Revisiting some Engaging Women at Bonfoey Gallery

I will admit that I am not always the biggest fan of art shows put together solely on the basis that the artists included are “women” (If the goal is for women to be equal, do we need to be treated separately?) – and though I was disappointed that all the participants are white, middle-class women, this exhibition did give me the opportunity to become reacquainted with some well-known late-career Cleveland-area artists whose truly exceptional work continues to engage.

Ruth Bercaw, Recess – On Mars or Wherever, 2015 3D painting on shaped canvas

For me, the star of the show is the artist Ruth Bercaw – who is represented in the exhibition by several of her trademark three-dimensional canvases. I was informed that this is the last time Bercaw would be showing her geometric wall reliefs, because the demands of constructing them causes constant pain in her hands.

These wall reliefs free the canvas from the two-dimensional constraints of a traditional painting, and morph away from the plastic surface into the realm of sculpture. Reminiscent of the work of Elizabeth Murray and Frank Stella, but with much more restraint – these minimal forms are nevertheless very tactile – their surfaces rough, revealing layers of work and mystery objects embedded in the surface.

Ruth Bercaw, Shard No. 4 – Yellow and Orange, 2017 & Shard No. 5 – Modified Magenta, 2017,   oil on structured canvas

Her “Shards” & “Chips” are exercises in simplicity – but the process to build them is hardly simple. Each shape is individually fabricated by hand using wood and styrofoam, then the canvas is stitched together to fight tightly across the form, a bit like upholstery.

Ruth Bercaw, Chip No. 7 – Sense of Lime, 2017, oil on structured canvas

From a distance the finished works appear to be minimalist investigations of purely formal concerns – but as you approach closer, you begin to see the heavy texture of the brushwork, the imperfections, the crookedness of the lines, the drips, the bits of embedded paper, and you realize that there’s a story here. The artist’s hand is very much visible – intentionally – and for me, that is what makes these objects so incredibly special.

Kathleen Hammett, Thread the Needle, 2018, charcoal on paper

But the artist whose work in this show completely blew my mind was without a doubt Kathleen Hammett. Known best as a large-scale abstract painter, here she is surprisingly represented by only delicate charcoals on paper. Unlike her colorful canvases, these are all created in greyscale, using only lush blacks and velvety greys – and they are stunning (these photos do NOT do them justice).

Kathleen Hammett, Blue Suede Shoes, 2018, charcoal on paper

As Hammett explains, “Last summer I took the off ramp from my usual practice of painting, and after many years of working with oil on canvas, I hit the ‘refresh button’. I took a vacation to the Grand Canyon.  It was awesome.  I bought a piano and learned the blues scale.  And, I began a series of charcoal drawings.” Charcoal as a medium has the connotation of figurative studies, as it is usually used to make swift renderings of live models – it also calls to mind the old-fashioned academic model of arts education, where mastering the human form is key. That’s why I absolutely love her cunning use of what is traditionally a medium used for sketching for these incredibly detailed and carefully crafted studies of pure abstraction.

Kathleen Hammett, Shuffle the Deck, 2018, charcoal on paper

Hammett was an art teacher for the Cleveland Public Schools and later the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, and she shared a studio for over 20 years with her brother and fellow artist, the late Patrick Kelly. I love that a well-known artist like Hammett has shifted her practice to examine new ideas, and new techniques, and the results are honestly what I think is her best work.

Other stand-outs in the show include large-scale works by Cathie Bleck, perhaps best known for her much smaller works on scratchboard and kaolin clay board, and some new work by up-and-coming artist Leslye Discont Arian, whose vertical, heavily-worked figurative torsos are a surprise coming from an artist who in the past has primarily shown non-representational subject matter.

Leslye Discont Arian, Torsos #3, #4, #2, & #5, 2018, mixed media on paper

The Bonfoey is also holding a fundraising event for the Norma Herr Women’s Center on April 5 (The Norma Herr Women’s Center empowers women to help them overcome experiences of homelessness, trauma and abuse). “Art & Style: A Benefit for Norma Herr Women’s Center” will feature hors d’oeuvres and fine wine, that you can enjoy while viewing the show. Click here to learn more, and to purchase your tickets. 


Engaging Women
March 8 – April 28, 2019

Bonfoey Gallery, 1710 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115
phone: 216.621.0178

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.