By Nancy Nesvet
The FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, which opened on July 14, presented a new take on art exhibitions in this nation. In Cleveland, a city with multiple art venues, Akron and Oberlin with art, history and spaces of their own, 110 artists at 28 locations, including a Frank Lloyd Wright house, two churches and one decommissioned steamship, presented film, video, installation, painting, sculpture, performance and community art. Open until September 30, each venue contributed to a critical mass of art in three Northeast Ohio cities.
The brainchild of Frederick Bidwell, an art collector on the board of The Cleveland and Akron Art Museums, FRONT refers, he said, to the Erie lakefront that Cleveland embraces, and to its standing at the forefront of art in the region. Artistic director Michelle Grabner, a celebrated painter and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, can be credited with the eye and ability to secure the work of internationally acclaimed artists. Not afraid of political statements, the art addressed causes, history and recent news and questioned the politics of Cleveland and the world. With the only other United States triennial being the New Museum’s (which most recently took place earlier this year) with the Whitney’s last biennial a triennial due to the late completion of its new building, Bidwell wisely decided upon this format, allowing time to assess this exhibition and plan the next one. Bidwell’s and Grabner’s astute curation paid off, as FRONT International drew worldwide top artistic talent to Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin.
Although credit must be awarded to the venues that supported the installation of work appropriate to their identity and mission, the genius of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art was the match-up of Cleveland institutions to the art they showcased. The images in Philip Vanderhyden’s “Volatility Smile,” a 24-channel video animation of intersecting golden orbs, inspired by decorative beaux-arts architectural elements in Cleveland’s Federal Reserve Building and symbols from financial publications played against the elaborate walls and painted ceiling of this temple to currency. “American Library,” Yinka Shonibare’s seemingly unending cases of 6,000 books covered in African-patterned Dutch Wax fabric featured spines labeled with the names of first and second generation Americans who made contributions to art and science, and immigration dissenters who opposed such ideas, was at the main Cleveland Library. Allen Ruppersberg’s “Then and Now,” displaying photographs from the vantage point of billboards near Lake Erie and the steel yards near the Cuyahoga River, reminded us of the city’s industrial history. All the exhibits were concerned with place, and the connection of Cleveland, its population, culture and history with the world and world issues.
Candice Breitz’s seven-screen video, “Love Story,” shown at the West Side Market and Café, linked forced emigration with local history. It associated Breitz’s native South Africa with Cleveland’s terminus for blacks from South Carolina and as a stopping point on the Underground Railroad to Canada via Lake Erie. Food, as a cultural signifier, was not ignored. Milwaukee resident John Riepenhoff brought the art of sausage making into the mix, fusing different ethnic recipes and tastes into his meat mixture, for sale at the West Side market.
I loved Tony Tasset’s giant sculpture of his wife’s hand, “Judy’s Hand Pavilion,” at Case Western Reserve University’s Toby Plaza. Outstretched, it begs us all to join Cleveland’s crowds in the plaza outside the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA Cleveland). Interestingly, the giant hand at the Venice Biennale, Viva Arte 2017, held up a building on the Grand Canal. This hand beckons the crowds to enter the museum and see the art, while standing as a beacon over the gathering place. Not surprisingly, Tony Tasset has produced roadside billboards. This advertisement for Cleveland stood as a 3D version, which clearly bested all others.
Further involving the community, and reacting in a novel way to Tamir Rice’s lack of the orange safety tip in his toy gun, Michael Rakowitz’s “Color Removed” was an ever-evolving collection of orange objects collected around Cleveland. Stored in orange bins placed around the city, the objects were installed in Spaces Gallery.
I followed a trail of murals, still in process, all over the city. “An American City, Canvas City,” was accessible with interactive maps and a 360-degree Virtual Reality view available on FRONT’s free App landing screen (FRONT: Canvas City for IOS).
Sponsored by PNC Bank, 12 artists-in-residence based in a renovated house in Glenville, now known as the PNC Arts Campus, interacted with the black, lower-income Cleveland community. This melting pot of outsider artists and local community residents recalled the interactions of blacks who followed the Great Migration northward, with wealthy Cleveland residents during the early 20th century. Similarly, Dawoud Bey’s photographs of former slaves printed on black backgrounds, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” hung in St. John’s Episcopal Church, once a station on the Underground Railroad. These life-size portraits seemed to depict a night journey of slaves following the path north.
Performance, film and video was a big part of FRONT International. Inside the Crane Gallery theatre at Transformer Station, a historic building transformed into a contemporary arts space by the Bidwell Foundation, were feature-length and short fictional, documentary and experimental films by international filmmakers. The opening ceremonies featured six free outdoor music concerts, dancing in the streets and food. FRONT promises future performances, original plays, “cultural exercises,” tours, artist talks, poetry readings and discussions.
With the push toward globalization in art fairs and biennials worldwide, including Venice 2017 and projected 2019, and the opposing push toward localization and nationalism in Europe and America, this concentration on the local in Cleveland and its history of interaction with the world, is a unique viewpoint, hopefully initiating an interesting conversation. I look forward to FRONT’s public programming during the duration of the show. I saw Cleveland flex its proverbial cultural muscles. Arlene Watson, FRONT International’s director of public programs and engagement, emphasized “Public programming is an essential element of FRONT, one that can truly inform and alter our perceptions of contemporary art.” This inclusive program of art on all fronts has achieved that goal.
(FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art continues through September 30 at locations throughout Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. For more information, visit frontart.org.)