Go Big: The Big @SS @RT Show

George Kozmon, Monument IX, Installation view at Lakeland Community College

To be in The Big Ass Art Show–on view at Lakeland Community College, Valley Art Center, Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, and BAYarts—a piece of art had to measure at least four feet on a side. It’s a simple rule that does a lot of sorting: a lot of artists have simply never made something that large.  And for some media, there are practical hurdles. For example, while printmakers may be able to print with a barren or a steamroller on any size surface, there are very few presses with four-foot beds. So it’s not entirely, but overwhelmingly a painting and drawing show.

The Big @SS @RT Show was conceived in conversation among Lakeland gallery director Mary Urbas, artist John A. Sargent III, and the former Valley Art Center gallery and marketing manager Dan Simone. Sargent says they were discussing the “state of juried shows” and “curatorial opportunity” in the region, and the constraints that arise from the art economy—specifically the need, both on the part of galleries and artists—to show works that can sell.

Will Wilson, Grounded, Installation view at Valley Art Center.

Using size as a rule is a good way to defy that constraint, and stop worrying about what sells. Indeed, because of their size, it is unlikely that many of the works in the exhibition would even fit in most homes. The target for works of this size is institutions, such as museums and corporate collections. Many of the works, in fact, far exceed the four-foot rule. Moving Grounded–Will Wilson’s 128 X 97.5 inch (that’s a little larger than 10 X 8 feet) painting–through the gallery door at Valley Art Center required building its stretcher inside the gallery, and stretching the canvas in sitio. Also at VAC, John Sargent’s 72 X 214-inch piece Night Never Sleeps—at six feet high–could have fit in the door, even if it had been stretched. But at 17 feet long, it would have to have been delivered either by strapping it to the roof of a vehicle, or putting it in a larger-than-average box truck. He chose not to stretch it.

John A. Sargent III, Night Never Sleeps, installation view at Valley Art Center

One of the great points of intrigue about this show is how the works fit into each artist’s output. Take John Sargent, for example: an artist who actually makes a living as such.  His beautifully painted seascapes and cloudscapes—often 3 or 4 feet on a side– have for years been familiar staples around the region, and beyond. He calls them “nice paintings for nice people.”  For a while he was making 25 – 65 of these year, and selling them all, mostly through a commercial gallery in Florida. He says that line of work was born of a conversation with his father, who told him that in order to sell work, he should make paintings that people wanted. In reflecting on Night Never Sleeps, on view in the Big @SS show, he begins at the time the work was created—1989-1990. He was just out of school at Ohio State, and had reached out to Toby Lewis, which landed him a 1990 show at what was then known as the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art—now moCa. It’s been exhibited periodically since then: the Big @SS show is the fifth time. In 33 years, it has not sold. It’s offered at $40,000.

The oil-on-canvas work presents a beautifully, realistically painted nude male figure in the fetal position against a black void of a background, with a larger “plus” symbol in stark white, sharp-edged but for a dusty cloud behind the corner of one of its transepts, all flanked by a couple of arrows similar to the pointers one might find on a computer screen. Everything about it is bold: the scale, of course, but also the solid black field, and the fact that the figure is nude, and not only the contrast of the white plus sign against the black background, but also the enigma of it. What does it mean?  It seems to pose philosophical questions: Is there something more to life than what we can see? Are we alone in the void? And what can we guidance can we glean from those conflicting directional arrows? These are the Big @SS questions, and this is entirely unlike Sargent’s “nice art for nice people.”

Sargent says really good work of art “holds the mirror up”—that people “project their memory, hopes and dreams into the art they gather around them.”  That might explain the popularity of his dreamy land, sea and cloudscapes: perhaps those buyers are remembering vacations, or envisioning them, or the calm places they’d like to be. He says he sees now what he didn’t see when he painted Night Never Sleeps–that it is a “evidently and ever more so a self-portrait.”

At all stages of his career, Sargent has struggled with the dichotomy of art vs. market, between making what people want to buy, and making expressive statements. That struggle has played out in a variety of ways through the years, especially with spatters and pock marks of color, or intrusive geometric shapes painted as if floating over, seemingly in contrast with, or in contention with the extreme finesse of paintings of sea and clouds behind those marks. That dichotomy of expression vs salability gets at the heart of the reason for the Big @SS @RT Show.

Barbara Martin, Grapple, installation view at Lakeland Community College.

Another artist whose contribution to the Big @SS show marks a departure from their more familiar work is Barbara Martin, whose installation is on view at Lakeland Community College. Most familiar are her beautifully rendered scratchboard drawings of birds, usually presented in ornately carved, antique frames gathered from thrift stores. The artist also is known for collage and assemblage from found and thrifted objects, wherein she finds evidence of life, connection to the past. The value of life is the connection between those familiar works and Grapple, the installation she has contributed to the Big @SS show.  Otherwise, Grapple–Her work at Lakeland—is completely different, consisting not of drawing, or found objects, but of bright yellow ribbons, the kind you’d get for participating in a 10K foot race or some similar award, each with a  paper tag, all hung on string, draped like bunting, filling a corner of the gallery. The contrast is not only in the medium, but in the way the work recognizes life. This is not only a commemoration to remember the dead, but also a shout of protest. On each paper tag is printed the name of a person killed in gun violence in the US. All of them are cataloged in an accompanying binder. It’s an ongoing installation, begun in 2019. There are, Martin says, “well over 1,500 yellow ribbons.”

Libby Chaney, The War Between a Woman and Her Thinking. Installation view at Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, with the artist (second from left) and Big @SS collaborators Mary Urbas (left), AAWR curator Mindy Tousley (second from right), and John A. Sargent III (right).

A highlight in the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve’s chapter of the exhibition was The War Between a Woman and Her Thinking, an enormous (seven feet, eight inches by twelve feet two inches) and loud shout of color created by Libby Chaney. In comments on opening night, Chaney described her process as one of removing all the aspects of quilting that she didn’t enjoy, and leaving only the ones that she did. That resulted in a kind of fabric collaging process, examples of which she has shown at the University of Chicago, the 2018 CAN Triennial,  in solo exhibitions at Maria Neil Art Project and elsewhere.  Her piece in the Big Ass show might at first glance seem entirely abstract, with the colors are somewhat sorted into vertical lines, but on closer inspection it seems to be two life-sized figures regarding each other: the woman, and her thinking.  

George Kocar, Blasters, installation view at Artists Archives of the Western Reserve .

The show gave AAWR the opportunity to show some large works from archived artists, including notably a large electrostatic print—an assembly of xeroxed photos–by Miller Horns. According to AAWR, the 5-foot piece “depicts Lock 15 in Akron, a sight of historical significance to the city as well as to the African American community, where free Black captains such as John Malvin owned and operated their own canal boats as early as 1840.”  Another is George Kocar’s six-foot-by-eight-foot painting, Blasters, a satirical piece with a bawdily dressed woman sporting a lampshade on her head dancing with an orangutang in a party hat and a male figure holding a boom box on his shoulder. Kocar says the piece has  been exhibited at what he calls the Turnpike Trifecta: The Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show, the Midyear show at the Butler Institute of American Art, and The Three Rivers Art Festival in Pittsburgh. It’s still for sale, offered at $5,000.

Christopher Pelrine, Fly Over, on view at BAYarts.

BAYarts presented its part of the Big @SS @RT Show in the event space at the former Huntington Playhouse, which the organization is in the process of upgrading for multi-purpose use. The size of works challenged the physical gallery space, which is divided into bays by heavy-looking wooden beams. In a couple of cases, installation required adding support structure across the beams because the art was wider than the available wall. BAYarts showed works of just four artists—Christopher Pelrine, Liz Maugans, David Louis Cintron, and Erjon Hajnaj—but uniquely gave each artist space for two pieces, which created the opportunity for a second look at each.  These artists are all active and accomplished, in front of and behind the scenes—Hajnaj as a teacher at BAYarts, Cintron as a musician, Pelrine as an art handler and installer, Maugans everywhere, all at once—in addition to their studio artistic practices.  You might have seen works of both Cintron and Pelrine in CAN Triennial 2022.

Artists who make work at this scale are a select bunch. Throughout the venues, you can find artists who are thoroughly accomplished, some of them exhibiting steadily for decades in Cleveland and well beyond. We’ll keep our support for that point to a brief sampling of artists in the Biggest @SS @RT Show, which is at Lakeland, and the present and near future:  Douglas Max Utter has a current solo show at HEDGE Gallery. Barbara Martin has a solo opening August 11 at BAYarts. Jennifer Omaitz and Patty Flauto have a two-person show at Tri-C West this Fall, in addition to which Omaitz will be in the Women in Abstraction show at Context gallery (the first show at the new gallery, opening in September), and is curating a show—Tangents, opening November 2 at Artists Archives.  And Judy Takacs—besides hustling to get abortion choice on the Ohio ballot in November—just closed a solo show at Ashtabula Art Center, and has another opening in September at Chagrin Arts. Beyond that, we’ll just tell you to  go to all these exhibits if you haven’t yet, get your @SSport stamped (yes, they did that, and you can win prizes), and pay attention to the upcoming CAN Journal, where you’ll find many more of the Big @SS artists well represented.

The Big @SS @RT Show

Lakeland Community College Gallery: July 23 – September 8

Valley Art Center: July 7 – August 23

Artists Archives of the Western Reserve: July 13 – August 26

BAYarts: July 14 – August 26

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