Stuff This in Your CV (In Support of Waterloo Arts and other Juried Regional Exhibits)
Juried fine arts exhibitions–like the one on view now at Waterloo Arts in Cleveland, and like other all-American events–are both popular and under-appreciated by people likely to read a Curriculum Vita. Yet those shows are packed with memorable works, offering a tantalizing glimpse into the depth and variety of bodies of work developed by thoughtful people who conduct their careers at some distance from fame and fortune.
Many dedicated artists’ CV’s grow by half a page a year thanks to long lists of perfectly fine juried shows, found in and around America’s smaller cities and less prestigious university art departments. Combining (let’s say) the laid-back connoisseurship of an Antiques Road Show episode with the homegrown appeal of a farmer’s market, their true milieu and point of origin is the melting-pot ideal of a bygone era. It’s no accident that State Fairs often include a fine arts pavilion. That’s got to be a good thing, surely. And since these relatively populist exhibits attract an audience as varied as the art they feature, they’re a great way to advance the goals of all kinds of not-for-profits, large and small. In a time of burgeoning postgraduate arts education and a truly terrible scarcity of serious commercial galleries (along the lines of the MFA-serving venues that compose a genuine marketplace in a few major urban centers), they add a much-needed pre-primary sales venue for both artists and collectors.
Museum professionals and traditional gallerists may be mystified by the proliferation and staying power of these events, perched at the edge of the high cultural map, remote from art-world influence or bank-world sustainable funding. Yet from an artist’s point of view they’re vitally important to basic professional survival. In plain speech, these shows are places where a cash prize might be awarded and a sale can be made, and they get an artist’s name and “brand” out there (somewhere). Then there’s the fact that for university graduates they partly fill the void that course work and portfolio building once occupied, providing some of that interaction with like-minded souls that makes it okay to be an “artist” at all. In Cleveland this is particularly true, a downright artsy locale where privately owned galleries are oddly rare and predictably overbooked. At the same time, more public institutional venues are systemically averse to locally based talent. So for decades younger artists have been urged by their teachers and professors (at the four or five graduate and postgraduate art departments in the area, and at Cleveland Institute of Art) to move to New York, but the result has tended to look more like a Hunger Games scenario than a professional option. So what is a starving BFA/MFA painter/sculptor/fiber artist/printmaker to do? Aside from her day job, that is?
Cue the urban neighborhood arts association. Since the early 1980s Cleveland has innovated several neighborhoods not previously noted for their arts activities, on both sides of the Cuyahoga: Murray Hill, Tremont, and Gordon Square are the largest. Among the more recent and most successful has been in the North Collinwood area along Waterloo Road. Over the past decade Waterloo Arts director Amy Callahan has steered the small not-for profit enterprise toward ever greater prominence on the local, and even the national, roster of annual juried exhibits, offering prizes and wider recognition to artists at all career stages, filling the organization’s storefront gallery – visible from afar thanks to Cleveland’s notable artist/activist Jeff Chiplis, who donated a repurposed inert gas signage object reading “Waterloo Arts” to raise the profile of the quirky but impressive neighborhood center.
About seven years ago Waterloo Arts sent out that first call for entries for a National Juried show as part of a ground-swell of change in the neighborhood’s fortunes, one of a number of incremental changes and projects that began to transform negative public perceptions of the area. A typical rust-belt saga, North Collinwood’s recovery was a long time in coming, following its pre-Great Depression era heyday and decades-long decline. After a period of post-industrial decay (Collinwood is adjacent to a huge complex of railroad yards), the streets around North and South Waterloo became infamous as the epicenter of the Cleveland’s gangland bombing conflicts. Not a great look for an arts district. But in 2000 at least one important seed was planted — Cindy Barber, managing editor of the Cleveland Free Times, acquired the Beachland Ballroom (once the Croation Liberty Hall) around the time that her alternative weekly was sold to a national chain. That year Barber and co-owner Mark Leddy turned it into a now-beloved and stellar music venue. Just down the block, the Waterloo Arts building became part of the neighborhood picture, too, under the directorship of Sarah Gyorki. Slowly, as investment and local commitment gathered momentum, other arts organizations and galleries appeared up and down the street from the East 156th corner, becoming the latest destinations on Cleveland’s widely scattered monthly artwalk scene.
This year’s Juried Art Show may be the best of the seven iterations to date — a genuine blossoming of an increasingly impressive event. Eighty-one artists in all mediums, responding from eleven different states, were selected from several hundred entries, overwhelming the available wall and floor space. This year’s juror, Nikki Woods (Director of Reinberger Galleries at Cleveland Institute of Art and a rising star of contemporary painting in her own right, with a solo show that overlapped this curatorial tour-de-force at Hedge Gallery across town) selected a cross-section of works from around northern Ohio, augmented by paintings, prints, photographs, and 3D works shipped to the gallery from all over the country. It would have been interesting to see where these people were based, but the exhibit’s labels cover only the basics: artist’s name, work’s title, media. Another problematic decision was made somewhere along the line to earmark most of the fifteen prizes for northern Ohio recipients, which might discourage some national (or even Ohio) applicants from joining in the fun. For those reasons the current show remains a regional exhibit of the kind that is familiar to the area’s artists — which isn’t a terrible thing. As I argue above, I believe that model is valuable on its own terms. As someone who has written about the arts, primarily in northern Ohio, since 1989 and exhibited in many shows of this kind, I felt right at home.
That’s the point really. Serious artists of all kinds enter their latest projects (this exhibit asked that all submissions be completed within the last five years) in juried exhibits here or in Columbus, Massilon, Dayton, Canton, Toledo, Cincinnati, Youngstown, or sometimes out of state, not for any prestige that might be gained (doesn’t actually happen) or even for a prize or a sale. They do it to stay in touch. At Waterloo Arts I recognized at least a third of the names on the labels, and was interested to see new directions taken by artists I haven’t seen lately. Because of the numbers, the installation spilled out of Waterloo Arts Gallery itself, also filling a smaller space across the street at Michael Loderstedt’s Photocentric Gallery. Loderstedt made the picks for his half of the proceedings, and both galleries ended up with a fair share of the fifteen artworks that were awarded prizes by an ad hoc consortium of not-for-profits. Praxis – a fiber studio with a large storefront gallery and a workshop chock-a-block with a fleet of full-size looms — offered a cash award, as did the ceramics cooperative Brick, and two of Cleveland’s best artist-run, mid-town area organizations, the Morgan Paper Conservancy and Zygote Press.
An intaglio and litho-based figurative fantasia by Erin Cameron titled “Seeing Stars” won Best In Show, and other winners tended to be intriguingly experimental and/or combinative, either in terms of materials or imagery.
One exception was the finely conservative oil on canvas painting titled “Barber” by David Buttram, winner of both the CAN Journal Prize and the William Busta Projects Award, depicts a beautifully rendered child getting a haircut in what is perhaps a deadpan reconsideration of a once-upon-a-time racist-tinged cultural cliche.
Along toward another extreme nearer pure abstraction is “Poem” by Paula Damm, awarded the Intrigue Prize offered by Yards Projects. Embroidered on handmade paper in multicolored thread, “Poem” looks something like the Overseas Service Bars worn by military personnel on the front of a uniform. Displayed only on very special occasions, those bars are composed of color-coded ribbons that indicate specific places, types of service, and decorations. Describing a soldier’s career (both in peacetime and on active duty) in epitomized form, they resemble the mathematically based codes of computer languages, and also are akin to the stylized formalization of common speech found in many poems – Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example. But Damm’s spare, 20 line drawing in thread and color evokes a multitude of human practices beyond the art-world, speaking of a human tendency to use abstraction, simplification, color and form to grasp, honor, and sanctify experience, forging some kind of aesthetic truce with deeply disordered events, ranging from war all the way to love.messy things like war, or love. Damm says there is a particular poem (which she chooses not to identify) underlying this color-coded version of it. “Poem” is as much like a portrait as a translation, even more like an X-ray or Ultra-sound reading, as it shows subsurface connections, and at the same time is like the colored shadow of the idea of a poem, with all that might be done or said within its half-page garden.