, these Francis Bacon-inspired paintings invite viewers in for a conversation about what’s on their mind. There’s a directness to them that way, but they’re simultaneously elusive. Bright colors mask potentially darker themes, and the ways in which facial features are blurred and distorted suggest an emotionally charged static interference that never quite lets the viewer connect with the solitary figure portrayed.

The tension is palpable.

“I did portraiture before, but it was more realistic. This is completely abstracted,” he says, highlighting their ambiguity and indefinability.

“I always leave the viewer to determine what they want from the piece, to take what they want from it,” he says. “I want it to affect them. I want them to look into it. I want them to remember it.”

He wants those who view his art to think about things, too.

‘No second thoughts’

“Justifiable Fear” (2017); 34 x 32 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Justifiable Fear” (2017); 34 x 32 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Brennan was born and raised in Lakewood, the second oldest of four children. He credits his mother Maureen’s side of the family – her father drew and collected art, and her grandfather was a vaudeville dancer – for his creativity.

For his drive, determination and work ethic, Brennan credits his father Sean’s entrepreneurial side of the family. Brennan’s Catering & Banquet Center on the west side of Cleveland is the family business. It’s also where Justin Brennan holds a title of manager/chef.

As a child, Brennan was both good at and interested in art but admits he “never took it seriously.” It wasn’t until his senior year at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland that his interests and talents started to take shape. It was then that he learned of abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, whom he credits with leading him to painting as his art form of choice. He also gives a nod to some formal arts education he received.

“Ignatius wasn’t known for its art program back in ’93/’94,” he says. “I had to wait until my senior year to take drawing or painting. I really enjoyed painting a lot, and it just kind of took off from there.”

He matriculated at Kent State University to study graphic design. He took studio art for a semester but ultimately stayed at the university for only two years.

“Then years later, I went to Tri-C, and I took Painting I,” he says, clarifying that was about 2004. That class would mark the end of Brennan’s formal art education – he’s largely self-taught – and the beginning of his artistic career.

“When I was 28 is when I really decided, ‘Hey, I want to be serious about this,’” he says. “It’s only been about 12 years that I’ve been going strong at it – completely focused on it, no second thoughts and 100 percent devoted to it.”

Hitting his stride

“Unforeseen Monster” (2017); 24 x 24 inches; oil, enamel, spray paint on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Unforeseen Monster” (2017); 24 x 24 inches; oil, enamel, spray paint on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

What led to his shift in focus?

“I had some life-changing experiences,” he says. It isn’t a topic Brennan wishes to dwell on or discuss in detail but he concedes he wrestled with anxiety during that time.

“There’s a cliché that abstract expressionism is expressing emotions,” he says. “I had trouble expressing my emotions … so it was a way to kind of, not communicate, but yeah, express how I (felt) and what was going on.”

Brennan channeled that energy into his creativity. His early work involved stylized portraiture, and his first show was an ARTMart: SPACES Members Show and Sale at SPACES Gallery.

He later shifted to nonrepresentational abstraction. A July 2016 show entitled “Turbulence” at Maria Neil Art Project in Cleveland‘s Waterloo Arts District showcased that later phase.

“The term ‘turbulence’ refers to my psychological state, thoughts, emotions and the interactions throughout the past eight months of creating this work,” he said at the time.

The abstract portraits he produces today are a combination of those two approaches. Those “thoughts, emotions and interactions” are now taking form – a dynamic he admits he stumbled upon while pushing himself to do something different.

“When I do a big series or body of work, usually around the 15th or 20th piece, I’m usually like, I’m painting this and it’s kind of repetitive,” he says. “People like them — they’re good paintings sometimes – but I’m not satisfied as an artist. So I always change it up.”

Brennan’s willingness to experiment is what drew the attention of HEDGE Gallery’s Hilary D. Gent, who started representing him at the outset of 2017.

“As a painter, I think that’s important because as a gallery representing him, it shows promise for new bodies of work in the future,” she says. “That’s what excites me about showing an artist like Justin. He’s adventurous. He’s willing to mix new mediums into his work and … to experiment with them to develop new bodies of work.”

Brennan’ s place

Brennan lives in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, but his home away from home is his 78th Street studio – a space he’s quite enjoyed since moving in back in late 2015.

Brennan applies spray paint to “Gaia” (2017); 24 × 30 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on panel. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the first female as well as the personification of earth. Brennan named this piece “Gaia” because it was the first woman he depicted in his latest series of portraits.

Brennan applies spray paint to “Gaia” (2017); 24 × 30 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on panel. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the first female as well as the personification of earth. Brennan named this piece “Gaia” because it was the first woman he depicted in his latest series of portraits.

“Once a month, hundreds of people come through my studio – and it’s great,” he says. “I love being here. It’s super inspirational.”

His paint-splattered studio floor and paint-caked A-frame easel – both of which suggest an artist who feverishly capitalizes on that inspiration – are favorites of Third Friday Instagrammers, he jokes.

“It was immaculate (when I moved) in here, and this is my second thing of cardboard,” he says, pointing to a layer of cardboard meant to protect the floor from said paint. “Yeah, this is all my paint.”

A Miles Davis “The New York Sessions” poster that hangs on the back of his studio door also provides inspiration. Whether it‘s Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk, jazz is in the air every time Brennan works. Actually, he considers it more “superstition” that inspiration.

“Back when I first started painting – I like rock ’n’ roll, too, a lot – so I would drink and turn on the Rolling Stones, paint – and think I was Jackson Pollock. And then I’d realize 20 minutes or half an hour into it that I was drunk, my painting was complete shit and I’d wasted all these supplies,” he recalls with a smile. “Now, I don’t really drink when I paint and I listen to jazz. I love it, and it keeps me focused.”

A jazz-infused soundtrack isn’t Brennan’s sole self-professed superstition.

“I don’t like violet,” he says unwaveringly. “I like pinks, reds, blues, browns, yellows. I just don’t go near violet – and rarely green. It’s superstitious – I’m a superstitious painter at times.”

Less eccentric are Brennan’s commitment to craft and his ambition to improve as an artist.

“My last piece is always inferior to my next piece. I feel like I can always do better,” he says. “It keeps me driving, it keeps me painting.”

And one thing he doesn’t have to think too much about – or question even at the milestone age of 40 – is his creative future.

“I know I don’t want to stop. … I can’t stop and I won’t stop,” Brennan says. “I don’t think about it anymore. I just do it all the time.” CV

On View

Justin Brennan

Justin Brennan will take part in “Free Style: Tease and Tension Between Abstraction and Representation” from May 12 to June 24 at Zygote Press Gallery, 1410 E. 30th St., Cleveland. Other artists in this group show will be Dave Cintron, Jamey Hart, Michael Lombardy, James March, Kelsey Moulton, Patricia Zinmeister Parker, Scott Pickering and Grace Summanen. An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. May 12.

“No Expectations,” a solo show featuring 20 to 25 of Brennan’s paintings and drawings, will be on view from July 21 to Sept. 1 at HEDGE Gallery, 1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. July 21.

Lead image: Justin Brennan in his studio at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Natalie Lanese paints in parts of the initial design for “Cavern,” which was later installed on a much larger scale, at her home studio.

Natalie Lanese’s intricate creations are growing in scale and prominence – as is her artistic ambition

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Cavern” stands 28 feet by 29 foot in the middle of the Tinkham Veale University Center at Case Western Reserve University.

“Cavern” stands 28 feet by 29 foot in the middle of the Tinkham Veale University Center at Case Western Reserve University.

Natalie Lanese’s art engages viewers in spectacular sensory experiences. Awash with eye-catching colors, it fascinates. Composed of ornate designs, it mesmerizes. Sometimes sweeping in scale, it envelops. To take in Lanese’s work is to immerse oneself in an intriguing and dazzling display.

Take her latest piece, “Cavern,” a 28-foot-by-29-foot installation completed in March in the middle of the Tinkham Veale University Center at Case Western Reserve University, her alma mater. From certain vantage points, it looks as though those who climb the staircase in front of it will traverse geometric stalactites to enter a portal to someplace extraordinary.

Or there was “Depthless Without You,” which wowed visitors to the Akron Art Museum’s “NEO Geo” group exhibition from November 2015 to April 2016. As the title implies, the piece, which covered the walls and floors of an entire gallery with mind-bending geometric abstraction, toyed with people’s perceptions and perspectives.

Those who haven’t or didn’t see either of those two pieces may have driven past “Cleveland, City of Light, City of Magic,” underneath the George V. Voinovich Bridge on either side just south of the intersection of Ontario Street and Carnegie Avenue in downtown Cleveland. Installed in 2012 across from Progressive Field, the collage is an elaborately detailed and nostalgic homage to the Forest City, and yes, its title is a nod to Randy Newman’s “Burn On,” a song that plays during the opening credits of the Cleveland Indians-themed movie “Major League.”

Common to all of those pieces is her signature zigzag pattern, which has been evolving in her work for more than a decade. It’s immediately identifiable.

“Yeah, and nothing like what I thought I’d be doing,” she says, laughing.

That may be, but there’s little denying her work is now nearly as high-profile as some of the public places in which it’s located. Her artistic career is well-positioned to ascend, both figuratively, and if she has her druthers, literally.

Across the Buckeye State

Tracking down Lanese requires a trip to Toledo’s Old West End, a well-manicured urban neighborhood filled with Victorian and Georgian architecture. A spacious second-floor apartment, carved out of one of the neighborhood’s large old houses, is now home for the 37-year-old Lyndhurst native. Her studio is a two-room affair in a sun-filled corner of the unit. 

“I didn’t really know anything about Toledo before I moved here, I just had a good feeling about it – and I was right,” she says, explaining she hoped to find community there and did. “It was a good hunch. In this neighborhood, so many of my friends live here, it’s a dynamic neighborhood of a lot of like-minded people and also a lot of creative people.”

Lanese characterizes Toledo’s art scene as “tiny but also passionate,” and extols the relative ease with which artistic ideas can become reality there.

“If you have a great idea to do something on a whim, you can kind of just do it – which is an exciting space for an artist to be in,” she says.

Two public works of hers can be found in Toledo. “Island Sanctuary for the Ghost of Moses,” a 2015 collaboration with Douglas D. Kampfer that’s a block away from the Toledo Mud Hens’ Fifth Third Field, depicts Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played professional baseball for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 – 63 years before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

An abandoned, dilapidated house on Detroit Avenue in Toledo stands out thanks to a Toledo Arts Commission project in which Lanese led a team of volunteers in sprucing up the building. The project was part of a larger, creative placemaking initiative.

An abandoned, dilapidated house on Detroit Avenue in Toledo stands out thanks to a Toledo Arts Commission project in which Lanese led a team of volunteers in sprucing up the building. The project was part of a larger, creative placemaking initiative.

The second is a Toledo Arts Commission project in which Lanese was asked to lead a team of teenagers in sprucing up the outside of an abandoned, dilapidated house as a part of a larger, creative placemaking initiative. Her trademark zigzag helps liven up a slightly rundown neighborhood.

“That’s exactly the kind of stuff I want to do as far as a local community goes,” she says. “Public art has been on my mind a lot more lately. It’s a direction my work has taken in recent years that’s new to me but I really enjoy it – and I enjoy the different kinds of impacts it can have in places.”

Of course, Lanese also enjoys Toledo’s proximity to friends and family in Cleveland, on top of which she feels she’s very much a part of the arts community in her hometown.

“I feel like there’s a place for me there even though it’s not where my studio is,” she says.

Among her artistic friends in Northeast Ohio are David Spasic, Nathan Murray and Ben Haehn, perhaps best known as purveyors of pinball at Superelectric in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, and ceramic artist Gina DeSantis, whom Lanese has known since they interned together in 2004 at the former Buzz Gallery in Ohio City. The two have since encouraged and supported each other as artistic peers. 

“We have totally different paths and work in totally different media, but it’s nice to have someone in your field to bounce ideas off of and share struggles we both might encounter,” says DeSantis, whose studio is among the Screw Factory Artists’ Studios in the Lake Erie Building at Templar Industrial Park in Lakewood. “We started this years and years ago. It took a good six or seven years after grad school for both of us to be where we want to be.”

There’s also a place for Lanese in the southwest corner of the state, where her “Swing Around Rosie,” occupies the entire side of a building in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Completed in 2016, the mural depicts Rosemary Clooney – who got her show business start in the Queen City – and is named after the singer’s 1959 album.

The project was led by ArtWorks Cincinnati and involved several murals throughout the city. In the process, the project employed teen apprentices to help execute Lanese’s vision for the mural.

“As far as arts advocacy, that’s a great example of a project I like to be involved with,” she says. “Not only are they successfully putting up great murals around Cincinnati, they’re teaching young people the value of that kind of work – and that you should be paid for your work.”

As evidenced in part by the way in which “Swing Around Rosie” and the dilapidated house project involved young people and artistic novices, as did “Cavern” at CWRU, teaching – and learning – have played integral roles in Lanese’s journey.

School in session

“Swing Around Rosie” (2016); 1606 Pleasant St., Cincinnati; photo by J. Miles Wolf ©2016 ArtWorks

“Swing Around Rosie” (2016); 1606 Pleasant St., Cincinnati; photo by J. Miles Wolf ©2016 ArtWorks

Are there other artists in Lanese’s family who may have served as inspirations for her career? In a word, no.

“We always laugh about it, that we have no idea how I ended up doing this,” she says, laughing even now. “It’s not like we had another artist in the family or even anyone who did it as a hobby. Basically, my mom signed me up for art classes at the (Cleveland Museum of Art) in the summers when I was little. It was something I loved to do, so I kept doing it.”

Education, however, has been central.

Both of Lanese’s parents are retired teachers. Her father, James, worked as a Cleveland board of education researcher for most of his career, and after he retired from there, taught graduate-level courses at John Carroll University and Cleveland State University. Her mother, Delia, taught grade school, and after taking a break to raise Lanese and her older brother, Nick, she returned to the classroom to tutor in math and reading.

Lanese’s arts education took a leap when she attended high school at Beaumont School in Cleveland Heights, where she was accepted into a four-year program that afforded her time in a studio with teachers who were working artists or also teaching at the college level.

“By the time I went to high school, it was definitely something I wanted,” she says. “I think that was a big part of why I chose to go there, because I knew (Beaumont) offered a great art program. I can definitely credit pursuing art after high school to my experience there.”

Lanese would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in art history and education from Xavier University in Cincinnati and then a master’s degree in art education from CWRU.

Her time at CWRU – which included studio courses at the Cleveland Institute of Art – would prove influential. She credits three classes with helping chart her career course: an in-depth class on Andy Warhol taught by David Carrier that allowed her to delve deeply into one of her favorite artists; a “Style as Substance” course taught by Julie Langsam in which frequent class discussions about art changed the way Lanese thought about her work; and a Saul Ostrow-taught course that explored manipulating dimensions.

By the end of her studies in Cleveland, Lanese’s work had started to shift from figurative oil paintings to collages. She recalls assignments from the Langsam class that challenged students to show sensuality within their mode of work, and in the process, consider how their work would be identified as their own or how they would be identified as artists through their work.

“I’d always made collages as a hobby, or for fun, but had never taken it seriously as an art form,” she says. “I made collages for these homework assignments, and it just opened up this whole other discussion about what my work was – making something I could really identify with personally, whether through the palette or the medium.

“It enabled me to use humor in my work, which is a big part of my personality, and all of those things I think I struggled to do with just painting – especially figurative painting. That opened up a floodgate of possibilities.”

Lanese rode that wave of creativity to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. By the time she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2007, the transformation of her work had significantly progressed.

“I started off by making these small-scale collage pieces that I’d begun at CIA, and in the course of two years, basically really got into the collage process but also reached a point where I felt very limited in scale because I was using all of these small images I’d cut out from magazines, mostly,” she says. “So that led to this exploration of figuring out how to work large-scale but still stay true to this process I’d devised. By the time I finished, my thesis project was a wall-scale installation that was paint and collage directly on the wall.”

Earning her MFA marked the end of her schooling but not the end of her time in a classroom. In 2012, she became an assistant art professor at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich., about a 45-minute drive northwest of Toledo. She’s also director of the university’s Klemm Gallery.

That Lanese’s parents were both educators influenced her decision to teach, but she also received a little motherly advice on the matter.

“When I went to college, I’d kind of flirted with the idea of being an art major only, but my mom wasn’t on board with that,” she says, laughing. “It wasn’t like she was forcing me to do that. I had an interest anyway, but she gently encouraged me to have a back-up plan for art, which was good. It was smart.”

Expanding her art

“Depthless Without You” (2015); paint on wood and drywall, Akron Art Museum; photo by Shane Wynn Photography courtesy of the artist.

“Depthless Without You” (2015); paint on wood and drywall, Akron Art Museum; photo by Shane Wynn Photography
courtesy of the artist.

Lanese’s work in collage has evolved since its beginnings at CWRU and CIA. Not only has her canvas expanded to cover larger areas, but the elements she places in her creations have shifted. The days of cutting out photos from vintage, ’50s- and ’60s-era interior decorating magazines are out, and human beings are in.

Inspired by her travels and desire to visit as many U.S. national parks as possible, Lanese considers some of her recent works as landscapes. And now, a key element to her work is the way in which she places objects – and people – within the topography.

“Collage is still a part of it, it’s just not photographs, she says. “Though I’m not literally cutting and pasting, I do think about the way I position different elements in the work.”

A good example of this was the “Depthless Without You” installation last year at Akron Art Museum, which she described as “a painting you could walk into.”

“The idea that it wrapped around walls and covered the entire floor transformed it into an environment,” she says. “There was of course the anticipation that people would be photographing themselves in it. That’s not something I’m telling them to do, but I’m also fully aware they’re going to do it. Part of the thought process of that piece was how people might position themselves in it and create their own images of it.”

That dynamic – working the multidimensional – is what motivates Lanese most at the moment. Her mind wraps itself around the possibilities it presents for her art.

“A painting is an illusion on a two-dimensional surface, and then I’m creating through color and pattern an illusion of some kind of depth of field, whether it’s through scale or overlapping forms or perspective lines,” she says. “Then, with the addition of dimension – actual dimension – I can manipulate those things so that depending on where you’re standing, it can look like an object in front of you, or because of the pattern or way it’s painted, it might just blend in and flatten into the wall behind it.

“I love having fun with how all of those things work in concert with one another, so that as a person moves through that space, they can experience something sculptural, a painting, and something that kind of exists between those two things based on where they’re standing and what the illusion might be,” she continues. “And if you take a photo, then it’s cycling back around. You’ve created another two-dimensional image out of that experience, and I’m into that right now. That’s what I think about a lot.”

So where does Lanese want to take her art from here?

“Lately, I’ve wanted to paint an entire building – the outside of it,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and I think it’s very much inspired by the number of empty buildings I’m surrounded by, especially churches.”

In that regard, the sky may literally be the limit for Lanese. She jokes she sometimes doubts her ability to take on an entire building – namely when she’s 35 feet up in a scissor lift that’s swaying in the wind.

“But I think at this point, I’m addicted to working big, and I just want to keep seeing things bigger,” she says. “It’s really fun thinking about things that are dimensional and transforming them in a painted object.” CV

On View

Natalie Lanese

Natalie Lanese’s “Cavern” is on view at Case Western Reserve University’s Tinkham Veale University Center, 11038 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

“Cleveland, City of Light, City of Magic” is on view underneath the George V. Voinovich Bridge just south of the intersection of Ontario Street and Carnegie Avenue (across from Progressive Field) in downtown Cleveland.

Lead image: Natalie Lanese paints in parts of the initial design for “Cavern,” which was later installed on a much larger scale, at her home studio.

“Bather,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on linen; 121.9 x 182.9 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.189. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

The early artwork of Alex Katz shines in “Brand-New & Terrific” at the Cleveland Museum of Art

By Michael C. Butz

“Four People,” 1953–54. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 60.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Seventy-fifth anniversary gift of the artist 1991.310. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Four People,” 1953–54. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 60.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Seventy-fifth anniversary gift of the artist 1991.310. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

As Alex Katz began his career in the 1950s, contemporaries and institutions largely shunned his artwork because it was a distinct departure from the abstract expressionism – think the emotive splatters of Jackson Pollack or the forceful tension of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” series – that defined the era.

Some 60 years later, however, Katz’s artistic persistence is rewarded in the form of a comprehensive exhibition of his early work. The featured art – figurative in nature, lush with pastels and cream colors – is immediately impressive and puts on display the shortsightedness of the prevailing mid-century mindset.

“Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s,” which derives its name from Katz’s early manifesto announcing his intentions to invigorate traditional artist subject matter and showcases more than 70 loans from public and private collections, is on view from April 30 through Aug. 6 in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Hall.

The exhibition was organized by the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, where it was first on view in late 2015, and curated by Colby’s Katz curator, Diana K. Tuite, who says the context in which he made his art is important to consider while taking in the show.

“Especially in the early years, it was so unfashionable – this was the kind of painting that could get you in trouble,” she says. “It was radical to be painting in a more traditional style, in some respects. It was seen as backwards, or regressive – and it meant he didn’t get many exhibitions, except at artist-run galleries.”

“Lincolnville Beach,” 1956. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on canvas; 122.4 x 178.6 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Lincolnville Beach,” 1956. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on canvas; 122.4 x 178.6 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

So was Katz a triumphant underdog? Perhaps in some ways. But the larger narrative of “Brand-New & Terrific” is one of the Brooklyn-born and Queens-raised artist developing and mastering his craft.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by early ’50s works Katz finished not long after completing studies at The Cooper Union in New York (1949) and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine (1950).

For these figurative paintings, Katz worked from black-and-white photographs rather than with models, and as he translated the photos to canvas, he added colors, blocked out figures, and omitted certain details and features.

The scenes – family gatherings, busy street vendors, neighborhood kids on a sidewalk, groups of adult friends – are all vaguely familiar. Combined with the curiosity the figures’ featureless nature elicits, viewers are naturally drawn in to Katz’s world. “Four People” conveys a sort of stoic melancholy but leaves viewers to ponder the mood and occasion. Further, it’s inadvertently nostalgic. One can easily envision a Studebaker Sky Hawk parked next to the house behind the four figures.

Katz’s use of color is extraordinary. Inspired in part by his surroundings and influenced by works from French artist Henri Matisse, he sophisticatedly harmonizes hues – eggshell blues, goldenrods, grassy greens, peaches-and-creams, burnt oranges – and drops viewers into dreamy landscapes. The soft pink sky and waterfront depicted in “Camden, Maine” transport viewers to an enchanting seaside twilight.

By the mid ’50s, Katz started experimenting with small-scale collages. Inspired further by Matisse, who’d been working with cut paper since the late 1940s, Katz explored the way shapes could inform his art.

“Track Jacket,” 1956. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 45.7 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Promised gift of the artist, 019.2004. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Track Jacket,” 1956. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 45.7 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Promised gift of the artist, 019.2004. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Katz transferred lessons learned from his collages to his paintings, which were growing larger in scale. “Lincolnville Beach,” which demonstrates his use of structures and color to produce his scene, superbly captures this moment in the artist’s development.

In the latter half of the decade, Katz shifted his focus to portraits. Facial features make their way into the work, but the scenes behind the figures slowly fade away – to the point where he dispenses with them altogether in favor of freestanding wood cutouts, or “flat statues,” as they were called at first.

By this time, he’d stopped using photographs and instead used people as models. “Track Jacket” is a self-portrait, but otherwise he relied on friends and creative colleagues. Katz’s most frequent muse for portraits was his wife, Ada del Moro, a research biologist he met in 1957 and married in 1958.

The solitary nature in which Katz depicts his subjects is reminiscent of portrait photographs from a bygone era – and at times invites psychological interrogations from viewers. But that isn’t the only reason they’re engaging. Katz’s use of color again draws attention, providing intriguing consonance between subjects more complex than in his earlier works and backgrounds equally more muted.

In 1959, Katz completed “Ada Ada,” which as the name implies, depicted his wife twice in the same painting. Tuite points out that in this piece, the “one-for-one concept gets confounded” by Katz, thus raising questions regarding the intent of portraiture. Further, some consider “Ada Ada” a precursor to the Pop Art movement and Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.”

“Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on canvas; 167.6 x 217.2 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.190. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on canvas; 167.6 x 217.2 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.190. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Brand-New & Terrific” concludes with a gallery that’s unique to the Cleveland iteration of the exhibition: ’60s- and ’70s-era Katz works that are part of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s permanent collection. In fact, Tuite says CMA’s possession of these pieces made it a natural fit for this show.

“We had thought of Cleveland very early on,” she says, adding she’s “excited” that the exhibition is showing at CMA. “It’s such a major museum, and it has a great collection of American art.”

Anchored by “Impala,” a monumental 1968 canvas that approximates Katz’s quick sideways glance at Ada immersed in thought during a drive through the Utah mountains, CMA’s collection serves as a fitting coda to the main attraction.

If widespread praise eluded Katz – who’ll turn 90 during the run of “Brand-New & Terrific” at CMA – decades ago, it shouldn’t now. This exhibition is a delight, and it showcases why Katz’s early artwork deserves recognition equal to that earned by other artistic heavyweights of the ’50s. CV

On view

WHAT: “Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s”

WHEN: April 30 through Aug. 6

WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd.

TICKETS: $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and college students; $6 for children 6 to 17; free for museum members and children under 5

MORE: “In Conversation: Diana Tuite and Alex Katz” at 7 p.m. Friday, May 12, in CMA’s Gartner Auditorium. Join Katz and Tuite for a discussion about Katz’s career and works in the exhibition. Free; ticket required.

INFO: Visit clevelandart.org or call 216-421-7350.

Lead image: “Bather,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on linen; 121.9 x 182.9 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.189. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

6. EL 135.58 Untitled (Crown), 1982. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper; 20 x 29 in. Private collection, courtesy of Lio Malca. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Mark-Woods.com

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s cultural observations and poetic parsings brought to light in journal entries at Cleveland Museum of Art’s “The Unknown Notebooks”

By Michael C. Butz

1. Tamra Davis_Basquiat Still Still from A Conversation with Basquiat, 2006. Tamra Davis (American, b. 1962). 23 min., 22 sec. © Tamra Davis. Courtesy of the artist. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum

1. Tamra Davis_Basquiat Still
Still from A Conversation with Basquiat, 2006. Tamra Davis (American, b. 1962). 23 min., 22 sec. © Tamra Davis. Courtesy of the artist. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum

Examples of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s masterful wordplay and the peek into his artistic process on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” are unquestionably — and rightfully — the exhibition’s main attractions. The largely untraditional works, many of them torn-out pages from composition books, offer a rarely seen roadmap of the late Neo-Expressionist’s artistic genius.

But an additional draw, adding even greater weight to these pieces, are the ways in which Basquiat creatively dissects race, culture and class — issues he contended with regularly in 1980s New York as he ascended to the top of the art world — and how his critical commentary still reverberates in present-day America.

“The Unknown Notebooks,” eight notebooks with more than 140 pages of poems and drawings as well as 50 related works on paper and large-scale paintings, runs through April 23 in CMA’s Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Gallery. It’s the last stop for the show, which was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and stopped in Atlanta and Miami before arriving in Cleveland.

In the first half of the exhibition, viewers are surrounded by a log of Basquiat’s artistic musings and observations. Framed single-page notebook tear-outs line the walls, and long, glass-encased tables in the center of the room showcase yet more notebook compositions.

11. EL 135.10 Untitled, 1980. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Mixed media on paper; 24 x 18 x 1/2 in. Private collection. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging

11. EL 135.10
Untitled, 1980. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Mixed media on paper; 24 x 18 x 1/2 in. Private collection. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging

Noting the way in which his writing — largely in black and mostly in block capital lettering — mimics his artistic beginnings as a graffiti artist, and noting the carefully crafted positioning of words on his paper canvas, it becomes evident what Basquiat meant when he said he used words like brushstrokes.

He also employs scratches and crossed-out words, the visual meant to draw eyes and thoughts closer to the affected text, and his use of single words and fragments of phrases is meant to pull people in, leaving them to speculate about meanings or associations.

While these notebooks have remained under wraps all these years, this intentionality suggests they were always meant to be seen.

Images also appear in Basquiat’s notebooks. The most notable are a crude version of the crown symbol that would become synonymous with his work, the copyright symbol he used to express reclamation and ownership, and a tepee to signify a kinship he felt with Native Americans also subjected to racial inequality.

Additional autobiographical elements are on display, perhaps most significantly in a series of five untitled works that share a “Jimmy Best” theme. Though not on notebook paper, they mimic the style of such entries, and the pieces have been interpreted as suggesting a young African-American down on his luck due in part to childhood adversity, and in one, a car crash is depicted.

The son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, who grew up in a broken home in 1960s and ’70s New York, Basquiat was hit by a car when he was 7, sending him to the hospital for a month. In addition, as a high school dropout who for a time made a living by selling T-shirts and postcards on the street, Basquiat very easily could’ve pulled from his own experience to tell Jimmy Best’s story — but he also touches on a narrative that plays out to this day.

20. EL 135.05.07 Untitled Notebook Page, c. 1987. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

20. EL 135.05.07
Untitled Notebook Page, c. 1987. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

Upon entering the second half of the exhibition, viewers encounter more traditional Basquiat works — oilstick-on-paper pieces, collages and wood-mounted canvases — that demonstrate how he ultimately expressed the ideas and wordplay with which he experimented in his notebooks, thus bringing the experience full circle. Among them is a piece exclusive to the Cleveland iteration of “The Unknown Notebooks” – “Untitled” (1982), on loan from The Progressive Corporation.

These works are filled with expressive imagery representative of Basquiat as an adroit cultural observer. “Famous Negro Athletes” consists of four African-American faces over a baseball and the phrase from which the piece gets its name. That it’s unclear who the “famous” athletes are is an acknowledgment of racism inherent in the cultural equation, and the graffiti-like way in which the title is scrawled across the bottom provides a tangible edginess.

In “Famous Negro Athletes,” the illustrations and words are equally important — and equally powerful. One gets the same impression when viewing “Untitled (Titian),” “All Beef” and “Famous.” Basquiat expertly juxtaposes the give and take of words and images with the social dichotomies he examines, inviting viewers to explore the many layers of meaning in his art.

That type of dynamic is found throughout “The Unknown Notebooks,” which indeed makes it an exhibition worth knowing. Those drawn to the intersection of contemporary art and contemporary issues, as well as Basquiat fans in search of a deeper understanding of the late artist, will all take something away from this show. The pages and other works on view give a glimpse of Basquiat not only as an artist but also as a person, and it’s a mesmerizing glimpse. CV

19. EL 135.14.04 Untitled Notebook Page, 1981–84. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

19. EL 135.14.04
Untitled Notebook Page, 1981–84. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

On view

WHAT: “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks”

WHEN: Through April 23

WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd.

TICKETS: $10 for adults; $8 for seniors and college students; $5 for children 6 to 17; free for museum members and children under 5

MORE: “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” at 7 p.m. on March 1 and March 3; “Basquiat” at 7 p.m. March 24 and 1:30 p.m. March 26. All screenings in CMA’s Morley Lecture Hall.

INFO: Visit clevelandart.org or call 216-421-7350.


Lead image: 6. EL 135.58. Untitled (Crown), 1982. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper; 20 x 29 in. Private collection, courtesy of Lio Malca. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Mark-Woods.com

Adam Pendleton, Yes But, 2008, acrylic paint on wall, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Adam Pendleton and Lisa Oppenheim revisit and restore historical events to comment on present-day problems in exhibitions on view at MOCA Cleveland

By Michael C. Butz

Adam Pendleton, WE (we are not successive), 2016, silkscreen ink on mirror polished stainless steel, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Adam Pendleton, WE (we are not successive), 2016, silkscreen ink on mirror polished stainless steel, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Art has long been an instrument of social change. In the hands of capable creators, it exposes injustices, inspires action, provides a platform for those without one and interprets what’s happening in the world around us.

Such framing applies to two of MOCA Cleveland’s newest exhibitions – “Adam Pendleton: Becoming Imperceptible” and “Lisa Oppenheim: Spine” – the timing of which couldn’t be more felicitous. Against the backdrop of American political discord, the shows are stirring and historically informed reminders of how art is uniquely suited to examine issues of race, gender and labor.

Along with “Zarouhie Abdalian and Joseph Rosenzweig: Transport Empty,” “Jeremy Deller: Video Works,” the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s winter/spring exhibitions are on view through May 14 in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood.

Visitors to “Becoming Imperceptible,” Pendleton’s largest solo shot to date, which is on display in the Mueller Family Gallery and Rosalie + Morton Cohen Family Gallery, are greeted by “Black Lives Matter #3,” a floor-to-ceiling adhesive vinyl production that, with graffiti-like writing, will feel familiar to anyone who’s stood next to fragments of the Berlin Wall. Evoking this divisive relic of the not-too-distant past is a fitting introduction to an exhibition that examines one of America’s most divisive issues: race. That’s a tricky topic to navigate, of course, but navigate one must through this exhibition – literally, and meaningfully.

Adam Pendleton, My Education: A Portrait of David Hilliard, 2011-2014, 3-channel black-and-white video with sound, 9:19. Installation view, Becoming Imperceptible, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Adam Pendleton, My Education: A Portrait of David Hilliard, 2011-2014, 3-channel black-and-white video with sound, 9:19. Installation view, Becoming Imperceptible, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

The mirrors employed in three “Untitled (water)” works alter one’s perspective on where to stand in what silkscreen ink, along with the reflection in the mirror, look like filling or emptying tanks of water. Similarly, four “Untitled (code poem)” pieces nearby, comprised of rectangular and circular ceramic blocks laid on the floor, challenge viewers to crack indecipherable codes, and in the process, prompt them to question their points of view.

In addition to those two series, works from Pendleton’s ongoing “Black Dada” series, as well as text-focused pieces like “Yes But” and “WE (we are not successive),” are on view. All frame language as conceptual art, and all demonstrate Pendleton’s ability to calculatingly leave open to interpretation issues surrounding sociopolitical messaging and the way people communicate.

Two video works stand out. “My Education: A Portrait of David Hilliard,” follows Hilliard, the founding chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, as he takes Pendleton through the Oakland neighborhoods the movement called home in the 1960s. The three-channel, black-and-white presentation lasts about nine minutes, and by placing the viewer on the sidewalk and in the streets alongside Hilliard, engages and provides a compelling historical context for events that transpired 50 years ago – but that in ways mirror current ones.

Lisa Oppenheim, Mildred Benjamin, 17 years old. Right dorsal curvature. Scoliosis. Right shoulder higher than left. Shows incorrect position required to perform this kind of work, 2016, dye sublimation print on aluminum, 56 1/8 x 20 3/8 inches (left panel); 56 1/8 x 18 1/2 inches (right panel); 56 1/8 x 38 7/8 inches (overall). Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Lisa Oppenheim, Mildred Benjamin, 17 years old. Right dorsal curvature. Scoliosis. Right shoulder higher than left. Shows incorrect position required to perform this kind of work, 2016, dye sublimation print on aluminum, 56 1/8 x 20 3/8 inches (left panel); 56 1/8 x 18 1/2 inches (right panel); 56 1/8 x 38 7/8 inches (overall). Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

“Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer” is a single-channel black-and-white video that’s new for the Cleveland iteration of “Becoming Imperceptible.” (The exhibition debuted in New Orleans and stopped in Denver before arriving in Northeast Ohio.) It places Pendleton and Rainer, a noted dancer, choreographer and performance artist, in a New York City deli, where they share a table and a bite to eat, and where Rainer reads aloud a Pendleton-produced script.

The script is derived from fragmented sources including a letter written to Rainer by a fellow performer; a 1964 speech delivered in Cleveland by Malcolm X; and selections from “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, that include references to the controversial Cleveland Police-involved deaths of Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice.

Rainer’s voice breaks, and she often pauses to collect herself, as she reads the script low-key, leaving space for the viewer to feel the weight of the words. Like the rest of “Becoming Imperceptible,” this piece resonates.

“Spine,” on view in the Toby Devan Lewis Gallery, is the first solo museum exhibition in the United States for Oppenheim, who like Pendleton is based in New York City. The exhibition brings together three bodies of work: Lewis Hine photographs of textile workers, landscape portraits and jacquard weavings.

Hine’s photographs, which exposed inequities in the turn-of-the-20th-century textile industry, are credited with changing U.S. child labor laws in the early 1900s. They depict children deformed – with misaligned backs and/or uneven shoulders – from the physically taxing jobs they performed. Some must lean against a wall to support themselves while standing.

Oppenheim mostly focuses on adolescent female figures in her work – work that involved enlarging the black-and-white images and bisecting them onto aluminum plates along each subject’s spine. The girls are all turned away from the camera, their bare backs exposed.

Lisa Oppenheim, Tie-Dyed Fragment, c. 700-1100 A.D., 2016, jacquard woven linen, cotton, and mohair textile, 31 1/2 x 52 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Lisa Oppenheim, Tie-Dyed Fragment, c. 700-1100 A.D., 2016, jacquard woven linen, cotton, and mohair textile, 31 1/2 x 52 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

The manner in which Oppenheim reintroduces these images brings to mind present-day issues of gender equality, in the workplace or otherwise, and brings to light an unsettling sexualization of industry-inflicted damage suffered by the girls. Further, the pieces suggest that being a woman in modern times continues, figuratively, to be a back-breaking endeavor, or that more backbone is required of women than is expected from male counterparts due to societal double standards.

Similarly to Oppenheim’s Hine reproductions, her series of jacquard loom-woven textiles – derived from jpegs of pre-Colombian textiles found in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art – traces the path from analog to digital processes, or more broadly, from past to present.

By mining historical works and events, and by skillfully contextualizing them for contemporary consideration, both Oppenheim and Pendleton offer compelling reminders of how art can affect society. Timely and remarkably relevant, their works engage viewers in ways that could – and should – urge them to engage in pointed conversation about the challenges facing today’s America. CV

On view

WHAT: MOCA Cleveland winter/spring exhibition

WHO: “Adam Pendleton: Becoming Imperceptible,” “Lisa Oppenheim: Spine,” “Zarouhie Abdalian and Joseph Rosenzweig: Transport Empty,” “Jeremy Deller: Video Works”

WHEN: Through May 14

WHERE: 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

INFO: Visit mocacleveland.org or call 216-421-8671.


Lead image: Adam Pendleton, Yes But, 2008, acrylic paint on wall, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

 

 

The Euclid Beach Grand Carousel at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Photo | Michael C. Butz

by Michael C. Butz

Western Reserve Historical Society president and CEO Kelly Falcone-Hall addresses the audience during the 2016 WRHS annual meeting Dec. 6 at the historical society's Cleveland History Center in Cleveland's University Circle neighborhood. CJN Photo | Michael C. Butz

Western Reserve Historical Society president and CEO Kelly Falcone-Hall addresses the audience during the 2016 WRHS annual meeting Dec. 6 at the historical society’s Cleveland History Center in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood. Photo | Michael C. Butz

The Western Reserve Historical Society used its 2016 annual meeting on Dec. 6 not only to look back at the past year’s successes but also to look ahead to 2017, a celebratory year that will mark its 150th anniversary.

Chief among the evening’s announcements were new details concerning the historical society’s forthcoming Cleveland Starts Here exhibition, a permanent exhibition meant to serve as a starting point for the exploration of the social, creative, economic, political and cultural history of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio that will open in November 2017 in the Cleveland History Center’s Reinberger Gallery in University Circle.

The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation was revealed to be the Cleveland Starts Here’s title sponsor thanks to a $500,000 gift that will support both the $2.5 million project’s installation and its digital portal, which will provide global audiences access to WRHS archives and artifacts. Artist renderings of how Cleveland Starts Here might appear in the 3,500-square-foot gallery also were unveiled at the meeting.

WRHS president and CEO Kelly Falcone-Hall told about 200 WRHS members and stakeholders in attendance that Cleveland Starts Here is the type of exhibition the historical society is well-suited to host.

“As you walk through the Cleveland History Center, you’re surrounded by Cleveland and Northeast Ohio history, but what this site has lacked … is a cohesive narrative that really ties it all together,” she said. “Whether you’re new to the area or you’ve been here your entire life, there needs to be a place where you can come experience this history.”

Morton L. Mandel, chairman and CEO of the Mandel Foundation, was unable to attend the annual meeting but said in a statement that Cleveland Starts Here will play an important and inspiring educational role.

“We are delighted to partner with the historical society on this project that inspires pride in our city and region, and catapults incredible stories about our hometown to national and global audiences. By providing online access to the stories of great leaders and events in society, we believe that this project has the power to capture human spirit and inspire excellence in our school children, in our families and in our leaders,” he said.

In addition to the opening Cleveland Starts Here, a number of other WRHS events were announced for 2017, highlighted by “Somewhere in Time: Guess Who’s Turning 150,” a birthday celebration scheduled for Jan. 28 at the Cleveland History Center. cv


Lead image: The Euclid Beach Grand Carousel at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Photo | Michael C. Butz

 

Oldfather2

The cerebral musings of Dana Oldfather paint profound pictures with ‘universal’ appeal

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Emerald City 03,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic and pigment on panel, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“Emerald City 03,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic and pigment on panel, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Crouched down on the paint-splattered hardwood floor of her home studio in Newburgh Heights, Dana Oldfather pauses from pouring a diluted acrylic over a raw Belgian linen to consider what’s next.

How will the blues and golds in this painting interact? Where will they settle on an uneven canvas, the result of a janky floor in her 1920s house? What factors should she try to control? Which should she let go of?

The 37-year-old admits that sometimes she isn’t sure exactly what she’s looking for during those creative exhales, describing the process as a “weird flow thing where you’re not really in your head.”

Truth is, Oldfather actually spends a great deal of time in her head – and once you fully absorb the colors, shapes and designs that provide a sort of concrete splendor to her abstract art and graduate to contemplating what’s underneath it all, her work will spend a great deal of time in your head, too.

Rooted in Oldfather’s recent works are tenets of string theory, which, in short, explains how both large objects like planets and small objects (think subatomic particles) move and interact in the universe. It explains things for which quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity can’t account.

“I am blown away by the idea that tiny particles we originally thought were points or spheres may actually be a loop of string crunched down into a sphere,” she says. “It’s a completely different shape, vibrating and moving and allowing for possibilities previously unthought of.”

Heady stuff, to be sure, and not the sort of thing many immediately associate with art. But at the theory’s core is the idea that matter and energy are comprised of strings that split and combine, emitting and absorbing one another – actions depicted by the physical elements created during those creative pauses in Oldfather’s work.

Intellectually, one then ponders possible parallels between dimensionality and the many layers of her paintings, and by extension, the layers of one’s own life journey. Skipping brush strokes in her work that suggest the passage of time amplify these thoughts.

Matters of science go beyond fascination with Oldfather. In the same way they inspire and inform her art, she hopes her art ignites something meaningful in others.

“I’d love for one of my paintings to spark something in some person – regular person, scientist, mathematician, anyone – something latent, something that sits in their brain, nothing that they could even trace back to my work but that helps them to think of something to better humanity,” she says.

Point of origin

Oldfather knew she wanted to be an artist at a young age, but not before considering an alternative career path.

“For a short while, it was either to be the first female professional baseball player or an artist – until I realized I was terrible at baseball and that was never going to happen,” she says, smiling. “Baseball is really fun, but man I sucked at it. I was really bad.”

Oldfather was born in Berea, and she recalls her first oil painting came at age 6 – which might’ve been expected considering her father, Mark Oldfather, and aunt, Gretchen Troibner, are both artists. In fact, both were award winners at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show: Oldfather in 1977, and Troibner in 1981 and 1983.

She was 7 when her father and mother, Paula Brain, an accountant, divorced, after which she and her brother, Nick, lived with her father in Mentor. The elder Oldfather often relied on the tools of his trade to entertain.

“He was like, ‘You guys are being crazy?’ or ‘You’re bored? Here, here’s some sidewalk chalk. Go outside,’” she recalls. “He’d give us this big tin of really great pastels. He’d always set us up with watercolors – you know, nice ones. Artists’ stuff – way too nice for kids to be using.”

Dana Oldfather works on “Frothing” in late September at her home studio in Newburgh Heights.

Dana Oldfather works on “Frothing” in late September at her home studio in Newburgh Heights.

Her Mentor High School art teachers were quick to pick up on her homegrown artistic talent. After two days in an accelerated class, they wanted to put her a grade ahead in art class.

“By the time I was a senior, I had my own open studio class, which was awesome,” she says. “That was a really big encouragement for me, having such a high honor in such a big school like that. I really felt like … it was some kind of validation.”

Oldfather’s mother supported her art, too, but when graduation time came, she wanted her daughter to go to college to get a “real job.”

“She always wanted me to be an engineer, but she started being supportive after I took a job as a paralegal, and it was crushing my soul,” she recalls. “The work was so hard and I was so stressed out that my mom was like, ‘Just get into the art market. Whatever you have to do. Clean the floors at the museum – anything you can do just to be around that environment. You need to meet these people.’”

Starting line

After about three years as a receptionist/paralegal, Oldfather, by then 21 years old, heeded that advice – at The Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland.

“I remember her coming in the door and hiring her to work here,” recalls Olga Merela, gallery manager and art consultant at Bonfoey. “To see her go through the period of rudimentary drawing and struggling to see whether there was something there for her, and to see where she is now, it’s an evolution. The fact she’s come so far is a wonderful thing.”

“We usually don’t see that. By the time an artist gets to us, they already have a career – or they’re not as young,” says Marcia Hall, gallery director and art consultant at Bonfoey, adding that the gallery has handled Oldfather’s work for about 10 years now. “We’ve been able to watch her grow, which has been a great experience.”

Bonfoey provided Oldfather, a figurative realist at the time, an environment in which she could learn and focus more on her art, though working by day and painting by night proved exhausting. After a couple of years, she obtained a second job – as a bartender at Frank & Tony’s Place in downtown Willoughby – that helped relieve that exhaustion.

A relatively lucrative gig, bartending meant she could work part-time at both jobs, thus affording her full days to paint in her studio. The arrangement worked so well that in 2009, her art was on display at Bonfoey – in what she considers her first “real” exhibition.

That ascendancy isn’t to say Oldfather didn’t struggle along the way. When she did, she found it helped to turn to the printed page.

“I read a lot of memoirs when I was struggling with finding my own work, and I was struggling to find my place in the art community and place in the market. I mean, we’re always struggling with that, but I was really struggling,” she says. “It helped me to read memoirs of other artists who were successful, especially female artists. To see somebody who looks like me doing what I wanted to do gave me the drive to keep going.”

A memoir of note was that of abstract painter Joan Mitchell, who like Oldfather grew up in the Midwest and had an artist father.

“My dad was a figurative realist, and he’s a very, very good one. I really identified when reading Joan Mitchell’s biography because her dad was a realist, too. She felt like she wasn’t as good as he was, so she went into abstraction. That way, she couldn’t be compared to him,” she says. “I really identified with that, big time. It’s sort of like when I learned I couldn’t be a baseball player because I couldn’t stand up to all these other kids who are a lot better than me. Same thing. My dad is so good. That’s why some people don’t like to look at Picasso too much, because they’re, like, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this like this.’ So, you just have to find what you can do.”

Learning process

Absent from Oldfather’s career is any sort of artistic training via higher education. She’s completely self-taught, following a path suggested by her father, who went to the Kansas City Art Institute but lasted only two semesters.

“He felt the teachers were trying to make him be like them instead of him finding his own artistic voice,” she says, explaining that his advice to her was to bypass college to spend time in a studio learning from what she was painting.

“It only worked for me because it fit the way that I work. I think most people really need to go to school to get that critical feedback that’s necessary to make it to the next level as an artist,” she says. “For me, it didn’t make sense to go get an MFA, but I think those programs are really important to the arts community – and to keeping the work that’s being made at a certain level. I have to compete with people who are in that realm as well, and that’s important to me, to keep me pushing and keep me trying to get better.”

So who then provides that critical feedback to Oldfather? Friends who are fellow artists, like Amber Kempthorn, Amy Casey, Sarah Kabot and Mark Keffer.

And then there’s Carrie Moyer, a New York City-based painter whom Oldfather met during a 2011 residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vt. Oldfather credits the encounter – and a few “simple” words – with “blowing my practice wide open.”

“You can be so close to the images you’re making and thinking about different things that you can ignore something that everyone sees but you. She pointed something out to me that I didn’t notice. She said, ‘Yeah, this is great, and you have a lot of confidence, but where are all the big shapes?’ Like, so simple,” says Oldfather, explaining her work up to that point featured a lot of “tiny, little, itty bitty” elements.

“It was one of the ways I could make the abstractions look more real, and it was something I totally didn’t get at all,” she says. “I was using the negative space as the big shape, but it wasn’t really enough. Everything was just kind of hovering out there, so applying the big shapes really allowed me get more depth into the work – and it helped me build up my layers.”

The finished product: “Frothing,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic, pigment and spray paint on linen, 38 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

The finished product: “Frothing,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic, pigment and spray paint on linen, 38 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Reaching for stars

With big shapes in place, Oldfather has hit the big time.

She’s won awards, like the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2013. Her work is represented by Bonfoey and Zg Gallery in Chicago. It graces the walls of places like The Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and is included in both the Pizzuti Collection and The Progressive Art Collection. In 2013, she had a solo show at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, which Bonfoey’s Hall and Merela agree was a big deal.

“Given Dana’s relative youth, the show at the Butler was amazing in that she’s someone who’s a self-taught artist and risen by the merits of her work,” Merela says. “The exhibition was a vote of confidence in the work she’ll be producing and has already produced.”

In 2016, she’s had two solo shows: “Sweet, Sweet, Sweet” at Zg Gallery and “Sugar” at Red Arrow Gallery in Nashville. This year’s saccharine themes are inspired in part by her own sweet tooth – she describes moving wet paint around with her brush like “spreading cake icing” – but also that of her and husband Randall Darling Jr.’s 3-year-old son, Arlo.

Oldfather admits she didn’t feel prepared for motherhood.

“I read a lot of books, and I talked to as many young moms as I could, but … people don’t want to scare a pregnant lady, you know? So, people don’t say stuff like how hard it is and how alienating it is,” she explains. “And not even alienating like no one wants anything to do with you, it’s just like the way you have to be to keep an infant alive. Just to get through, you have to do and become all of these things that are not natural.”

Attempts to reconcile these feelings pushed Oldfather into her studio. “I was in such a depressed, drastic, desperate state that it really let me get weird and messy with the work. It pushed it to a new level,” she says. “I can’t tell if it was from the kid or just because of the time, you know, like it was time for that to happen, but I can’t help but feeling the desperation I felt was the emotive push I really needed.

“I’m kind of riding the wave of what I learned when my son was an infant, and it’s turning into something else already. My work changes so fast, I’m pulling apart ideas all the time.”

Her mind perpetually creating, mining human experiences while exploring the intersection of psychology and cosmology, she’s an artist continually hoping to inspire through her creative pursuits.

“My grandest hope is that (my) invented, multidimensional images could play a small, unnoticed part in sparking a scientific idea or concept pertaining to dimensions, our existence or the theory of everything,” she says. “I don’t know how they will or could do this. I don’t know enough about the theories or the math to nail that down. As my friend Amy Casey likes to say, ‘I’m just a painter.’ But … I’m reaching for the stars. Quite literally, I suppose.” CV

On View

Dana Oldfather

• “Thump … Dump, Clump, Lump … Bump!” is on view through Nov. 19 at Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland. Oldfather curated the exhibition, which features art from Andy Curlowe, Amber Kempthorn, Amy Kligman and Erik Neff.

• Oldfather’s work will be part of “Colors|Lines|Layers,” a group exhibition opening in April 2017 at CASS Contemporary Art Space in Tampa, Fla.

• “The Replicant & The Rotisseur,” a two-person exhibition featuring Oldfather and Mark Keffer, will be on view from Oct. 27, 2017 through Dec. 9, 2017 at The Galleries at CSU in Cleveland.

Akron2

Its past forged by industry, the Rubber City seeks to sculpt its future through arts and culture

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz
Illustration by Stephen Valentine

Northeast Ohioans are familiar with Akron’s reputation as the Rubber Capital of the World. It’s a moniker that hearkens back to the days when trucking, then war and then automobiles fueled America’s need for things like tires, boots and innovative applications of rubber – and in the process employed generations of Akronites.

The days when machinery churned day and night and the unmistakable smell of rubber hung in the air are gone, but the city – with good reason – is proud of its lunch-pail past. However, it’s just that: the past.

Arts and culture have been part of the next chapter for Akron and surrounding Summit County communities for some time now, but in 2014, a report comprehensively detailing the art scene’s strengths and weaknesses brought greater focus to efforts that would increase their role.

Momentum surrounding the city’s future as an arts hub has been building ever since, which is something fewer Northeast Ohioans – at least those around Greater Cleveland – may be familiar with than Akron’s industrial past.

“Akron and Summit County are in such an interesting and exciting place,” says Nicole Mullet, executive director of ArtsNow, a nonprofit designed to connect arts, culture and community in Summit County. “We’re deciding the narrative we’re going to tell about ourselves moving forward, and I think the arts and culture community is going to be a driving force in how we tell that story.”

Organizationally speaking

Summit Artspace in downtown Akron offers gallery, studio and office space to local artists and arts organizations.

Summit Artspace in downtown Akron offers gallery, studio and office space to local artists and arts organizations.

ArtsNow was founded in 2015 as a result of that 2014 report, the Arts & Culture Assessment for Summit County, which was based on resident surveys, interviews of institutional leaders and a number of community meetings.

Among the report’s findings were a lack of clear leadership in the arts and culture community and a lack of coordinated communication regarding programming available to residents.

“We knew there was no lack of things going on, but perhaps there was a lack of understanding about what was going on,” Mullet concedes.

Enter ArtsNow and SummitLive365.com, created by ArtsNow to serve as a one-stop shop for anyone interested in the arts by offering events listings, a directory of institutions, artist profiles, educational opportunities and even a classifieds section to help artists find employment or commissions.

ArtsNow is also invested in helping artists as entrepreneurs, and it partners with local corporations – among them some of those rubber companies that still call Akron home – to help employees and their families get the most out Summit County’s arts and culture offerings.

While downtown Akron can literally and figuratively be considered the center of Summit County’s arts scene, Mullet is quick to point to a strong supporting cast, including: Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood, home to annual festivals of creativity like PorchRokr and Square Fest; Akron’s Merriman Valley neighborhood, a gateway to Cuyahoga Valley National Park and home to Weathervane Playhouse and none too fragile theater; Barberton, where a growing arts district includes Nine Muses Art Gallery and the Art Center on Tuscarawas; and Cuyahoga Falls, where Front Street is home to Studio 2091 Mothersbaugh and Cuyahoga Valley Art Center.

“It’s truly a community that’s growing and learning together. It’s a group of people who are very much in it together to see the arts sector thrive in Summit County,” she says. “It’s a very healthy landscape for arts and culture right now, so it’d be wonderful if people from Cleveland took the very short trip down (Interstate) 77 to check us out.”

Anchor institution

Akron Art Museum

Akron Art Museum

From her vantage point as Akron Art Museum’s director of education, Alison Caplan senses the same positive momentum Mullet does.

“I think there’s a new vibrancy and interest in the arts downtown – and throughout Akron and Summit County,” she says. “I feel like (the museum is) a connecting place for people, whether you’re an art maker or someone who wants to plug in to activities.”

As one of the biggest players in Akron’s art scene, the museum is well positioned to better connect with the community. It’s been doing so through its Free Thursdays, when no admission fee and later hours are meant to make it easier for people to visit; its Inside|Out program, in which prints of works from the museum’s permanent collection are erected in various neighborhoods in the county; and its new Bud and Susie Rogers Garden, an inviting space that opened in July that can host exhibition opening receptions and other events. Currently in the works is an arts library in collaboration with its downtown neighbor, the Akron-Summit County Public Library.

“It will contain original works of art from artists in the region that people will be able to check out for three to four weeks and hang on their wall,” Caplan says. “The idea is that you don’t have to be a well-off person to collect art works from artists in our region, that there are so many ways you can participate in the local arts economy.”

“Single Elvis” by Andy Warhol was on view during the summer at the Firestone Park branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron as part of the Akron Art Museum’s Inside|Out program.

“Single Elvis” by Andy Warhol was on view during the summer at the Firestone Park branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron as part of the Akron Art Museum’s Inside|Out program.

Caplan also feels it’s important for the museum to flex its artistic muscle to attract national and international figures to the region, which it did recently when it hosted Theaster Gates, an acclaimed artist, musician, community organizer, urban planner and cultural entrepreneur from Chicago.

“We brought him here to lead conversations with the community, so I think besides being local and working with local groups, we also try to think globally,” Caplan says. “I think sometimes we get into a bubble in Akron, where we love local things and local things are awesome, but if we bring in an artist to work on a mural from Chicago, that’s really amazing because that artist can hire out local artists to contribute, and they learn from that experience – and it’ll bring more people into the community to see the works.”

Overall, Caplan feels Akron’s art scene is “pretty accessible,” pointing to the monthly Downtown Akron Art Walk (first Saturdays) and the artwork that’s popped up in and around the Summit Metro Parks and Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And like Mullet, she says it’s accessible to those from Greater Cleveland, too.

“I think there’s a stigma with driving to Akron, which is crazy,” says Caplan, who speaks from experience as a former Case Western Reserve University grad student. “I’ve lived in Cleveland, and if you drive from the East Side to the West Side, you’re pretty much going to spend as much time in your car, so it’s really not as far as you think it is to Akron.”

Gallery perspective

Sculptor Don Drumm stands outside his Akron studio and gallery.

Sculptor Don Drumm stands outside his Akron studio and gallery.

If anyone can offer a long, profound perspective on Akron’s art scene, it’s Don Drumm, whose prolific career as an artist and craftsman spans decades.

Drumm was born in Warren and earned his art degrees from Kent State University. He met his wife Lisa, then an arts teacher at the University of Akron, in 1958, and he opened his first studio in Akron in 1960.

“We were sort of the first who attempted to earn a living full-time as practicing artists in the city,” Drumm recalls.

In 1970, the couple opened a new studio on Crouse Street, just south of The University of Akron. In 1971, they made part of the studio a gallery, and the enterprise has been growing ever since. Today, there’s a veritable village of Drumm buildings on Crouse – eight, all told, painted in yellows, purples and greens and adorned by his trademark suns – giving visitors the sense they’re in for a unique experience.

Along the way, he pioneered the use of cast aluminum as an artistic medium and has flourished as a sculptor. His work can be seen publicly via the number of commissions he’s completed or privately in the homes of generations of Akronites who’ve received one of his pieces as a wedding gift or birthday present.

Drumm doesn’t consider himself to be a good teacher – “I prefer to create” – but he values education, and thinks it’s important to Akron’s future in the arts.

The Drumms established the Don and Lisa Drumm Endowed Scholarship to support graduates of the Akron Public School System entering The University of Akron’s School of Art. He’d also like to see universities like Akron and Kent State offer artists-to-be more diversified training so that as gallery owners like him age out (he’s 81), there will be a new generation of business-savvy artists to solidify the scene’s future.

“Akron U. has a law school, an engineering school, business – all these things would help young artists. They could do some seminars with them or what have you. At least by the time they get to their senior year, if they’re going to practice, they’ve got to know about these things,” he says. “You don’t just go out, if you’re a potter and start potting, and say ‘Here I am’ because nobody will hear you. You have to go knocking on doors.”

Drumm points to Summit Artspace – a community arts center in downtown Akron that to some extent, provides business and marketing training for artists – as one of the “great things” about the city’s art scene.

Toby Ann Weber, Summit Artspace board chair, says that following that 2014 report, the entity that oversaw Summit Artspace, the Akron Area Arts Alliance, conducted a self-assessment in an effort to better serve the community. One of its findings was that it was underutilizing its best asset – its building, a three-story structure just around the corner from the Akron Art Museum that once was home to the Akron Beacon Journal.

Since then, AAAA shifted its strategic direction to focus more on Summit Artspace than on some of its other endeavors. While not formally an incubator, the building now does more to serve as a place for artists to lease studio space, for organizations to rent office space, and for various entities to host workshops or educational training. Of course there’s also space to showcase art, from the first-floor gallery to just about any hallway, corner or landing available.

“There’s a lot more art in the building,” Weber says. “We’re serving a lot more artists by putting their work up everywhere we can.”

Summit Artspace is more than just a resource for artists. In 2017, it’s scheduled to host eight shows in its gallery, all of which will have programming meant to engage audiences – like panels, lectures and workshops – associated with them. Summit Artspace is also home to Crafty Mart, an indie handmade marketplace, and is one of the largest stops on the Downtown Akron Art Walk.

Further, Summit Artspace recently took over administrative control of Nine Muses and ACoT in Barberton, which Weber feels will provide more coordinated programming between two artistic outposts that are only about 10 miles apart – another signal that Akron’s art scene is coming together and growing.

“There’s certainly a lot more energy, visibility and connectivity among the artist and arts organizations – and our funders are making investments in the arts, which is great to see,” Weber says, adding that changes at Summit Artspace have paralleled those in Akron’s larger arts scene. “If you were in the building two years ago, you wouldn’t recognize it now. There’s a lot more activity. Come and check it out.” CV

Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle Jimmy Kuehnle’s latest work, “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle,” will be on view in the Akron Art Museum’s Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby and the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery through Feb. 19, 2017. For more information, call 330-376-9185 or visit akronartmuseum.org.

Through performance and installations, Jimmy Kuehnle’s art elicits interaction and participation

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Please, No Smash” (2015) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; kinetic inflatable. Courtesy of the artist.

“Please, No Smash” (2015) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; kinetic inflatable. Courtesy of the artist.

About halfway through the installation of his latest work of art – a large-scale, red inflatable called “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” – Jimmy Kuehnle realizes he’s going to have to crawl into his creation to make a couple of adjustments.

When fully inflated, this part of the installation will occupy a sizable portion of the Akron Art Museum’s Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby, serving as both a welcoming beacon to passersby through the entryway’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and jutting out over the doorway, a greeter to museum visitors.

This day’s snags involve a strand of lights that got tangled inside the polyester piece following a previous install attempt as well as a pair of scissors that had somehow slipped inside, visible only after Kuehnle and his crew of seven had pulled, pushed and lifted “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” into place and had it partially inflated.

Neither that physicality nor making such adjustments are unique to Kuehnle’s art – he and his team once donned scuba gear in an attempt to make adjustments to an inflatable installation in a museum pond – but the level of involvement in erecting his site-specific pieces hints at the level of participation he hopes to draw out of museumgoers. In fact, the second part of “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” is an inflatable labyrinth in the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery that visitors can feel and squeeze their way through.

“I don’t want you to think the museum is only a reverent place,” Kuehnle says, speaking generally. “I mean, museums are rad, and I like them, but you can run and jump in a museum as long as you don’t damage the really nice things.”

It’s meant to be fun, and the 37-year-old Cleveland Heights artist appears to have fun in the process. He relishes his role, which toggles between construction site foreman during installation and lead singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band during an opening reception. For the opening night of “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle,” he’ll be wearing a suit he made for himself out of the same red polyester that comprises his art. Slipping into character is part of the Jimmy Kuehnle experience.

“I’m very happy, and I think it’s going to work out great,” he says following installation, adding that he welcomes the challenges of the process. “That’s kind of the fun part. My dream is to come up with the ideas, then get to play builder until I get tired of it.”

Learning opportunities

Top: Jimmy Kuehnle wears “You Wear What I Wear” in 2009 in Chicago. Courtesy of the artist.

Top: Jimmy Kuehnle wears “You Wear What I Wear” in 2009 in Chicago. Courtesy of the artist.

Drawing, making, tinkering – these were activities Kuehnle’s family encouraged in him as a kid.

“My parents gave me and my siblings masking tape, markers and scissors every Christmas. I would run out of those really fast and raid my dad’s drafting table for more stuff,” he says, adding that art was something he knew he wanted to do from an early age.

Kuehnle was born in Atlanta, where his father, James, now retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, met his mother, Christine, a former nurse and human resource specialist. When he was 3, the family moved to St. Louis, where he spent the remainder of his childhood, along with younger siblings Liz and Will.

His high school art program allowed him to flourish, he says, but when it came time for college, he didn’t want to go to art school. Instead, he enrolled at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., about 200 miles northwest of St. Louis.

“A small town of 16,000 meant there wasn’t much of a contemporary art scene, so I didn’t have any aspirations or even know what contemporary art was,” he says. “My friends and I would take field trips to Chicago and New York to go see galleries, but we didn’t know what we were doing.”

It was that “naive experience of art” that led Kuehnle and his friends to found the Tom Thumb Gallery, an alternative space – set up in the house they were renting – where they hoped to create chaos. Activities included Improve the Art nights, where attendees were given bottles of spray paint to use to upgrade bad art, and events at which participants could swing at old TVs and other technology with sledgehammers.

Tom Thumb represents an early example of Kuehnle’s penchant for participatory art. It engaged people in ways that existing art institutions hadn’t, not only for students, but also for the art faculty who eventually attended. Once, even the provost stopped by, and now some 20 years later, the gallery still exists at Truman State. It’s a Kuehnle legacy.

“That really gave us a taste for, ‘Wow, if you do art, other people enjoy it.’ As primitive as that experience was, that’s how I got into studying art,” he says. “It was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot about organization and collaboration – all that stuff your faculty wants you to learn in your curriculum.”

After graduating in 2001 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture, Kuehnle went to Japan to teach English and make art. He returned stateside in 2004, and by 2006, he’d earned a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I thought it might be interesting to teach art – I liked the teaching part, I just didn’t like teaching English – but little did I know that teaching in higher education is a hard job to get,” he said. “I got lucky.”

Kuehnle spent another year at UT as adjunct faculty before returning to Japan, this time as a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellow to research public art and practice sculpture. He then spent a couple of years “hopping around residencies and gaining experience in the studio and in exhibiting so that I had something to actually teach” before landing a job in 2010 as visiting assistant professor at the University of Alabama Huntsville.

He arrived in Northeast Ohio in 2011 after being hired as an assistant professor by the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he still teaches today.

Of bikes and suits

Kuehnle, center, during install “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” at the Akron Art Museum.

Kuehnle, center, during install “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” at the Akron Art Museum.

Performance is central to Kuehnle’s art, and early in his career, those performances took place on bicycles. Frames for the “F-Bike” and “ART Bike” spelled out messages for bystanders as he rode them around San Antonio wearing outlandish costumes he tailored for himself, and then there was “The Bike That Draws,” a Rube Goldberg machine on wheels that allows a second rider’s pedaling to draw a picture. That 2005 creation remains one of his favorites.

From there, Kuehnle transitioned to using cathode ray tube TVs – “because everyone was buying flat-screens and you could buy them for pennies on the dollar” – for video sculptures and installations. This phase was short-lived, however.

“I remember one time driving to Houston for an installation at Project Row Houses, and I had a trailer with plywood sides heaped over with televisions, video cameras and all this equipment, and I was like, just carrying it in to do the installation, ‘This is a lot of work.’ I thought that as an artist, I wouldn’t be digging ditches,” he quips.

Sewing costumes for bicycle performances eventually led Kuehnle to dabble in sewing together wearable inflatable suits, which were easier to transport – a relevant concern when he returned to Japan for his Fulbright.

“The original idea was to have these small, duffel bag-sized objects that were battery-powered and allowed me to pop out of a train station or hop off my bike and do a performance,” he says, equating his new approach to having a concert set list.

“Bands have a repertoire of albums and songs they can show up and play. It takes a lot of work to get there – they’ve done all this studio work – but then they have this finished product at any time,” he explains. “So, that was my way of having a song or an album.”

In that sense, Kuehnle is a one-man band while wearing his colorful, impossible-to-miss inflatable suits, but he says they take on their own personas.

“For example, ‘Big Red’ was this one I made in Japan, and I found out it liked to spin around in circles a lot, cross intersections diagonally and try to get into storefronts,” he says. “And since it would blow around in the wind so much, I made one smaller called ‘You Wear What I Wear,’ and it really likes to get inside different telephone poles or gas station pumps and smash into everything. It really enjoys going into spaces where people don’t expect it to come, and it can run really fast – so that one is a lot of fun.”

Kuehnle’s inflatables didn’t stay duffel bag-sized for long. By 2010, they’d become stationary – as public installations – and they’d grown.

They include “Amphibious Inflatable Suit” in 2014 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., a Loch Ness Monster-sized inflatable that resided in a pond and wasn’t a suit at all; “Please, No Smash” in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, which occupied MOCA’s four-story entryway; and “Tongue in Cheek” earlier this year at The Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y., a portion of which protruded from the tower windows of the museum’s Glenview Mansion.

Not wanting to lose the interactive nature of the suits, Kuehnle tries to surround his audience with his installations. He also incorporates kinetic elements – lights, sequencing, inflation/deflation – that in a sense transform his installations into living, breathing organisms, complete with an electronic pulse. It’s no surprise, then, that like with his suits, Kuehnle speaks of his installations as characters he created, not static sculptures.

“I think (Kuehnle) has a great deal of talent, and he’s wonderfully articulate about his ideas. His work is fun, interesting, challenging, it occupies considerable space, and it’s bright and colorful,” says Bruce Checefsky, gallery director at CIA’s Reinberger Gallery, where Kuehnle’s work has also been shown.

Kuehnle’s inflatables are reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg, Checefsky adds, referring to the sculptor best known for his public installations, including the “Free Stamp” sculpture in downtown Cleveland.

“He has this pedigree that reaches back to those Oldenburg sculptures, but also the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Checefsky says.

Forming relationships

Jimmy Kuehnle repairs a portion of "Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle" prior to installation at the Akron Art Museum.

Jimmy Kuehnle repairs a portion of “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” prior to installation at the Akron Art Museum.

Back at the Akron Art Museum, director of education Alison Caplan also connects Kuehnle to Oldenburg – not only in artistic form, but also in the way “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle” and Oldenburg’s “Inverted Q” interact while sharing the museum’s lobby space.

Caplan also compliments Kuehnle’s ability to work within diverse architectural settings and to invite museumgoers to look, touch and participate.

“When people tend to think about contemporary art, they don’t think of it as playful or accessible to everyone, and he’s someone who breaks down that barrier,” she says. “People connect to the work through their body, their own sensibility and the materials he’s using. … They can connect in a joyful way.”

Other museums see the same qualities, as evidenced by Kuehnle’s string of recent exhibitions, all of which have come about, he says, from people just emailing him. In fact, he received another email not long ago and is already working out details of another commission for 2017 or 2018.

“I don’t know how to make more people do that,” he jokes, referring to the emails. “I’m at this weird place, but it keeps happening.”

Looking ahead, Kuehnle wants to continue working on inflatable installations in order to master the process – at least for now.

“I feel I have the suits down. It’s something formulaic that I can always revisit. I’m getting close – I’m not there yet, but I’m getting close – to figuring out how to do the installations,” he says. “There are still a lot of things I’m not satisfied with: kinetics, sequencing, ease of install. If I can figure those out, maybe in a couple of more iterations, I think then my mind might start drifting – but I’m still pretty fully engaged in the site-specific, large-scale installation work.”

Whatever comes next for Kuehnle, connecting with others is certain to be at the heart of it – as has consistently been the case for his kinetic installations, bicycle performances and inflatable suit performances.

“I want to disarm people. I want them to smile. I want people to talk to me in a way that gets a little beyond small talk – and that happens,” he says.

“When I’m struggling with the suits, there’s this symbiotic, emergent behavior with other pedestrians. Not everyone – some people just want you to get out of the way, but a lot of times there are people who want to help,” he continues. “You find they’re coming along with you the whole time, and I find that to be a successful piece – when you form another human relationship with somebody.” CV

On view

Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle

Jimmy Kuehnle’s latest work, “Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle,” will be on view in the Akron Art Museum’s Beatrice Knapp McDowell Grand Lobby and the Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation Gallery through Feb. 19, 2017. For more information, call 330-376-9185 or visit akronartmuseum.org.

In the foreground, “Infinite Carpet” by Pierre Bismuth, a nod to mathematics’ Fibonacci series, is one of many carpets featured in MOCA Cleveland’s fall exhibition, “Wall to Wall: Carpets by Artists.”

Multi-layered and carpet-centric, ‘Wall to Wall’ is one of several interesting exhibitions on view this fall at MOCA Cleveland

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

An untitled work by Italian conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti greets viewers to “Wall to Wall.” In the background is “Carpet Rug” by Heimo Zobernig.

An untitled work by Italian conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti greets viewers to “Wall to Wall.” In the background is “Carpet Rug” by Heimo Zobernig.

Carpets, by definition, are regularly looked down upon. But the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s headlining fall exhibition, “Wall to Wall: Carpets by Artists,” rightfully elevates them, both literally and figuratively.

From the moment one enters the exhibition, presentation, positioning and even framing signal to viewers the medium’s ascendancy in the worlds of modern and conceptual art. These factors also remind those who recognize carpets more for their place in the home that in many other parts of the world, carpets are compelling vehicles for conveying culture and history.

At eye level, the works invite viewers to inspect and imagine their origins. “Wall to Wall” weaves a tapestry of cultures, artists and artisans, and the intricate, textured works evoke interest not just in craftsmanship, but also in where they were made and by whom.

The exhibition has a decidedly international flavor. All told, 30 artists contributed to “Wall to Wall,” and the countries represented by their works, their weavers or the cultures that inspired them span Afghanistan, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Mexico, Nepal, Russia and Pakistan, to name a few.

Art historian Cornelia Lauf, guest curator for “Wall to Wall,” contends that one of the many features that makes artistic carpets compelling is their tactile nature, juxtaposed with an increasingly digital world.

“Lihotsky Carpet” by Liam Gillick pays homage to the first female Austrian architect, Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, a pioneer of social housing.

“Lihotzky Carpet” by Liam Gillick pays homage to the first female Austrian architect, Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, a pioneer of social housing.

“I feel the way conceptual art can be pushed along is to reintegrate discussions of the hand and manuality, because in our time, we’re losing many of the languages of craft and material culture all over the globe,” she said. “I feel that artists are always the canaries in the tunnel to see where there are zones of risk or peril, and it’s no accident that this field of textile by artists is absolutely exploding. Artists have a yearning and nostalgia for the object.”

An untitled work by Italian conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti fittingly greets viewers to the exhibit. Boetti was among the first contemporary artists to adopt carpet and other craft traditions as a primary medium. Visually elaborate, the 1994 work is a compelling combination of imagery and language.

Concepts put forth by other carpets are wide-ranging: “Infinite Carpet” by Pierre Bismuth is a nod to mathematics’ Fibonacci series; “L.W. (Remarks on the Foundation of Mathematics)” by Joseph Kosuth waxes philosophical; and “Lihotsky Carpet” by Liam Gillick pays homage to the first female Austrian architect, Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, a pioneer of social housing. There are even a few carpets in the exhibition that visitors can walk on and touch.

“Wall to “Wall” covers MOCA’s entire fourth floor: the Mueller Family Gallery, Rosalie + Morton Cohen Family Gallery, and the Donna + Stewart Kohl Atrium.

If “Wall to Wall” and a second fall exhibition, “Unit 1: 3583 Dubois,” both convey cultures, the former does so with an air of opulence while the latter employs a sort of minimalism. The scope of “Unit 1: 3583 Dubois,” however, is grand.

“L.W. (Remarks on the Foundation of Mathematics)” by Joseph Kosuth pays tribute to Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in mathematics and language.

“L.W. (Remarks on the Foundation of Mathematics)” by Joseph Kosuth pays tribute to Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in mathematics and language.

Born in Denmark, artist Anders Ruhwald now lives in Detroit, where in 2014 he purchased a dilapidated 7,000-square-foot brick apartment building at 3583 Dubois St. — an address that no longer exists because the city reassigned it as 2170 Mack Ave. Ruhwald is restoring the building (one day, he plans to live there), and in the process, he’s converting the rooms of Unit 1 into a permanent abstract installation, due to open in 2017.

The MOCA exhibit is a smaller version of what will appear in Detroit, slightly reconfigured to fit MOCA’s space. Walking through Unit 1’s door — brought from Detroit for this show — leads to a fully immersive experience. Engulfed by darkness, participants shuffle through the labyrinthian apartment, encountering native stools and radiators but little else — other than heat lamps Ruhwald installed to signify warmth and fire, the latter ideal for Ruhwald’s exploration of destruction and renewal. Charred wood, ash, molten glass, found objects and black-glazed ceramics also call “Unit 1: 3583 Dubois” home.

Loss — but not necessarily sadness — is the sense with which one exits “Unit 1: 3583 Dubois St.” Detroit’s cycles of success and trauma — the same cycles experienced in Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities — figure heavily into the installation, suggests MOCA deputy director Megan Lykins Reich, who organized the exhibition.

“The Decorator Maligin” by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who through their work often mine the folklore, mythology and pictorial practices of their native Russia.

“The Decorator Maligin” by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who through their work often mine the folklore, mythology and pictorial practices of their native Russia.

To wit: A small, framed black-and-white photo of the Hawaiian coastline that Ruhwald found inside the building after he bought it hangs by the front door. On the back of the photo, a date from 1941 was written. Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor that year transformed Detroit’s already humming auto industry into a wartime industry powerhouse — a high point for the city’s residents. But considering the economic decline brought about decades later by a globalized economy, one wonders whether the photo came to represent an escape to a better life or brighter future — especially as one passes the photo while exiting the dark apartment.

Third and fourth elements of the fall exhibition, both curated by MOCA assistant curator A. Will Brown, explore forms of media and communication.

“A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats,” by San Francisco-based Anthony Discenza, is a 23-minute audio installation that offers a critique of the way mass media uses language.

In an overly dramatic tone, a voice meant to evoke a newscaster announces nonsensical juxtapositions like “Think Schoolhouse Rock meets Full Metal Jacket” and “Think Hogwarts meets Outback Steakhouse,” employing an explanatory tool used to simplify understanding of complex concepts by breaking them down into known quantities. However, the pairings in “Rising Tide” leave one confused but amused — which is the idea.

Use of a professional voice-actor to deliver the constant stream of absurd remarks overtly points out that inherent in most forms of broadcast media is an element of entertainment, and that the authoritative baritone is piped into MOCA’s insulated, bunker-like Interior Staircase conjures Orwellian perception manipulation. In other words, the museum’s presentation and use of space for “Rising Tide” is spot-on.

“Acts of Speech” occupies Gund Commons on MOCA’s ground floor and features videos from four artists, all of which will be on view for about three-and-a-half weeks through the end of MOCA’s fall season. Collectively, the works explore themes of immigration, nationalism, isolation and digital mediation at a time when those same themes are prevalent in American political theater.

The video on view during the opening weeks (through Oct. 19) is New York-based artist Liz Magic Laser’s “The Thought Leader,” which drops a child actor onto a faux-TED Talk stage with an audience of adults hanging on his every word.

What’s the boy talking about? He’s reciting an 1864 Fyodor Dostoyevsky text that poses questions about an individual’s role in society. Such a weighty topic delivered by a slight, lightweight boy provides the viewer with comical contrast, but during a moment in the video when the audience laughs, perhaps questioning his presence on stage, the boy stares back at them steely-eyed, as if to question how present they are.

The other “Acts of Speech”: Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s “True Finn” (Oct. 20 – Nov. 15); Dutch design studio Metahaven’s “City Rising” (Nov. 16 – Dec. 12); and South Korea-based Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries’ “AH” (Dec. 13 – Jan. 8).

MOCA Cleveland Fall 2016 Exhibitions

WHAT: “Wall to Wall: Carpets by Artists” by multiple artists; “Unit 1: 3583 Dubois” by Anders Ruhwald; “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats” by Anthony Discenza; and “Acts of Speech” by multiple artists

WHEN: Through Jan. 8, 2017

WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

INFO: 216-421-8671 or mocacleveland.org

 

Some observers indicate more red dots like this one, which indicate a piece of art has been sold, are popping up around Northeast Ohio.

Northeast Ohio’s market for art is rising; for those who haven’t yet navigated the challenging but rewarding landscape, now is the time to buy in

Story and photo by Michael C. Butz

High-quality art has become increasingly popular in Greater Cleveland. Art lovers swarm 78th Street Studios every third Friday, art walks in Tremont and Waterloo clog the streets, and even the artists themselves are justified in congratulations, both self and to each other.

But do the traffic and art’s newfound popularity translate to sales? It’s one thing to create art, and there’s no shortage of that in the region. It’s another to market it, and that’s gotten easier, with new galleries popping up and increased arts coverage in weekly newspapers and magazines like this one.

But there’s a bottom line to art, too, because after the artist creates – the painting’s ready to hang, the sculpture screams for a living room to call home – he or she has to sell it. Art is an expression. It’s a profession. It’s also a business.

With the quality of the art escalating and the outlets proliferating, the Cleveland art scene seems to be thriving, even booming. Artists are eager to sell their work. Are Northeast Ohioans buying?

Anecdotally, at least, the answer seems to be “yes,” according to two longtime keepers of Cleveland’s art scene.

“I’m going to say more people are buying local art just from the sense I get from artists,” says Joan Perch, exhibition coordinator at the Stocker Arts Center at Lorain County Community College. She also once owned a commercial gallery, ArtMetro, in downtown Cleveland, and founded the RED DOT Project, a nonprofit that sells and markets the art of its artist members.

“A lot of artists I knew and represented are doing well with selling their work,” Perch says.

Dan Bush, owner and developer of 78th Street Studios, a veritable beehive of creativity in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, sees the same trend.

Bush – with encouragement from Bill Scheele of Kokoon Gallery, who said to him several years ago, “This place is boring, we need to have a party” – helped launch Third Fridays, a regularly recurring arts bazaar.

Third Fridays quickly grew from a quarterly event to a monthly event, and in terms of participation, 78th Street Studios has seen it grow from “a couple of hundred” people visiting 30 to 40 businesses to “between roughly 1,500 and 2,000 people” visiting the building’s more than 60 businesses.

“I’m constantly astounded by two things,” Bush says. “One is that people keep coming, which is great. … The second thing is that people are buying art in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s beyond good – it’s astounding. And being someone who enjoys that, I certainly enjoy the fact that there are other people like me out there.”

But are there ever really enough art sales? Certainly not, and accordingly, both Perch and Bush see room for growth ­– if not necessarily in terms of quantity of pieces purchased, then in terms of the volume of buyers – and have advice for those who haven’t yet made the leap from art socializer to art shopper.

“It’s OK to take a while, it’s not like walking into a grocery store,” says Perch of the virgin art buyer.

Perch, whose background includes arts education and nurturing new art-buying clients, suggests newcomers engage in a process they’re likely already good at: making acquaintances.

“It’s all about relationship-building. It’s about personal relationships and trusting the artist and the dealer,” she says. “In the galleries at Lorain County Community College, I often talk to anyone coming in. You really need to start a conversation and a dialogue. That’s where art is – the art is telling you something.”

That dialogue – that exchange of thoughts and emotions – can continue for years as the art hangs on the buyer’s walls for years. What develops following a purchase is a symbiotic relationship between art and buyer, as well as artist and buyer.

“Those pieces of art remind you of the people you know and the things you’ve learned about them and learned about their art,” Perch says. “If you purchase something that’s made by hand, and you get to know (the artist), and you’re helping someone making a living in a creative endeavor, there’s a sense of accomplishment.

“When buying a piece of jewelry or ceramics, a small print, a painting, you’re not only supporting the artist, you’re supporting the gallery,” she adds. “It’s important to support those galleries, too.”

Of course, when supporting artists and galleries, one’s financial ability to do so comes into play. After all, art isn’t functional – not in the same way furniture or a home appliance is. As a result, some struggle with justifying a potential art purchase.

“It really just goes back to the fact it’s art, you can’t eat it,” Bush quips. “Technically, you could heat your house with it if you had to, but people don’t have to enjoy it and they don’t have to engage in it, and I’m just thrilled that they do – and that I get to be a part of it.”

Set a budget but be prepared to exceed it, if only slightly. In Northeast Ohio, many galleries and events offer works at a wide range of price points.

“Not everyone is going to be buying a $3,500 or $35,000 painting, but we’ve got anything from those price points down to a $35 pair of earrings – and everybody can walk away with a piece of art in their hands,” Bush says of Third Fridays. “It’s a good experience for everybody.”

And while “you can’t eat art,” there’s a monetarily unquantifiable value to it.

“Don’t be afraid to get in where you’re comfortable, and look for a price point at which you’re willing to get in,” Perch says. “Once you have some successful acquisitions, you’re ready to build on it. A lot of times, clients like to start with something smaller.”

Starting small helps some overcome what might be considered an intimidating process, from figuring out what you like to knowing the tricks of the trade. Unless you’ve been raised in a family that buys art, you might not know where to start. Is there a right or wrong way to buy art?

“If you like something, there’s not a wrong approach,” Bush says. “I actually have sold art here; I’ve just talked to people. It’s not my business, by any means, but it’s certainly exciting to see somebody walk away with something you can tell they really enjoy. I have a handful of friends I’ve gotten involved with and it’s really fun to see how engaged they are in collecting and learning about the artists they enjoy.”

Some consider buying art risky, and in a sense, it is – but so is making art. Artists take risks, as do those who buy their work. But with risks come rewards.

“I was just talking to some art students about doing something different. We’re working with different technology that artists can use, and they’re a little uncomfortable. And I told them to step out of their comfort zone; that’s what artists do,” Perch says. “People need to trust themselves a little more. Just trust yourself. People can get to know a whole lot more than they think they can.”

“I enjoy seeing people buying art, not purely for selfish reasons,” says Bush, who’s been collecting for 30 years and focuses on Cleveland School art. “I know how much I enjoy it and how it makes me feel, and I want to share that with people. I know a lot of people who have that same itch. So it does my heart good when I see somebody pulling the trigger on something.”

From first-time buyers to “loyal customers” eagerly awaiting new work from artists they’ve long targeted, Northeast Ohio’s art scene is gaining traction.

“Cleveland is a very solid hometown town, and yes, people do support their friends, and they do support their artists and they do support the scene,” Bush says. “There is a really solid art scene in Cleveland right now. It’s not bringing top dollar, it’s not bringing New York or LA figures. I would venture to say, however, that it should be.” CV


Lead image: Some observers indicate more red dots like this one, which indicate a piece of art has been sold, are popping up around Northeast Ohio.

John W. Carlson holds his palette self-portrait standing inside his ArtCraft Building studio.

John W. Carlson’s art unveils a uniquely gestural and gripping world

Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Carlson’s workspace, including some of his monoprints hanging on the wall.

Carlson’s workspace, including some of his monoprints hanging on the wall.

The walls of John W. Carlson’s studio in the ArtCraft Building in Cleveland pulse with life. There are pictures of folks Carlson has extracted from the media. Some canvases depict people he knows, his vigorous artistry transforming them into images more emblematic than realistic. There are haunting blacks-and-whites; there’s color, too, as Carlson emerges into happiness.

There’s a painting in progress in his central work area, its background orange, its foreground four women; one, skirted where the others wear pants, stands off to the side. It evokes a shattered Greek chorus. It strikes memorable, sadly provocative poses. It’s both recessive and in your face; that’s Carlson’s dynamic.

“I think of it as the definition of haiku, which is sudden awareness of beauty by the meeting of opposite or incongruous terms,” he says of his art. “It’s achieved through gesture,” he adds, sculpting the air with his hands.

“I’m all about the gesture, and I think within the gesture there’s an emotional component. One viewer might look at it as a dangerous gesture and take the emotional content with that, whereas another person might see it as a more benign gesture and respond to it with a different emotion.”

Carlson talks of “striking a match,” of “breaking a space” in his head. He aims to interrupt the viewer’s flow, demanding a new kind of engagement. Perhaps that’s why his paintings, dominated by the human shape, pop so strongly despite a purposeful lack of definition. They have the immediacy of a news bulletin, leaving interpretation up to the viewer.

“I don’t want them to walk away in the standard three seconds; I’d like them to be able to experience an emotion they may never have,” he says.

Carlson throttles the viewer through recontextualization, plundering what he sees on the street and what he screens and reads for images to embed in his paintings. It’s up to the viewer to answer the questions of identity and emotion that he raises.

He points to a painting called “In the Afternoon.” The man looks as if he has fallen off a bed or been abandoned on the street. His head has no facial features, a regular in Carlson’s work. Is he resting or dead? The somber, black-and-white painting suggests that “ambiguity” could be Carlson’s middle name.

“One of my collectors referred to one of my works as ‘beautifully disturbing,’ and that’s a loaded comment. I loved it,” Carlson says.

“To be disturbed doesn’t have to be, ‘Oh, I saw a baby on the railroad tracks.’ It doesn’t have to be this bad thing,” he continues. “A lot of words take on connotations more heavily toward one side than the other; like my poet friend said, ‘If I had to say the one word that encapsulates your work, I’d say tension.’ Ugliness can be beautiful, and tension isn’t always Excedrin headache No. 52. Tension keeps the viewer engaged.”

Garbage and guitars

“In the Afternoon,” 30x40 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

“In the Afternoon,” 30×40 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

The second oldest of five brothers, Carlson is the son of a former millwright at General Motors and a stay-at-home mother. His parents always encouraged his artistic ambitions, and small books about classical painters that a priest brought to the Carlson home in Ashtabula kindled young Carlson’s artistic flame.

“There was one on El Greco, one on Fra Angelico, Raphael,” he recalls. “I just pored over those books, visually memorized the paintings in them. They just had a huge (impact), like the striking of the match of me really wanting to make things like that. I don’t know how else to explain the significance, the joy I got from those books.”

Carlson, who cites influences such as Egon Schiele and Franz Kline, began his artistic career by studying a book on how to draw horses, creating work that drew on equestrian art by the French masters Edgar Degas and Theodore Gericault.

Carlson inhaled art daily in Catholic schools in Ashtabula, and then spent a year and a half studying at the long-defunct Cooper School of Art in Cleveland.

Meanwhile, as he pursued his gritty, figurative muse, he worked at jobs that allowed him to provide for his family.

“The lion’s share of my working career was working for the city of Ashtabula, first off as a garbage man, a job I thoroughly enjoyed,” he says. “I loved knowing where every street in the city was, I loved knowing that Mrs. Smith would always put a couple of bottles of beer next to the can for us.”

The camaraderie was great; so was coming across the occasional treasure, like old 78-rpm records. But in the mid-’80s, tired of having to bend over every five or six yards, Carlson went to work in the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Life was tricky for a man balancing domestic responsibilities with boundless creative drive. Turns out painting isn’t Carlson’s only artistic talent. He’s a rock ’n’ roller.

Between 1976 and 1987, Carlson, who looks like he stepped off a new wave album cover, played guitar in bands such as Wildlife, The F-100s, Bridgestreet and the Execs; the last even recorded an EP at Kirk Yano’s After Hours Studios.

Carlson did no painting during that span, though he designed some band posters. He still picks up the guitar every day. But he never made the leap to a musical career because that “would have required me to quit my job,” he says.

“I knew in my heart of hearts if you really want to be like the bands you want to emulate, you have to go on the road and put all your energies into it. You don’t do that with a 9-to-5 job.”

Or while you’re raising a family, including two boys from the second of his three marriages. One, Ryan, lost his life to drugs five years ago. Ryan was 26. “My Grief,” a powerful oil-and-charcoal self-portrait he produced two years ago that now rests atop a bookcase in his studio, attests to the depth of Carlson’s sadness.

Art had to wait until it was all he had – and wanted – to do.

That time came in 2005, when having earned enough to retire early, Carlson embarked on his second, profoundly artistic career.

Contemporary Carlson

“Little One,” 36x28 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

“Little One,” 36×28 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

Today, the 61-year-old Carlson lives in Lakewood, and one of his works – a charcoal drawing entitled “Viewpoint” – lives at the Erie Art Museum as part of its permanent collection.

Several works are at home in his studio. “Car,” an oil painting of a round-shouldered 1940s automobile, looks like it’s about to be consumed by fire. “Rescue” depicts a girl, hair wild and expression despairing, pushing through a kind of yellow storm. With full frontal foreground and suggestive background, Carlson’s paintings, which sell for $250 to $4,500, grip. That’s his intent.

Works in progress are at the heart of his studio space. There’s also a kind of anteroom with a sofa where this jazz lover with the rock ’n’ roll hair can groove to Yusef Lateef, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

Carlson reserves the long, narrow part of his Cleveland workplace for scores of paintings he’s made in the past decade-plus, slotted into bins against the wall. They speak to his prolificacy, work ethic and a love of art.

“John was the first nonphotographic/fine art artist who has exhibited at the Print Room,” says Shari Wilkins, owner of the Cleveland Print Room, a workshop and exhibition space dedicated to analog photography that neighbors Carlson’s studio in the ArtCraft Building. “I liked John’s work from the start because of its ability to evoke emotion along with an expression of cinematic quality that I appreciate.”

Carlson’s work, interwoven with Wilkins’ vernacular photography (or “found photography”) was displayed in the Print Room’s “Destruction of Form” show in July 2015. Those works also were on view earlier this year at BAYarts in Bay Village, at which Carlson teaches art courses.

Carlson also teaches at Valley Art Center, and recently opened the doors to his studio for a public tour, suggesting he’s as welcoming to artistic newcomers as fellow artists in Cleveland were to him when he emigrated from Ashtabula.

“I felt welcomed when I first arrived here 10 years ago. I mean, warmly welcomed,” he says. “It was time to be a little fish in a big pond. I was a big deal in Ashtabula, as far as that goes. They picked one of my pieces to be the cover of the Ashtabula County Visitors’ Guide.”

Now, Carlson eyes an even bigger pond: New York City.

In late March, one of his drawings, “Struggle,” was on view at Trygve Lie Gallery in NYC. It was part of the 2016 #TwitterArtExhibit, a show involving various artists and mixed media that showcases postcard art and benefits Foster Pride’s “Handmade” Program, which supports the creativity of young women in foster care.

Carlson uses such Big Apple opportunities to network. He considers a full-on New York showing of his work – as yet unrealized – the ultimate goal.

“That’s the holy grail.” CV


On view

“Point of View,” featuring new works by John W. Carlson, Sarah Curry, Brian Mouhlas and Douglas Max Utter, will be on view from July 15 through Sept. 16 at HEDGE Gallery, which represents Carlson, at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. A solo Carlson show is scheduled for May 2017 at the Massillon Museum of Art.


 Lead image: John W. Carlson holds his palette self-portrait standing inside his ArtCraft Building studio.

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Cleveland Museum of Art’s centennial exhibition, ‘Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt,’ masterfully takes visitors on a historic trip through the once-mighty desert kingdom

Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Statue of government official Sennefer, dating back to about 1479 to 1425 B.C.

Statue of government official Sennefer, dating back to about 1479 to 1425 B.C.

How layered reality was to the ancient Egyptians comes clear in the magisterial “Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt” exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Dominated by artifacts from the British Museum in London, with 10-plus pieces from CMA’s own collection, this is the first Egyptian exhibition at CMA in 20 years. It’s a fitting successor to “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse,” the far larger, similarly resonant and wildly popular show the museum concluded in early January.

With more than 150 objects on display, from tiny pieces of jewelry to weapons to colorful sarcophagi to massive temple sculptures, the exhibition is one to absorb over and over. On view in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Hall, it is designed to show the levels involved in the very notion of pharaoh, ancient Egypt’s intermediary between the many gods the people worshipped and the people themselves.

Its spectrum redolent with earth and sun, this covers roughly from 3000 B.C. to the Roman conquest of 30 B.C., and it starts

Statue of Amenemhat III in a devotional pose, dating back to about 1859 to 1814 B.C.

Statue of Amenemhat III in a devotional pose, dating back to about 1859 to 1814 B.C.

with a room dedicated to showing the lay of the land. The red granite Hathor capital from the Temple of Bastet — an imposing and impossibly heavy object indeed — ushers the visitor into the display. That capital certainly commands your attention.

The next room, dedicated to the gods, features highly stylized animal and human figures, all possessing a unique quality of stillness. One of the key sculptures is the head of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, from the 15th century B.C. The king seems to be smiling; that quality of stillness, underlined by the two-dimensional feel of the stelae and carvings in other rooms, gives many of these artifacts a peculiar timelessness, even modernity.

Tuthmosis’ crown, seeming to rear up conically from his head, has a cobra as a kind of hood ornament. Compared to the opening capital and many other artifacts, this is small, but it’s arresting out of proportion to its size. Tuthmosis’ headpiece would make a gorgeous modern hat. Be sure to check it out from the side.

Sphinx of Pharaoh Amenemhat IV, dating back to about 1814 to 1805 B.C.

Sphinx of Pharaoh Amenemhat IV, dating back to about 1814 to 1805 B.C.

Another room, dedicated to symbols of power, features jewelry and sacrificial objects; each royal crown bore specific symbols and associations, making virtually all the objects in this mysterious and authoritative exhibition both decorative and philosophical.

Texts attached to the displays, which are set back and spotlighted and/or mounted in glass cases, provide details on their provenance and help the viewer interpret them. To the modern observer, this is art — and history. One can only speculate that to the Egyptian of those times, this all spoke of religion and spirituality; the aesthetics were secondary.

A series of shabtis, which were human figurines placed inside tombs to undertake agricultural work on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife.

A series of shabtis, which were human figurines placed inside tombs to undertake agricultural work on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife.

Among the more interesting displays are “foundation deposits,” miniature replicas of construction implements buried in temple foundations. These ritual objects, akin to the talismans and amulets that adorned Egyptian royalty, were created and sited to protect and purify those houses of polytheistic worship. They are representations of the permanence of those temples, which the Egyptians built of stone. They built their palaces of sun-dried mud brick, suggesting they regarded their rulers as more temporary than the gods they represented.

As if the multiplicity of gods weren’t enough, the pharaonic age also featured rulers from countries other than Egypt, including the Nubian Shabaqa, and Greeks, like Alexander the Great. The variety of objects throughout this authoritative display attests to a period far more diverse and turbulent than what used to be found in the history books. CV

On View
WHAT: Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt
WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland
WHEN: Through June 12
TICKETS & INFO: Free to members; $7 for member guests and people aged 6 to 17; $15 adults, $13 seniors and college students, free for children under 5. Call 216-421-7350 or visit clevelandart.org