Redefining Reality: Cleveland Arts Prize Winners Corrie Slawson and Lauren Yeager

Sculptor Lauren Yeager and printmaker Corrie Slawson are winners, respectively, of the 2021 Cleveland Arts Prize for emerging and mid-career artists.

Sculptor Lauren Yeager. Photo credit: Robert Muller.


Lauren Yeager, 2021 Winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize for an Emerging Artist

Sculptor and photographer Lauren Yeager is recipient of a Cleveland Arts Prize for 2021, in the Emerging Artist category. Like the majority of fine arts practitioners in this country with (or without) an advanced fine arts degree, she also has an unrelated day job, which she’s good at—but then there’s her other, at times more bohemian life, centered around a studio space, located literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Yeager shares part of a factory floor with a few other art makers on an upper storey of an anonymous brick structure. The building runs along one side of an avenue a few blocks from East 55th Street, where a low railroad bridge slants above a street full of potholes. Yeager tells me that during her nighttime sojourns the trains run every twenty minutes. The racket of a late-night train, I imagine, is inspiring in its way—so is the palsied rattling of the antique wood and steel freight elevator, shaking as it brings us up to the fifth floor.

But in fact, the vintage grit of these surroundings is at odds with Yeager’s cutting-edge aesthetic experiments. Generally working with up-to-date debris, she scours the twenty-first century urban trashscape, salvaging bits and pieces from the wreck of market-driven functional design. Since her graduation from CIA about ten years ago, the Nashville, TN, native has evolved a unique combinatory art of 3D non-sequitur. When she was invited to take part in FRONT Triennial two years ago (Yeager, currently represented by Abattoir Gallery, was one of the very few Cleveland artists selected for the inaugural edition of that internationally-focused exhibit), she filled a spacious factory loading area with a show of found-object “bases”. Varying wildly from rusted iron and peeling wood to cement, stone, and polyethylene—and from actual carving (there was a stone foot somewhere) to heavy-duty industrial equipment—it was a truly delightful exploration of one thing leading to another, like actors in search of a play, or prefaces trying to manifest a text, or question marks with amnesia.

Lauren Yeager, Cooler Tower, found objects, 2021. Photo by Meg Strobel / Sculpture Milwaukee.

At the moment, her studio is littered with white, red, and blue rectangular slabs made of textured thermal plastic—the lids of different brands of coolers. In their natural habitat, which of course is football tailgating, these are used to shelter beer cans and bags of ice. For Yeager, though, they’re more like syllables in a newly-discovered language. The manner of display is an important element in the art that Yeager practices, and at this point she’s still imagining just how to mount the slab-like samples of polyethylene culture on a gallery wall at Akron Art Museum, later this year. If she stacks them a few inches apart, climbing toward the ceiling like a ladder, the installation might be seen as an extension of classical minimalist approaches, using found objects rather than objects prescribed and controlled by the artist. Consider the body of late work by postminimalist master Donald Judd, some of whose best-known works are a series of identical shelf-like or drawer-like rectangular so-called “specific” objects, displayed in a vertical format rising some fifteen feet. Judd’s pieces—like the 1989 Untitled ten-tier object at Cleveland Museum of Art—create a kind of categorical extension of space and work, visible when deliberation and facture stretch toward an abstract ideal (that’s one theory anyway).

From a more laid-back standpoint, Yeager’s watchword might be “adaptation,” rather than abstraction or minimalism. Ideas of repurposing and recycling occupy a central place in much of her art—often giving way to the sheer fun and fascination of sudden recognitions, recombinative playful processes, and associative construction. Ultimately her unspecific objects get a big boost from their non-minimalist, anything-goes composition, which is just about opposite to Judd’s philosophic asceticism. In the case of her cooler lids, the fact of their patented polypropylene constitution (a handy substance not in existence before 1955) points her loosely organized objects back toward a subfoundation of molecular innovation. This is art for a human world that is well on its way to redefining reality.

Two things most artists need, as they stall at the on-ramp to cultural glory, are more money and wider recognition. The Cleveland Arts Prize—retooled extensively since its origins as a single-award, civic-minded, cash-free celebration in the 1960s—provides those advantages for an ever-larger group of artists in a variety of fine arts disciplines. Presented, debated, and proposed (or not) during an initial round of discipline-specific panel discussions, the final selections of individual artists are made by all of the organization’s juries, convened as a whole. It’s a thorough, conscientious process, and the results are anticipated with bated breath. This year the prize brought at least the usual amount of drama, amplified a bit by the necessity of remote panel meetings. In fact, 2021 is one of the more exciting years for the prize in recent memory, bringing awards of $10,000 each to a number of extraordinary artists, like Lauren Yeager, currently working in Northeastern Ohio.

Printmaker Corrie Slawson. Photo credit: Robert Muller.

Corrie Slawson, 2021 Winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize for a Mid-Career Artist

Another notable is Corrie Slawson, honored in the Mid-Career category. Currently teaching painting and drawing at Kent State University, Slawson is among Cleveland’s most-admired contemporary printmakers and all-around visual artists. Long an important presence at Zygote Press, Slawson has exhibited her prints, collages, and landscape interventions in most major venues in Northeastern Ohio, winning residencies abroad in Germany and Mexico. Her work is represented in Cleveland by Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art. The artist lives on the East Side in a house equipped with an attic studio, where the stairs are narrow enough that the average adult human foot only fits on them sideways—but the climb is worth it. The long room under the eaves runs from front to back, packed with work tables, flat files, and a wonderland of works in progress (there’s also a printing facility in the basement, marketed as Ping-Pong Press, and evidently room for her family in the intervening stories).

Corrie Slawson, Dissolve 2021, screenprint and prismacolor pencil on grey Stonehenge, 22 X 15 inches.

A year ago, she presented a series of print/collages at the Massillon Museum. Titled Endangered, some of the compositions for that project are at least a yard long, printed, painted, and collaged on creamy heavyweight Stonehenge papers. Their abstract combinations of images are full of endangered species, but also color, texture, and movement—spasms and storms, beauty and places of peace and rest. One composition—dominated on one side by saturated, semi-transparent yellow and green running up against a blood-colored mist floating in the center—has a little tent of blue (as in Wilde’s poem about his imprisonment, or a painting of that name by Julian Schnabel) just at the upper margin: a short breath of sky. Several of these fantasias cover or augment an odd, grainy enlargement of a black-and-white photograph placed near the middle of their composition. It looks like workmen hauling one of the Moai of Easter Island by ropes, or a confused, post-colonial dream of Gulliver and his Lilliputians. Taken as a group, with their swift kaleidoscopic patterns, and the twists and gyres of history mixed with memory and fear, Slawson has made narrative tapestries for the Apocalypse. Using a tonal range from newspaper-like black and white, through saturated reds and yellows, pinks and greens, calmer stretches of taupe and glorious shimmers of gold, they seem spangled with wealth as well as poverty, and hard, bright sunlight, even when Slawson stencils a cluster of stars. Animals, houses, and people are stirred into the mix, draped in geometric patterns or threatened by inky, off-black storm clouds.

Among the most powerful is a vision bounded on the upper left by a flowering patch of hexagons, like the tesserae of an ancient mosaic, and on the right by a chandelier, seen from below against a dark ceiling—a midnight sun presiding over the natural world as it accelerates toward an unimaginable future. As with Yeager’s work and materials, there is a strong awareness of structure and elemental process beyond mere form in Slawson’s meditations. The essential categories of solid, liquid, and gas succeed one another as her alternating layers and sections of print, collage, spray, and blank white paper form and dissolve their painted world. Darkness and light model the perspectives of each new genesis, recurring in the cycle of ages.


CAN Journal congratulates Corrie Slawson, Lauren Yeager, and all the 2021 winners of the Cleveland Arts Prize: Emerging Artist Mourning [A] BLKstar (music); Mid-Career Artist Alice Ripley (Theatre and Dance); Poet Raymond McNiece (Lifetime Achievement); Dr. Joseph Garry, Jr. (Robert Bergman Prize); Sean Watterson (Martha Joseph Prize); Clara Rankin (Barbara S. Robinson Prize); and Franz Welser-Möst (Special Citation from the Board).