2018 CAN Triennial, competing for attention alongside FRONT International, achieves mixed results

July 15, 2018

2018 CAN Triennial, competing for attention alongside FRONT International, achieves mixed results

CLEVELAND, Ohio – It won’t be clear for months whether the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, which opened Saturday, will be judged an artistic and economic success.

But the big, new, summer-long global art festival, which opened Saturday at venues across Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin, has already inspired the creation of a companion triennial focused exclusively on Northeast Ohio art.

Organized by the nonprofit Collective Arts Network, which publishes a quarterly journal promoting awareness of local art exhibits and artists, the inaugural CAN Triennial opened July 7 and remains on view through July 29 in hallways and common areas at the 78th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78th Street in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.

The show includes scores of paintings, photographs, sculptures, textiles, and works in digital media by 90 regional artists chosen from 540 who originally submitted work for consideration by jurors well versed in the local scene.

So what’s the artistic upshot? In a word, it’s mixed. The CAN Triennial performs a valuable service by placing a great deal of regional work in one place, but the show is too big, too packed with filler, and too concerned with being nice instead of being rigorously selective.

In that sense, it offers a whiff of the erstwhile annual May Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the tired annual review of regional art that the museum mercifully put to rest in the early 1990s long after the show’s relevance had evaporated.

The question is whether, over time, the CAN Triennial can avoid the many pitfalls of the May Show, the biggest of which was that it had become a bore.

FRONT, which includes work by 116 leading contemporary artists from around the world, has hardly snubbed Northeast Ohioans. It includes works by a dozen of the best artists in the region, including Johnny Coleman, Gianna Commito, Scott Olson and Darius Steward.

Their work should offer proof that good work – very good work – is being produced in Northeast Ohio.

But while the CAN Triennial is providing a forum for other locally based artists, it also shows that the work of many participants feels low ante or stuck in safe, familiar, grooves.

Despite the low voltage, umbrage and grievance are very much on the menu at West 78th Street, along with a scrappy sense of wounded pride.

The big Dana Depew neon sign installed over the main entrance to the studio complex captures the mood to perfection.

“Your Art Sucks,” it says.

The artist explains in a label that those words were hurled at him by a former girlfriend as she was breaking up with him. But Depew’s piece could easily be read as a chip-on-the-shoulder response to FRONT as a show that passed judgment on local art by excluding a great deal of it.

From that perspective, the CAN Triennial, with Depew’s assistance, has positioned itself as a raffish Salon des Refuses full of gritty Rust Belt authenticity that FRONT putatively lacks.

It’s true there’s a good deal to like in the CAN Triennial, but it also takes work to find it. The ratio of strong to weak work is, I’d say, about 15-85 percent.

In that 15 percent, I’d include a dynamite pair of small paintings by Amy Casey, who paints meticulously detailed landscapes of aging Cleveland buildings as if they were Monopoly pieces set within in semi-surreal landscapes.

Augusto Bordelois submitted one of his typically well-organized paintings, which depicts a henpecked husband standing on his head to satisfy a demanding wife.

Tim Callahan, one of the best observational painters in the city’s recent history, contributed a terrific picture of a porch being repaired on one of the typically modest wood-frame houses that line Cleveland’s streets.

Sculptor Kristen Cliffel is showing a trio of eerily captivating, semi-creepy ceramic heads of a goose, a wolf and a female clown mounted on the type of pedestals used for performing animals in a circus.

Complex and colorful fiber art pieces by Robin Lynne Haller and Janice Lessman-Moss, which play with geometry and pattern, are full of conviction and intelligence.

William Brouillard, the emeritus professor of ceramics at the Cleveland Institute of Art, is showing handcrafted table arranged with beefy yet refined ceramics conceived as a humorous tribute to the 19th-century English mathematician, inventor and philosopher Charles Babbage.

Hedge Gallery, one of the private commercial spaces in the West 78th St. complex, is staging a luminous, mini-retrospective on the art of Wadsworth Jarrell as part of the Triennial.

Jarrell is a highly admired co-founder of the AfriCOBRA collective in Chicago in 1968 who now lives in Cleveland. His work, along with that of his wife, fashion designer Jae Jarrell, was the subject of a recent show at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Also worthy of note is an installation of light tables by Sherry Bradshaw, on which she created elaborate patterns with what appear to be resin casts of dead fish, birds or animals.

Her work is a variation on the 16th century ceramics of French artist Bernard Palissy, who famously made highly decorative plates and platters that slither with snakes, frogs and other creatures.

Interestingly, another in the show by Lori Kella and Michael Loderstedt echoes Bradshaw’s work by using translucent plastic and other materials lying atop a light table to portray dead gizzard shad strewn on Lake Erie ice.

Though similar to the Bradshaw piece, the Kella-Loderstedt installation is far less compelling, which makes one wonder why it was included.

Painter Douglas Max Utter, whose images of alienated individuals and couples have been a perennial presence in local galleries, is represented by paintings that are not substantially different from those he’s been making for a number of years.

“Swell,” a 2018 watercolor of watery waves by Christine Mauersberger, is soporific, as is a large stairwell installation by the artist in which green and blue blotches on sheets of plastic are meant to evoke toxic algae on Lake Erie.

These and other disappointing works in the show don’t reflect especially well on an artistic community that includes nationally significant talents whose work, for whatever reason, is not on view. Hello Doug Sanderson, Judith Salomon, T.R. Ericsson, Frank Oriti, Rose Haserodt, Erik Neff and Brent Kee Young.

The CAN Triennial has assigned itself an important mission, which is to counterbalance the globalism of the FRONT Triennial with strong local voices.

But the first iteration of the local triennial demonstrates that the show, in future years, needs to do more than provide local artists with a friendly, supportive forum assembled by a committee instead of a curator with a strong, assertive viewpoint.

What’s really needed is a critical environment that presents the best work in the region, period. On the whole, that’s a bar that the inaugural Can Triennial has not reached.

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