MOCA Cleveland's new show evokes a Rust Belt pride based on making art with physical integrity
Posted July 18, 2013 in Articles
Author: Steven Litt
For its big debut show last fall in its shiny new iconic building, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland went global.
The opening exhibition in October featured 16 artists from five countries, demonstrating MOCA’s powerful, international reach.
The second major show was splashy – literally. Performance artist Kate Gilmore created a large installation in one gallery in which she climbed stairs to the top of a shallow, stage-like structure and dropped ceramic pots full of paint through an aperture on top, letting them smash and splatter.
The video of the performance was intriguing; the physical residue wasn’t – and it took up a lot of floor space.
Now, in the third big show since MOCA opened in October, the city’s leading museum of contemporary art is trying a third strategy. It’s going regional, and focusing on an eclectic mash-up of works by 12 artists with Cleveland roots who live and work in Ohio, Detroit or Pittsburgh.
The show, entitled, “Realization is Better Than Anticipation,” on view through Oct. 13 in MOCA's hexagonal building at Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road in University Circle, offers an ample serving of smallish, intriguing objects that pull you in for a close look and reward prolonged scrutiny.
For a museum that has less pure gallery space than it did in its prior rented home in Midtown, shows like the current one may represent a winning curatorial strategy in terms of holding a visitor’s attention.
For one thing, the show doesn’t lavish an entire gallery on a single large artistic gesture, such as the paint-splattered Gilmore stage, that could have been all-to-easily dismissed by skeptics as not worth more than a quick glance.
That kind of knee-jerk would be impossible in MOCA’s new show.
Organized by Megan Lykins Reich, MOCA’s director of programs and associate curator, and Rose Bouthillier, MOCA’s assistant curator, the current show attempts to define a regional artistic ethos based on the notion of the well-made object.
The theme resonates in a region with a proud history of manufacturing, and it’s true that on a simple, physical level, many of the objects in the show are exquisitely made.
The show’s challenge is that the processes involved in the making of art, as embodied in the works on view, are so diverse as to leave one scratching one’s head about whether any true regional identity is, in fact, defined.
The strategies employed by the artists range from conceptual to those that are entirely based in the possibility of grappling with specific physical materials. The commonality is that just about everything in the show is gentle, sly, elegant, insouciant, playful and highly intelligent.
Most of the artists are alive; some have passed on. In any case, it’s impossible to imagine that they ever would have formed an affinity group of any kind. They’re just too diverse.
The group includes the Rev. Albert Wagner of East Cleveland, a visionary, self-trained outsider who died in 2006 at age 82, and whose primitive, folksy paintings of religious visions earned him a national following.
He’s represented by some terrific sculptures made by combining shattered fragments of trees with a stray kitchen pot or pan. The results conjure mental images of a backwoods Marcel Duchamp who made artistic magic through the startling juxtaposition of “found” objects.
On the far opposite end of the spectrum is Leza McVey, (1907-1984) wife of the former Cleveland Institute of Art sculpture professor William McVey, (1904-1995).
Leza is represented by hooked rugs in geometric patterns made for friends and neighbors in the utopian Pepper Ridge Community in Pepper Pike, a cluster of modernist homes built in the 1950s.
The artist was legally blind in when she made the rugs, which makes her creations all the more impressive. Her textiles combine rich colors and geometric shapes organized according to an overall grid pattern.
The effect is serene, logical, buoyant and optimistic, but also intuitive. The same is true of two stunning vases by McVey, which combine organic curves and wing-like, mechanistic protrusions.
Unlike Wagner’s raw, visceral aesthetic, McVey’s work stems from a highly literate and knowledgeable viewpoint that appears rooted in the Bauhaus, the early 20th century German school of art and design that helped promulgate modernism as an international aesthetic.
Painter Scott Olson’s exquisite and smallish abstract paintings, in which luminous patches of color nuzzle against one another, also have a Bauhaus feel. Strikingly, though, they were all made this year.
From a contemporary perspective, Olson is looking back fondly on the mid-century modernist era embodied by McVey.
As is the case with McVey’s work, Olson’s paintings have an exquisitely handmade feel; their surfaces are buffed, rubbed and scraped in ways that reveal multiple layers of paint. The effect is yummy.
The same is true Hilary Harnischfeger’s complex sculptures, made with shattered pieces of sherbet-colored porcelain and plaster recombined with dense layers of paper that have been cut and sanded like sections of tree trunks to expose annular rings.
Her works are intensely physical and full of compressed energy. Each one is like a clenched fist that pops a viewer in the eye with concentrated visual power.
Yet the show’s attitude toward the physical aspect of making objects doesn’t stop there.
Artist Kevin Beasley is represented by paintings made by gathering dirt, felt and studio detritus that he soaks in tar pitch, which he then smears on pieces of paper to produce images on canvas or paper, sometimes by walking on them.
The resulting abstract images have both a gritty physicality and the free-form quality of smoke; they are the result of a random process in which the artist loosely guides the final result.
Lenka Clayton employs a similarly light touch in a work in which attached new stamps to 100 used postcards scavenged at thrift shops and mailed them to their original addresses in Cleveland.
Twenty six postcards were returned as undeliverable because their intended destinations no longer exist. Clayton has mounted them on a wall at MOCA as visual evidence of how Cleveland is changing, and shrinking as it loses population.
As in Beasley’s work, Clayton’s art is about establishing a system that can produce results separate from the artist’s individual will. As an approach, it differs radically from the iterative, intensely physical aspects of art-making that are embodied in Olson’s paintings or Harischfeger’s ceramics.
Then again, idea of establishing a systematic approach and seeing where the results take you is very close to what McVey did in her stunning hooked rugs.
By taking the viewer down such unexpected pathways, MOCA’s show establishes some unconventional connections among the diverse and almost universally fascinating works on view.
The results may not conform easily to anyone’s classic idea of regional identity by drawing upon images of, say, the Terminal Tower or ore boats on the Cuyahoga River. But the show is highly stimulating and full of terrific art. In other words, it’s doing the job that MOCA ought to be doing.