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…