Back to FRONT

Whether or not many people, local or otherwise, actually saw any of the works and projects completed by its 111 artists, or visited some (or even none) of its 26 sites in Cleveland, Akron, and Oberlin, FRONT Triennial was a big deal. It succeeded in putting our region decisively on any map of international twenty-first century art events. Ambitious planners intended the affair to be visible, if not from space (though certainly it took in enough Ohio geography for that, too), then from the comparably wide vantage of art history. The triennial was conceived as a new player in the long-running, high-stakes game of experimental civic art events, plugging artists, museums, universities, and local economies into a world-wide web of artistic dialogue.

Ambitious is hardly the word for it. I suspect it had a dreamlike quality for much of the population of northern Ohio, who largely failed to tune in for this initial chapter. (Plans for the next Triennial opening July 17, 2021, are already nearing completion.) Be that as it may, word of the brand-new project reached interested folks in New York and Bilbao, London and Lisbon, Berlin and Beijing—and some of them came here to check it out. And, really, FRONT was at worst hiding in plain sight. Local newspapers and news channels gave it respectful coverage, and the eight major arts institutions that partnered with FRONT offered big slices of FRONT’s eleven “Cultural Exercises” throughout the summer months. The final figures aren’t in yet, but Front International’s Executive Director Fred Bidwell reports that the click count is likely to top out at some 300, 000 visits (which of course isn’t the same as visitors).

Since the beginning of the last century, and far more intensely in the last few decades, theoretically ambitious, curator-driven biennials and triennials have sprung up in a dizzying array of cities, from Documenta (founded in 1955 in Kassel, Germany), to Bilbao (Spain), San Juan (Puerto Rico), New Orleans, Miami, Beijing, and many, many more. During the last three decades they’ve served as counterpoint to a swelling stream of commercially robust international art fairs, where big name galleries trot out their latest favorites, turning up the flame under a market which, like any other, needs regular infusions of urgency and novelty. In the arts themselves, an almost imperial advance of new media and modes of apprehension into history, medicine, political science, and every other corner of modern life, is by now a tide that has swept away most traditional approaches, and encouraged far-reaching global dialogue that swamps regional claims to autonomy. If anything, FRONT, with its echoes of military and meteorological conditions, invokes a force that’s overdue in our part of the world. It might even be understood as a rearguard action, insightfully (if inevitably) initiated here by the Transformer Station’s Fred Bidwell and likeminded cosmopolitan art and business professionals drawn into the mix by Bidwell’s energy and commitment. This is, pretty obviously, a thing that needs to happen for the health of art in the region, as well as a vision that has captured many hearts and minds.

Imagine FRONT as a neural net, thrown wide over Cleveland, stretching south to Akron and westward to Oberlin. One effect of the event as conceived by Artistic Director Michelle Grabner and other early planners, is to spark a new consciousness of and for the city, by proposing a series of nodal venues and energies. These in turn produce a portrait sketch (so to speak) of a geopolitical region.

To take just two examples from FRONT’s exhibition schedule, visitors could start with the late, very influential California photographer Allan Sekula’s 2006 documentary film Lottery of the Sea, screened aboard the Science Center’s vessel, the William G. Mather, permanently docked downtown at the Ninth Street pier. The 179-minute single-channel video work illuminates the role of maritime distribution in world economic terms. It also serves to introduce the sheer scale and complexity of FRONT’s intentions.

Lauren Yeager, Sculptural Pedestal

Or, following a lower-profile curatorial move, persistent visitors might find Cleveland-based artist Lauren Yeager’s solo exhibit. Yeager was invited to contribute a show of her conceptually-oriented, combinatory found-object sculptures, displayed at the Vista warehouse on Cleveland’s Near West side. In Sculpture Bases about forty new works of varying dimensions were arrayed around a polished cement floor, in a cavernous space opening off a loading dock. The pedestals are made from anything and everything (an outsized globe, an upside down jacuzzi, even the blackened stone feet of a small statue, broken off at the ankles)—using shapely or mechanical, often manufactured items which, absent any actual sculpture, become a weird breed of parenthetical works all on their own—bases dreaming of sculpture, of an art that perished or has yet to materialize, or maybe is simply out of the question. In a conversation recorded in Volume 2 of the FRONT catalog, Detroit painter James Benjamin Franklin remarks, “That’s a crazy path.”

“It feels crazy,” Yeager replies laconically.

Crazy in a good way, I think we can assume. Yeager’s top-down, or back-to-front, concept could sum up the FRONT experience as a whole, at the end of its first, pedal-to-the-metal initial run. The triennial was something like sculpture in search of a pedestal, or like a pedestal looking for…things to put there; which somehow works, rewarding both searches in unanticipated ways, illuminating questions that nobody asked. It works because, by design, it can’t fail. Call me crazy if you want, but I’m looking forward to the next iteration of this mad scheme.