The Cleveland artists waiting for Donald Trump   07.16.16

As Part of SPACES Art Writer in Residence Program, Jillian Steinhauer spent time exploring the Cleveland Arts, focusing on the activism and politically charged work that has been in the limelight. The Gaurdian was interested in her experience, and today published the results.

Keywords: activism, cleveland, donald trump, politics, protests, rnc, spaces, the fixers, trump
Author: Karl Anderson, R&D Coordinator
Category: Art Writer in Residence

A Life in Activism and Comics: An Interview with Joyce Brabner   07.16.16

Jillian Steinhauer (SPACES most recent Art Writer in Residence) got the chance to sit down and speak with Joyce Brabner, a Cleveland writer, artist, activist and comic whose career spans multiple decades and a plethora of projects. click below to follow their conversation.

Keywords: activism, brought to light, cleveland, comics, harvey pekar, jillian steinhauer, joyce brabner, our cancer year, story-telling, voice
Author: Karl Anderson, R&D Coordinator
Category: Art Writer in Residence

The View From Cleveland   06.06.16

Leave it to a journalist from New York to show up in Cleveland with an idea of how things must be. (In fact, last year's Art Writer-in-Residence, also from New York, did the same thing.) In New York City these days, it can feel like art and politics overlap to an almost delirious degree: artists and others protest at museums regularly, exhibitions grappling with all sorts of social and political issues abound around town. This isn't to say there's no other work to see-there is-but if you're interested in how artists are confronting the problems of the world-as I am-New York is a good place to start.

And so I came to Cleveland, roughly a week ago, assuming there must be some kind of overlap between art and politics here. Cleveland is, after all, the most segregated city in the United States. It's part of the steel-manufacturing stretch of land that was left to rust in the second half of the 20th century. Its police force is famous for killing a 12-year-old child, its river for catching fire. One of its neighborhoods experienced "more housing speculation than any place in the country" in the lead-up to the Great Recession.

The world, in other words, has impinged itself upon Cleveland. It's not a place where you can pretend that deep-seated structural problems don't exist. Yet the sense I've gotten so far, from the people I've spoken with and the art I've seen, is that most (visual) artists here are not confronting those problems in their work.

That is, I want to stress, not a judgment. It is simply, to me, a surprise-especially given the city's legacy of literary activism and the impending Republican National Convention. (Two of the most high-profile RNC-related art projects are being brought to Cleveland by…New Yorkers.) And as one of my greatest professors once taught me, surprises are always worth investigating: they represent a rich gap between expectation and reality, a wealth of knowledge yet to be learned. If the truth is that Cleveland artists aren't making work about politics, then I want to understand why.

The other point I keep stubbornly returning to is that "most" does not mean "all": Some artists here are activists in their own ways, some painters and performers are making work that either they or I would call political. They're just a little harder to find, and their art may not adopt a shape that's familiar to me. So, in the process of sussing these people out, I've found myself returning to some fundamental questions: What's the difference between social and political art, or between political art and activism? What defines "political" anyway? What criteria am I setting up subconsciously in this search, and are they fair? How can I understand what it means to be political in Cleveland while only spending a month in Cleveland?

I don't expect to answer any of those, but it helps me to consider them continually, to let them linger in my brain as I go about the process of seeing art, meeting people, and having conversations. You might live here as an artist or arts worker and have thoughts on them, too. If that's the case, please get in touch. I'd love to hear what you have to say. I know I won't be able to fully understand Cleveland in 30 days, but I hope to learn a damn lot about it.

Keywords: activism, art, cleveland, jillian steinhauer, politics, rnc
Author: Jillian Steinhauer, Art Writer in Residence
Category: Art Writer in Residence

The Ghost of d.a. levy   07.28.15

In this piece by Morgan Meis, the city of Cleveland is explored through the connection to d.a. levy, a young poet who died in 1968. Morgan Meis spent one month in Cleveland exploring the rich cultural scene.He discoverd d.a. levy in the Moca show, How To Remain Human.

Morgan wrote the piece for The Smart Set, a blog presented by Drexel University.

d.a. levy, 1967(thanks to the KSU library)
d.a. levy, 1967(thanks to the KSU library)

Keywords: cleveland, d.a. levy, human, poetry
Author: Morgan Meis, SWAP Art Writer in Residence
Category: Art Writer in Residence

Is Regionalism second best?   07.14.15

If you define "regionalism" as the art or artists coming from a particular region, like northeast Ohio, you inevitably run up against the "quality" question. The question is roughly as follows: Why pay attention to regional art if that art is not as good as the art being produced at the cultural center? The best art from any specific region will ultimately, so the thinking goes, make its way to places like New York and LA (wherever you define the cultural center) anyway. Creating a specific category for regional art is thus a way of protecting second-best art without explicitly calling it that. There may be some value in doing that. Maybe we want to preserve and display art of an inferior quality that holds, for whatever reason, some regional interest. But we shouldn't pretend that regionalism is anything but this promotion of otherwise second-best, or worse, art.

That's the argument against regionalism in a nutshell. I'm not saying that I agree with the argument. I'm just fleshing out the point. But I think the argument is powerful enough that it often creates real worries in the minds of artists and curators who try to promote regional art. I'd say that these are the kinds of worries, more or less, that finally spelled the doom of exhibits in Cleveland like The May Show and the The NEO Show.

There is, however, another possible approach to regionalism. It is an approach that basically sidesteps the question of quality. In this approach, you put less emphasis on the art, or artists, emerging from a specific region. Instead, you focus on the region itself. Let's say you choose Cleveland. Having chosen Cleveland, you then ask whether the place itself poses any particular aesthetic problems, whether the nature of the city lends itself to one art practice versus another. You ask artists to respond to the region (the city of Cleveland, in this case) instead of looking around a specific region in the hopes of finding a bunch of art representative of the work being produced there. For a show like this, you can bring artists in from anywhere.

That's almost exactly what was done for "Urban Evidence" a show in 1996 that was the result of a collaboration between the CMA, the CCCA (now MOCA), and SPACES. The catalogue for the show states:

"What is a city? By what means is it best revealed? Do we turn to the breathless panegyrics of the Chamber of Commerce, with its list of tourist attractions, architectural highlights, civic accomplishments, cultural institutions? Or do we look beyond the official story, to the hidden past, to the overlooked voices of ordinary citizens, and to the underlying economic, social, and political forces that quietly and inexorably shape city life.

The artists represented in Urban Evidence: Contemporary Artists Reveal Cleveland have chosen the second course."

As you can see, "Urban Evidence" presented itself as a specific way of making art about a city. But the show was also, surreptitiously, you could say, solving the problem of how you present art from a specific region without creating a show of second-best art. The curators of "Urban Evidence" turned the question (how do you reveal Cleveland through art?) into the primary driver of the show. The curators didn't claim that the art coming out of Cleveland or northeast Ohio was of any special interest. They claimed, instead, that Cleveland itself was of special interest for art.

But then the curators did a tricky thing. They set as a parameter of the show that there would be a majority of artists from the northeast Ohio area with a sampling of international artists thrown into the mix. The artists brought in from outside northeast Ohio were a mostly high-profile bunch: Andres Serrano, Ilya Kabakov, Lorna Simpson, Joseph Kosuth. Internationally well-known artists. To my mind, the art from the artists living in northeast Ohio, particularly the pieces by Laila Voss, Paul O'Keeffe, and Michael Loderstedt, were actually the best in show.

But the point is that there were, in essence, two pools of talent from which curators chose participants in the show. One pool was regional and one was not. The question of how the regional artists would have ranked in a situation in which there was simply one pool to choose from was, in a sense, suppressed by the way the show was presented. The exhibit was presented, again, as a show about artists solving the problem of how to "reveal Cleveland." The two-pool premise was never openly discussed. So, the problem of regionalism was pushed under the rug.

I'm not criticizing the curators for this semi-sneaky move. I'm sure they never consciously thought about the move as semi-sneaky. They were simply trying to figure out a way to bring regional artists together with outside artists in order to create a show where artists got the chance to "reveal Cleveland." But they knew, in their hearts, that they would be creating controversy if they put on a show about Cleveland that did not include any Cleveland artists. They'd have gotten their butts kicked up and down the streets of the city. So, they created a two-tiered curating system without acknowledging it as such.

Jumping forward to MOCA's current show, "How To Remain Human," you can look at the show as a further development from the attempt to address regionalism in "Urban Evidence." What they've done at MOCA is, basically, to keep the "reveal Cleveland" (or, in this case, "reveal the greater region") approach of "Urban Evidence" but abandon the idea of mixing regional and non-regional art. The curators of "How to Remain Human" realized, instinctively or not, that the two-tiered system for curating work was inherently problematic. So, they broadened the definition of "region" (including Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc.), dropped the idea of bringing in big-name outside artists, and put on a show. The show ignores the question of whether this is the "best" work in the region. Instead, it focuses, like "Urban Evidence," on what the art has to say about the region. It is taken for granted that the region is inherently interesting and that local artists are best going to be able to express that fact.

Still, the question of regionalism lingers uncomfortably under the surface of MOCA's show. The curators have stated the following:

How to Remain Human continues MOCA Cleveland's focused engagement with artists connected to Cleveland and the surrounding region, including neighboring cities in Pennsylvania and Michigan. It features emerging, mid-career, and established artists, working across a wide variety of media, who question and affirm humanness.

Notice, if you will, how the statement moves rapidly from the regional premise (artists connected to Cleveland) to the specific aesthetic concern of the show (affirming humanness). The question of why MOCA has a focused engagement with artists connected to Cleveland isn't addressed as such. Presumably, the answer would be, "because MOCA is in Cleveland and that's what we have to do."

But is there something about being in Cleveland that makes artists more attuned to "humanness" than artists from other places? Does the area of northeast Ohio have its own set of moral and aesthetic concerns? Does work from northeast Ohio even challenge the aesthetic conceptions coming out of New York or LA? Do you have to look at things differently here? Do you get a different set of eyes, as it were, when you've learned to look at the world from a northeast Ohio perspective? Is the very question of what makes art "good" or "bad," "successful" or "unsuccessful" relative, to some degree, to the region from which that art is produced?

These questions, it strikes me, are lingering just under the surface of an exhibit like "How To Remain Human." Is there a way to bring those questions up further toward the surface? That would mean openly confronting the question, the problem, of regionalism, which is a dangerous thing to do, since there is always the chance that no one will like the answers.

Michael Dickus, erasure drawing
Michael Dickus, erasure drawing

Keywords: , regionalism
Author: Morgan Meis, SWAP Art Writer in Residence
Category: Art Writer in Residence

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