Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art
Through Sept. 30, Cleveland, Ohio is the hub of high art world activity thanks to an investment of $5 million with its new FRONT International Triennial curated by Chicago-based artist and curator Michelle Grabner.
In 2016, Cleveland hosted the national convention for the Republican party, whose leader wants to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. Now this complicated city and regional communities like Akron, are putting the Midwest back on the map in a very different way.
Cleveland (a quick five-hour drive from Indianapolis) is worth a weekend visit for FRONT in the very least. The overarching curatorial theme An American City connects work in all 28 FRONT venues. This is fitting since the Midwest is known as the heartland. And we often see ourselves here as the most genuinely American of Americans.
Many of the exhibits are selfie magnets and sure to draw Instagram envy from your friends. Grabner worked with institutions to put together multi-layered offerings. No matter who you are and what you’re interested — issue-based thought pieces or duck lipping in front of big art — there’s something for you.
Here are some highlights that just skim the surface of the triennial. The venues are coupled by neighborhood.
We weren’t able to hit all the venues or sample all excellent dining options. But here are some takeaways and suggestions:
MOCA Cleveland, Cleveland Art Institute (University Circle/Little Italy)
Of all the places to visit, MOCA Cleveland is my personal favorite. This contemporary art museum in the university district is just the right size and consistently offers high quality exhibitions.
Inside the MOCA atrium you’ll see Swiss artist Claudia Comte’s eye bending piece, Zigzags and Diagonals. In the upper levels of the museum do not miss the Cyprien Gaillard piece Nightlife. It’s sort of tucked in a corner but you can hear the refrain from Alton Ellis’s “Blackman’s Word” leaking into Josh Kline’s Civil War. I started out in Kline’s piece, the grey monochromatic carpeted room is set in 2040 and the concrete-looking resin pieces dotting the room have iPhone cords, advertising wrappers, etc. within. In the room next door to Kline are paintings by Walter Price and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein that build on the mood Kline sets. Then follow the music to Gaillard’s piece Nightlife. After being given 3-D glasses, make yourself comfortable. The piece is shot at night in Cleveland, Berlin and Los Angeles where various plants and monuments bounce to the music. That piece gives meaning to the word mesmerizing. In MOCA’s Lewis Gallery is Martine Syms An Evening With Queen White, the installation featuring an actress based off of Syms great aunt, Maxine Powell, who was as etiquette and personal development coach. She could provide a self-help boost if needed.
The Cleveland Art Institute’s Great Lakes Research was fine. It includes some great artists. And the concept — the exhibit was based off of studio visits of artists who have studios in the Midwest — is thoughtful and well explained. But it feels like a pretty standard group show. Stand outs for me were video from Chicago’s Nate Young, sculpture from Jessica Stockholder, 2-D pieces from Beverly Fishmann, Pao Houa Her and ceramic wall pieces from Alan Belcher. Most people probably won’t find themselves dwelling on that exhibit after seeing what else the Triennial has to offer. But who knows when the next chance you’ll have to see those works in person.
Down the walkway between the two venues is a Tony Tasset piece, Judy’s Hand Pavillion. Tasset describes it as a portrait of his wife (Judy Ledgerwood), public sculpture and shelter. At 25 feet tall and 10 feet wide at the wrist, Judy’s Hand is painted silver in part because the artist didn’t want to refer to a specific race.
If you’re hungry or thirsty, skip the college-mall restaurants in the neighborhood and walk the half mile across the tracks to Little Italy. This neighborhood offers several authentic bakeries, restaurants, bars, etc. We really enjoyed Presti’s Bakery (take a number don’t expect to walk up and order at the counter), Mama Santa’s (the chicken cacciatore is amazing but the chicken parmigiana is a small step above Lean Cuisine), The Algebra Teahouse is a little further out but worth it. It’s a small charming place and they cook the food right behind the counter where you order.
Cleveland Museum of Art
First off if you want your Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors selfie and trust me, you do, get your tickets ahead of time. Do not show up and assume you can get one. Notice my lack of said selfie. Like many others, I missed out on this opportunity due to a lack of planning on the opening weekend. So instead I’m sticking a selfie of myself at Kusama’s permanent installation at one of my favorite museums in Pittsburgh, PA, Mattress Factory.
After or before appeasing your vanity, check out the Kerry James Marshall “Works on Paper.” If this exhibit is an introduction to him and you aren’t impressed, go see one of his paintings in person. Kerry James Marshall can do no wrong once you’ve seen his paintings. Beyoncé owns one of his pieces, OK?
While here I also fell in love with Brutalismo-Cleveland by Brazilian artist Marlon De Azambuja. This skyline within a skyline within a skyline comes from Cleveland building sites both old and new. His work is paired with Italian artist Luisa Lambri who dissects the work of male architects with her photos. Her series of photo close-ups of the Cleveland Art Museum built by Marcel Breuer are on the wall by De Azambuja’s work.
There are several FRONT pieces in the museum I’m not mentioning due to length. But one last mention is Alex Jovanovich in the Ingalls library inside. The use of the projector with writing inspired by Vachel Lindsey’s poem The Spider and the Ghost of the Fly demands patience but it pays off. I overheard some critics dissing the location, saying it was predictable. But what they may not realize is the dwindling numbers of readers, dwindling number of people that will go into a library, especially in the Midwest. So when there thinking of Jovanivich’s pieces I took in the language. But I also thought about how — if the piece weren’t there — I wouldn’t have set foot in the museum library. Grabner was intentional in her selections.
Transformer Station and SPACES (Hingetown)
In one half of Transformer Station, a historic landmark and artspace that specializes in contemporary minimalism started by one of the powers behind the Triennial, Fred Bidwell. There you’ll find a film series with selections from William E. Jones, Hao Jingban, Cheng Ran, Eric Baudelaire, Sharon Lockhart, among others. Call to find out what is playing the date you decide to go. Stephen Willats, a well-respected conceptual artist with a long career, is featured in the main gallery. Though there are interviews sourced from the community and well-designed information panels that examine personal narrative and social conditions in Middlesborough, England, the piece falls flat especially after walking down the street to SPACES which features Micheal Rakowitz’s A Color Removed. The show successfully pulls off a citywide participatory project that is a response to 12 year old Tamir Rice’s murder. Rice had removed the orange cap of a toy gun. And Rakowitz wants us to consider how colors are used in revolutionary movements. For the ongoing, collaborative exhibition, Rakowitz sourced orange objects from Cleveland community and worked with the Rice family. The exhibiton, which is paired with public meals, events, and conversation, also includes a life jacket of a refugee who did not survive escape across the water in Europe donated by the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Bring some tissues and don’t leave this show without watching the documentary about Aboud Shadi, a 13 year-old boy killed by police. This exhibit made me cry.
Dawoud Bey and the Westside Market (Ohio City)
Dawould Bey’s Night Coming Tenderly, Black is one of the most perfect pieces of work I’ve seen. The site of this installation, St. John’s Church, was used to hide fugitive slaves trying to make it to Canada as part of the Underground Railroad. I won’t do better than the New York Times in describing it, so don’t miss it.
The Westside Market is within easy walking distance of St. John’s. So go hungry as the market offers spots where you can buy lunch. I went in search of John Riepenhoff’s sausage commissioned for the Triennial but never succeeded in finding it. Supposedly you could get it from vendors in the market. But, in yet another fail in organizing, no one I spoke to at the market knew anything about this. And no signs offered information. So I will tell you what we figured out later: Go to the Market Café in the back.
Bombed and The Bomb-Performance art from Casey Jane Ellison / Leilah Weinraub and Asian Dope Boys
If you are interested in Casey Jane Ellison’s work, you’re best off just watching it on YouTube. I could not have been more disappointed in her live performance with Leilah Weinraub. The tickets were $25. And what you got was a half-hearted 15-minute performance from Ellison. If you have the chance to see her live, stay home and watch MTV’s Daria while perusing the Suicide Girls feed on Instagram, masturbate, then follow that with Max Headroom interviewing William Shatner. That’s a better use of your time. All Weinraub did was mumble something to introduce Ellison then hit play on an iPod before Ellison tap danced for a few minutes. Supposedly there was a Ryan Trecartin video that also went along with the performance. But they couldn’t be bothered play whatever video was connected to the projector positioned in front of the stage.
One thing that made up for anything that went wrong was the Asian Dope Boys performance (picture from their performance is the header photo). Follow them on Instagram. Watch whatever you can of theirs. Think if Leigh Bowery, Hermann Nitsch, and Die Antwoord spent a weekend together and created a musical.
Overall, FRONT is a great asset for our region. It brings truly incredible exhibits and programming to the Midwest. The organization of things — at least on the first weekend — showed a lack of planning or people power as it struggled to pull various aspects together.
I suggest getting a group together and making the trip to Cleveland. Don’t stay right in the University Circle area (although it is the hub of a lot of this activity). That’s because this is also the Cleveland Clinic hospital district and thus pretty depressing and clinical. Try an Airbnb in Little Italy, Ohio City, or stay at our favorite spot — the downtown Hyatt located in a Victorian-era shopping arcade. Cleveland also offers public transit, including both light rail and BRT, like the Red Line coming soon to Indianapolis. So you can explore in a variety of ways — experiencing top-quality contemporary art in this fun Midwestern city.