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

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