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2900 Detroit Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44113
The Plain Dealer | Steven Litt | February 01, 2017
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Spaces gallery has officially opened its new home in Ohio City with three exhibits of works on aspects of racism and economic exploitation by four artists from Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York that score a hit, a miss and a home run in that order.
Briefly, (with more below) Cleveland artist Anthony Warnick makes worthy visual and political points in a minimalist installation that likens prison labor to slavery.
Philadelphia artist Imani Roach achieves mixed results in her installation exploring the history of safe havens in Cleveland described in the Green Book, the Jim Crow-era travel guide for black motorists.
And then there's a stupendous video loop screening of four episodes from "Astro Black," a series by the two-person New York collective Soda_Jerk that explores the music and mythology of Sun Ra, (1914-1993), the black "Afrofuturist" jazz musician.
The varied quality in these three displays is about par for Spaces, a non-profit gallery that has prided itself for decades on showing experimental works by emerging and mid-career artists that sometimes misfire.
The real star of the debut, however, is the new gallery itself. It's terrific
Spaces recently bought the ground floor of the historic, three-story Van Rooy Building at 2900 Detroit Ave. from collectors and philanthropists Fred and Laura Bidwell, who purchased the building in 2015 and are renovating the top floor as their new home.
In January, Spaces completed a $750,000 renovation of its new, 9,300-square-foot space, a project led by Cleveland architect John Williams of Process Creative Studios. In all, the relocation is part of a $3.5 million capital campaign, for which Spaces raised $2 million.
The renovation has endowed it with excellent, neutral white-walled gallery spaces capable of displaying artworks to their best advantage.
That doesn't mean that weak art will look great inside. But it does mean that artists exhibiting at Spaces will be supported by the gallery's physical attributes in a way that was not true in its former home at 2220 Superior Viaduct.
The ground floor renovation at the Van Rooy Building preserved details of the structure's 19th-century industrial past, including a battered concrete floor, and rugged brick walls of its front room, now humorously called the "Mistake Lab," which Spaces will use for classes and gatherings.
The building's signature is a pair of magnificent Romanesque Revival-style corner arches on the ground floor at the building's southeast corner, supported by a single, stout column.
A floor-to-ceiling glass window placed just behind the column provides views into and out of the Mistake Lab, connecting Spaces to the community outside the door.
Linked to community
That sense of connection never truly applied to the gallery's former home on Superior Viaduct, a three-story loft building overshadowed by the Stonebridge Apartments, built in 2005 by K&D Group.
Now the gallery is part of a burgeoning cultural, retail and residential node, located just one short block north of the Transformer Station art gallery, established by the Bidwells in 2013 as a nonprofit showplace in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art.
It feels perfectly natural to see both spaces during a visit, and to grab a hot drink at Cleveland Tea Revival or Rising Star Coffee, located nearby in the Striebinger Block and the Ohio City Firehouse, respectively.
Another neighboring building is being renovated as the home of Saucy Brew Works, soon to be an artisan pizza brewery. And a fourth building houses the Bop Stop, a concert venue operated by University Circle's Music Settlement.
Now, back to the shows at Spaces. As mentioned, the gallery provides a very fine setting for the works on view. And all three shows are installed with a lean, minimalist style that works beautifully in the gallery.
Relying on text
However, that doesn't make up for shortcomings that include artworks that steer so far toward enigmatic restraint that they fail to communicate eloquently on their own.
Warnick's installation is a critique of private for-profit prisons, and of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
The installation includes a chain of white fabric loops and a red banner of fabric stripes, both said to have made by prison laborers, along with stacks of printed posters free for the taking.
The installation also includes computerized montage portraits combining the features of board members of three private prison corporations, emphasizing the white maleness of all three groups. And it includes an illegible floor sculpture incised with the words of the 13th Amendment.
These individual elements possess limited visual power and rely for their collective impact on the terse drama of Warnick's installation. Ultimately, thought, the answer to the question "what is this all about?" lies mainly in a handout text.
The same is true of Roach's equally restrained but less eloquent exploration of Green Book destinations in Cleveland, which features photo-based drawings attached to battered wooden doors and poor quality recordings of interviews with Clevelanders reminiscing about the Jim Crow era.
Roach conveys a subtle sense of outrage, but the installation never truly pops with a clear indictment of racism encapsulated in a singular, powerful object.
Sun Ra celebration
The "Astro Black" videos, on the other hand, are a joy from beginning to end. Constructed entirely from sampled bits of film and video, the segments are utterly beguiling.
They turn Sun Ra into an Afro-American Zelig in a shimmering pharaoh-style outfit, who appears in clips from sci-fi movies, scenes from Star Trek and from a 1974 documentary on a South Bronx community center, where he introduces himself as "an ambassador from inter-galactic space."
When asked whether he's real, Sun Ra responds, "I don't exist in this society, just like you."
But the musician does exist in outer space, as lunar astronauts discover when they find an Egyptian pyramid on the moon and experience a funky Sun Ra Arkestra concert in a crater.
By mixing familiar vignettes with images of Sun Ra speaking and performing in unlikely places, Soda_Jerk weaves a magical spell of humor and hope that needs no explanation, and which looks great project on a wall at Spaces. That alone makes the Spaces debut exhibits well worth a visit.
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