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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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