FRONT: After the Dust—and Rainbows—Settle
The 2022 FRONT Triennial, titled Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows from a short poem by Langston Hughes, engaged seventy artists and took place in more than twenty non-traditional venues, in addition to eight exhibitions and projects presented in the galleries of presenting partners. A staggering 290 FRONT-related community and educational programs and 170 events organized by FRONT staff were crammed into the exhibition’s eleven weeks. It reached across the region to include Akron and Oberlin in addition to Cleveland, and while it encompassed the major institutions of the area, FRONT also partnered with two dozen community and grassroots organizations.
FRONT would have taken place in 2021 if not for [upward palm spread out in sweeping gesture] everything: the lingering global pandemic, the relentless loop of mass shootings and violence against people of color, a failed insurrection that still menaces the populace and threatens the democratic rule, climate change. With the tears and teargas of 2021 still present but perhaps less prevalent, this new edition of FRONT attempted to strike an optimistic, even activist tone. Its goals were to be “a compelling reflection of our times and a catalyst for positive change.”
CAN Journal surveyed a couple of dozen individuals in the Cleveland art community to collect their impressions of FRONT 2022. For a variety of reasons—from not seeing much of the exhibition, to feeling underqualified or underwhelmed—some demurred. But those who did reply brought a rich range of perspectives to the experience. Some applauded the geographical range, some were concerned about the difficulty of traveling to the three main locations, and some expressed both thoughts. While there’s some selection bias present here—those who liked FRONT might be more willing to talk about it—most lauded FRONT as a welcome component to Cleveland’s art community, by bringing the larger art world to Cleveland, and Cleveland artists to the art world.
“My first impression was that I was surprised at the amount of installation-based work within each space,” says artist Davon Brantley, who reports he saw most of the work in FRONT this year. “It was refreshing being able to view how some of the spaces were transformed by projections, sound and interactive pieces that allowed the viewer to feel a part of the experience.”
Brantley says, though, that he wished he could have heard the artists speak on their work, either in person or through panel discussions. “I would’ve loved to hear their experience of how the work not only connected to the title/theme of the show in general, but how it connected directly to them and has affected their practice in future endeavors. Or what they’re doing as far as community engagement goes.”
After viewing the works in their various locations, Brantley questioned whether there was any resolution to the issues the artists raised. “Who is this healing specifically, and what are we healing? I’m sure there are answers, but I wondered a lot about if we are just viewing the aftermath or result of the healing process from the artist… that is solely their own.”
More broadly, he also questioned whether Cleveland is actually healing, “especially when it deals with the art community.”
“What’s next for us, and will not only FRONT but will all the institutions around us do more to make shifts, movements for those who are struggling with making a way and being respected as artists in this area?” Brantley asks.
Artist, director of YARDS Projects, curator, and Zygote Press cofounder Liz Maugans also saw a great deal of what FRONT offered, although she regrets missing a few shows in Akron that she’d heard were exceptional. She gave credit to FRONT founder Fred Bidwell who “built a house when there was no house before.”
“Much kudos to Fred and Team FRONT as they filled this Triennial concept in the void of what’s out there in Cleveland, particularly in this post-pandemic time,” she says.
As an advocate for the region’s arts, Maugans is keen to see whether one of FRONT’s goals—to have a positive economic impact on the region—plays out, but she was equally interested in how its theme played out. “Oh Gods of Dust and Rainbows, geared towards the healing and transformative, had in my opinion more somber and understated works,” she says.
Among Maugans’ favorites were New York artist Abigail DeVille’s Karamu House installation that included the cast faces of elders from the Fairfax Senior Living Space, inspired and correlated to the poems of Langston Hughes. She also “loved” (very much) Akron-native Alexandria Couch’s paintings.
“I love, love, loved Alexandria Couch’s paintings at Oberlin’s FAVA (Firelands Association for the Visual Arts) gallery, “where the beautiful Black figures are embracing, relaxing,” and Couch’s “questioning of Black bodies contemplating the duality of comfort and pleasure.”
Maugans called “brilliant” Bakunin’s Barricade, the installation in Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum by Ahmet Öğüt that decorated a barricade of jumbled junk with priceless pieces from the Allen’s own collection. “This was the most exciting and robust of the works I saw at FRONT.
“These faves had so much relevance to what is happening in today’s social and political change, but also they just impacted me the most.”
Maugans was excited about the announcement of the three-year FRONT Art Futures Fellowship program for emerging visual artists of color, and felt there was “more connectivity to lifting up local artists than the first FRONT.”
One suggestion she has for the next FRONT?
“Have the artists living here in Cleveland/Akron/Oberlin be the hired, well-paid ambassadors of FRONT, to host the artists flying in and let them be the ambassadors to show our cities, the resources, the history. This is how relationships can be made and continue to establish art with a capital A, here in this region.”
Although artist and Kent State University professor emeritus Michael Loderstedt enjoyed individual elements, overall he was disappointed in this year’s triennial.
“Generally, I didn’t find this FRONT Triennial as interesting as the last one,” he says. “A lot of very simple and unimpressive projects, probably geared toward younger audiences.”
Still, he “especially enjoyed” the exhibitions in Akron, particularly a video installation in the former Quaker Oats complex by Detroit artist Alyssa Taylor Wendt titled TMI that followed a single point-of-view camera through an abandoned building in which musicians and poets were scattered, playing music and reciting poetry. “It was hypnotic and captivating,” he says. He also singled out the documentary video on a potter and his studio by Chicago artist Theaster Gates, which Loderstedt said was great, as well as the art of his Kent colleague Paul O’Keeffe, who had “a very moving sculptural work reflecting on the loss of his son, Christian, who took his own life.”
Artist and arts consultant and Zygote Press cofounder Bellamy Printz says she thought the art of FRONT “was quite good. There’s always going to be highs and lows. But I felt like there was some really good work. I thought the work they chose from local artists was really strong, and the work from international artists really good for the most part.”
Printz points out that there was a great deal of text around the art of FRONT to understand individual works, but it wasn’t always the text she wanted. What was lacking was content about navigating through and around the multi-venue, multi-city experience.
Printz, interviewed while preparing to travel to Italy to attend the Venice Biennale, would have preferred if FRONT had offered more context at the outset to explain the idea behind the triennial. “There needs to be something saying, ‘Other cities have this—New Orleans, Venice. This is where this concept comes from, and this is why we’re bringing it to Cleveland.’”
Printz says future FRONTs might want to provide better orientation and guidance to those attending, such as suggested itineraries. “How do you approach something like this, in terms of viewing? Because it IS all in different places. If you hadn’t been to the places that this is modeled after, you might not know.” She bought, but eventually abandoned, the sticker book outlining all of the sites and was a bit frustrated that some information, like open hours, was not always clear in the materials. Printz ventured beyond Cleveland because she was specifically drawn to the work of a specific artist—Andrea Couch in Oberlin—and a presenting organization—Curated Storefront in Akron. Though she saw other work there and appreciated that FRONT included more than just the Akron Museum of Art this year, without that incentive she might not have made the trips.
She also believes the concept itself needs contextualized for a Cleveland audience. Triennials like FRONT let artists push the boundaries of their work, without having to confront commercial concerns.
“It’s an art [exhibition], not an art market,” she says. “They’re showing the artwork, not selling the artwork, and those are two different things. It allows artists to experiment.”
While this may have been explained the first year of FRONT, Printz says it needs to be reiterated each time. “The public should understand better that it’s about showing, not selling art. Some of the stuff is really exciting and really adventurous, and people are working hard to make the work good.”
She’d love to see FRONT take its place among Cleveland’s signature events, like Night Market, or the Feast of the Assumption, which are as woven into Cleveland’s calendar as they are woven into the consciousness of Clevelanders.
“The fact of the matter is,” Printz says, “there’s all this shit going on and it’s really cool and people should go.”
Jeremy Johnson, the president and CEO of Assembly for the Arts, included a large number of FRONT sites in his busy calendar of attending arts-related events seemingly every single day. Only after a bit of agonizing was he able to mention his top choices.
“The challenge with any triennial—how do you pick your favorites? It’s like picking a favorite child. There was so much.”
He settled on one he felt fit well with the theme of this year’s triennial. “They wanted to weave in this notion of healing, of how art can be a balm for trauma or suffering or economic or racial distress,” he says.
“I was smitten with Abigail DeVille’s work.”
DeVille’s work, called The Dream Keeper and inspired by a 1932 book of poetry for young people written by Langston Hughes, draws from the history of Black Cleveland through artifacts, photographs, maps, and other materials. Part of the exhibit was presented at the Sculpture Center and another part at Quincy Garden, adjacent to the historic Karamu House and three blocks from where Hughes spent formative years. The work in the garden, sculptures made from reclaimed domestic objects, incorporates casts made of current residents of the area.
“That it was in the shadow of Karamu was really touching,” says Johnson. “And it also connects with living people of today. It was pretty powerful.”
Johnson also pointed to a two-day forum co-presented by FRONT and Assembly for the Arts, involving major institutions and local African American artist-entrepreneurs “using creativity to change their world.” The panel included discussions about what he called “some of the ‘lesser budget’ organizations.”
“They are changing lives through creativity and art,” Johnson says.
“That was such a rich conversation and I’m so glad the triennial brought this to our attention.
We are going to continue those conversations in the months and years to come—and at the next triennial.”
But Johnson was impressed with the entire FRONT experience.
“It just really opened my eyes to art happening around the world,” he says. “Art is meant to move and change how we think about things. So I’m very appreciative of the FRONT experience.”
And the art did move him, quite literally.
“I was struck by the fact that [the art of FRONT] was not just visual—it was aural, it was tangible. And one of the culminating events was visceral.”
That early autumn event, a multimedia installation by UK-based artist Joe Namy, engaged with the Isamu Noguchi sculpture that dominates a plaza in front of Cuyahoga County’s justice center calledPortal. Johnson was in his early teens when the tubular steel sculpture was installed in 1976 and he remembers the controversy surrounding its arrival.
Dancers from Case Western Reserve University performed works inspired by Martha Graham, who had previously collaborated with Noguchi, “in tribute to the infamous sculpture, a lightning rod of controversy,” says Johnson. It revealed “the power of public art to move opinions, to move expression.”
“We were still in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian—literally the winds of Ian were making their way up to Cleveland.” Johnson was still dressed for the warm and sunny days that lead up to the event, but the weather had turned.
“It was like a wind tunnel. In the midst of all the winds, in a weird way, we persisted through the gale force winds and it went on.”
The artist M. Carmen Lane was reading from a text, summoning the area’s Native American ancestry and acknowledging the traditional territory of the land. They read from text on a music stand. Just as they finished, a final gust of wind came and knocked the music stand away.
Several of the installations created for FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art remain on view into the winter.
Cleveland Museum of Art
Nicole Eisenman: A Decade of Printing, through December 31, James and Hanna Bartlett Prints and Drawings Gallery | Gallery 101
Firelei Báez: the vast ocean of all possibilities (19°36’16.9″N 72°13’07.0″W, 41°30’32.3″N 81°36’41.7″W), through January 15, Betty T. and David M. Schneider Gallery of European Sculpture | Gallery 218
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin
Ahmet Öğüt: Bakunin’s Barricade: through December 23, 2023, Ellen Johnson Gallery
Renée Green: Contact, through December 31
University of Akron National Museum of Psychology at Cummings Center
Cassie Thornton: The Hologram, through May 27, 2023