Let Down Your Bucket Where You Are: A Taste of FRONT

Dexter Davis, Woodcut and Collage, on view at Transformer Stations FRONT Triennial preview exhibit, Grand Prototypes, Humble Tools.

The 2022 FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art is due to open in multiple Northeast Ohio venues in July, 2022. Delayed by the pandemic, it’s been the better part of four years since the inaugural version of the exhibition, though it may seem even longer: we’ve all watched as the zeitgeist took a few wild turns between then and now, bumping over major political fault-lines and, of course, a (still ongoing) pandemic. This time at bat, FRONT’s imaginative attempt to add Ohio’s chunk of rustbelt to the global itinerary of A-list art exhibitions will continue to explore the region’s neighborhoods, racial tensions, economic transformations and history; who knows, maybe even sports.

The curators of the 2022 show have given it the title, Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows, a line from a two stanza poem by Langston Hughes, which is described as “a meditation on adversity and a prayer for transformation.” In a curatorial statement, the team emphasizes that this is first and foremost a show about healing – healing for communities, persons, economies.  “Healing is an ongoing cycle of repair, spanning crisis and recovery. This approach treats the exhibition as a process of long-term change, embracing the region’s range of cultures in need of attention, investigation, and care.”

Paul O’Keefe

It’s a warm and–I imagine–sincere sentiment, but it does leave a strange aftertaste, at least on my Midwestern palette. If not exactly patriarchal, the tone seems at least a bit patronizing, or maybe just overconfident.  The object of healing here isn’t the artist herself, whether she be an “international” artist of dawning prominence (like those who helped to draw 90,000 visitors last time), or one of the regionally based art makers who (I’m happy to say) have a larger presence in Oh, Gods than they did in the 2018 show. The target beneficiary is the allegedly suffering Ohio resident who gets involved in one aspect or another of a protean project which is part art-form (including dance and architecture) and part pop psychology.  The notion that art – leaving to one side social science-modeled activities that claim to be art — is actually good for you, or heals anything, (or even should) is debatable.

Also jolting is the curators’ brief allusion to the culpability of capitalism in the region’s troubled history, in a shout-out to Marxist theory. Given the fraught role of “capital” vis-a-vis the artworld as it currently functions, this isn’t a subject to invoke lightly. There are troubling internal contradictions and perhaps a certain naïvete in the FRONT’s mission as here defined.

Grumbling aside, the introductory exhibit  Grand Prototypes, Humble Tools, assembled at Transformer Station to give audiences a taste of things to come, suggests that the finished production, writ large by at least forty artists in numerous venues, will be far more engaging than any curatorial outline.  The preview at Transformer Station shows samples of ongoing projects by about sixteen artists and art groups.  There are also some finished sculptures and collages on view which–along with conceptual and design-oriented works–hint at the vast reach and resources available to contemporary art production, and adequately funded curatorial ambitions.

Just past the entrance hang five facsimile typescripts reproducing drafts of another Langston Hughes’ poem “The Ballad of Booker T,”  courtesy of the Library of Congress. Written to commemorate the great post- Civil War educator Booker T. Washington, Hughes’s work is both a hymn of praise and an apologia for a controversial political and social thinker. Washington believed that the races needed to reconcile, and that black citizens of the post Reconstruction South should remain in the land where they were born. This poem is the source of the lines, “You may carve a dream / with an humble tool.”

An unfathomable heritage of suffering and hope is summoned in Hughes’ plainspoken appeal to innate human wisdom, available through work and patience – hidden in plain sight in our lives and our choices.  Few people who aren’t partisans of Cleveland and its culture think of Hughes–a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, who was born in Missouri and lived mainly in New York City–as a Cleveland poet. He belongs to everybody, everywhere, as great poets do. But I imagine he would smile on the efforts of the organizers and artists of FRONT for their good will and hard work as they try to bring American races and people, in particular those of our troubled city, together on many different creative levels.

Recent collages by Cleveland-born Dexter Davis hang at intervals along the opposite wall. Neither altogether figurative nor entirely abstract, Davis’s images circle and spiral in a dimension of dream and spirit, achingly full of gods and history. Davis, who is African American and a 1990 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, is among the very few living Cleveland-resident artists whose work can be found in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The extraordinary expressive power of his images argues persuasively for the transcendent value of art in general, as a kind of evidence of the spirit. Davis reminds us that a work of art by its nature is precisely not an object, but an example of the transformative power that awakens the mind and heart.

Along that same wall and complementing Davis’s echoes of early modernist experiments, are mysterious box constructions, mounted in display cases and looking like typesetter’s kits, or forgotten antique board games. The work of Hudson, Ohio artist La Wilson, these mesmerizing experiments in accumulation explore unconscious pathways, guided by the associative richness of a bewildering variety of found-objects. The works on view are part of a prodigious trove of recombinant sculpture produced by La Wilson over half a century, prior to her death in 2018 at the age of 93.

It’s hard to say whether La Wilson’s complex, baffling, fundamentally colloquial objects have anything – or everything – in common with Paul O’Keefe’s work in progress, a dark blue and black metal tool-like beam, about six feet long. Untitled, this somber work by the Irish-born sculptor is one in a series of projected sculptures, dealing with the death of his son.  O’Keefe has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally over the past several decades.  The emeritus professor is known in this area from numerous collections and exhibits, and his long career at Kent State University. The current series will be shown in its entirety, spread around various locations at FRONT next summer.

Loraine Lynn, installation view

The far corner of the gallery appears overgrown to a height of ten feet or more, colonized by swirling, curiously shaped organism-like objects of multicolored fabric – a little like paisley patterns with boundary issues, or a deconstructed Caucasian carpet design. On closer examination these prove to be a loose community of tufted mats, produced by Loraine Lynn. Lynn, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art now working in Toledo, expands the often very sophisticated (and expensive) technical means and repertoire of fiber art, outward and downward (economically) into the wild world of decorative manufacturing. Made with nothing fancier than a commercial tufting device, acrylic yarn and monk cloth, her brightly colored, puzzle piece-like patterned specimens of unclassifiable decor head up and across the walls. Exuberant and strangely beautiful, they take on a life of their own, or seem to, as if multiplying as soon as we turn away. The completed version will fill a whole room, somewhere in the FRONT multiverse.

Sarah Oppenheimer (detail)

In the center of the room a shiny bucket – a real classic, down-on-the-farm bucket– hangs from a slim cable. Opposite this, toward the front of the room is a conceptual chart, sketching the wide, fluent extent of the Triennial’s thought and ambition. Artists’ names (at least forty of these) appear next to red or blue dots, connected by a myriad of straight pencil lines. Other dots appear at the edges, labeled with categories and disciplines, uses and sources: photography, video, installation, speculative fiction, AI and animation, performance, ecology, and so on. Among the artist’s names is Sarah Oppenheimer, the much admired NYC artist, creator of this piece. Several ideas are at work here, and probably many more that I missed. One is the notion of a “mind-map”, a cognitive device that lists the contents of consciousness and helps to identify relationships between thoughts and feelings (among other things).   On movable bulletin boards installed in between the hanging bucket and the FRONT mind map, visitors are encouraged to make their own. Dozens of these personal documents cover the two surfaces. Another consideration in Oppenheimer’s piece is the fact that on examination the drawing board, which sits on a vertical track, is attached via a cable, like the bucket. Further, there’s a sign on the bucket that says “Pull me Gently”, which I did; I noticed that across the room, the map moved a little up its track. Oppenheimer is known for her elegant interruptions and transformations of interior space, changing the way space is perceived by sculptural and kinetic means. Related to these interests is her concern with “action at a distance,” playing with cause and effect, distance and proximity. So we have that. But what particularly caught my own interest (and made me laugh) was the elaborate work’s tie-in to  Langston Hughes’ poem, that opened the exhibit.  The poem refers not only to humble tools, but also to an anecdote that Booker T. Washington related in a famous speech, having to do with a naval incident.  The line goes, “Let down your bucket / Where you are. /Your fate is here / And not afar.” The point being that unexpected resources are readily available, unrecognized because of prejudice — a summation of the insight recoverable from repression or forgetfulness on a good mind map, not to mention a resonant guiding image for this Triennial.

And there was so much more. This brief review doesn’t begin to describe a show which includes films, videos, and interactive experiences. It opened on October 8 and will close January 2. You ought to see it for yourself.


Grand Prototypes, Humble Tools

FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art Preview Exhibition
October 8, 2021–January 2, 2022
Transformer Station, Cleveland, Ohio

Featured Participants: Art Therapy Studio, Asad Raza, Dansbana!, Dexter Davis, Jacolby Satterwhite, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, La Wilson, Langston Hughes, Leigh Ledare, Loraine Lynn, Paul O’Keefe, Renée Green, Sarah Oppenheimer, SO-IL, Tony Cokes, and others


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