One Critic Takes a Look at the Year’s Best
In no particular order, here is a list of my ten favorite exhibitions, artists, performances, etc. in the North East Ohio arts scene during 2019.
1. CHARLES BURCHFIELD AT THE CMA: THE OHIO LANDSCAPES
Early last year at the Cleveland Museum of Art in the Focus Gallery, Charles Burchfield: The Ohio Landscapes, 1915–1920 was a truly magnificent glimpse into the formative years of this highly original artist. Burchfield was a local lad – he attended the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art) from 1912 to 1916. He won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York City, but returned to Salem (just south of Youngstown) after only one day of classes. It seems that the big city was not for him. He was worried that his family would consider him a failure, but later he recalled the relief he felt getting back to the landscape that inspired him: “One of the supremely happy moments of my whole life was when, after the days of agony in New York, I stood in the woods and listened to the wind soaring through the treetops. It seemed to me the most wonderful music I ever heard.” The Ohio landscapes that were on view in the show certainly reflected that love.
During the winter of 1917-1918, after his return to Salem, for me, is when he produced his strongest, most emotionally abstract and resonant work. It was a particularly rough winter, weather-wise, with more snow and wind than usual. You could actually feel the bleakness, the darkness and the bone-chilling cold as you looked at the works on the back wall of the exhibition, all created during those freezing months. His menacing houses and looming churches are gloom personified. More here…
2. UNO LADY AT AKRON SOUL TRAIN
Back in February, I visited Christa Ebert, aka Uno Lady, who had recently won an Akron Soul Train Residency. If you’ve never seen Uno Lady live, let me attempt to explain. A self-trained musician, Ebert composes songs mostly using just her voice. She’s been described as a “one-woman ghost choir”, which I find particularly apt. Her music includes dream-like layers of her own voice, looping like spells and chants, ethereal tones, instruments and beats all knit together into one lush soundscape. Every time I’ve heard her sing, I’ve had goosebumps – the beauty of her voice soaring, cutting through the air is so enchanting it can command the hairs on my arms to stand at attention.
I’ve seen Uno Lady perform many times over the years – she was the recipient of a CPAC Creative Workforce Fellowship, a Panza Foundation Award, and has performed at many venues and galleries: Transformer Station, the Cleveland Museum of Art, etc. But for the first time, she included a film component as part of her live show – thanks to Akron Soul Train. This artist residency program grants fellowships to provide resources for all creative disciplines (Ebert is the first musician they have supported) – and back in February she premiered her new film at a performance in Akron. You can read my full article about her new film here. And since then her beautiful new album has been released, called Osmosis – it’s available here.
3. NICK CAVE FEAT. & HEARD•AKRON
Nick Cave Feat. opened at the Akron Art Museum in February, showcasing some of the artist’s most iconic bodies of work, including his signature soundsuits. These dazzling sculptural costumes are made of thousands of found objects, buttons, old toys, and other everyday items, but their visual brilliance conceals a darker message. Cave made his first soundsuit in response to the beating of Rodney King in 1992 – constructed with thousands of twigs, the suit made noise when he moved in it (thus, soundsuit), but it also concealed him – provided protection by covering his race, gender, class, and sexuality. I was very lucky to interview the artist the day before the show opened – I asked him about the soundsuits – “As a viewer I’m engaging these pieces in a very different way than when they are moving – they still can do some work as a static visual object, right?”
Nick Cave: “Exactly, so we can come up to any of these works and we can in our minds imagine what they might look like moving. It’s that space of dreaming – how does that space continue to remain relevant? We have to continue to dream. To dream is optimism.”
In late April of 2019, Nick Cave returned to Akron to stage one of his famous soundsuit performances – called HEARD•AKRON, Cave created a literal “herd” of the artist’s colorful horse-shaped raffia soundsuits. The horses were activated by dancers from local dance troupes Neos Dance Theatre, Verb Ballets, and the Inlet Dance Theatre – who worked with Cave and choreographer Will Gill to develop HEARD•AKRON. Additionally, original music was created by area musicians Theron Brown, Zaire Darden, Jordan McBride, Devin Gilbert, Tommy Lehman and Chris Coles – with vocals provided by Jaron LeGrair, Durrell LeGrair, and Brianna Collins. This is typical of how Cave works when bringing his performances to a community – he brings local artists and musicians together, many who have never worked together before, to create an entirely original performance. And it was sublime. You can read my entire overview here.
4. DOUGLAS MAX UTTER AT HEDGE GALLERY: FALLING FROM THE SKY OF NOW
In May of 2019, curator Hilary Gent opened a large exhibition of local legend Douglas Max Utter at HEDGE Gallery in 78th Street Studios – and it was amazing. As I wrote in my review back in May: “If you, like me, could eat up Utter’s paintings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – wading through the rooms of HEDGE is pretty much a Bacchanalian feast. More introspective than retrospective, Utter and gallerist Hilary Gent have assembled a truly thoughtful collection that are perfectly arranged. From early works to his larger than life canvases, to brand new works, it’s all there. And it is a delight.” You can read more here.
5. GUNPOWDER ARTIST CAI GUO-QIANG DREW THE CUYAHOGA RIVER WITH FIRE
Last year in his New Jersey studio, Cai Guo-Qiang ignited the gunpowder for his work Cuyahoga River Lightning: Drawing for the Cleveland Museum of Art. Stretching nearly forty feet long, the artist traced the familiar curving path of Cleveland’s famous river—from the site of the historic fire in the summer of 1969 to the mouth at Lake Erie—using explosions. The project was part of Cuyahoga50, a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire and the remarkable recovery of its waterways that was held last summer across town. This piece, along with two other gunpowder works, were on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art from May 25 to September 22. Cai spent nearly a year meticulously researching the historic Cuyahoga River fire before making the CMA drawing, using archival materials, studying the city’s topography on Google Maps and using high-resolution satellite imagery. Curator of Chinese art Clarissa von Spee explained that “Cai asked me to send him a map of the river on which I had to mark precisely the spot where the fire broke out. He later amassed an additional amount of gunpowder on Cuyahoga River Lightning at the spot that echoes the bend of the river where it caught fire.” The results were enthralling. More here…
6. DANA OLDFATHER WAS OUT OF THE WOODS AT THE MCDONOUGH MUSEUM
Dana Oldfather’s paintings have always walked a fine line between abstraction and reality. Visual contextual clues could be found, if you dug deep enough—often hiding beneath her trademark bombastic layers of paint—but her new work, which was on view at Youngstown State University’s McDonough Museum of Art last fall, showed the artist at her most representational. With this comes a vulnerability that was perhaps not as noticeable before, but lends a new level of emotional acuity to her already intense work. It seems that Oldfather has turned a corner – her new paintings stepping into a previously untrod realm for the artist – and they are magnificent. More here.
7. SEENUNSEEN: THE KERRY AND C. BETTY DAVIS COLLECTION AND THE NORTHEAST OHIO RESPONSE
SeenUNseen was a large survey of work by African American artists on view last fall at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve and the Sculpture Center. What started as a planned exhibition of works from the renowned Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art, blossomed into a much larger show including works by regional artists alongside the prestigious works from the Atlanta collectors. 75 works by 32 Northeast Ohio artists were chosen, with the Davis collection in mind as much as possible, so the regional artists could participate in a larger artistic conversation – and benefit from hanging alongside works of great art historical significance such as pieces by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White. Almost overwhelming in size, seenUNseen included over a hundred works in sum, arranged across the campus of the two institutions.
Throughout the show, parallels could be drawn between the aims and goals of works found in the Davis Collection with those of contemporary artists working in Cleveland – as Douglas Max Utter pointed out in his brilliant catalogue introduction: “the exhibit also brings a group of highly accomplished Ohio-based African American artists into visual conversation with the Davis Collection.” It is this term: visual conversation that rings most true. As you walked through the exhibition, echoes between past and present, across boundaries of space and time reveal something of a common search for visibility, for dignity, and for truth. More here.
8. AFTERLIVES OF THE BLACK ATLANTIC AT THE ALLEN ART MUSEUM OBERLIN
The year 2019 marked a harrowing anniversary: roughly 400 years ago, Jamestown colonists bought a group of enslaved Africans from English pirates. The twenty to thirty men and women that walked ashore in Virginia in 1619 became the first of 380,000 Africans forcibly taken from their homes and dragged in chains across the Atlantic to North America. From the very beginning, chattel slavery was integral to the building and creation of what we now know as America. The institution of slavery contributed to many of the things that make America so very American—as the editor of the brilliant New York Times 1619 Project explained:
“Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fear and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.”
The 1619 Project went on to explore the truths found in this dark legacy, through contributions from the paper’s writers, including essays, poems, short fiction, photographs, and podcasts. Addressing issues as far-reaching as the birth of hip-hop to rush-hour traffic, the 1619 Project directly ties many aspects of contemporary American life back to slavery and its aftermath.
In addition to the 1619 Project, one could find many such commemorations around the country this year, but locally the most powerful response is the exhibition Afterlives of the Black Atlantic, which is still on view at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College (Through May 24th, 2020). The show, drawn from the collections of the Allen and from private collectors, includes works by seminal contemporary artists such as Dawoud Bey, Leonardo Drew, Edouard Duval-Carrié, Robert Pruitt, José Rodríguez, Alison Saar, Hank Willis Thomas, Fred Wilson and others in dialogue with historical objects, all addressing the many unsettling legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, and the harsh truths left in its wake. More here…
9. ARABELLA PROFFER – FAVORITE MAKERS PROFILE 2019 & FAVORITE ART BOOK OF 2019
Last Summer I visited Arabella Proffer’s Lakewood studio for my MAKERS Blog Series – after seeing some of her work on view at YARDS Projects at Worthington Yards, she was getting work together for a show in Pittsburgh when I dropped by.
Proffer had been recently making a series of paintings she calls a “Biomorphic Garden Party”. Reflecting her interest in botany, microbiology, monsters, space, disease, and the evolution of cells. These highly complex compositions feature soft bits, tentacles, squishy things, leaf-like growths, and other oddly familiar vegetal and organic matter. Works like “Lasher”, are actually on what appears to be a stage – the curtain being pulled back to reveal the leading lady in this bizarre show – a cellular mass with dripping pink fluid, completely tied up and encircled with black tendrils. You can read more of my profile (and see more cute cat photos) here.
Also this year, just in time for the holidays, Proffer released her photography book, The Restrooms of Cleveland – which has since sold out (don’t worry, a new shipment is on the way). It’s a visual collection of Cleveland bathrooms, taken with the eye of an artist, bon vivant, and music venue regular who understands that bathrooms say a lot culturally about us, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the book fits perfectly on the back of your toilet! Order your own today – or head to Visible Voice Books on February 14 to get your own signed copy.
10. POET KISHA NICOLE FOSTER – AT CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE AWARDS & TAMIR RICE COMMEMORATION
Kisha Nicole Foster, considered one of Cleveland’s pioneers of performance poetry, was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize Emerging Artist Prize this year for her raw, energetic verse. At the Awards, I had the pleasure of watching her perform for the first time – and while purists may wonder why I have included a poet in my list – her performances, for me, are works of art in themselves. Activating the words with her body, with her movement, with her whole self, watching Foster perform is transformative – leaving me with goosebumps and a full heart. Her performance at the Tamir Rice Five Year Commemoration at the Cleveland Museum of Art was the most moving work of art I saw all year. Her poem that night honored the mothers – especially Ms. Rice – and all the mothers whose children were destroyed by systematic state-sanctioned violence, many of which were in attendance. It was a night of laughter and tears, and Foster’s poem was unforgettable. More here… And to see her recent performance on Ideastream’s Sound of Ideas Community Tour, click here.
– B.M.H., 2019