Sunday, February 12, 2012

Spaces exhibitions include a cardboard box city and an ode to Marlene Dietrich and Eva Hesse

The current suite of exhibitions at Spaces gallery in Cleveland is a classic of its type.
It's a collection of experimental, hit-and-miss installations sprinkled with flashes of enjoyment but also muddled by material roughness, obscure intentions and expressive imprecision.

That said, the good moments are worthy of consideration.

The main motif in the current round of shows is a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Spaces World Artists Program, or SWAP, in which invited artists participate in residencies.
New York artist Margaret Cogswell anchors the lineup with a reprise of her 2003 SWAP installation "Cuyahoga Fugues," in which she combined a sculptural installation with video images and recorded testimonies about Cleveland's crooked river.

This time around, Cogswell is sharing video displays of other river "Fugues" by her, which have focused on the Hudson, the New River in Virginia and the Mississippi. Visitors don headphones and peer into small, wall-mounted video monitors, which play loops of the pieces.
Cogswell has also created a new Cuyahoga installation, in which a darkened gallery is filled with projected video vignettes of steel-making, sunsets on rippling waters and ice fishermen awaiting a bite.

The tightly framed images simultaneously entice and frustrate, because you never get the big picture. Nevertheless, the video, pervaded by the roar of trains, waterfalls and steel-making, has an authentic sense of place.

Accompanying the Cogswell piece in the SWAP salute is a less-successful installation by Parma Heights artist Christi Birchfield, the first native Northeast Ohioan to participate in the program.

Birchfield's installation consists of a poignant collection of images of the pioneering sculptor Eva Hesse, who died in 1970 at age 34, and a comically small video display of an aging Marlene Dietrich singing Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," taken from a 1972 broadcast.

To these elements Birchfield has added others, including a projected video image of the silhouette of a twirling, suspended wicker chair; and potted plants installed on pedestals atop a black plastic tarp, which is also festooned with long sheets of paper splashed with paint.

The total effect is that of a collage that never coalesces into a coherent statement. The most powerful element is Dietrich's tiny face, visible through a hole cut in a wall, performing the Seeger classic in a voice that ranges from a near-whimper to a militaristic bark. It's an unforgettable piece of pop culture that somehow never settles into the supporting role it's supposed to play in Birchfield's work.

Lastly, Spaces is featuring an ebullient installation of colorful urban towers, airplanes and oddball abstractions created by Marty Weishaar of Baltimore. Made of cardboard, tape and what looks like colorful plastic goo that comes from a spray, Weishaar's contraptions evoke the childlike joy of making stuff out of cardboard boxes, while also poking fun at the egomaniacal fantasies of architects and urban planners.

In the end, though, when you leave this Spaces show, you'll have Marlene Dietrich playing over and over again in your mind.


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