FRONT in Cleveland: A view from Chicago
If you asked me at the beginning of my summer in Cleveland what my expectations were for local activities, I would have off-handedly mentioned something about a baseball outing or maybe a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I am a student at the University of Chicago, and I’ve been spoiled by the plethora of public art in that city. Little did I know that Cleveland is also a midwestern oasis for arts of all kinds.
The stars aligned, and I happened to find myself in the area just in time for the spectacular (and completely free, I might add) event: the FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. Although the exhibition, titled Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows, is sprawled over the metro area with a whopping 30 sites participating, I had the pleasure of visiting the installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and the Cleveland Institute of Art, both in University Circle.
The primary artist at moCa was none other than Cleveland native Renée Green whose exhibit titled Contact occupied the entire museum. From the moment I entered the building, I was experiencing her work through sound as constant audio boomed throughout the space. After a moment of initial confusion, I made my way to the stairwell that was also accompanied by its own audio track and bright neon orange lighting (I was informed later that the color changes frequently). Finally, I reached the Mueller Family Gallery and dived into the inner workings of the collection. Throughout the gallery I experienced a menagerie of art forms, from fabric prints to film; each corner turned revealed a new technique.
As an aspiring poet myself, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Green’s collection of framed prints lined against some of the walls early on. Each print was deceptively simple, nothing more than a few large words on brightly colored backgrounds, yet I found myself spending several minutes meditating on the works. Inspired by the lack of artist statements in the exhibit, which was an intentional choice to force audiences to develop their own understandings of her work, I challenged myself to examine the pieces without worry of viewing it “correctly.” I went back and forth between reading the prints from left to right, then right to left, then considering the content of each frame individually. In the end, I found that there could be countless valid interpretations of the works as they were somehow all dependent yet also independent of each other and the direction of the reading. This spirit of exploration that Green’s exhibit encouraged left me with a feeling that somehow my experience mattered in the collective understanding of her work.
After visiting moCa, I made the journey to the Cleveland Institute of Art, only a few minutes away by foot. The college houses a smaller, but still diverse installation of works from artists including Jacolby Satterwhite, Dexter Davis, Loraine Lynn, and Alexandra Noel. In particular, the work of Lynn (who, like Dexter Davis, happens to be an alumnus of the CIA) immediately caught my attention upon entering the building. The student lounge and lobby were transformed by the largest and most varied collection of rugs I had ever seen in one space. From afar it was easy to note all of the different unique shapes, sizes, and color schemes of the collection. To say the least, the exhibit is visually enticing, but arguably more important was the small sign notifying me that I was allowed to touch all of the pieces, or at least the ones I could reach as some of the textiles were in rather high places. Hesitant, I began to run my fingers gently through the tufts of some of the rugs. It felt almost wrong to be encouraged to touch such attractive works, but afterward, I was incredibly glad to have read the notice. Idly viewing the collection does not do Lynn’s work justice: there is so much to learn from feeling the different plush textures of each piece. To be able to touch art is an intimate experience that most exhibits do not allow, but these tactile works are just one example of how contemporary art crosses some of the strict boundaries set by “traditional” art.
My encounter with the FRONT Triennial was one filled with as many artistic questions as answers. Though I only saw a small portion of the huge event, I was still able to experience the interconnectedness of the exhibits with Cleveland and the public. It is a wonderful thing to enter a gallery as a viewer and leave with the feeling of a participant. I encourage locals and visitors to explore the offerings of FRONT before it’s gone because you might just be surprised by the vibrant art scene Cleveland has to offer.
Dallas Knox is a student at the University of Chicago studying creative writing and gender & sexuality studies. They visited Cleveland as part of the 2022 Summer on the Cuyahoga internship program.
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