It’s rare these days for Cleveland galleries to publish catalogs with their exhibits. And while catalogs are very much not the point of art exhibits, they are excellent documents: they capture slices of history, collections of work and their relationships to the times. What happened on Waterloo in North Collinwood Friday, December 6, 2019, was one of those times. A building that had been vacant twenty-something years, which was slated for demolition in 2016, came back to life on the energy of for-profit arts tenants, the keystone of which is Michael Loderstedt’s new gallery, Photocentric, which opened with a show called Hopeful.
Hopeful gathers the works of 7 photo-based artists responding to that theme. They represent a range of perspectives on contemporary photography and how it speaks. The exhibit is accompanied by a beautiful catalog. But more on that later.
I found Loderstedt up on a ladder on a Wednesday, two days before the opening, and he took some time to talk about the project, what it took to get the gallery open, and what was his vision for the future. He brings decades of experience and connections in the art world to the project, and they play out in every aspect.
The first step was bringing the building back to a usable state. Photocentric is in what some people know as the “gold” building, at the corner of East 156 and Waterloo Road. The fact that the building is still standing at all is a triumph for the neighborhood. Vacant for so long, and in the hands of the land bank, it got its name by default after Waterloo Arts commissioned the street art collaborative Hygienic Dress League to paint over the boarded eyesore. They covered the building entirely in gold paint, with black lines to make a two-story figure in a gas mask, and the text “Hygienic Dress” League on the eastern wall. That was in 2013. In 2016, when demolition seemed imminent, Waterloo Arts director Amy Callahan rallied residents and businesses, objecting to the potential loss. Conventional wisdom says clearing abandoned property from old neighborhoods makes room for new development. But as Callahan says, developers for struggling neighborhoods are scarce, and once a commercial building is lost on Waterloo, the likelihood that anything ever be built in its place is extremely small. The presence of the building, however, offers affordable space for small start-up businesses like Photocentric to begin to build. The residents succeeded in holding up the demolition.
After they sought proposals, the structure was purchased from the land bank by Michael McBride, an experienced landlord who has worked with artists, including the folks who ran the Canopy boutique, gallery, and artist studios in Ohio City for several years. Loderstedt, who has lived in the neighborhood since the early nineties, had recently retired from Kent State University, and was looking for his next project. He felt the need in town for a commercially focused, photo-based gallery. With the success of the Cleveland Print Room, including its work with students and emerging artists, and with the inaugural Cleveland Photo Fest in 2019, there surely is a lot of energy surrounding photography these days. Loderstedt says photography is “uniquely suited to address contemporary issues—veracity, conservation of the environment, the body politic, self-identity, class systems”—and that he wants to support people with those practices.
The resulting gallery is as well thought-out as it is beautiful. Loderstedt put sheets of OSB up first, then drywall surfaces over the top so that art can hang from nails anywhere. He consulted with architect John Williams and installed the same kind of track lighting as was used at SPACES. In addition to the gallery, he will have a wood shop and dark room in the basement to support the work upstairs. Framing and printing services will help support the whole operation. The name of the gallery is rendered in an argon sculpture by Jeff Chiplis.
Loderstedt says he plans to represent 10 to 12 photo-based artists, with each of them having an exhibit every two years or so. He says he is interested in showing “new work, no retrospectives, young people, old people, and photo-based in the broad sense,” which could mean familiar photographic work as well as photography applied to print techniques, jewelry, or any other medium. The first solo exhibit will be works of Lori Kella, in April. (Kella is one of 60 artists selected nation-wide to show work in the inaugural exhibition at The Momentary, a new contemporary art space at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas.) When we spoke, Loderstedt was still working out what will be the gallery’s second show, opening in January.
For the first exhibit at Photocentric, Loderstedt pulled together seven longtime, respected professional artists and asked for work addressing the theme “Hopeful.” “Not just relating to the idea of starting a gallery in this neighborhood, but a comment on the state of things: What do we have to be hopeful for?” The photographers responded with a mix of beauty found in nature, both flora and fauna, as well as people both as individuals and living together in the sensory overload of a crowded city.
In Bob Aufuldish’s work, hope leads to illusion. Aufuldish is a designer and professor currently in California, who studied (along with Loderstedt) at Kent State University. His works in this show blow up photos printed in full color, mid-twentieth-century travel magazines so that the cyan magenta, yellow and black components of the four-color process come apart and the images are dissected. What it shows is that the eye—looking at that mélange of CMYK dots—sees not the individual building blocks, but embraces the illusion of full color. As he says, the viewer sees what they want to see: the viewer’s response comes out of hope.
Bruce Checefsky’s images—made by taking a scanner, laptop, and a long extension cord out to his back yard in Tremont—capture an eerie beauty of interaction. It’s not just flowers captured with light, but the beauty of flowers filtered through technology, delightfully abused. The foliage appears smeared by the movement or hesitation of the scanner bar, occasional rainbow interjections, like seemingly random interjections of color you see on a wall opposite a prism hanging in sunlight.
Lori Kella’s photos, from a series called Erie: Lost and Found—Vanishing Shoreline, are made from dioramas she builds on a table in her studio. She uncannily captures land forms, the water, the sky, and the distant place where they meet. You’d never confuse them for photos of the lake itself; there is no question that they are constructed scenes, but their artificiality is reminiscent of the kind of life-sized diorama you might see in a natural history museum, showing you what has gone extinct. The wildlife in these scenes—a heron, for example, is not extinct, but reminds us of what could be lost if we don’t have enough hope to take up and keep up the fight to preserve it.
Loderstedt’s own photos capture natural beauty along the river, in the form of wildflowers like thistle and foxglove growing on the banks. The tenacious and hardy, yet delicate-looking flowers are in sharp focus in the foreground, with the urban infrastructure—highway bridges and railroad lift bridges—blurred, out of focus, in the background. The natural world surviving in this context is what he’s paying attention to, and what he hopes viewers will attend, too—enough to continue the kind of remediation efforts that have brought the river a long way back from its burning, industrially polluted past. Of course there’s lots more to do.
CIA Professor of photography Nancy McEntee’s photos of her daughter are arresting for their color and light, but also for the ambiguity of what could be going on in each image. Most of them seem to capture a moment in the relationship between the subject and the viewer—a challenge, a question, a judgement implied by the subject’s gaze, or facial expression, or the position of her arms, for example. Whatever the moment, this woman has a whole lifetime in front of her.
Arnold Tunstall’s work is documentary, but not in the journalistic sense. Rather than capturing events, he’s capturing beauty in lines—the curves of a Japanese maple, the sad majesty of a weeping beech, or the form of a pumpkin—an orb, surrounded by withered and gnarly vines. He sees them as a record documenting his own experience, and therefore nostalgic. We can hope they inspire people, as he says in his statement, to “assist nature in its remarkable ability to repair” itself.
If all these other photographers found hope in nature and/or in individuals, Garie Waltzer’s photos find it in society. Her photos of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are crowded with people and color. They show people in transit on motorcycles and scooters, billboard advertisements, everywhere the trappings of entrepreneurship and micro-industry. And there’s an enormous range of detail given equal weight. You could spend a long time looking at each of these photos, probing the details of city life in Viet Nam. And it is certainly a hopeful thing to find beauty in people, their cities, and their daily lives.
Among the many skills Loderstedt brought to this project was his experience as a maker of artist books using print-on-demand services like Blurb and Shutterfly. These have long been a part of his own practice, and that skill is a great feature in this gallery. Hopeful is accompanied by a stunning catalog designed by Bob Aufuldish, with a detail from one of Bruce Checefsky’s garden scans on the cover. It contains multiple, full-color examples of each artist’s work in the show. Each artist’s work is accompanied by a short statement, and I found them eminently readable, in some occasions beautiful descriptions of process and intent. They’re not a give-away, but I suspect that some people interested in photography around here might start collecting them. I certainly hope so.