Prospect and Retrospect: Rita Montlack at UH

Rita Montlack, Attitude is Everything

WOKE: RITA MONTACK at University Hospitals’ Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery offers a survey spanning a little more than 10 years of work by a notable Cleveland artist. Ranging from photographs Montlack created soon after she started working in the medium to new directions she is exploring, WOKE presents an overview of the artist’s range of techniques and themes. Reflecting her love of both home and distant places, her compositions offer layered views of Cleveland, Miami, New Orleans and Havana, among other subjects. While their vibrant color is the first element to engage viewers, their complex content rewards concerted attention.

Montlack cites a song by Erykah Badu as the popular origin of the word “woke.” She notes that it “was quickly snatched up by Black Lives Matter who made it their watchword. Then Hollywood teens co-opted its meaning in various ways to serve their purposes. An idea or word that spreads like this from person to person creates a meme and memes are to culture what genes are to life. The power of the word resonated with me.” The artist also speaks of woke as

ingrained in artists and as critical to having “the ability to detect and exploit developments across culture. An awareness and alertness to not only visuals and art, but politics and social issues as well.” Her comments aptly describe the work on view.

Depending on how visitors enter the gallery, they encounter either Montlack’s earliest work—From Far Out in the Flats—Blue, Red, Green and Orange—or her most recent endeavors, demonstrating how she has increasingly expanded the parameters of her medium. Far-Flung Out in the Flats: Green is typical of the earliest grouping in its modest scale, single tone and vertically and horizontally mirrored industrial motif. Nearby compositions featuring familiar landmarks include Hot Shots with Stripes and Cleveland, which was commissioned by University Hospitals. Its fourteen segments (seven above and below) overlain with 12 bands of color, include the façade of the Cleveland Museum of Art, ponds, gardens and zoo animals, demonstrating the artist’s sensitivity the context of its display.

Rita Montlack, Now and Zen

At the exhibition’s center are multi-panel compositions, many inspired by travels. Now and Zen features walls in Miami’s Wynwood district, embellished by street artists including Shepard Fairey and Kenny Scharf. The murals have helped to reenergize the neighborhood. Montlack’s translucent overlays in primary colors at the sides and center of the work allow for muted and saturated areas to reverberate, akin to the character of the murals portrayed.

Rita Montlack, Art is All You Need

Contrasting views of Cuba reflect Montlack’s interest in addressing culture and social issues. Central to the nine-segment Art Is All You Need is a collage of a disembodied head held by an extended arm, with another hand in turn holding a bird. Surrounding sectors feature twin skulls, Elvis Presley clad in a track suit, and a flipped image of the Abbey Road album cover with the Beatles as graffiti artists carrying a paint brush, ladder, and can of spray paint. Notably, all of Montlack’s images are from photographs she has taken, then manipulated in a variety of ways to make “junctions between diverse images that begin to merge together so that new meanings materialize.”  In Art Is All You Need, vintage automobiles and signage also abound, the latter including scribbled signatures, graffiti and advertising copy.  Vertical bands of color established by Montlack’s signature overlays both unite and activate the disparate images.

Freedom Fierce and Fragile, where colors align with six photographs alternating between flashily dressed male torsos and FREEDOM signs, creates a quite different effect.  Each figure’s face is obscured by cut-out words—”BLACK AND WHITE, FREEDOM, HISTORY.” Their hats, suit jackets and ties are likewise covered with words or small photographs, augmenting the repetition of FREEDOM in the images that abut them. As with Montlack’s other work from this time, Freedom Fierce and Fragile is bounded by a thin black frame that both draws attention to the black and white photographs and circumscribes the composition.

Rita Montlack, The Big Uneasy

Among the highlights on view is The Big Uneasy, with 30 joined photographs taken at Prospect.1, the citywide international art exposition held in New Orleans in 2008 to attract visitors and revitalize the community following Hurricane Katrina. The bright color covering each panel belies the depth of the content, which speaks to Prospect.1’s ambition and the culture of the New Orleans community. Among the motifs are impressive artworks created for Prospect.1, from Leandro Erlich installing his Window and Ladder—Too Late for Help toward the upper left, to the pile of money Srdjan Loncar installed outside of the Louisiana State Museum of the U. S. Mint at the lower right. While the source of these images may be obscure to some viewers, panels featuring marching bands, scenes of destruction and building facades ranging from the Contemporary Art Center to the Battleground Baptist Church establish the location. Wall signage, a longtime interest of Montlack’s, includes “FIFTY PERCENT OF NEW ORLEANS’S ARTISTS LOST THEIR HOMES/AND DOZENS LOST THEIR LIFE’S WORK” and “ROOTS RUN DEEP HERE,” reinforcing the struggles embodied in the composition.

Rita Montlack, Woke Up Call 1

With Woke Up Call I and II, viewers are offered insight into a new direction Montlack is pursuing.  Featuring solitary clowns alongside complex images in which much is clearly going awry, the compositions are presented in ample black suede mats that set off the acid colors the artist carefully selected. Inspired by the proliferation of fake news and its enablers, the elements in Woke Up Call I and II were spliced together from photographs she “has taken over several years from a variety of different sources.” And, whereas parts of the distorted figures and ambiguous settings in Woke Up Call I appear to be hand-drawn, the alterations to their sources were achieved solely by computer manipulation. The rich color—with the orange floor on the left, shirt in center and band at right—draws our eye across the panel while fantastic details invite viewers to pause and reflect.


Woke: Rita Montlack, will be on view at the Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery through April 30, 2019. The gallery in University Hospitals is open 24 hours daily.


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