I was flipping through the July/August 2005 edition of Cleveland Art, which is the Cleveland Museum of Art Members Magazine. There was an article by Gregory Donley about The NEO Show, which was on view from July 10-September 4 of that year. The NEO Show was started as a kind of new version of the Cleveland Museum's May Show, which was a juried exhibition of regional art that was put permanently on ice in 1993.
As far as I understand it, The NEO Show itself ended up being a one-off exhibit in 2005. There is, at the moment and to my knowledge, no regular annual exhibit specifically showcasing the work of Northeast Ohio artists. And so, the question of regionalism is, maybe, on hold right now as well. That's to say, there's no consensus right now in the Cleveland area as to whether regionalism is a good thing or a bad thing, whether it is limiting or freeing, whether it is even real…. The question of a regionalism is, from a curatorial and critical standpoint, seemingly not currently a question at all.
A similar ambivalence seems already to have been in play back in 2005. Asked about the purpose of The NEO Show by Cleveland Art, Jeffrey Grove, one of the jurors for the show and a former director of CMA, said:
"We felt that the idea of recognizing the artists of the region should in no way countenance an exploration of 'Regionalism' or what a so-called regional character might be. Instead, we determined that the curatorial objective should be to represent the quality and complexity of artistic production in northeast Ohio with an eye to how the achievements of artists here relate to those in other communities, regions, states, and nations."
That's a mouthful. But if you pull the statement apart, it amounts to saying that the main point of The NEO Show was to prove that artists from northeast Ohio are good enough not to be from northeast Ohio. That's to say, Grove and the other jurors wanted to find art in the area that wasn't so marked by the area that it couldn't be shown outside of the area.
At the end of the article, Grove is quoted as saying, "Would a visitor from L.A. or Latvia know this was a selection of artists from northeast Ohio? Probably not. Is that problematic? Definitely not."
The show had proven, to Grove's mind, that there are many northeast Ohio artists who are good enough to be artists from anywhere else. There's a sense of relief percolating under the surface of Grove's statement and under the entirety of The NEO Show. It is the relief of those who are worried that they are going to be thought provincial, and then gratified when they are not.
That is the secret problem underlying all discussions of regionalism, is it not? It is the worry that the word 'regionalism' is really just code for the word 'provincial.' It always amounts to a put-down, even if the put-down is dressed up in nice language. Calling art 'regional' is a way of putting it in a second-best category.
Even those, like Thomas Hart Benton, who once tried to put forward a bold manifesto of regionalism, couldn't help doing so without strains of resentment and sullen anger against the art 'establishment' in the big cities at the coasts. Benton's anger belied his fear. Regionalism always seems to carry with it a crisis in confidence.
Perhaps one of the things, then, that characterizes art made in northeast Ohio is not so much that it is or isn't 'regional' but that it finds itself in a constant dance with the problem of regionalism. It embraces regionalism, then it thrusts it away. It closes its door to outside influence for periods of time, then seems greedily to seek out such influences. It denies that the question of regionalism is important at all, but still can't seem to stop talking about it.
Even Jeffrey Grove's claim that the problem of regionalism is "definitely not" a problem seems like another case of the lady who doth protest too much. It must be a teeny weeny little bit of a problem, or why put on the show at all, why talk about it in the first place? Attempts to squash the problem never seem to succeed for long. The NEO Show tried, best it could, to end the debate.
But this summer brings "How to Remain Human" at MOCA, a show that, "continues MOCA Cleveland's focused engagement with artists connected to Cleveland and the surrounding region." The regional beast rears its head ever and anon….
A long chat with William E. Busta is an excellent way to clear away any simplistic notions about the art of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. My own simplistic notions revolved around the idea that the art of Cleveland was going to be "post-industrial." I assumed that art being produced here would be thick with the materials of heavy industry and the imagery of the Rust Belt in one way or another.
A few minutes into a discussion with Mr. Busta he said to me, essentially, "it doesn't work that way." Not that such art hasn't been produced and isn't still being produced here. But it is far from the dominant look. Instead of trying to find post-industrialism on the surface of art made in Cleveland, let's look at the question from a different angle, Busta suggested. Let's not think about artists making art that simply looks, in some kind of one-to-one correspondence, like the surrounding environment. Instead, let's consider that culture works in subtler ways.
Busta then let me in on a fascinating little observation. The artists in the Cleveland area more or less skipped over Abstract Expressionism and went right to Geometric Abstraction (in its second, post-Ab-Ex manifestation). Now, what's a possible reason for this historical jump? Maybe it's that the culture of Cleveland, broadly speaking, preferred the hard edges and the clean lines of Geometric Abstraction versus the "sloppiness" and splatters of the Ab-Ex crowd.
And that does bring us back to the industrial and commercial heart of Cleveland. It has been suggested by many, and even by Jackson Pollock himself, that the busyness and energy of the drip paintings had something to do with the pace and movement to be found on the streets of New York City. Pollock was, at least partly, "painting" the buzz of Manhattan city life. He needed an active and "all-over-the-place" painting style in order to be able to do that. Looking at those paintings, the people of New York were seeing something to which they could immediately respond.
But the style had no such resonance for the people, and artists, of Cleveland. A more pragmatic aesthetic was, maybe, at play in this town. That aesthetic was influenced by industrial design, by the work of the printers and the textile makers. Plenty of the artists making fine art in Cleveland throughout the 20th century were commercial designers and illustrators as a day job. Geometric Abstraction, with its clean lines, sober sense of space, and blocks of color, was closer to the natural sensibility of the city. The art collectors and curators might have felt the same way, even without ever formulating the thought explicitly. It was just embedded in their Cleveland DNA, as it were.
That's the theory anyway. It may be too broad, too far sweeping. It shouldn't be taken for more than it is. But it does intrigue. It helps to explain, maybe, why various forms of Geometric Abstraction are still being practiced in Northeast Ohio and why a show about its ongoing relevance is happening at the Akron Art Museum (curated by Theresa Bembnister) later this year. It is fascinating to me to consider that Cleveland's industrial identity might be sitting there right in front of your eyes as you look at a vibrating canvas of shifting colors by Julian Stanczak. You'd never know it if you didn't know it.
I call the films of Stefany Anne Golberg "essay films." The term has been around for a while now and I prefer it to the other possible moniker "new documentary" for reasons that will be apparent shortly. The genre of the essay film was more or less, though unintentionally, established by the French filmmaker Chris Marker when he made Sans soleil. A more recent example is the Chilean director Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light.
The central question in talking about essay films is: why use the word "essay" to talk about a film. What makes a film "essay-like?" To answer that, we have to spend a few minutes thinking about what an essay is. You might think that's an easy thing to do, but it is actually pretty tricky. So, let's start by first saying what an essay is not. An essay is not, primarily, an argument, though it might contain arguments. An essay doesn't prove anything, nor does it exhaust any subject. The root meaning of the word "essay" is, after all, "to try, to attempt." To make an essay is just to "have a go at something." So, essays are much less about conclusions and much more about process. The central act of faith that guides any essay writer is the faith that if you just keep thinking, just keep writing, you'll get somewhere.
In an essay about Montaigne by Ralph Waldo Emerson, we find the following quote.
We are persuaded that a thread runs through all things: all worlds are strung on it: and men, and events, and life, come to us, only because of that thread.
So, I think we can say that all essay writers are essentially thread pullers. The excitement of pulling on threads is that you don't know exactly where the thread will lead you. The best essays generally get lost a bit somewhere in the middle. The vastness of possible connections always threatens to overwhelm the essay writer. History looms. Nature beckons. The essay writer can get immobilized by the near-infinite reservoir of stuff, from the stuff of the cosmos to the stuff we've said, stuff we've done, stuff we've made…. there's so much stuff and it all seems relevant.
That is where it is essential to stop and breath. After a deep breath or two, the fear subsides. You remember that you are finite. You go back to pulling on the thread, which always leads from one concrete thing to another, even as it relies, ultimately, on the cosmic interconnectedness of all things.
This need to pull on threads and yet not to get lost in the infinite spool of yarn is also what leads most essayists to trust in the touchstone of their own experience. Montaigne famously says in his little preface to the reader, "It is myself I paint." This isn't a result of self-aggrandizement or self-absorption. It is, actually, an act of humility. Each one of us has only one way through the world. The thread that we pull on and follow is ultimately the thread of the self. We follow that thread out into the world and into connections with our fellow human beings. But the starting and ending point of the thread can only be found within our own souls.
Here's an example of what I mean. In the film Poland, Stefany finds herself searching for her grandmother's childhood home in Lublin. That's the thread she is pulling on. That thread leads her to the plains of Saskatchewan, to find the almost non-existent remnants of the farm where her grandmother lived as a young woman after the family fled Poland. The thread also leads Stefany to call on the ghost of Marie Curie, who becomes a touchstone in the film, a fellow-traveler in the experience of being an exile from Poland, of wondering what makes home, home and of trying to discover origins. Curie was searching so hard for her true place in the world that she stumbled upon some of the hitherto unknown secrets of matter itself. Those secrets, radioactive, would end up, literally, killing her. These are the inherent dangers of pulling on threads. You never know exactly what you will find, or what price you'll have to pay in the searching.
At its core, Stefany's Poland film is about the trauma associated with pulling on the threads of your own family history. Such intimate history never takes you where you think you are going to go at the outset. It never resolves itself as you hope it might at the beginning of the journey. That's why essays, especially those that begin in the self, are never complete, they always contain loose threads, paths not taken, stories that could have been told otherwise.
Essays should never hide these disjunctions, which bids us to say a thing or two about how the "film" part of the essay film fits together with the "essay" part. In an essay film, we don't just have words, we have images too. The danger of putting images to an essay is that the images could serve to fix the ideas visually and by doing so kill the natural fluidity of the essay. Think of it like this: if this essay I'm reading right now was a film, a picture of Montaigne might flash on the screen when I talk about Montaigne. That's a very literal style of relating words to images. It is generally the kind of thing you see in straight documentary films. It has its place, even in the essay film. But the essay film must also break this one to one correspondence between word and image.
That's because the visual world has one kind of logic and language has another. These two things are related, of course…. Everything is related, that is the faith of the essayist. But the relation isn't an obvious or surface relation. So, the true artist of the essay film will often allow visuals to go off in one direction while the language goes off in another. Then, in the moments when the visuals and the language do come together again, the shock, the excitement of it is all the stronger.
In the film Antwerp, Stefany is wandering around the city of Antwerp, ostensibly looking for a lost cat. She's also wandering around the history of the city. Ultimately, she's finding traces of violence and dislocation in the landscape of a city that, today, has suppressed all its tumultuous history under the veneer of, let's call it, "European café-style bourgeois pleasantness." Sometimes this creates funny, although disturbing-funny, situations. For instance, Stefany describes terrible scenes of violence from the religious wars of the 16th century. All the while, her camera roams around corny-looking life-size wax figures from a regional museum display. This is the best Antwerp has to offer when it comes to visual reminders of the repressed violence embedded in its past. The quasi-desperate, over-literalness of the images is what makes these scenes work.
But there are also moments in the film that are moving and shocking precisely for the restraint of word and image. Stefany mentions in her voice over, almost in passing, that Belgium has always been a place that invading armies crash through on their way somewhere else. She doesn't illustrate this with, say, footage of the German Wehrmacht in the midst of a Blitzkrieg. Instead, she includes but one black and white image of a man in a gas mask. It is on the screen so briefly as barely to register. But the essentially indescribable horrors of trench warfare that have scarred Belgium to this day are invoked all the more powerfully by Stefany's willingness to let images do what they do on their own terms. That's the true art of the essay film in general and of Stefany's films in particular.
One final brief note about sound. In the earliest, silent films, the sound associated with film was primarily the mechanical whirring of the projector. There was a rhythmic, cyclical quality to this sound, not unlike the organic sounds of our own meat machines: blood circulating through the body, air being sucked in and out through the lungs. The sound of Stefany's voice sets the pace in the three films we are watching today. Stefany is attuned to the natural rhythms of language in the way she narrates her scripts. But there is also the soundtrack that she composed and performed, which conveys a deeper sense of beat and pulse and rhythm. This sound has a mesmerizing quality, as if we are listening to the musical quality of things themselves, or even deeper than that, to what Virginia Woolf called the hum of Being.
So, these films are essays in three senses of the term: visually, they are an attempt to see the world; aurally, they are an attempt to hear the world, and conceptually, they are an attempt to follow a thread of meaning wherever it may lead. I'll only add, as if that weren't enough, that, to me, these are tremendously beautiful films.
Film Still from Poland
Author: Morgan Meis, SWAP Art Writer in Residence
For this edition of "Kid Art Reviews" our guest reviewer is 6 year old William. Being a particular fan of making messes and playing games, he had few critical thoughts on our current artist projects and enjoyed them only as a kid can--to their fullest.
Questions about a Specific Piece in the Exhibition (SPACES) What is your favorite piece in the show and why is it your favorite?
(WI) The Jumbo Tron, because it kept making noise and bouncing back and forth until you let go of the button.
(SP) Do you like pushing buttons?
(WI) Mmm Hmm!
(SP) If you could eat this piece what would it taste like? Would it be spicy, tart, sweet, salty, bland, etc.?
(WI) Very hard and taste like plastic.
(SP) If this piece was a person you didn't know would you want to say "hi" to them or get to know them? Would they be friendly or shy?
(WI) They would be friendly, because it looks very big and very friendly even if it wasn't a human. Because it's going back and forth and back forth and it's fun to watch.
(SP) Does this piece remind you of anything you have seen before?
(WI) I've seen this in a person's yard a long time ago. It's a baby toy.
Questions about the Exhibition in General (SP) If you could sum the show up in one word what would that word be?
(WI) Awesome! Because everything was super cool and everything there was kind of active.
(SP) Does this show make you want to do anything? Go ride a bike, take a nap, throw rocks, have a sandwich, draw, watch tv, play, etc.
(WI) Throw rocks! Because then you could make a big mess and I LOVE making messes (loudly chuckles).
(SP) Do you make a mess at home?
(WI) Yep! (proudly) (SP) What does your mom say about that?
(WI) Clean it up. (somberly)
(SP) If there was one thing you would say to the artist what would that be?
(WI) Cool, because their artwork was really cool.
(SP) If there was one question you could ask the artist what would that be?
(WI) How did you make that? How did they make everything?
(SP) Out of 5 Truman's how many Truman's would you give this show?
(WI) Five, because everything in there was awesome!
(SP) Would you recommend your friends to see this show?
(WI) Mmmm Hmmm!
Author: Michelle Epps, Community Engagement Manager
Category: Kid Art Review
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