The Persistence of Vision: Nevertheless, She Created, at Bonfoey Gallery
March is Women’s History month — truly a big deal of a month, created and re-created by Presidential Proclamation and popular demand since early in the Reagan administration (a true, if ironic, fact). At this time exhibits and educational programs, marking the difficult forward slog of feminism and human rights, vie for public awareness. In Washington DC just about every national institution climbs on board. In Cleveland there’s somewhat less fuss, but even so the city’s art galleries and university art departments have mounted a number of such commemorative events, often mixed with an account of the survival of women artists in the year-old era of COVID-19. Noteworthy among these is Nevertheless, She Created, at Bonfoey Gallery downtown near Playhouse Square, which brings together nine of Cleveland’s many, widely respected women artists, showing recent works in paint, photography, and jewelry.
The new rallying cry of activist feminism, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” was minted (not on purpose) in 2017 by Mitch McConnell as he tried to deal with the unmitigated gall of Elizabeth Warren, who was acting like an elected legislator (how dare she!). It’s also an apt motto for contemporary women who make art, double-masked as they presently are by history and a global pandemic. Some of the women now showing at Bonfoey’s have long been noted for their outspoken commentary on social inequity, and all are individuals who have achieved considerable success against steep odds (and a stacked deck). Very few “creatives” (a word used by those who dislike even thinking the word “artist”) find great success in the non-entertainment sector of the American arts, and those who do – especially if they happen to be born female –are intense, fundamentally rebellious, driven people with a ton of staying power.
Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, a Canton resident known for her strong, wryly original take on neo-expressionism and art brut, has been recognized as an important painter in Cleveland and nationally since the early 1980s. Four decades down the road from her MFA years at KSU and her prize-winning entries in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show (plus a slew of solo Museum exhibits), Parker continues to produce impressive painterly compositions on paper and canvas. Words and roughly rendered patterns mix beat-era and feminist textual experiments with post impressionist and modernist manners, evoking Odilon Redon one moment, Matisse the next, while nodding to a further dimension of propaganda and exposition. Appropriately Parker’s 2020 canvas Woman (a powerful head-and-shoulders study that could almost be Madame Matisse slashed in Fauvist strokes of red and green) hangs near the gallery entrance.
Lane Cooper, a painter originally from Alabama, admired for her work in various media including performance and media arts, can also accurately be termed a Cleveland arts scene fixture. Cooper has taught full time at Cleveland Institute of Art for two decades, while exhibiting works in an instantly recognizable manner in countless exhibitions. Her paintings often depict people who seem to be frozen in a moment of indeterminate focus, like screen captures half-realized in the atomic weft of being as they ebb and flow across a horizontal matrix of color and line. It’s as if the artist is tuning in an image of the human, broadcast at a frequency beyond the actual range of sight. It’s a metaphorical exploration of not only what it means to perceive one another, but also how deeply odd it is to twiddle the knobs and switches of human comprehension, achieving visual recognition through an instrumentality like paint and brushes.
If you haven’t known much about Liz Maugans, this exhibit is a good introduction to the recent work of one of our region’s most important artists/activists. Co-founder and long-time leader of Zygote Press, Ohio’s preeminent artist-run educational non-profit fine art printing facility, Maugans now works as an exhibiting artist and freelance curator, continuing a mission of community involvement focused on integrating the visual arts into Cleveland’s various business communities. Working in collaged layers of drawing, painting, and lithographic images combined with text, Maugans presents themes from everyday life. Since long before the onset of the current plague, she developed a style of visual autobiography that mixes actual documents (letters, hand-written recipes) with storybook-like autobiographical notes, stirring a sense of vibrant life into medium and large-scale dynamic pastiches. Lino-cut or paper lithography images move through a lifetime of drama. Endless incident walks onto the picture’s stage, with a cursive script and a visual score, rounding toward eternal themes.
Another artist much admired over the years by audiences in northern Ohio is Susan Squires, an abstract painter and printmaker. Squires uses encaustic media to alternatively mask and unveil visions of a Platonic realm. Geometric forms incised or painted into layers of melted wax medium shine forth in Squire’s haunted, translucent two-dimensional space, drifting in place toward more concrete manifestations. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (2020) is a diagram-like geometric figure rendered in encaustic, oil stick, and graphite. It superimposes the outline of an ovate linear shape over a square, angled up from the bottom center. Mostly painted in shades of pale cream and gray, the central axis is a helical cluster of black and gray circles – like seeds, or the DNA of pure form. Metaphysical and softly tangible, both transparent and opaque, Squires works on panel find a dimension of their own, between worlds.
Dana Oldfather is a self-taught painter who, since the early 2000s, has devised an ever-evolving, exciting painterly manner of striking originality. Folkloric echoes whisper around the crowns and party hats of her newest paintings, but my own pick here would be a borderline abstract work from 2019. “Queen Bed” is a large (nearly 7 foot square) potpouri of movement, pattern, and the crushed together edges of…things. If the painting has a bed in it, it must be under the patterned patches of a crazy quilt that fills much of the canvas, The hidden presence of a mattress would help to explain the pale nude backside and foot that poke out from under a heap of mystery objects. On the left there may be a tree and sky, on the left maybe a bridge and distant hills. “Queen Bed” could be a painting about moving, about hoarding, about camping, or even about sex. It could illustrate a figure in a landscape, or the sprinkle of stardust all over the place might indicate a different interpretation. “Queen Bed” could be a comedy, or a tragedy, but it’s the sort of work that offers something radically different every time you look at it.
Jen Omaitz is another of the area’s great talents, whose paintings and sculptures convey the energies of rapid change. They also sometimes offer a further hint of dawning serenity. “Freedom” (2020) is a three-foot square canvas that reads like an emblem, or like an abstract version of an initial letter from a monastic codex, like the Book of Kells. It might be the title page of a Book of Rainbows, or a study of prisms, or even a history of flags, because it consists of bands of separated colors inflected , or let’s say smooshed by wind, or gravity, or the facts and facets of refraction. The action takes place around a central, blank area, like a frame of colors hanging in space, losing its mind, perhaps, but not it’s balance.
Kristen Cliffel shows two of her extraordinary ceramic sculptures — objects that suggest a rebus-like message. Sometimes Cliffel’s fairytale glimpses seem like excerpts from one of Sleeping Beauty’s more Freudian dreams. “Transactional Expectations” tells the story of a plump young bird, batting her mascara-rimmed eyes atop a circus cone/pedestal. Normally this would be a place for a performing seal, but the bird is in the limelight now, and there’s a ladder leaning up behind her, suggesting that she climbed there. Since it has neither wings nor any visible feet, there’s a problem with any coherent theory. Like the armless, legless woman in the movie “Boxing Helena,” the bird seems fixed in a spot halfway between somewhere and nowhere.
The fairy tale birds depicted by Ryn Clarke are less conflicted, in color photographs showing the denizens of imaginary places. Working with experimental techniques across a range of subjects and styles, Clarke has documented abandoned amusement parks, giant grain silos, and dramatic landscapes around the world. Very active with many organizations around town, she conducts classes in Iphone photography and a photopolymer gravure technique that involves tap water in place of acid (her own work in this medium is very striking). Clarke’s latest composite photos at Bonfoey feature flowers and hummingbirds, a wandering deer, and other friendly creatures in a magic garden of the mind, improvised as an amusement and as a comfort over the past stark year.
There is a quality to silver jewelry that helps to close the gap between fine-tuned human senses and an indifferent cosmos. Pam Pastoric’s exquisitely crafted rings, earrings, and other adornments harness the sheen of moonlight and ancient craft, continuing traditions of beauty and worship that are not merely adornment, but a kind of personal sculpture, tokens of time and power. Pastoric’s contribution is a thoughtful coda at the end of an exhibit that covers a lot of ground, from the often male-dominated field of ambitious painting to the immemorial punctuation of the feminine, which is the art of adornment.
“Nevertheless, She Created” is an impressive show of accomplished visual art by a crew of mid and late career artists who have found a home in northern Ohio. That they are also women is important, not only this month, and not least because the present selection of skill and aesthetic vision comes together so naturally in the context of Cleveland and its art scene. Much of any art writer’s career here is spent describing strong artists who are also strong women, because there are in fact so many of them. Why this may be is a long story, but places like MOCA and SPACES, Zygote Press and Bonfoey’s, all headed for most of their existence by women, are a part of the tale.