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Morgan Meis is the first writer in residence at SPACES from June 15 – July 12, 2015.
I came to Cleveland carrying the same bias with which most visitors arrive. I thought I was coming to a broken city. Cleveland was broken, I assumed, for the same reason that all the other cities and towns of the Rust Belt are broken. The jobs went away, more or less, when heavy industry collapsed. What was left was a city gutted. The famous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 still burned in my own consciousness (as I suspect it does for many) as the city’s primary symbolic event. The river itself caught fire. It still seems an incredible and outrageous event. How does a river become so polluted that it catches fire?
I remember listening to the Randy Newman song “Burn On” when I was a little kid.
Cleveland, city of light, city of magic
Cleveland, city of light, you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
‘Cause the Cuyahoga River goes smokin’ through my dreams
Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Mr. Newman was employing a high degree of irony and humor when he called Cleveland a “city of light” and a “city of magic.” Paris is called “The City of Light” because it is so beautiful and because of its historical role in The Enlightenment. Randy Newman called Cleveland the “city of light” because he saw it as a hell on Earth, an environmental catastrophe where the rivers burn night and day.
During my visit here I came across some Cleveland art catalogues and magazines from the last thirty years or so. The theme of Cleveland as a lost city might have been synthesized most clearly in an exhibition SPACES put up during the 1993-94 winter season called Cleveland X: Artists from a Post-Industrial City. In the catalogue, then-director Julie Fehrenbach wrote:
Transversing [stet] Cleveland X’s painting, photography, drawing, video and sculpture is a tough, hard edge. Nobody is tentative about what they have to say and there are certainly no illusions. […] The gritty reality of northeast Ohio is never far away in much of this artwork. Without dramatics, Cushmere Bell and Charles Dunn chronicle empty faces and empty playgrounds that evoke the bleak chill of Cleveland’s winters. Our corroded industrial past looms in Bryn Zeller’s mechanical sculpture and brash working class world of Jim Karpowicz and Claire Coleman.
You get the idea.
However, visiting Cleveland in 2015 does not feel like visiting a city defined by its industrial past. That was probably the biggest surprise for me here, and the biggest challenge looking at the city aesthetically. I simply took it for granted that I would be confronting a city with a strong industrial/post-industrial look and feel. I assumed I would be seeing factories and warehouses in ruin, surrounded by a derelict infrastructure that once served an economy that no longer exists.
I assumed, ergo, that art produced in Cleveland was going to bear the strong imprint of that post-industrial mood. I assumed I was going to see realist paintings of smokestacks and blast furnaces. Even in the abstract work, I expected the browns and uncertain lines of industrial decay. I thought I’d see sculptures oozing with the junk of the Cuyahoga River. I thought I’d see performance pieces, installations, and videos redolent with the malaise and discontent of a city that had collapsed long ago and wasn’t going to be emerging back into the light anytime soon.
Amusingly enough, one of the first works of art I came across in Cleveland was a painting by Andrea Joki at William Busta’s gallery. Joki’s paintings are abstract, but they are also lively and colorful. The reds and light blues and beiges have more to do with colors you find in the California desert than anywhere in northeast Ohio. It turns out she does, indeed, spend a lot of time in the Mojave Desert. Formally sophisticated, the paintings play out a debate between hard-edge abstraction and Expressionism with a little bit of Agnes Martin-style mysticism thrown into the mix. What would happen if a canvas invited all the major players of the last hundred years of abstraction to get together for one giant party? Would it lead to complete aesthetic train wreck? Nope. It would look instead something more like Joki’s Apparent Radiant (2015).
Later, I was sitting with Barbara and Julian Stanczak at their home in Seven Hills. Julian is the now-legendary practitioner of what Donald Judd once labeled Op art—or optical art. Barbara is a sculptor, working mostly in natural materials and creating what Bruce Checefsky described as works that “blur the line between abstract and figural, reminding us that ocular experiences can be physical too.”
Julian spent a certain amount of time quizzing me in the manner of the bridge keeper in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. “What is the purpose of art?!” “What is the true nature of vision?!” “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?!”
I took the experience in good turn, realizing that it did, actually, have something to do with what it means to be an artist in northeast Ohio. Living in Cleveland means you get to do art the way you damn well want to do art and to make no apologies. Julian Stanczak does not seem especially perturbed that the mainstream art world has, long ago, moved on from the specific aesthetic problems put forward by optical art. He simply ignores the art world and continues to work through basic problems of perception, the way line affects color and vice versa, how visual experience can lead to a new kind of “seeing” that transcends particulars and touches upon the absolute.
The interesting thing is that, in Cleveland, Stanczak has been able to continue to push his agenda forward until it has, for many younger artists, become exciting and vibrant again as an aesthetic possibility. A young artist named Michelle Murphy is, for example, playing around with some of the same Op art ideas that Stanczak was working on fifty years ago. But she’s doing it with the colors and geometric patterns she finds in women’s cosmetics. By photographing carefully arranged containers of cosmetics, she’s able to reproduce, on her own terms, something of the Op art effects Stanczak creates on his painted canvases. There’s a kick to Murphy’s project as well, since it is the stated goal of Stanczak’s art to purify painting from the worldly worries of, say, gender and sexual politics. Murphy has some fun dragging Op art back down from its supposedly vaunted heights and getting its hands dirty. Or, if not dirty, at least covered in glitter..
The crucial point here is that Michelle Murphy wouldn’t be able to do the work she is doing without the essential aesthetic stubbornness of a man like Julian Stanczak. That stubbornness, I submit, has something to do with northeast Ohio. Can we all agree that it takes a bit more than the average amount of willfulness to choose Cleveland? For a normal person with any amount of artistic talent, the first instinct might be to get away from northeast Ohio, to go somewhere with greater resources for creating artistic careers.
But the artists who have chosen to stay have, with a kind of devilish cleverness, hit upon an otherwise hidden benefit of a city that everyone else has been leaving for decades. If you are just bold enough to actually believe in your art and your ability to create what you want, Cleveland becomes a kind of secret utopia. No one outside of Cleveland gives a shit what you do inside Cleveland, so you can do it to your heart’s content. Add to this the fact that Cleveland is an extremely affordable city and you have a recipe for almost total aesthetic freedom.
It would be foolish to imply that this much aesthetic freedom leads only to good things. Freedom, as has been noted over the eons, comes with many dangers. The danger for art in Cleveland is that there is not enough friction. There is no one to say, “Wait, stop, that is terrible.” There are artists in Cleveland and the surrounding area who are, therefore, living in a delusional state. Perhaps they should have stopped long ago.
The interesting thing about Cleveland is that it seems to attract just as many strong personalities as it does kooks. Barbara Stanczak, who taught for almost forty years at the Cleveland Institute of Art, put this to me in rather delicate terms. She said that she noticed a “self-selecting” quality in the students who wanted to study in Cleveland. These were students who were not attracted to the big centers like New York or L.A. These were students who wanted something different; call it space or freedom or growing room. Presumably, many of these students knew what they were giving up. Surely some of them simply had lower expectations. But I’d also say that a fair amount of them had different expectations. The same thing is true of many who currently live and make art in Cleveland. They are oddly self-assured for a group of people living in what is generally considered the cultural margin.
Or maybe it is more correct to say that there is a strong dialectic at play in northeast Ohio. There is a fair amount of worrying that goes on in Cleveland, worrying about relevance, worrying whether Cleveland is being taken seriously outside of Cleveland, worrying about whether it is possible to live and make art in Cleveland and still to be noticed in New York or L.A.—or even, for Christ’s sake, Chicago. To make art in Cleveland means having the mental and emotional strength to find your own internal answers to those worries. It means an ongoing psychic battle that must be won one day at a time. The artists who stay here are the artists who have the strength to keep making their art, day after day.
Which returns us, perhaps, to the inherent toughness Julie Fehrenbach talked about in her essay for Cleveland X. The danger of having space and freedom to make art—let’s say, in a quaint little country town—is that the art runs the risk of becoming pretty, cute, and self-content. Cleveland may lack “friction” when it comes to having a critical art establishment. But Cleveland itself – the landscape of the city and the surrounding area – creates its own kind of friction. Cleveland is not a classically beautiful city. Whole neighborhoods are still so wrecked as to have a third-world quality. The colors are muted and harsh here, especially during the colder months. The immediate natural environment is on the flat and featureless side. The lake, for all its impressiveness as a huge body of water, produces a mostly dismal shoreline. The water extends in a gray mass, seemingly and troublingly, to infinity. The divide between rich and poor in Cleveland is so sharp as to harken to another age, and it needs a man like Charles Dickens to do it justice.
But the harshness is a natural check to the aesthetic freedom. I was thinking about just that in looking at the urban collage prints of Corrie Slawson who uses the printing process to make various “mash-ups” of urban landscapes. These can be fantastical, sometimes dreamy affairs. Baroque architectural elements from one age might find themselves next to brick warehouses and rows of contemporary residential housing. The work is, on one hand, a formal study of how the printing process transforms images – and therefore reality – by means of the simple mechanical act of layering and reproducing. The printing press produces cities of the imagination. But only to a point. Reality, in this case the reality of Cleveland, comes clawing back at the images. The bleak landscape of city streets in the emptiness of winter. The mute urban testimony of Euclid Avenue, which appears and reappears in a number of different prints. Even Slawson’s use of spray paint, which adds a dash of dazzling color to many of her prints, gestures also to urban streets that have fallen into neglect, with the lingering threat of violence.
Like much of the city’s most interesting contemporary art, Slawson’s prints are neither stuck in the old post-industrial cliché, nor delusional attempts to pretend that Cleveland is not Cleveland. Her best prints are right on the tension line between the two.
Which might be the last point to make about what makes Cleveland aesthetically distinct. This is a certain between-ness. Geographically, it is between New York and Chicago. Temporally—between the American Industrial Age and wherever it is we’re headed. Cleveland is between the land and the water. It is a city split between east and west, between haves and have-nots. And Cleveland is “between” in a more metaphysical sense, between meaning “betwixt,” right there in the middle—honest—situated where life is actually lived in the here and now; neither off in the starry skies nor burying its head in the sand; planted, grounded, and fully human in the way people have always identified themselves: as creatures between beast and angel, the measure and middleness of all things.
MORGAN MEIS has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The New Yorker, n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis [at] gmail.com. View more articles by Morgan Meis.