Down in Front

Zack Hatfield at the inaugural FRONT Triennial

Kay Rosen, DIVISIBILITY, 2018. Installation view at 750  Prospect Avenue.

BEFORE THE CUYAHOGA RIVER CAUGHT FIRE, searing into the public’s imagination an unfair but dogged metaphor for a Cleveland in decline, Tennessee Williams is rumored to have delivered a sicker burn: “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” The claim isn’t entirely without truth. In 2018, Cleveland—with its deindustrialization, police violence, segregation, and purple politics—is a microcosm for “The American City,” which is in fact the subtitle of the inaugural edition of FRONT, a multimillion-dollar international triennial that hopes to make Northeast Ohio a global art destination akin to Kassel. The exhibition, dreamed up by local arts patron Fred Bidwell and curated by artist Michelle Grabner, was summed up in a (snickering?) headline in the Wall Street Journal: “Cleveland Hopes to Become the Next Venice.” The image below showed a crowd of cheering Indians fans.

Unable to secure a gondola, I spent most of the triennial’s press preview last week on an over-air-conditioned bus that ferried us to sites across Cleveland and neighboring Akron and Oberlin. No stranger to so-called flyover country (I grew up in Cincinnati), I was mildly surprised to find myself among many first-timers. “Everyone here is so . . . nice!” exclaimed more than a few art-worlders who had arrived from the coasts.

On day one of the preview, a Thursday, we ate breakfast at Bidwell’s spacious home, located above SPACES gallery. As we knifed schmear onto bagels, our host (who was really nice) had a chance to rehearse the speech he’d later give at the Cleveland Art Museum for the press conference, framing FRONT as an “alternative to the big institutional art fairs.” Then we heard that Michael Rakowitz was making some curatorial tweaks downstairs, and would he be up for a quick visit from a dozen journalists? He would. We found Rakowitz in a gallery filled with lots and lots of orange things: a life jacket, an umbrella, hair extensions, a Cheetos bag, a sweater, a Nike box, a jack-o’-lantern. These objects were culled from Rakowitz’s A Color Removed, which impossibly tasks Clevelanders with disowning their orange belongings by putting them in depositories installed across the city. The ostensible goal—to rid Cleveland of the color orange—responds to the abominable rationale offered by the Cleveland police who shot and killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014: His toy pistol was missing an orange safety tip. Rakowitz hopes the ongoing endeavor will prompt people to reconsider the concept of safety and to whom it is allowed. By working extensively with the local community and with Tamir’s mother, Samaria, Rakowitz is orchestrating both a collective expression of solidarity and a challenge to examine the role color plays in Cleveland. At one point, the artist gestured toward the beautiful oblong wooden table in the middle of the gallery space, on which sat a bowl of dates (the table will be donated to the Tamir Rice Foundation). “Tamir means date in Arabic,” he said, explaining that he and members of the community would be incorporating dates into some of Tamir’s favorite meals over the course of the exhibition. “Take one. May it be a harbinger of future sweetness.”

Michael Rakowitz talks about A Color Removed in front of a work by Samaria Rice.

We then headed to the press conference at the Cleveland Art Museum’s auditorium, where turnout was good, though I could’ve done without Grabner quoting Dave Eggers’s op-ed in the New York Times about Trump’s philistinism and how art “makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others.” After only three questions from the audience, we wandered through the museum. Kerry James Marshall had filled one of the smaller galleries with what looks like a magnificent comic strip—an immense twelve-panel tableau providing an exterior and interior view of an apartment. You can find some of Marshall’s actual comics at the public library, where works from his “Rythm Mastr” series, 1999–, are displayed. Of course, comics and graphic literature have deep roots in Cleveland, and some local artists, feeling snubbed by FRONT’s lineup, mounted their own event devoted to the genre––one of at least three local-led spin-offs, including CAN and, for those who didn’t make it into CAN, CAN’T. The former was quickly embraced by FRONT as a complementary event. “GRAPHIC,” devised by Gary and Laura Dumm, opened on July 19 at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve and includes work by younger artists such as Ashley Ribblett and Angela Oster as well as legends Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Reed Crandall, Robert Crumb, and Harvey Pekar. I hope the effort offers something that seemed to be missing from the mostly gritless FRONT, which was low on the rusty cynicism and underdog resilience that I (stereotypically, perhaps) consider intrinsic to the town that birthed both Superman and American Splendor.

As many of my fellow travelers noted, the press preview quickly took on the air of a school field trip, the bus disgorging us not only at Cleveland’s core arts institutions but at installations in the public library, a federal bank, and even a retired bulk freighter (Grabner explained that she hoped visitors would just sort of “bump into works” around the city). The bibliothecal entry, by Yinka Shonibare MBE, comprises shelves of six thousand books, each clad in Dutch wax paper and bearing the names of immigrants or people with anti-immigrant agendas on their colorful spines. The American Library reads differently when you learn that more than four thousand names—which range from Teju Cole to Ted Nugent—were chosen by Cleveland librarians. The migrant crisis was also addressed in Candice Breitz’s absorbing video installation Love Story, in which Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore recount testimonies from six refugees. (Later, I would Google whether Cleveland was a “sanctuary city”; like most places, it’s complicated.)

A.K.  Burns,  The  Dispossessed,  2018. Installation  view  at  Transformer Station.

The next morning, we went to Fred Bidwell’s Transformer Station, the gallery space that helped gentrify Hingetown a few years ago. In its front lawn, A. K. Burns had installed a pair of warped chain-link fences. As we idled around them, eating donuts, Burns herself wandered by and gave an impromptu spiel about the work, which arose from ideas about borders (bodily and geographical) and the tangled dynamics of art and redevelopment. “The lines of gender don’t make a lot of sense to me,” she said, acknowledging that Hingetown once served as a haven for the local queer community. “And gentrification and the arts have this knotted, complicated history.” The fences, she said, could help express some of the rage felt about all of this. “It’s actually not easy to crush a fence,” she added.

Then, although it was only Friday, we walked to church. There are plenty of them in Cleveland, and two are FRONT venues. These include St. John’s, a Gothic Revival building that sits between downtown and the Detroit shoreline. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the church served as a final Underground Railroad checkpoint for enslaved people before they crossed Lake Erie on steamships. Its code name was “Station Hope.” In the church’s pews, Dawoud Bey had suspended large, dim photographs that chart—through images of homes, picket fences, trees, and finally water—possible routes for fugitive slaves. The work, titled Night Coming Tenderly, Black, is among the triennial’s most moving, steeped in darkroom traditions and literal darkness, in the lingering regional history and the urgency of today’s refugee crisis. It also marks a quiet shift in Bey’s artmaking, which has focused primarily on portraiture. Bey explained that he wanted people to sit and contemplate what they were looking at (rare in the era of Instagram, to which Bey’s work here is decidedly immune) and to feel the spiritual presence of those who once sought protection in the church. “How does one make visible something that is invisible, which is history—something that has already happened?” Bey asked us. But as his photographs intimate, history includes the present, too.

Yinka Shonibare MBE, The American Library, 2018.  Installation view at The Cleveland Public Library.

At noon, we were allotted a few minutes to roam the West Side Market, where the triennial’s official sausage, a “Curry Kojiwurst” developed by artist John Riepenhoff in collaboration with local deli owner Jeremy Umansky, was being peddled. (Riepenhoff also made the triennial’s IPA, “Experimental Kölsch.”) I couldn’t find it, but the press chaperones did circulate some sort of spicy jerky. Then off we went to the Akron Art Museum—a mixed bag, though Walead Beshty’s kebabbed printers, computers, and scanners were memorable—and Oberlin, where, inside a Frank Lloyd Wright house, Juan Araujo’s work proved a little too understated for me, though I did admire the orange-and-black canvases he’d propped up in the Usonian home’s backyard, mostly for how they evoked the cornhole tournaments of my Midwestern boyhood.

On Saturday morning, I Lyfted to the “FRONT Porch” in Glenville, where Grabner and curator Ingrid Schaffner conducted a panel called “Annuals, Biennials, and Triennials.” They spoke of how reductive the localist-globalist binary was, invoked the importance of “museum joy” while noting the equal importance of involving civic institutions, and agreed that “what is contemporary is what is relevant,” as Schaffner put it. How relevant is FRONT? With more than one hundred artists, more than two dozen venues, and months to go, it’s too early to tell. From what I could gather in two days, it seemed like most over-ambitious art events—with a handful of standouts (including work by Amanda King, Martine Syms, and Jessica Vaughn) but also lots of randomness. Of course, the equipoise I sought may be impossible when the goal is to offer up the soul of Cleveland while reckoning with America’s plights, all while community-building and meeting the expectations of an international triennial. Some of the aimlessness might be owed to the role of Jens Hoffmann, who, citing creative differences, stepped down as FRONT’s cocurator last November before facing sexual harassment allegations in December. And so the curators involved—left to organize shows by the many artists Hoffmann specifically chose for the triennial before his departure—had to guide themselves somewhat, using his abandoned vision.

At the end of the panel, a woman stood up and asked about how word was being spread. “How are we gonna get Uber drivers to know about this?” The question was met with murmurs of affirmation, but Grabner sort of evaded responding, giving the woman the name of a better person to ask. Earlier, when I had asked a regional critic if she thought Clevelanders outside of the art industry would seek out the exhibition, she shrugged. “How often do ordinary people engage with museums in other cities, anyway?”

As I Ubered to the ghostly mall downtown that serves as the hub of the city’s rapid transit, I asked my driver whether she knew about the triennial, she gave a response similar to the others I’d heard.

“I don’t know about any art,” she said as the car glided through the mostly empty streets. “But I’ll try to check it out if I get the time. I guess it does sound kind of interesting.”