2019: A forward-looking retrospective

Douglas Max Utter, “Ratman.” Spray
paint and latex paint on Arches, 65” X 45”, 1986

Elsewhere on the digital pages of CAN, Brittany M. Hudak and Michael Gill have written fine-grained and big-picture analyses of the year in Northeast Ohio art. Hudak remembered the year in a series of particular exhibits; Gill contextualized local developments within larger trends in the artworld. This post, then, is calibrated towards the medium scale—events which made a great immediate impact, or which will influence the arc of the future.


2019 marked the 50th anniversary of MOCA Cleveland’s founding, and its seventh year in its permanent home on Euclid Ave. The institution marked the occasion by eliminating general admission fees. Free admission fulfilled a longtime dream of Director Jill Snyder. It also let MOCA match the pace of its neighbor two blocks over, the Cleveland Museum of Art. Appropriately, this year CMA and MOCA undertook one of their most ambitious collaborations. The two museums co-hosted Invisible Cities, the first solo exhibition by Chinese artist Liu Wei. Wei’s digital paintings and monumental sculptures offered viewers not only a glimpse into Chinese attitudes about the sprint toward a technological, city-dwelling society; but also the opportunity to pause and think about America’s own urbanization.

Another anniversary was marked by Art House, Inc., which celebrated its 20th year. The Brooklyn Centre-based organization offers creative education to multicultural children who rarely see themselves reflected on museum walls, and adults of all ages and classes. For a victory lap, past and present Art House instructors displayed works at Studio 215.

Perhaps no other Northeast Ohio artist received—or deserved—as much recognition as Douglas Max Utter. The expressionist and CAN contributor was the guest of honor at ARTneo’s 35th anniversary benefit, and subject of a career-spanning exhibit curated by himself and HEDGE Gallery proprietor Hilary Gent. Following publication delays, a catalogue and essay collection based on Falling from the Sky of Now is forthcoming in the new year. As a painter as much as a critic, Utter has been a central voice in Cleveland’s artistic conversation for decades. He is more than deserving to be subject of that discussion.

Detail from Meng-Hsuan Wu’s “Passage.” Marbling paint and wood burning on basswood.

Comings and Goings

For a decade, FORUM Artspace was a fixture of 78th Street Studios. Many recent graduates found a friendly venue there, under the curatorship of Karl Anderson and Michael Abarca. Jan. 18, FORUM’s final exhibit in its Ohio City home—aptly titled Into the Sunset—closed. Anderson and Abarca said that they remained open to curating future projects under FORUM’s banner. However, a permanent brick-and-mortar home for FORUM is not on the horizon. It will be missed, both for its particular character, and out of a general longing for spaces which invite early-career artists.

Earlier this month, Photocentric opened its first Hopeful exhibit at Waterloo and E. 156th . Michael Loderstedt’s new gallery will display contemporary photography, in all its permutations. Hopeful features a diverse range of photographic practices, including Nancy McEntee’s haunting, mysterious portraits of her daughter; Lori Kella’s images of ecologically-minded dioramas; and Bruce Checefsky’s time-lapsed garden photography, made with a scanner opened up to the daylight.

In March, RANT! Gallery held its inaugural exhibition, reuniting a stable of artists cultivated by Dan Miller during his years at Rotten Meat Gallery. Six years elapsed between Rotten Meat’s closing and RANT’s debut. But in that intervening time, Miller maintained and enlarged the trust he had earned from the Cleveland creative community. His new gallery maintains the freshness, wit, and resourcefulness which characterized Miller’s past curations.

(We would be remiss not to mention an even more personal accomplishment of Miller’s. In partnership with the Maria Neil Art Project, Miller exhibited Some Disassembly Required. This painting series functioned as a sort of visual memoir, recounting a few harrowing years of Miller’s life with mental illness. Their emotion and raw honesty are both a triumph and a service: an invitation to break stigma, ask for help, and bring private struggles into public.)

Portrait of Tamir Rice by Antwoine Washington

In November, Samaria Rice announced several initiatives aimed at empowering children of color through play, creativity, and culturally competent education. As reported in CAN, Rice will partner with the Cleveland Foundation to fund projects serving the city’s youth. She will also oversee the foundation of the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center, a planned “safe, accessible and inspirational space” for youth on the West Side.

Playing Favorites

For this critic, the most consistently impressive and surprising curator in 2019 was Anna Tararova. Tararova works as Gallery and Artist Opportunities Coordinator at The Morgan Conservatory. This year, she organized No More Tears at Survival Kit Gallery and Printmaking as Resistance: Exhibition + Zine Library at the Morgan. Tararova had curated prior to 2019, but these two shows commanded attention. Both exhibits deftly integrated art objects from radically different media into singular, seamless experiences.

No More Tears explored experiences which are almost universal, but rarely discussed. Paintings by Nikki Woods and Lauren McKenzie depicted the stress and strain women are expected to hide from view. Zak Smoker’s striking installations explored the corruption of childhood by such forces as bureaucratized education and normalized media violence. All the objects in the show were striking, but each artist cultivated their own themes and moods. There was a real danger that these bold works might shout over each other—but Tararova gave each the space it needed to have its say.

A planning sketch for Zak Smoker’s “The Chalkboard Is Not A Toy”, printed in a zine by Ana Tararova.

Printmaking as Resistance was both an exhibit and a session of political education. The art objects on display did not merely express political sentiments, but were themselves embodiments of live political campaigns. Tararova assembled a broad selection of agitprop posters, educational flyers, and “zines” (limited-circulation magazines, monographs, or anthologies printed independently on a shoestring budget). These images were produced in service of such causes as anticapitalism, student movements, immigrant rights, prison organizing, and indigenous self-determination.

Printed matter has long been a powerful tool of protest and movement-building, especially on the radical left. This is especially true of zines, which have been especially favored by feminists and LGBT+ activists traditionally excluded from more mainstream outlets. Tararova elaborated on this historic context in an educational presentation during the show’s run. For both aspiring activists and those simply curious about the leftmost reaches of the political spectrum, the Morgan show was a valuable seminar.

We will not single out a “favorite” individual painter for the year. However, we will name a tendency which repeatedly attracted and intrigued us. This tendency was not a movement, per se. We have no reason to think the artists we associate with it influenced each other, or drew inspiration from shared sources. However, they did converge on similar themes, methods, and images: vivid color palettes, abstract environments, and extreme closeups of pained expressions on human (sometimes humanoid) faces. Call the genre “neurotic portraiture.” It was exemplified in Eric Rippert’s The Man Whose Head Expanded at Bay Arts; Nikki Woods in the aforementioned No More Tears; and Emma Anderson in I/You/She at BOX Gallery.

Nikki Woods, “Smoking/Crying.” Oil on canvas.

Recently, Rippert has shifted away from pure abstraction to stylized figures. But his characters are not all right. They have inky black eyes, or the hollow white faces of skulls. They stand for family photos, bored, stiff, or cruelly smirking. Empty sockets make eye contact with viewers, widening as if to beg for help. Woods’ women slump under the weight of lumpy demons on their shoulders, or melt before our eyes. Anderson’s totemic “alter-egos” speak with a hundred voices about self-doubt, fear of death, and the feelings of unraveling which come from being pulled from many directions.

Like the anatomical drawings of Renaissance polymaths, these painters collapse the “beautiful-grotesque” dichotomy. From a radically formalist perspective, one which only considers a painting as a two-dimensional pattern of colors and shapes, these images are beautiful. But when considered as pictures of things, representations of persons and objects outside themselves, they can be disturbing. Often, the disturbance is softened by humor. Woods excels at deadpan; she can make her subjects shrug with their eyes. Anderson and Rippert are almost cartoonists, using rubbery exaggeration and loud colors to heighten emotion. But all three painters are gallows humorists. They joke to express anxiety, exasperation, fear, exhaustion. Many of us feel just these things going into the election year 2020, and are lucky to have such able painters depicting them.

Emma Anderson, “Falling While In My Own Head.” Acrylic on canvas.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.