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Wolfs gallery makes a case for taking NEO regional art seriously in “Cleveland: A Cultural Center”

July 29, 2018

Wolfs gallery makes a case for taking NEO regional art seriously in “Cleveland: A Cultural Center”

CLEVELAND, Ohio –The sprawling FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, on view through September 30 at more than two dozen venues across the region, has spurred champions of Cleveland art to try to grab some of the attention generated by the bigger show.

For one thing, FRONT stimulated the nonprofit Collective Arts Network to organize its own triennial at the 78th Street Studios focusing on works by 90 contemporary regional artists, on view through Sunday. The results are mixed, but worth seeing because such large shows of local art are relatively rare.

Another outcome of FRONT is a fairly comprehensive show on historical art from Northeast Ohio that’s on view at Wolfs Gallery, 13010 Larchmere Blvd., Cleveland, through Friday, Aug. 31.

Entitled “Cleveland: A Cultural Center,” the show assembles more than 160 examples of work by members of the Cleveland School, the loosely defined group of artists and designers based in Northeast Ohio largely during the first half of the 20th century. Many of the members of this group trained or taught at what is now known as the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Wolfs, a commercial gallery, bills the show as the largest assembly of work by Cleveland School artists since the Cleveland Museum of Art’s 1996 exhibition “Transformations in Cleveland Art 1796-1946.”

It may well be, which makes it an unusual opportunity to get a fresh take on whether historical Cleveland art is mainly of regional interest, or whether it has been shortchanged by museums, critics, historians and publications that shape art history – perhaps even including the Cleveland museum itself.

Henry Adams, the Case Western Reserve University art historian who worked as a curator at the art museum from 1997 to 2002, curated the show at Wolfs, which describes the exhibition as a nonprofit, scholarly venture, although some works are for sale.

“Since FRONT was so focused on contemporary art, we realized we might have an opportunity to add a little historical perspective about Cleveland itself,” gallery owner Michael Wolf said Thursday.

On view at Wolfs are numerous paintings by Carl Gaertner, Clyde Singer, William Sommer, August Biehle, Frank Wilcox, Abel Warshawsky, Ora Coltman, Clarence Carter, George Adomeit, Clara Deike, Elsa Vick Shaw, Raphael Gleitsman, Paul Travis and Hughie Lee-Smith; plus ceramics or sculptures by Viktor Schreckengost, Edris Eckhardt, Walter Sinz, Max Kalish, Alexander Blazys, Emilie Scrivens, R.G. Cowan and William Zorach.

Also on view are works by the postwar Op Art painters Richard Anuszkiewicz, Julian Stanczak and Ed Mieczkowski, plus a diverse group of postwar and contemporary figures including Christopher Pekoc, Douglas Max Utter, Shirley Aley Campbell, Joseph O’Sickey and Amy Casey.

The show makes visible the fundamental narrative of Cleveland history, which is that the city was a place of enormous vigor and energy before the Depression brought everything to a halt.

Decades of decline followed the Crash, although recent activities, including FRONT, are part of a revival that has lifted the city since the last recession.

In this rise-fall-rise scenario, there’s a powerful sense of rupture between the energy of the pre-1930 works in the show and the palpable gloom of the postwar years.

Artists such as Biehle and Schreckengost were influenced in the early 20th century by contemporary innovations such as the Cubist style unleashed in America by the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Biehle’s radiantly powerful “Brandywine Road,” a landscape painted that same year, turns a scene of sunlight bursting through clouds over farm country into an arrangement of geometric forms and rays of energy that look very much up to the minute.

By the 1940s, however, dyspepsia and defeat settles over the industrial and urban landscapes of Adomeit and Gaertner, perhaps caused by the exhaustion of the war years, or simply the toll of living in a heavily polluted environment. Gaertner’s palette in the 1910s and 20s is luminous and rich; after that, it grows dull and bilious.

Cleveland art from before the Depression feels connected to the larger rhythms of the global art world. Afterward, at least until the advent of the Op artists, regional art seems to turn inward and become derivative.

Singer’s 1935 painting “Wrestling Match” resembles a soft-boiled rehash of George Bellows’ boxing paintings from the early 20th century, including “Stag at Sharkey’s,” purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1922. And Singer’s 1956 “City Movie″ feels like a variation on Edward Hopper’s “New York Movie,” of 1939.

Scenes of political protest in the 1940s and ’50s by Clarence Carter and Paul Travis are notable exceptions to the postwar mood of decline.

“The Lynching,” an especially raw and vivid 1956 painting by Travis, treats an horrific subject in a raw, Cubist-influenced style that’s more direct and convincing than the artist’s contrived “Masai Lion Hunt,” of 1928, a painting that feels as if it could have been an Art Deco decoration in a movie theater lobby.

The Wolfs show raises important questions about the relative importance of 20th-century regional American art that might be best settled by stacking up Northeast Ohio’s greatest artists against A-list artists of the time and other regional artists active in peer cities.

It’s questionable whether Cleveland ever had anyone working in an Impressionist or post-Impressionist style on par, for example, with Pennsylvania’s Daniel Garber (1880-1958), but the best way to tell would be side-by-side comparisons.

On the other hand, a faceoff between the paintings of Clarence Carter – an underappreciated giant of the Cleveland School – and those of Edward Hopper, would be fascinating and might change some minds about Carter’s relative importance.

The question is whether any museum in Ohio or the Great Lakes region would take up the challenge of presenting such comparisons and contrasts. Perhaps the Wolfs show will get that conversation started.

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