Art At the Schoolhouse Presents William Martin Jean
The art world, like so many other worlds, is enamored of youth, always celebrating this year’s crop of “next big things.” And some of the best-known artists of the last century made their impact young, with many spending the rest of their careers coasting on their early breakthroughs.
Cleveland’s William Martin Jean upends all of that. With a 60-year career as a visual artist under his belt, he’s been making some of his most powerful and lyrical work later in his career: he retired from teaching and helming Cleveland Institute of Art’s Continuing Education program more than a decade ago, and currently works out of his studio in the Tower Press Building downtown.
Longtime local art aficionados will remember him as a regular in the Cleveland Museum of Art May shows (discontinued in 1993 after 75 years) in the ’70s with his geometric abstract paintings. His elegant, formal works weren’t eye-grabbers but they were cool, confident and skillful. Moving into the ’80s, he incorporated more collage elements into his work. He added textures and layers to those signature grids, lines and geometric figures that give them greater depth and resonance than his earlier work had.
There’s a sizable selection of his work currently on view at Art at the Schoolhouse, a new gallery in the Murray Hill School building in Little Italy, run by photographers Margo Brown and Herb Ascherman, on view through May 20. Since Jean hasn’t done a solo show recently, it’s a treat to see this survey of the different things that have interested him as he’s moved between media, incorporated references to design elements drawn from a variety of historical eras and cultures, and discovered new and freer uses for lines, grids and geometric forms.
His Louvre series pieces, with their regular grids in muted blues, lavenders, olive greens and blacks overlaid with metallic lines, have the anonymous regularity of urban skyscrapers, with a repetitive, musical beauty. A pair of pieces called Turnstyles feature glowing gold and strong black painted and cutout slats that from a distance resemble wood, contrasting the organic feel of something natural with the regularity of something manufactured.
Other series break the bonds of the grid. His Marking series, on antique Japanese paper, features black calligraphic-style ink markings on the white paper, a reference to yet another culture, in this case his own background as the son of a Chinese immigrant father. In his Cutouts series, squares and rectangles have been broken up into seemingly random pieces that dance across the picture plane, arranging themselves in clusters with an energy that’s both giddy and controlled.
The collages “Votive Figure II,” “Inca I” and “Inca II” hover between his formal and freer arrangements. Irregular blocks of square and rectangles, with an occasional circle or arc for contrast, are overlaid in places with less regular lined grids that vary in layout and spacing. Again, the colors are muted — olive, brick, ochre, dark blue — with distressed metallic accents adding subtle glints.
His most powerful work on display is his New Strata series, “Red Deep,” “Red Within” and “Cathedral,” mixed-media, not-quite-abstractions that suggest something excavated from some medieval cathedral, with an oblique spiritual quality based on implied, partial cross forms and rich jewel-like colors. Each emanates from a rectangular core section that incorporates textured materials, such as a painted-over mesh grid. While each has a similar basic template, there’s enormous variety in the colors and arrangement of the forms. This is some of his best work — visually striking, with a grounded, contemplative quality that feels simultaneously ancient and contemporary.
There’s even an example of his figurative work in “Geisha,” which combines a cross-like structure with a woman’s face and form. The overall impression is of an artist of wide-ranging cultural experience who, as he has matured, has pulled it all together into work that speaks with a singular voice.
Through May 20, 2018
Art At The Schoolhouse
2026 Murray Hill Road, Suite 108
Little Italy, Cleveland.