2020: Looking Back on the Year that Wasn’t
One thing is certain about 2020 – it’s the year I saw the least art, well, the least of my entire adult life. It’s not that I didn’t see and enjoy some artsy things, it’s just the shocking realization that I didn’t set foot in an art museum even once, or happily spend most Friday nights bouncing around town to gallery openings. Perhaps more cautious than most, I rarely went out at all, and this is reflected in the small amount of contributions I made to this blog in 2020.
Frankly I’m stunned and in awe by the amount of work that people were able to create during this terrible year – a testament to the tremendous resilience of some. Personally, I found it next to impossible to be productive, and still do, as I sit here writing this year-end review a week late. And yet, despite the bleakness, there were some stand-out moments for this critic, so here’s a list of ten.
1. David King at ARTneo
The year started out promising with a tremendous show of new work by painter David King at ARTneo: “David King’s new paintings are like fiery dreams. Hot with neon color, memories fade, some crumble into dust, others linger. Looking at this body of work is a bit like time travel, but feels like you’ve accidentally stumbled into someone else’s history, like an uninvited guest at a family reunion.” Read more here.
2. Max Markwald’s Portraits at BAYarts
In February, in the “before-time”, I took a look at a stunning exhibition of portraits by Max Markwald: “Markwald legally changed his name to Max and began painting large self-portraits documenting his gender transition. The tall vertical canvases are identical in size, impressively painted, and are all titled simply for the month they were created. … He is a seriously talented portraitist; his blocky brushwork is tantalizingly raw in places – laid down in rough shapes that coalesce the farther you move away from it.” Read more here.
3. Kill Joy at Zygote
“When artist Kill Joy arrived in Cleveland from Mexico City in February for her two-month residency, it was snowing. To cope with the frigid weather, the first works she started carving at Zygote were images of the hottest natural substance on Earth: lava from volcanic eruptions. The series, featuring volcano sites she has visited, takes on quite a different meaning today. Only a few months later, their cataclysmic explosions now indicate disaster, impending death, and doom—the power of nature and the fragility of humans. … While she works alone in Cleveland, Kill Joy’s output has become a document of this strange moment—the end of which is uncertain.” Read more here.
4. Matthew Gallagher at HEDGE Gallery
“Back in late March, I had the great pleasure of speaking with artist Matthew Gallagher, whose planned show at HEDGE Gallery was put on hold (“Show Postponed, Artist Matthew Gallagher Grapples with the Impact of COVID-19“). … Fast forward to the present, and Gallagher’s show is now on view at HEDGE Gallery as originally planned, in the recently opened 78th Street Studios. …One of the things I love about Gallagher’s work is the variety of scientific processes they utilize to create these pieces. Using unseen forces in nature, such as gravity, sound waves, or magnetic force, Gallagher is able to make visible the invisible.” Read more here.
5. Rebekah Wilhelm & John Saile 818 Studios
“When I heard that Rebekah Wilhelm was pairing up with John Saile for a show ostensibly about ‘color’ at 818 Studios, I will admit, I was surprised. Wilhelm’s intensely cerebral and meticulously crafted prints are often abstract exercises in form – but are usually devoid of color. Now Saile, on the other hand, is an artist known for his explosive use of color. …I never would imagined that Wilhelm’s work would sit comfortably next to his riotously colorful creations, but it seems that pandemics create strange bedfellows.” Read more here.
6. Sonata #5 Project at Survival Kit
“Sonata #5 Project was conceived by Cleveland composer Ryan Charles Ramer, whose new musical piece, a sonata for piano in four movements, was given to nine area artists to interpret visually; as Ramer explains: ‘I wanted to see what my music looked like.’… I’m not sure what I expected, but looking at the work as a whole I suppose I was hoping to see a thread of connection, some sort of similarity – but instead, what you get is incredibly personal interpretations of the music, as varied as the people that created the work.” Read more here.
7. April Bleakney and Rebekah Wilhelm at Akron Soul Train
In true pandemic-style, I went all the way to Akron to see an amazing show, fully documented it, took notes, and then never wrote my review. This is certainly not a reflection of the art on view, merely indicative of the amount of trouble I had working this past year. April Bleakney’s careful documentation of 20 years of fortunes from Chinese fortune cookies is a testament to an artist with a penchant for organizing, and a work ethic I clearly do not have. And once again, Wilhelms’ work is stunning – her quietly intense attention to something as simple as a chain link fence becomes an intellectual exercise. And since I did not write my own review, here is Anderson Turner’s from the Akron Beacon Journal.
8. Corrie Slawson and FEAST: a ballet
While technically I did not review FEAST: a ballet, I attended it (virtually) and was so mesmerized that I had to include it in this list. A project two years in the making, Corrie Slawson and a huge team of artists, choreographers, dancers, and production experts created what was originally intended to be a live ballet performance. Immersed in a lavish set of over 500 sculptural and store-bought objects, FEAST: a ballet follows a corps de ballet of dancers through five movements of stunning imagery. The virtual performance streamed online, and as I said, was mesmerizing – despite the fact I was watching it on my laptop.
From their press release: “The evolution of props and set pieces for FEAST began over two years ago in visual artist Corrie Slawson’s studio. Originally exhibited as a mixed-media installation titled ‘Let Them Eat Steak,’ the set includes more than 100 hand-cast plaster steaks. Visually, the steaks ‘look’ beautiful, attracting the eye in a way similar to a beautiful pointe shoe; gorgeous on the outside, but hiding the results of hard work on the inside. As props, these artworks are activated by dancers in a way that honors the craft and hard work of the artists involved in the project.” feastballet.com
9. Uno Lady’s Film, GROUNDED
“GROUNDED, a 20-minute long film, includes mantras, soothing songs, and guided meditations for busy minds. Filmed mostly in her backyard in Cleveland, Ohio during the pandemic, Christa Ebert (aka Uno Lady) painstakingly created stop-motion animations with homegrown flowers, sweet potatoes, drawings, and paintings, spliced with calming footage of nature, all set to a soundtrack composed specifically for the project. … with GROUNDED Ebert takes a big step away from the traditional Uno Lady performance (click here to read a profile I wrote on her early in 2019 when she was just starting to experiment with film).
I would deem GROUNDED a true “film” in the sense that it is a seamless visual and audio project. It’s always been difficult to categorize Uno Lady’s work – which, I think, is to her credit. Is it just music? Performance art? Film? She has always made art that is hard to pin down, and true to form, with GROUNDED she does it again.” Read more here.
10. Maya Peroune, “Black Is?”
For the cover story of the Winter CAN Journal, I compiled a public art tour that acknowledges that in addition to living through a pandemic, we are witness to a Global Movement for Black Lives. It featured work by SWIMr CST, Gisela McDaniel, SANO, Mr Soul and more. But it was on a walk in my neighborhood after its publication that I stumbled on the work of young photographer Maya Peroune. The image above is included with several others as part of the Cleveland Print Room’s Teen Institute public display in Ohio City, on the fence outside of the Riverview Welcome Center at 1701 West 25th Street.
But as I continued to walk down the road I was surprised to come across a full-scale installation by Maya Peroune titled “Black Is?” at 1441 W. 25th Street. Comprised of a series of wheat-pasted photographic portraits on the exterior of an abandoned building, the installation is(was) just South of the Detroit-Superior Bridge.
The artist seems to be asking a simple question, but after the events of this year it is certainly no longer simple nor is it polite – because this question is literally a matter of life or death in America and it always has been (emphasis MY OWN). Each of the stunning portraits deftly tell a story, and as a whole the installation is incredibly moving. I visited it many times on my walks; for it to come from someone so young is truly impressive.
In addition to this installation, Peroune created a short documentary also called “Black Is?” in which she interviewed teens about how “blackness” is defined. The documentary was part of The Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival last September. As she states on her instagram (@maya_cp1): “this conversation gets heated and honest. Is America ready to hear the truth?”. Judging by the amount of defacement and vandalism now on her once beautiful work of art, the answer is sadly no.
This part of West 25th street is virtually an alien landscape now, the streets choked with new-build condos for the wealthy. It’s here that the two public art installations that most directly engage the nationwide movement against the state-sanctioned murder of Black Americans are (curiously?) on buildings slated for demolition. It’s a shame, because Maya Peroune’s work and Osman “SWIMr” Muhammed’s (above) are the two works of art I will remember most from 2020. And though they will soon be a memory, it’s one I will not soon forget.