Darius Steward stands in front off an abandoned apartment building on Page Avenue in East Cleveland, where he grew up. His childhood home, a building that once stood across the street, has since been torn down.

Darius Steward’s deeply personal art confronts society’s most pressing issues – and seeks to open an important dialogue

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

Darius Steward, "Baggage Claim (Portrait 1)," 2017, watercolor on yupo, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and MOCA Cleveland.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Portrait 1),” 2017, watercolor on yupo, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and MOCA Cleveland.

Mixed with memories of playing dodgeball and kickball in courtyards tucked inside the apartment complexes that defined the neighborhood are memories of two of his best friends being shot when he was 8 years old and of authorities discovering a dead body in nearby weeds when he was 10. Between those extremes were the sorts of challenges some may only read about or see on TV but for Steward were a daily reality.

“Growing up, I didn’t think I was going to make it out of this area, but I ended up outliving this area,” he says. “It’s kind of a depressing feeling. … It seems like you have your history wiped away. I guess that’s why they say your memory is best kept with you. You could take a photo or something, but what you remember is what matters.”

Those memories remain with him now as he creates art at his home studio in Cleveland’s Union-Miles Park neighborhood. His art – primarily in watercolor, minimalist, evocative, approachable and personal – tackles issues of race, objectification, social placement and social mobility through the lens of Steward’s experiences and family. His paintings draw viewers into his world, and in the process, challenge them to confront their prejudices and burdens.

His work is represented in the collections of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and Cleveland Clinic, and his latest piece is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. They all trace back to Page Avenue.

“Being here,” he says as he walks around his old neighborhood, “made me realize the value of being able to try, the value of having something else to hold onto, and for me, art was everything.”

Making it to art

“This place is a total ghost town now,” he says. “This is like a street that doesn’t exist. It’s crazy. There were generations of people who used to live here, and now it’s gone.”

During Steward’s generation, the area was active. When he and his friends weren’t playing games, they’d walk along nearby railroad tracks and sometimes get into the sort of harmless trouble elementary-school-aged kids get into. However, his brother – eight years his senior and at a different stage in life – would get into more serious trouble.

“He was in here selling drugs and doing all types of things,” he says. “I think him doing his thing and me being such a visual person, I got to take it in and realize it wasn’t for me.”

Steward turned to art at an early age.

“When I was 5, 6, 7 years old, I was drawing my own version of ‘(Teenage Mutant) Ninja Turtle’ comic books,” he says. “I actually had a friend named Leron who lived over here, too, and I used to go over to his house and we’d draw ‘Mortal Kombat’ stuff together.

“I knew right away that art had to be what I was doing,” he says, “but it took me a little longer to realize what I could say in art, and how I could talk and deal with some of the things I feel like I went through – or go through.”

Steadfastly fostering Steward’s creativity was his mother, Rhonda, who shouldered the responsibility of raising three kids (including Steward’s older sister) on her own. Over the years, when she wasn’t working one of her many jobs – cafeteria worker, bus driver, bartender, nurse’s aide – to make ends meet, she was driving her youngest back and forth to the Cleveland School of the Arts in University Circle to ensure he arrived safely.

The contrast between attending classes in the region’s well-manicured artistic hub and living in homes where the utilities were at times shut off wasn’t lost on Steward, but the juxtaposition prepared him for what was to come.

“Seeing how this side lives, seeing there are places like this, it was like we were by ourselves down here,” he says of Page Avenue. “There was a lot that went on that no one cared about, and then being able to go to another environment where people lived totally differently … I was kind of realizing I can do more, I can adapt and I can be in both (environments).”

Navigating new worlds

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Straddling parallel existences would be a recurring theme for Steward.

It came up when he attended a summer program at Interlochen College of Creative Arts in Interlochen, Mich., where he was surrounded by third- and fourth-generation students he felt were more talented than he was before realizing his life experiences gave him a perspective and edge they lacked.

It came up as he earned his undergraduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where people would tell him Little Italy was a “safe zone” and suggest he not pass the bridge – except that he was from past the bridge, and in his experience, Little Italy was “a scary place for all types of reasons.”

And it would come up again in 2010 as Steward graduated with his Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Delaware in Newark. At a time when he was exploring opportunities to be an artist or teacher on the East Coast, his close friend’s mom was discovered to be one of serial murderer Anthony Sowell’s victims, and not long after, that same friend’s sister died. He felt pulled back home.

“At that moment, I thought it probably wasn’t a great idea to go back to Cleveland, but there was so much going on,” he says. “I have such a closer tie to this place than I thought, so I came back home a week after I graduated. … When I came back here, it was the same stuff, but I had different eyes.”

Lasting inspiration

Rhonda Steward won the battle against cancer but lost the war. She died this past December, four days before Steward’s birthday, but remained selfless and nurturing to the end.

“The drugs they give you in chemo actually ruined her heart,” Steward says. “So she got through breast cancer – she beat that – but then she had heart failure.

“One of the last things she did was take care of my son while I was having my daughter, Emily. She was dealing with a 5-year-old when she was sick and wasn’t really able to take care of herself properly.”

It’s difficult for Steward to talk about his mom without his voice wavering from emotion. He explains she had a mother who drank, tells of how she was living on her own by age 14 and describes how she never had anyone to look out for her best interests. Mostly, Steward recalls the sacrifices Rhonda made for her children.

“She wasn’t dealt a good hand from the start,” he says. “She was one of those people who were doomed to fail, so it was like, ‘Let me get my kids to not be in that situation.’

“She tried her best, and that’s a story you don’t hear about a lot. You hear about that rise to success. Right? They get this huge success. They go from living on the streets to being a multimillionaire. But what about those people who just try to pave a way for a future, or for someone else?

“Her whole life was looking out for our future,” he says. “Her life was never about her, and there’s something to be said about that.”

Opening up baggage

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Steward is in fact saying something about that – through his art. He shelved work he’d completed shortly before his mother’s death and started a new series called “Baggage Claim.” The eponymous first public piece from that series – a larger-than-life two-part mural – is part of MOCA Cleveland’s regional group exhibition, “Constant as the Sun.”

Depicted are Steward’s wife and children – on one wall, Angela is carrying Emily along with three bags, and on another, Darius Jr. has a school backpack over his shoulder while extending a flashlight in front of him – but they’re meant to symbolize him and his mother.

“It’s this idea of him helping her get through this, him being me, watching his mom go through this and helping her,” he says. “We may have to see through and find our ways to that next spot. She’s carrying three bags on one arm, a bag behind her and she’s holding my daughter. It’s like this idea of this weight, but you still have to keep going. And the reason it’s purses is I feel like my mom did it with so much grace. It’s weight, but they’re different bags. These aren’t just trash bags.”

A. Will Brown, MOCA Cleveland assistant curator, was impressed with Steward’s work from the moment they met about a year ago.

“I was really taken by the use of repetition to talk about pressing social issues that are distinctly related to his life and his community’s life,” he says. “I thought it was really interesting that Darius was able to do that over and over and over again but with slightly different bodies of work, and that the issues never hit you over the head but are just below the surface in a way that’s effective.

“You don’t have to say much, you don’t have to read much, you don’t have to look much to know there’s something at play here that’s about searching and looking to the past and thinking about the future of Darius’ family, his community and some of the generational challenges they’ve faced,” Brown says. “It’s simple, in an elegant way, and a clear metaphor of baggage.”

Status symbols

Darius Steward, “Pressure pt 4,” 2016, ink on yupo, 40 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Pressure pt 4,” 2016, ink on yupo, 40 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“It was like being in here, using all of this force and this energy to end up in the same damn location,” he says. “All this stuff I used to see go on, and no one ever got away.”

Children, meant to represent a maturing process and explore intertwining themes of childhood and adulthood, also frequently appear in Steward’s work.

“I used to use kids to talk about a childhood that I never had, or to talk about how my adulthood feels similar in certain ways,” he says. “Now, I use primarily my son and daughter. Now, it’s literally me seeing moments and progressions in my (son) that mirror what I feel like or what I do.”

One of the most powerful artistic tools Steward employs is white space. The overwhelming whiteness that surrounds the African-American figures he depicts represents a form of dominance as well as the white space he lives in as a black artist. Regarding the latter, he often cites something novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “I do not always feel colored. … I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

“It’s about placement,” he says. “That’s a firm place. You can talk about whiteness as this very understood place. We know it exists, but at the same time, we don’t know. We don’t know how it really is. We don’t know how it affects who’s there. It’s this idea that I’m displaced but placed. That’s part of another series I’m working on where I’m building that up more. It’s like our segregated selves.”

Conversation starter

Darius Steward, “Back N 4th (The Motion),” 2015, ink and watercolor on yupo, 42 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Back N 4th (The Motion),” 2015, ink and watercolor on yupo, 42 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“Because I have this platform as an artist, I’m able to express things that I’d never be able to express if it was just me, which sucks,” he says, lamenting suppressive societal hierarchies. “But in that case, I feel like I have an obligation to help get people to at least think about this on their way home (from a gallery or museum) – to look at that black kid in that whiteness and think about what things they came up with while looking at that.

“And it’s the same thing with ‘Baggage Claim,’” he says. “Yeah, I have these people carrying bags, (but) I want them to see that, ‘Hey, I have baggage too. Maybe we’re not as different as we think. Maybe there are some common threads there.’”

In addition to starting a conversation about these matters, Steward is making a statement – about himself, his past, his struggles and Page Avenue.

“For me, it’s kind of a way to showcase my position as a black man who lives in America. I think it’s important to show my spots because we’re different. There are a lot of us, and quite honestly, I deal with things and I have different opinions and different outlooks.

“There are a ton of African-Americans doing artwork coming from all different types of backgrounds. Me, coming from my background, I feel like I need to represent that. I need to talk about that. I need to talk about what I dealt with. I need to talk about what I deal with,” he says. “I need to show my experiences, because at the end of the day, this is all going to be part of this greater narrative. I want to be associated with that narrative. I want people to look back at this and see that this is what a lot of people were dealing with. I don’t want this spot to not be represented.” CV

On View

DARIUS STEWARD

Darius Steward’s “Baggage Claim” is part of “Constant as the Sun,” on view through Sept. 17 at MOCA Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

A body of Steward’s new work will be on view in an as-yet-unnamed show from Dec. 8 to Jan. 6, 2018, at Tregoning & Company in 78th Street Studios,
1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland.

Steward also will have an as-yet-unnamed solo show from Sept. 4, 2018, to Oct. 28, 2018 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton.


Lead image: Darius Steward stands in front off an abandoned apartment building on Page Avenue in East Cleveland, where he grew up. His childhood home, a building that once stood across the street, has since been torn down.

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.

 

 

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

 

The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in the city’s University Circle neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International

FRONT International aims to shine spotlight on Cleveland with forward-thinking modern art event in 2018

By Carlo Wolff

The Cleveland Museum of Art in the city’s University Circle neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International / David Brichford

The Cleveland Museum of Art in the city’s University Circle neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International / David Brichford

If philanthropist and arts advocate Frederick E. Bidwell has his way, Cleveland will no longer be flyover country when it comes to contemporary art.

Bidwell, along with co-artistic directors Michelle Grabner and Jens Hoffmann, spearheads FRONT International: Cleveland Exhibition for Contemporary Art, a citywide contemporary art program launching year after next and recurring every three years.

The debut of FRONT, “An American City,” is set for July 7 to Sept. 30, 2018. It aims to feature more than 50 international artists, public programs, “artistic interventions” throughout the city, historical presentations, and according to the news release announcing it, “a dynamic system of dialoguing components.”

“A number of things are coming together that makes this a perfect time,” said Bidwell, FRONT’s CEO and executive director. “One is a sort of amazing spirit of collaboration and willingness to work together that I don’t think always existed in Cleveland. I think the second thing is all of the infrastructure and amenity improvements that have come together around preparations for the Republican National Convention; now we have this full suite of hotels and restaurants and infrastructure” making Cleveland “fully prepared to stage a world-class event.”

Bidwell said Cleveland’s history — of industrial prowess and decline, of recent reinvention — makes for a “concentrated and dramatic story. … This is a great time to bring people here and what they’ll see is, yes, evidence of significant economic change; they’ll see income disparity, sure, but they’ll also see a vibrant community built on a proud tradition that’s very much alive.”

In addition, there’s “a real demand for something new and different. In the United States, the art world is really kind of dominated by these very big, very successful commercial arts fairs,” such as Art Basel, Art Miami and the Armory Show in Chicago. FRONT will be based on European models: free, linked by ideas and “about creativity, not about trends.”

The project, designed to elevate Cleveland to the level of such major arts centers as New York, Berlin and Los Angeles, is expected to cost $4 million to $5 million, with support from the Cleveland Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, various founding patrons and donors.

Bidwell, Grabner and Hoffmann suggest they plan to make the city an artwork in itself. All say they couldn’t do it without the collaboration and commitment of presenting partners spanning the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the Cleveland Museum of Art, SPACES, Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum.

(Multi-institutional collaboration made its local debut in 2015 with “Violins of Hope,” a months-long project culminating in the debut of the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.)

The Transformer Station in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International.

The Transformer Station in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International.

Last year, Bidwell — who with his wife, Laura, established the Transformer Station, a contemporary art gallery in Ohio City’s Hingetown district, in 2013 — tapped Grabner and Hoffmann for their local bonds and their international savvy. Grabner is a Milwaukee resident and conceptual artist who exhibited at MOCA Cleveland in 2013, and Hoffmann until recently was deputy director of exhibitions and public programs at the Jewish Museum in New York.

In a telephone interview from Milwaukee, Grabner said she is intrigued by the notion of creating “internationally significant art in what would be kind of an off-center metropolis.” She recently co-curated the Whitney Biennial in New York and was involved in the Portland Biennial in Oregon. She said she looks forward to “pulling in different artists, different kinds of work that will engage in this project about the American city.”

To Grabner, FRONT signifies “the forefront of innovation,” and there are a lot of interesting possibilities “in how one thinks of it as a delineation or philosophy.”

Hoffmann, who continues to work on exhibitions and public programs for the Jewish Museum, also has been senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit since 2012. He’s interested in “rethinking large-scale exhibitions,” adding “Fred was very, very open to reconsidering established forms and perhaps opening up to more unusual, new ideas, taking these experiences that both Michelle and I have into consideration to develop a completely unique program.”

Hoffmann said he told Bidwell at least a year and a half was needed “to really prepare this properly, to make it work,” and Bidwell agreed, “a really good decision.” CV


Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 10, 2016.

Lead image: The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in the city’s University Circle neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International

The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s eye-catching, Farshid Moussavi-designed building has become a city icon. PHOTO | Michael C. Butz

MOCA Cleveland celebrates fiscal health and an iconic image as executive director Snyder says its moved ‘from the margin to the center’

By Carlo Wolff

Jill Snyder, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, enjoys the sun on Toby’s Plaza outside of the museum in Uptown. PHOTO | Carlo Wolff

Jill Snyder, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, enjoys the sun on Toby’s Plaza outside of the museum in Uptown.
PHOTO | Carlo Wolff

Jill Snyder is happy that the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland has completed a $36 million funding campaign. She’s also pleased that the darkly gleaming building that anchors Uptown in University Circle is becoming a Cleveland icon.

Above all, Snyder, MOCA’s executive director, suggested in a recent interview outside the museum at Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road, she’s proud that it has, so to speak, arrived. It’s been 10 years in the making.

As an independent, noncollecting institution, MOCA joins peers such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Like those, MOCA, which was designed by Farshid Moussavi, is in a mid-sized city and has an operating budget of about $3 million (nearly double what it was before it moved from its old location on Carnegie Avenue in 2012).

In addition to similar budgets and urban contexts, these museums collaborate: “Myopia,” the Mark Mothersbaugh exhibit running through late August at MOCA and the Akron Art Museum, originated at MOCA Denver and traveled to the Cincinnati museum.

“What we’re saying is that we are a high performer within our peer group and we’re establishing what our peer group is in a more defined way,” Snyder said. “We have budgets that are comparable in the $3 million range. We’re in midsize cities, not the major metropolitan areas, and each of us has within the past decade or so built a new museum with a design architect.

“So it’s very instrumental for our board and for leadership to look at peer examples to establish new norms and shape our vision moving forward,” she said.

Construction of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s current home, shown here nearing completion in 2012, has contributed to the museum’s success in recent years. PHOTO | Michael C. Butz

Construction of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s current home, shown here nearing completion in 2012, has contributed to the museum’s success in recent years.
PHOTO | Michael C. Butz

At the same time, Snyder said MOCA also has raised its local profile dramatically, moving “from the margin to the center,” stepping up engagement with the Cleveland Museum of Art as CMA “is becoming more attentive to contemporary art,” tripling attendance and expanding its community outreach. “Our exhibitions are receiving more critical attention, and from our surveys, visitor satisfaction is consistently extremely high,” she said.

And the museum now is on firm footing. After two years of planned deficit, 2015 showed a surplus “and this year we’ll be in the black,” she said. “Like any business, we have investors and we feel very responsible to the public trust that’s been invested in us. And we’re very proud that we’ve delivered on our promise while at the same time we have so many goals yet to achieve.”

In addition to fiscal stability, the museum staff has solidified, too. In May, it hired Andria Hickey as senior curator and A. Will Brown as assistant curator.

“We’re very excited by the new curatorial team we’ve just hired, and together we aspire to elevate our global position and deepen our public value,” Snyder said. CV


Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 24, 2016.

Lead image: The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s eye-catching, Farshid Moussavi-designed building has become a city icon. PHOTO | Michael C. Butz

Square-dancing Roli Polis take the floor at the Akron Art Museum. PHOTO | Michael C. Butz

Mothersbaugh collaboration a work of art for MOCA Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum

By Carlo Wolff

An unprecedented collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum spotlights the protean Mark Mothersbaugh, an Akron boy who transcended the poor eyesight he was born with to become a polymath whose artwork spans rock ’n’ roll, rubber stamps, postcards, Victorian lockets bearing warped images, carpeting, video, soundtracks for film, jingles, sculpture and painting.

The Mothersbaugh exhibits, “Myopia,” run through Aug. 28 at both museums. The focus in Cleveland is music. In Akron, it’s graphics. Visit both museums for the whole picture. To get the idea, put the covers of the magazines each institution is handing out side-by-side to turn the halves of a Mothersbaugh drawing into one.

Opening parties in Cleveland May 27 and Akron May 28 preceded the forming of long lines of people eager to look inside Mothersbaugh’s buzzing mind.

The Cleveland party featured instrumental, “classical” Mothersbaugh compositions and a performance by Mothersbaugh. The following afternoon, he and Adam Lerner, who curated these displays, gave a talk at a Summit County Public Library branch. Lerner’s title is director and chief animator, department of fabrications, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where the Mothersbaugh exhibition originated.

Mothersbaugh’s work packs humor, wit, irony, and often, a sense of despair. It can be both deliriously sensual and bilious, as “Ruby Kusturd,” a giant ruby atop a bronze base on exhibit in Cleveland, suggests. Even as it messes with your mind, it attests to an obsessiveness Mothersbaugh converts to astonishing creativity.

While he may be best known as the founder of the art-punk rock band Devo, Mothersbaugh also is an acclaimed visual artist who commandeers all kinds of media to present a weirdly familiar, weirdly disturbing view of a world pitting promise against peril, the synthetic against the authentic, technology against the organic.

Enter the Mueller Family Gallery at the top of MOCA Cleveland and you’ll see a visual palindrome: a foreshortened silver Scion xB with blackout windows, door handles on doors that can’t be opened, and two “tails.” Naturally, the license plate is “mutatum.”

Go to the Akron Art Museum and you’ll encounter two rooms with figures at rest on artificial grass. One features sinister/funny round-bottomed Roli Polis, painted differently, in apparent conversation and preparing to square dance. Another features what look like molars: three painted fiberglass sculptures that on closer inspection resemble the butts of horses.

Like the shows themselves, the Scion and the “molars” speak to Mothersbaugh’s unity of vision, the notion of duality — and to pause and purposelessness. The Scion isn’t going anywhere, and the molars, as molars should be, seem deeply rooted. CV

On view

WHAT: “Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia”

WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland; Akron Art Museum, 1 S. High St., Akron.

WHEN: Through Aug. 28

TICKETS & INFO: MOCA Cleveland, 216-421-8671 or mocacleveland.org; Akron Art Museum, 330-376-9185 or akronartmuseum.org


Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 30, 2016.

“Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia,” 30,000 postcards, installation view. Photo: Trevor Brown. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Northeast Ohio native and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh’s homecoming marked by his multidimensional ‘Myopia,’ on view at both MOCA Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum

By Carlo Wolff

24 Nov 2014: Mark Mothersbaugh's Myopia exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, CO. ©Trevor Brown, Jr./Trevor Brown Photography

24 Nov 2014: Mark Mothersbaugh’s Myopia exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, CO. ©Trevor Brown, Jr./Trevor Brown Photography

Mark Mothersbaugh and his friend, Jerry Casale, talked music and tried to make sense of a broken world after the Ohio National Guard fatally shot four of their fellow Kent State University students on May 4, 1970.

The killings unnerved Mothersbaugh, an Akron native who’d done his fair share of Vietnam War protest. Both he and Ravenna man Casale were visual art students at Kent State, and both were interested in pop culture. Their most famous product, which the two helped form in the early 1970s, was the rock group Devo.

“I still have nightmares and daydreams about Akron,” Mothersbaugh says, evoking the early Northeast Ohio underground rock scene. “But Cleveland also represents our first foray into the world, getting in a car with some amps in the back seat and driving up to the Flats and going to Pirate’s Cove and going, ‘Omigosh, who’s this band Pere Ubu? Who are these people?’

“These guys are kindred souls,” he recalls thinking. “Finding out there’s somebody called Rocket from the Tombs, the Dead Boys … we were all still under the gravity of Ohio, all of us. And Akron is kind of a Cleveland wannabe (in) the same way Cleveland, when I was a kid, was kind of a Detroit wannabe. Akron always wanted to be as cool as Cleveland.”

“Mark Mothersbaugh,” self portrait. Courtesy of Mutato Muzika.

“Mark Mothersbaugh,” self portrait. Courtesy of Mutato Muzika.

Both Ohio cities are cool for Mothersbaugh these days. His impact on pop culture – by no means exclusively musical – will be on display in “Myopia,” a precedent-setting solo retrospective coming in late May to both the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum.

Mothersbaugh’s musical heritage will be the focus at MOCA Cleveland. The show will spotlight experimentation, performance and sound, including documentation of Devo’s first performance and Mothersbaugh’s experimentation with manipulated musical instruments.

“Mark Mothersbaugh, Bulbous Politico Gets a Hand,” 2004, woven nylon fibers, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ron Pollard.

“Mark Mothersbaugh, Bulbous Politico Gets a Hand,” 2004, woven nylon fibers, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ron Pollard.

Simultaneously, the Akron Art Museum will spotlight his career in the visual arts, including recent sculpture, rugs and a collection of 30,000 postcard-sized drawings.

Seeing both – discounted tickets will be good at both institutions – is highly recommended. Mothersbaugh, who was extremely near-sighted as a child, is a protean artist with a ridiculously multifaceted solo career; the younger generation is more likely to know him for his non-Devo work.

“He is made of creativity,” Megan Lykins Reich, deputy director of programs and engagement at MOCA Cleveland, says of Mothersbaugh. “He can pull everything off,” she adds, noting her conversations with Mothersbaugh start in one place and end up somewhere totally unexpected. “How did I get here? Where am I?” Reich asks herself after a phone engagement with Mothersbaugh. “He’s so creative and so gracious with it.”

“DEVO.” Art Direction: David Allen. Backdrop silkscreen: Phyllis Cohen. Photo: Jules Bates.

“DEVO.” Art Direction: David Allen. Backdrop silkscreen: Phyllis Cohen. Photo: Jules Bates.

“He is a creative genius,” concurs Mark Masuoka, executive director of the Akron Art Museum. “When people get a chance to experience the visual arts portion of the exhibition, they will truly understand how amazing he is, especially as a visual artist.

“He’s touched our lives and we don’t even know it,” Masuoka adds, noting the Akron Art Museum plans to work with Mothersbaugh after “Myopia” ends its local run.

“This is very much a homecoming for me,” Mothersbaugh says of “Myopia” in a freewheeling, hour-long interview from Mutato Muzika, his Hollywood-based music production company. “Whether anybody’s aware of me or of Devo, we’re very much stamped with Ohio, so we are considered emissaries by everybody else even if you guys (Northeast Ohio residents) don’t think so. To come back and do the show here to me has such a nice feeling. It’s like bringing it all back home in a literal sense.”

“Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia,” Roli Polis installation view. Photo: Trevor Brown. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

“Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia,” Roli Polis installation view. Photo: Trevor Brown. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

“Home” was scary to this peace-loving Ohio boy at Kent State at the dawn of the ’70s. “I just couldn’t for the life of me think of anybody I would shoot with a gun or blow up with a bomb,” he says. “How do you keep making progress in a good way? Who changes things?”

One way is advertising. Another is art.

Around that turbulent time, Burger King ran a commercial using Pachelbel’s “Canon,” a famous baroque organ piece. Mothersbaugh evokes it by singing “hold the pickles,” bemoaning how “they took a beautiful piece of music and turned it into a burger commercial.” He deplored the cultural predation but admired the sophistication.

“The kind of music was important because the way they used music, it was a subversive delivery system,” and not good for you, he says. “Then you saw within minutes they sell you sugar with bubbles for 75 cents or a dollar and you’ve got a can of gook. And they look so happy.” He thought advertising techniques “were really sophisticated and interesting and much more powerful than the very naïve idea of hippies to hold a sign up and think somebody cares.”

So he began to look for the right way to close the gap between spirituality and science and between the synthetic and the authentic. And with Casale and Mothersbaugh’s brothers Jim and Bob, all devotees of 20th century Pop Art, all came together as the musical group Devo. Punk, new wave, experimental, rock – Devo was all of the above. Its heyday was the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, it was an early, prominent presence in the Cleveland-Akron underground music scene, and it scored a big hit in 1980 with “Whip It,” a very catchy, hot piece of synth pop.

“In the 40 years that have transpired since then (the founding of Devo, which he dates to 1974), I’ve remained a gallery and museum exhibiting visual artist,” Mothersbaugh says. “But because of the high visibility of both Devo and working in the entertainment industry, you wouldn’t know that I’ve scored about 140 movies, television shows and video games.”

He has written scores for Rugrats movies and Wes Anderson films; for TV shows from “Hotel Malibu” to “Big Love”; and for video games including “Crash Bandicoot” and “The Sims 2.”

Mothersbaugh’s experience with the corporate record business left a bad taste, so he went on his own as a visual artist, securing art shows all over the world by contacting smaller galleries that advertised in the avant-garde magazine Juxtapoz and pricing his work, like low-edition multiple prints, “so first-time art buyers could say, ‘Hmm, will I buy a keg of beer for my party or buy my first piece of art?’”

His smaller shows “would always be with people who were really in love with art,” he says. “I really thought museums were these big, well-funded creampuff projects for the rich and I discounted them until through Adam Lerner (curator of the original “Myopia,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver), I started seeing the mechanisms by which they work.

“I realized these big museums with beautiful buildings and really nice collections of art are kind of more like an NPR station, constantly hustling to keep going through next year to keep the lights on.

“This project has changed my respect and certainly my level of knowledge about how museums work,” he added, noting that with its Northeast Ohio double play, “Myopia” will have been in four museums now, “and they’re all different but the thing they have in common is the crews,” aspiring artists or simply people who “just love the joy of being that third party to the triangle: The artist, the art work and the audience.”

“I find these people at museums that are incredibly inspiring to me,” he said.

Akron “is a beautiful museum. If you like the show in Cleveland, you should really just go to give it a shot. Maybe we can figure out a way to get us there. Or we could all walk there. I need the exercise.”

“What better way for us to welcome him back, celebrate his art and celebrate him?” says the Akron Art Museum’s Masuoka. “That’s really what the exhibition is about, but also I think it’s a sort of poignant statement about his creativity and that he is an amazing artist.”

The joint show promises to be exceptional, suggests MOCA Cleveland’s Reich. Not only will the displays showcase a protean pop-culture figure, they represent the first time the two institutions have worked together.

“(Mothersbaugh) is the exemplary kind of contemporary artist, working in a hybrid way across many disciplines successfully without hesitation, and able to carry on a consistent aesthetic across these different practices,” says Reich, noting the “Myopia” show in Cleveland will feature a Scion car with two back sides and “sculptural instruments” Mothersbaugh calls Orchestrions. “Everything he does is very ‘Mark’ in this palpable, incredible way.” CV

On view

MOCA Cleveland: May 27 – Aug. 28

A free opening night party and concert will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. May 27 on Toby’s Plaza outside of MOCA Cleveland. Mark Mothersbaugh will be on hand to perform on his six-sided keyboard, followed by a Mothersbaugh DJ set. For more information, call 216-421-8671 or visit mocacleveland.org.

Akron Art Museum: May 29 – Aug. 28

An Artist Talk with Mark Mothersbaugh and Adam Lerner will be held at 2 p.m. May 28 at the Akron-Summit County Public Library. A free opening party will immediately follow from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Akron Art Museum. For more information, call 330-376-9185 or visit akronartmuseum.org.

Xavier Cha, "abduct," video still, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Human figure no ‘Stranger’ in MOCA Cleveland exhibition, which explores interaction between art and viewer upon introduction

Story by Carlo Wolff

Images provided by MOCA Cleveland

“Stranger” is the apt title of the intellectually nutritious winter/spring exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. The decidedly mixed-media, decidedly international effort features nine artists working in various dimensions but with a common theme: the human figure.

Huma Bhabha, Untitled, 2015, ink, pastel, acrylic paint, and collage on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York.

Huma Bhabha, Untitled, 2015, ink, pastel, acrylic paint, and collage on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York.

The nine are Huma Bhabha, a Pakistani native living in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who blends the human and the animal; Valerie Blass of Montreal, whose work is surreal and psychological; Sascha Braunig, a native of British Columbia who lives in Portland, Maine; Antoine Catala, a native of Toulouse, France, living in New York; Los Angeles native/New Yorker Ian Cheng; Simon Dybbroe Moeller, a Dane living in New York; Cleveland native/London-Berlin resident Cecile B. Evans, whose interactive video, “Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen,” vamps on iconic dead actor Philip Seymour Hoffman; Georgia native/Zurich-Berlin resident Andro Wekua; and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye of London. Each has a distinct and original vision of the world.

Also on this season’s MOCA menu: “abduct,” a 12-minute video by Los Angeles artist Xavier Cha. Where “Stranger” focuses on the body, “abduct” is about expression. There are intersections.

One can lose oneself in either “Stranger,” which occupies the white-walled Mueller Family Gallery on the top floor, or in “abduct,” mounted widescreen in a theater in the black-walled Toby Devan Lewis Gallery on the second floor.

Valérie Blass, “Je suis une image,” 2015, forton, underwear, modified hanging system, and hair extensions, 50 x 18 x 28 inches. Collection of Joe Friday and Grant Jameson, Ottawa, Canada. Photo: Blaine Campbell. Courtesy of Artspeak, Vancouver.

Valérie Blass, “Je suis une image,” 2015, forton, underwear, modified hanging system, and hair extensions, 50 x 18 x 28 inches. Collection of Joe Friday and Grant Jameson, Ottawa, Canada. Photo: Blaine Campbell. Courtesy of Artspeak, Vancouver.

One can lose oneself in both. Be ready to spend several hours — maybe even several visits — at MOCA.

These exhibitions, organized by associate curator Rose Bouthillier, are thoughtful, careful and mind-bending. They are the Alberta native’s last for MOCA; Bouthillier is returning to Canada to be exhibitions curator at Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She will be missed.

“The works were chosen based on the intense feeling that emerges when you ‘meet’ an artwork,” Bouthillier said in a media briefing before the show opened Jan. 29. While the art allows the viewer to project, it’s also assertive.

Not that the body is all that recognizable in “Stranger,” a term presented without context so it ripples into numerous meanings.

Sometimes that body is sheathed, as in “Ce Nobostant,” Blass’s totem/obelisk, a towering figure you want to hug — but with that weird extension, maybe not. Made of Styrofoam, foam coat, Mastic Magic Sculpt epoxy, plastic, wood, stick and oil paint, it draws one in with its cuddly abstraction, then repels with its knife. Or is that a scalpel?

Sometimes the figure is plush, as in Catala’s “Distant Feel,” a weirdly impassive triptych of a man communing with his smartphone, a man about to cry and a woman holding a child. These large works are upholstered, as much sculpture as photography. And while the Catalas draw you in, they also keep you at bay no matter how much you want to touch them.

Sascha Braunig, “Chur,” 2014, oil on linen over panel, 24 x 18 inches. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Max Stern Trust Fund, BMA 2015.86. Photo: Mitro Hood. Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production, New York.

Sascha Braunig, “Chur,” 2014, oil on linen over panel, 24 x 18 inches. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Max Stern Trust Fund, BMA 2015.86. Photo: Mitro Hood. Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production, New York.

If the figure is the key theme of “Stranger,” subthemes include duality and empathy. Braunig, for example, crafts haunting paintings of faces or things about to break through. The louvered “Chur,” which conjures a brain in a chemistry lab jar, is so lovingly detailed, so warmly contextualized and so three-dimensional it’s more human than clinical. Other Braunig paintings, suggesting faces peeking through curtains, speak to yearning and revelation. They’re wonderfully mysterious.

So are Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits, like “A Pedigree of Some Note,” a large oil of a boy casually sitting on the floor, eyes wide open. Again, duality: this is both inviting and off-putting. While the boy seems relaxed, the way he watches you — this Londoner’s paintings always watch you — is disquieting. Neither of you can take your eyes off the other when it comes to Yiadom-Boakye’s contextless paintings, which startle with their blend of sophistication and guilelessness.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Wrist Action,” 2010, oil on canvas, 98 3/8 x 78 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and Corvi-Mora, London. ©Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Wrist Action,” 2010, oil on canvas, 98 3/8 x 78 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and Corvi-Mora, London. ©Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

The embarrassment of riches that is “Stranger” also features Wekua, whose sculpture and video combine the heraldic with the cybernetic; Cheng’s artificial intelligence- and videogame-based video, “Something Thinking of You” (do not miss this philosophical blockbuster); and “Untitled (How does it feel),” Dybbroe Moeller’s eerie cybernautical video about consumerism and style.

And there’s “abduct,” Cha’s meditation on expression. Commissioned by MOCA in collaboration with Frieze Films, “abduct,” like several other works here, brings the otherworldly down to earth. It tracks actors overcome by emotion, using the close-up to effectively get inside their heads (and ours). As they cycle through anger, joy, sorrow, delight, disgust and fear, they express what all of us feel. They also resist the takeover.

These people — men and women, black and white, dressed artlessly and defensively — morph before our eyes, never settling down to any one emotion, let alone to composure. Perhaps their very restlessness is another of this show’s themes. Here, such restlessness can be disturbing, but it makes for art of a high order. CV

 

On View

WHAT: Stranger/abduct

WHEN: Through May 8

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

TICKETS & INFO: Members free; general admission $9.50; seniors, $6; students, $5. 216-421-8671 or mocacleveland.org


 

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 2, 2016.

Lead image: Xavier Cha, “abduct,” video still, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

This stove is part of Do Ho Suh’s Specimen Series

Do Ho Suh’s collection of work about “transcultural displacement” impresses at MOCA Cleveland

Story by Carlo Wolff

Photos courtesy of The Contemporary Austin

A portion of Do Ho Suh’s New York apartment

A portion of Do Ho Suh’s New York apartment

Installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland are always thought-provoking, but the ones on view there through Jan. 10 are absolutely mind-blowing.

Do Ho Suh is to the various meanings of home as Ferrari Adria Acosta was to the permutations of food in “Notes on Creativity,” the star chef’s deeply philosophical installation at the museum last fall.

Al Qadiri’s sonic installation suggests the museum can effectively tune itself, and Yitzhak’s ultramodern take on Rodin’s “The Thinker” raises interesting questions about the collision of art and politics.

Like Adria’s “Notes,” the Ho Suh installation, which occupies the Mueller Family Gallery on the third floor and the Toby Devan Lewis Gallery a floor below at MOCA Cle, resonates far beyond what one sees, prompting thoughts of home, of feeling grounded, travel, memory and cultural scramble.

Ho Suh is a native of South Korea who lives in London but considers New York his true home. He is a dream weaver – literally. Most of his exhibition, on the third floor, replicates apartments he has lived in to scale in weavings of monochromatic polyester.

The Specimen Series, his secondary exhibit on the second floor, extrapolates appliances and fixtures from those apartments, also expressed in translucent, transparent fabric. In addition, the centerpiece of one room is “Secret Garden,” a mixed media work showcasing Ho Suh’s traditional Korean home, complete with a garden, on a flatbed truck.

“Secret Garden” blends the delicacy and stillness of classical oriental line drawing with the drive and brawn of American industry; it’s curiously witty and lovely, and the accompanying animation is a hoot, showing the truck transporting its precious cargo from Seoul by way of Alaska to New York’s Madison Square Park. The journey never happened, but the idea electrifies and amuses.

In general remarks and a brief interview at an opening reception Sept. 25, Ho Suh said his work is about “transcultural displacement,” adding New York remains special to him; he lived in one apartment in the Chelsea district for 18 years, and in late September visited his landlord, who is 90 and suffering from Alzheimer’s.

That man, who supported Ho Suh’s work in his studio in that building, where he also lived, couldn’t remember his own son. But he remembered Ho Suh.

Ho Suh’s weavings – and rubbings lining the walls on the third floor – are his way of carrying his home with him, he said. They work, of course, only as art, but they’re so luminous, transparent and ephemeral, you’d swear you could turn a knob on the fabric stove and it would fire. The same dynamic applies to the wall hangings, which span faux blueprints, paintings and embedded thread. “Myselves,” a 2013 work of thread embedded in handmade Dieu Donne paper, seems to radiate, as Ho Suh’s different selves lay over each other, simultaneously trying to escape from each other.

His craftsmanship, daring and depth, not to mention his fearlessness, make experiencing the Do Ho Suh exhibition a must.

You leave the top floor by way of a screaming yellow staircase that takes you all the way down to entry level. You’re walking through Al Qadiri’s installation from top floor to the bottom, immersed in carefully curated modern music. While there is nothing beyond the staircase to see, the music changes the environment according to the place where you find yourself, simultaneously attesting to MOCA Cle’s increasing confidence in the use of all of its spaces, not just the rooms. The Al Qadiri is a rite of passage in tune with the other installations on view.

On the ground floor, you’ll find Nevet Yitzhak’s two-channel video installation on “The Thinker,” the iconic Rodin statue that is a kind of sentinel at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Bombed – literally – in 1970, allegedly by members of the Weather Underground, the massive bronze was effectively brought back to life by the Cleveland Museum.

This is Tel Aviv artist Yitzhak’s first solo museum presentation in the United States. Yitzhak, who considers herself a soloist whose main “instrument” is a computer, chose to focus on “The Thinker” following a trip to the Cleveland area in May in which she visited various cultural institutions, including CMA.

The installation juxtaposes a video of “The Thinker” with archival images including ones from the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the Twin Towers. It is particularly resonant in light of the recent destruction of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts by ISIS, aka the Islamic State. And in animating “The Thinker” – he “moves” in response to the other video, in a surreal kind of dance – Yitzhak has given him new life. CV

WHAT: Do Ho Suh; Fatima Al Qadiri, Chinas of the Mind; Nevet Yitzhak: Off the Ruling Class

WHEN: Through Jan. 10

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

INFO: 216-421-8671/mocacleveland.org

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News in October 2015.


* Lead image: This stove is part of Do Ho Suh’s Specimen Series.

Nevet Yitzhak, Innocence Museum of Displaced Monuments: Luxor Obelisk, 2014, 2-channel audio video Installation; 00:03:20. Installation view, Artport, Tel Aviv. Courtesy of the artist.

Israeli artist Nevet Yitzhak explores metaphorical repair in MOCA Cleveland’s “Off the Ruling Class”

By Carlo Wolff

Portrait of an artist: Nevet Yitzhak

Portrait of an artist: Nevet Yitzhak

Violence, it seems, can drive Tel Aviv video artist Nevet Yitzhak to heal.

For her first solo museum presentation in the United States, running through Jan. 10 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in University Circle’s Uptown district, Yitzhak focused on the annual maintenance of “The Thinker,” the damaged Auguste Rodin sculpture standing cultural guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Her work, suggests MOCA Cleveland associate curator Rose Bouthillier, is a metaphorical way to make the statue whole again.

Yitzhak’s installation on the Rodin, which the Weather Underground bombed in 1970, documents the conservation of “The Thinker,” which then-GMA director Sherman Lee reinstalled with its grievously wounded lower half.

Like other Yitzhak installations, the two-channel “Thinker” work is a way to bear witness to history and to comment on the violence that so often dogs art. It seems particularly timely in light of the recent ISIS destruction of ancient artifacts and structures in the Middle East.

A 2014 installation, “Detail no. 1 from the Innocence Museum of Displaced Monuments: Luxor Obelisk,” also deals with violence and cultural misappropriation. It shows a giraffe heading toward the obelisk, which the French bought from Egypt in the 1830s; the legendary plinth now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Instead of reaching the obelisk, however, the giraffe places its head under a guillotine, even as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” plays. The installation, which unfolds like a baroque adagio, is a stunning blend of the gorgeous and the grotesque.

Another installation is the ironically titled “Salute.” Dating from 2003, the black-and-white, single-channel work by Yitzhak and Lior Fridman is a video manipulation that simulates an airplane crashing into the Tower of David in Jerusalem. Conflating archival footage from Israeli wars and the Sept. 11 destruction of New York’s Twin Towers, it has the immediacy of a newsreel and the feeling of a nightmare.

Yitzhak is not afraid to set up startling juxtapositions.

Bouthillier met Yitzhak in October in Israel on a trip arranged by Artis, a New York- and Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that brings curators to Israel to help promote Israeli art.

Nevet Yitzhak, The dance of the behind, 2014, 2-channel audio video installation, 00:06:45, looped. Installation view, Petach Tikva Museum of Art, 2014. Photo: Meidad Suchowolski. Courtesy of the artist.

Nevet Yitzhak, The dance of the behind, 2014, 2-channel audio video installation, 00:06:45, looped. Installation view, Petach Tikva Museum of Art, 2014. Photo: Meidad Suchowolski. Courtesy of the artist.

Artis and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, a sponsor of the Yitzhak exhibition, financed the Rodin installation. It will be the first MOCA Cleveland commission to travel: It was scheduled to show at EXPO Chicago, on the Navy Pier, Sept. 18-20.

Their meeting in Israel resulted in an invitation to Yitzhak to visit Cleveland in May.

“I brought her to a lot of local collections and cultural places, and she was really interested in esoteric and obscure museums as well,” Bouthillier says. Among the places they visited were the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, and Zoar, a town about an hour-and-a-half south of Cleveland with an interesting museum.

Yitzhak also spent quite a bit of time at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Initially entranced by the Fayum mummy portraits painted on sarcophagi from Roman Egypt, Yitzhak eventually fixed on “The Thinker,” giving her plenty of material to work with, Bouthillier suggested.

The Rodin – and what happened to it 45 years ago – tie “into this really compelling moment in American history, all these conflicts around the Vietnam War,” Bouthillier says, and “it was interesting to look at the destruction of this object sort of in light of all the news right now of artifacts being destroyed in the Middle East.” To Yitzhak, “the destruction of an object means that object has power and that object has influence,” Bouthillier says. “Otherwise, why bother?”

As of Sept. 3, the installation was a work in progress. It will feature two projections; one is like a 3-D animation of “The Thinker,” imagining him as a living, breathing person; the other, according to Bouthillier, “is a sort of compilation of all of Nevet’s research about the object,” the ephemera, letters, files, images throughout time “compiled into almost like a diary.”

The latter has a romantic overtone, informed by the tenderness of care, caressing and attention, imagining what Rodin would have wanted, “talking about ‘The Thinker’ almost as a personification of him, and because it is a person, it’s a very iconic figure,” Bouthillier says.

“Once I become interested in a subject,” Yitzhak told Bouthillier in a Skype interview earlier this summer, “I begin to study and gather as much information as possible: images, video, records, text. This research takes a lot of energy. The work begins to develop from the footage, shaped by the ideas that emerge. On the more technical side, my role is more of an editor than a director. I’m also a soloist – I prefer to work alone on my computer as opposed to producing with a large group of people!” CV


*Lead image: Nevet Yitzhak, Innocence Museum of Displaced Monuments: Luxor Obelisk, 2014, 2-channel audio video Installation; 00:03:20. Installation view, Artport, Tel Aviv. Courtesy of the artist.