I ate two hot dogs a day in Cleveland. Street vendors were ubiquitous, and the local brands insinuated themselves into my diet. I’d eventually connect my tally of Polish Boys with the three times I cried on my last day in town. The whole episode started in the lobby of the Cleveland Clinic, a hospital where I had gone in search of Sharon Lockhart’s Little Review (2017), a photo-essay on Polish adolescence, and Wall Painting No. 464 (2018), a mural by Jan van der Ploeg, as part of the inaugural FRONT International triennial. But none of the art adequately buffered the parting I witnessed between an IV-wheeling teenager and her father. It was brief, there in the sterile, well-lit hospital lobby. A dad crying really gets to me. So does a child’s stoic resignation.
FRONT, helmed by Milwaukee-based Michelle Grabner, is not a roadmap to Cleveland’s private side, though. The title evokes anything from the city’s lakefront to frontiers to fronts for dubious financial transactions, but its subtitle, ‘An American City’, sounds the dog whistle for me, a native of the region, and conveys the nuances of an underlying Midwestern insecurity. A triennial, to my seventeen-year-old self, would have signalled the region’s return to fortune (neighbouring Buffalo, my hometown, once boasted the most millionaires in the world – back in 1900). Yet, in the name of revitalisation, FRONT tends to overlook how multiple generations have actually dealt, for better or for worse, with the effects of deindustrialisation. Also to blame for the overall self-consciousness is the exhibition’s rather baroque structure, which divvies up Cleveland into ‘Eleven Cultural Exercises’ to shim together more than a hundred predominantly visiting artists. The subsections only signalled to me the city’s shoddy public transportation. To see this whole show I’d need a car. Or, as happened, a series of Lyft drivers.
So it is remarkable that I landed on the doorstep of Julie Ezelle Patton’s place in Glenville that same afternoon. Grabner’s vision of ‘horizontality’ didn’t exactly help me in this, nor did the project’s initial omission from the events guide. Through ‘The Glenville Exchanges’ exercise, FRONT nonetheless mines the African-American neighbourhood for a social experiment by renovating two historically important properties into education and public-programme centres and residency apartments. Other artists sought content and venues there, too. Conversations with elder residents form the heart of Johnny Coleman’s oral history project Reflections from Here (2018), recordings of which play at two venues located on either side of the invisible East–West line that separates predominantly white from predominantly black communities in one of the most segregated cities in the US.
During a talk about biennial ethics, I suddenly needed some air. A local curator happened to be outside and, aware of Patton’s omission, arranged for my visit. A poet and artist in her own right, Patton stewards the Let It Bee Ark Hive, a hundred-year-old brownstone apartment building that her late mother, Virgie, transformed into a live-in art cooperative. For FRONT, Patton made three floors accessible to the public and installed her mother’s artwork throughout the living areas: a lifesize painting of a reclining nude levitating above a couch, for example, a roomful of collages comprising family photos, and a poster of the Mona Lisa repurposed to celebrate a black model.
Virgie was tirelessly thrifty and had no shortage of people to sketch. Dozens of figure studies depict her extended ‘family’, including artists and other types who rented rooms and contributed to the cooperative’s upkeep. She added a massive garden, built on the community-supported agriculture model, through easements on neighbouring abandoned property, and made sure the house had a meditation area: the bathroom’s pink porcelain tub, surrounded with doodahs and other attractive fragments. That Virgie came to own the house during the 1940s followed a trend in Glenville, one of the few neighbourhoods that permitted black homeownership. Though she could have sold the house after her mother’s death in 2015 – tempting in light of rising property values linked to the recent expansion of nearby medical campuses – she set up a joint LLC to allow other residents a stake instead. Without wishing to belittle, I am tempted to describe the whole household as Virgie’s artwork.
Here’s the thing, the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce will be happy. By the time I eventually caught a midnight bus to Buffalo, coaxing a crying single mom onboard after she had to leave her kid in Cleveland, giving up my seat so lesbian teenage runaways could sit together on their way to some more tolerant grandmother's house, and crying again myself, I could no longer connect it to any person or reason – yes, by this time, I could, believe it or not, report on a city deserving of attention and accolades.
Cleveland’s architecture in particular provided a compelling backdrop for FRONT, and it was women engaging this history who achieved the best results. Top among them: Barbara Bloom’s hilarious takedown of Robert Venturi’s Italianate Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Though quite dry in its own right, THE RENDERING (H x W x D =) (2018) plunks schematic measurements throughout the entire space, as if a self-guided tour or renovation plan. To subdivide the gallery into more bizarre subsections, grey-painted MDF panels mock up a modestly decorated bedroom and patio. Venturi celebrated surface, but Bloom’s quite literal use of architectural tools (schematics, mock-ups) illustrates what an awkward space the architect designed. To cause some additional brouhaha, she levied the museum’s collection and designed display cases that censor all but a painting’s architectural subjects.
At its best, FRONT exposes how Cleveland comes to terms with its history, and projects surrounding food expose how central eating was to questions of civic identity. To snap into the grilled casing of a Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst, which the artist John Riepenhoff developed with Larder, a local Jewish deli that specialises in fermentation, is to shift the nostalgia surrounding regional American sausage pride. Food also lent significant force to A Color Removed, Michael Rakowitz’s indictment of the 2014 police shooting of eleven-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been playing with a toy gun when he was killed. An outcome of his ongoing collaboration with Tamir’s mother, Samaria, Rakowitz served Rice’s favourite foods, making clear that Rice had been denied the possibility of maturing past chicken nuggets and pizza. Crying artists really get me, too. By whatever means necessary, Rust Belt, own your barbarism. Feeding people is a good start. Sam Korman
FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, various venues, Cleveland, 14 July – 30 September 2018
From the September 2018 issue of ArtReview