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

28 days in Cleveland   07.10.15

Morgan Meis has spent a month in Cleveland exploring the art and culture of the City we call home. He has been contributing to the critical conversation about art and art making throughout that time. He has participated in a Zygote Press event called WIP (Works in Progress), and at SPACES, 8x8x8 event that put 8 artists in front of 8 arts professionals for 8 minutes of feedback. He has also visited a large number of artists studios, and had long conversations.
SPACES has posted, and will continue to post his writings about his immersion in the Art scene here, on our blog. Morgan has also been writing for other publications, and we will provide links to that writing as well.
ART has published this article and we share it here.

I-80W from CLE; Tony's, East Peoria. Corrie Slawson. 2015. Photo lithography, screenprint, spray paint & pencil
I-80W from CLE; Tony's, East Peoria. Corrie Slawson. 2015. Photo lithography, screenprint, spray paint & pencil

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

Art in a Place   07.07.15

I was flipping through the July/August 2005 edition of Cleveland Art, which is the Cleveland Museum of Art Members Magazine. There was an article by Gregory Donley about The NEO Show, which was on view from July 10-September 4 of that year. The NEO Show was started as a kind of new version of the Cleveland Museum's May Show, which was a juried exhibition of regional art that was put permanently on ice in 1993.

As far as I understand it, The NEO Show itself ended up being a one-off exhibit in 2005. There is, at the moment and to my knowledge, no regular annual exhibit specifically showcasing the work of Northeast Ohio artists. And so, the question of regionalism is, maybe, on hold right now as well. That's to say, there's no consensus right now in the Cleveland area as to whether regionalism is a good thing or a bad thing, whether it is limiting or freeing, whether it is even real…. The question of a regionalism is, from a curatorial and critical standpoint, seemingly not currently a question at all.

A similar ambivalence seems already to have been in play back in 2005. Asked about the purpose of The NEO Show by Cleveland Art, Jeffrey Grove, one of the jurors for the show and a former director of CMA, said:

"We felt that the idea of recognizing the artists of the region should in no way countenance an exploration of 'Regionalism' or what a so-called regional character might be. Instead, we determined that the curatorial objective should be to represent the quality and complexity of artistic production in northeast Ohio with an eye to how the achievements of artists here relate to those in other communities, regions, states, and nations."

That's a mouthful. But if you pull the statement apart, it amounts to saying that the main point of The NEO Show was to prove that artists from northeast Ohio are good enough not to be from northeast Ohio. That's to say, Grove and the other jurors wanted to find art in the area that wasn't so marked by the area that it couldn't be shown outside of the area.

At the end of the article, Grove is quoted as saying, "Would a visitor from L.A. or Latvia know this was a selection of artists from northeast Ohio? Probably not. Is that problematic? Definitely not."

The show had proven, to Grove's mind, that there are many northeast Ohio artists who are good enough to be artists from anywhere else. There's a sense of relief percolating under the surface of Grove's statement and under the entirety of The NEO Show. It is the relief of those who are worried that they are going to be thought provincial, and then gratified when they are not.

That is the secret problem underlying all discussions of regionalism, is it not? It is the worry that the word 'regionalism' is really just code for the word 'provincial.' It always amounts to a put-down, even if the put-down is dressed up in nice language. Calling art 'regional' is a way of putting it in a second-best category.

Even those, like Thomas Hart Benton, who once tried to put forward a bold manifesto of regionalism, couldn't help doing so without strains of resentment and sullen anger against the art 'establishment' in the big cities at the coasts. Benton's anger belied his fear. Regionalism always seems to carry with it a crisis in confidence.

Perhaps one of the things, then, that characterizes art made in northeast Ohio is not so much that it is or isn't 'regional' but that it finds itself in a constant dance with the problem of regionalism. It embraces regionalism, then it thrusts it away. It closes its door to outside influence for periods of time, then seems greedily to seek out such influences. It denies that the question of regionalism is important at all, but still can't seem to stop talking about it.

Even Jeffrey Grove's claim that the problem of regionalism is "definitely not" a problem seems like another case of the lady who doth protest too much. It must be a teeny weeny little bit of a problem, or why put on the show at all, why talk about it in the first place? Attempts to squash the problem never seem to succeed for long. The NEO Show tried, best it could, to end the debate.

But this summer brings "How to Remain Human" at MOCA, a show that, "continues MOCA Cleveland's focused engagement with artists connected to Cleveland and the surrounding region." The regional beast rears its head ever and anon….

More on that soon…

Amanda Almon: Reduction, Remember and Repeat
Amanda Almon: Reduction, Remember and Repeat

Keywords: art of cleveland, may show, neo show, regionalism
Author: Morgan Meis, SWAP Art Writer in Residence
Category: Art Writer in Residence

Industrial Abstraction? or Not so Rustbelt afterall   07.02.15

A long chat with William E. Busta is an excellent way to clear away any simplistic notions about the art of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. My own simplistic notions revolved around the idea that the art of Cleveland was going to be "post-industrial." I assumed that art being produced here would be thick with the materials of heavy industry and the imagery of the Rust Belt in one way or another.

A few minutes into a discussion with Mr. Busta he said to me, essentially, "it doesn't work that way." Not that such art hasn't been produced and isn't still being produced here. But it is far from the dominant look. Instead of trying to find post-industrialism on the surface of art made in Cleveland, let's look at the question from a different angle, Busta suggested. Let's not think about artists making art that simply looks, in some kind of one-to-one correspondence, like the surrounding environment. Instead, let's consider that culture works in subtler ways.

Busta then let me in on a fascinating little observation. The artists in the Cleveland area more or less skipped over Abstract Expressionism and went right to Geometric Abstraction (in its second, post-Ab-Ex manifestation). Now, what's a possible reason for this historical jump? Maybe it's that the culture of Cleveland, broadly speaking, preferred the hard edges and the clean lines of Geometric Abstraction versus the "sloppiness" and splatters of the Ab-Ex crowd.

And that does bring us back to the industrial and commercial heart of Cleveland. It has been suggested by many, and even by Jackson Pollock himself, that the busyness and energy of the drip paintings had something to do with the pace and movement to be found on the streets of New York City. Pollock was, at least partly, "painting" the buzz of Manhattan city life. He needed an active and "all-over-the-place" painting style in order to be able to do that. Looking at those paintings, the people of New York were seeing something to which they could immediately respond.

But the style had no such resonance for the people, and artists, of Cleveland. A more pragmatic aesthetic was, maybe, at play in this town. That aesthetic was influenced by industrial design, by the work of the printers and the textile makers. Plenty of the artists making fine art in Cleveland throughout the 20th century were commercial designers and illustrators as a day job. Geometric Abstraction, with its clean lines, sober sense of space, and blocks of color, was closer to the natural sensibility of the city. The art collectors and curators might have felt the same way, even without ever formulating the thought explicitly. It was just embedded in their Cleveland DNA, as it were.

That's the theory anyway. It may be too broad, too far sweeping. It shouldn't be taken for more than it is. But it does intrigue. It helps to explain, maybe, why various forms of Geometric Abstraction are still being practiced in Northeast Ohio and why a show about its ongoing relevance is happening at the Akron Art Museum (curated by Theresa Bembnister) later this year. It is fascinating to me to consider that Cleveland's industrial identity might be sitting there right in front of your eyes as you look at a vibrating canvas of shifting colors by Julian Stanczak. You'd never know it if you didn't know it.

Beth Kelly, drawing from MDR at SPACES
Beth Kelly, drawing from MDR at SPACES

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

Notes on Film Night: with Stefany Anne Goldberg   07.01.15



I call the films of Stefany Anne Golberg "essay films." The term has been around for a while now and I prefer it to the other possible moniker "new documentary" for reasons that will be apparent shortly. The genre of the essay film was more or less, though unintentionally, established by the French filmmaker Chris Marker when he made Sans soleil. A more recent example is the Chilean director Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light.

The central question in talking about essay films is: why use the word "essay" to talk about a film. What makes a film "essay-like?" To answer that, we have to spend a few minutes thinking about what an essay is. You might think that's an easy thing to do, but it is actually pretty tricky. So, let's start by first saying what an essay is not. An essay is not, primarily, an argument, though it might contain arguments. An essay doesn't prove anything, nor does it exhaust any subject. The root meaning of the word "essay" is, after all, "to try, to attempt." To make an essay is just to "have a go at something." So, essays are much less about conclusions and much more about process. The central act of faith that guides any essay writer is the faith that if you just keep thinking, just keep writing, you'll get somewhere.

In an essay about Montaigne by Ralph Waldo Emerson, we find the following quote.

We are persuaded that a thread runs through all things: all worlds are strung on it: and men, and events, and life, come to us, only because of that thread.

So, I think we can say that all essay writers are essentially thread pullers. The excitement of pulling on threads is that you don't know exactly where the thread will lead you. The best essays generally get lost a bit somewhere in the middle. The vastness of possible connections always threatens to overwhelm the essay writer. History looms. Nature beckons. The essay writer can get immobilized by the near-infinite reservoir of stuff, from the stuff of the cosmos to the stuff we've said, stuff we've done, stuff we've made…. there's so much stuff and it all seems relevant.

That is where it is essential to stop and breath. After a deep breath or two, the fear subsides. You remember that you are finite. You go back to pulling on the thread, which always leads from one concrete thing to another, even as it relies, ultimately, on the cosmic interconnectedness of all things.

This need to pull on threads and yet not to get lost in the infinite spool of yarn is also what leads most essayists to trust in the touchstone of their own experience. Montaigne famously says in his little preface to the reader, "It is myself I paint." This isn't a result of self-aggrandizement or self-absorption. It is, actually, an act of humility. Each one of us has only one way through the world. The thread that we pull on and follow is ultimately the thread of the self. We follow that thread out into the world and into connections with our fellow human beings. But the starting and ending point of the thread can only be found within our own souls.

Here's an example of what I mean. In the film Poland, Stefany finds herself searching for her grandmother's childhood home in Lublin. That's the thread she is pulling on. That thread leads her to the plains of Saskatchewan, to find the almost non-existent remnants of the farm where her grandmother lived as a young woman after the family fled Poland. The thread also leads Stefany to call on the ghost of Marie Curie, who becomes a touchstone in the film, a fellow-traveler in the experience of being an exile from Poland, of wondering what makes home, home and of trying to discover origins. Curie was searching so hard for her true place in the world that she stumbled upon some of the hitherto unknown secrets of matter itself. Those secrets, radioactive, would end up, literally, killing her. These are the inherent dangers of pulling on threads. You never know exactly what you will find, or what price you'll have to pay in the searching.

At its core, Stefany's Poland film is about the trauma associated with pulling on the threads of your own family history. Such intimate history never takes you where you think you are going to go at the outset. It never resolves itself as you hope it might at the beginning of the journey. That's why essays, especially those that begin in the self, are never complete, they always contain loose threads, paths not taken, stories that could have been told otherwise.

Essays should never hide these disjunctions, which bids us to say a thing or two about how the "film" part of the essay film fits together with the "essay" part. In an essay film, we don't just have words, we have images too. The danger of putting images to an essay is that the images could serve to fix the ideas visually and by doing so kill the natural fluidity of the essay. Think of it like this: if this essay I'm reading right now was a film, a picture of Montaigne might flash on the screen when I talk about Montaigne. That's a very literal style of relating words to images. It is generally the kind of thing you see in straight documentary films. It has its place, even in the essay film. But the essay film must also break this one to one correspondence between word and image.

That's because the visual world has one kind of logic and language has another. These two things are related, of course…. Everything is related, that is the faith of the essayist. But the relation isn't an obvious or surface relation. So, the true artist of the essay film will often allow visuals to go off in one direction while the language goes off in another. Then, in the moments when the visuals and the language do come together again, the shock, the excitement of it is all the stronger.

In the film Antwerp, Stefany is wandering around the city of Antwerp, ostensibly looking for a lost cat. She's also wandering around the history of the city. Ultimately, she's finding traces of violence and dislocation in the landscape of a city that, today, has suppressed all its tumultuous history under the veneer of, let's call it, "European café-style bourgeois pleasantness." Sometimes this creates funny, although disturbing-funny, situations. For instance, Stefany describes terrible scenes of violence from the religious wars of the 16th century. All the while, her camera roams around corny-looking life-size wax figures from a regional museum display. This is the best Antwerp has to offer when it comes to visual reminders of the repressed violence embedded in its past. The quasi-desperate, over-literalness of the images is what makes these scenes work.

But there are also moments in the film that are moving and shocking precisely for the restraint of word and image. Stefany mentions in her voice over, almost in passing, that Belgium has always been a place that invading armies crash through on their way somewhere else. She doesn't illustrate this with, say, footage of the German Wehrmacht in the midst of a Blitzkrieg. Instead, she includes but one black and white image of a man in a gas mask. It is on the screen so briefly as barely to register. But the essentially indescribable horrors of trench warfare that have scarred Belgium to this day are invoked all the more powerfully by Stefany's willingness to let images do what they do on their own terms. That's the true art of the essay film in general and of Stefany's films in particular.

One final brief note about sound. In the earliest, silent films, the sound associated with film was primarily the mechanical whirring of the projector. There was a rhythmic, cyclical quality to this sound, not unlike the organic sounds of our own meat machines: blood circulating through the body, air being sucked in and out through the lungs. The sound of Stefany's voice sets the pace in the three films we are watching today. Stefany is attuned to the natural rhythms of language in the way she narrates her scripts. But there is also the soundtrack that she composed and performed, which conveys a deeper sense of beat and pulse and rhythm. This sound has a mesmerizing quality, as if we are listening to the musical quality of things themselves, or even deeper than that, to what Virginia Woolf called the hum of Being.

So, these films are essays in three senses of the term: visually, they are an attempt to see the world; aurally, they are an attempt to hear the world, and conceptually, they are an attempt to follow a thread of meaning wherever it may lead. I'll only add, as if that weren't enough, that, to me, these are tremendously beautiful films.

Film Still from Poland
Film Still from Poland

Author: Morgan Meis, SWAP Art Writer in Residence
Category: Artists

(p)SPACE: Peter V. Swendsen
View Calendar

08 (p)SPACE: Peter V. Swends...

20 (p) SPACE presents: Even ...

31 Monster Drawing Rally 201...