The Plain Dealer | Steven Litt  |  April 21, 2018

40th anniversary show at Spaces offers vital self-portrait of an essential arts institution (photos)

CLEVELAND, Ohio - The new 40th anniversary show at Spaces, the nonprofit West Side gallery originally established in Playhouse Square by artists for artists, is hysterically funny, politically irreverent, aesthetically thrilling at times, and, at times, a muddle that loses its way.

In other words, it's a perfect and perfectly honest self-portrait for an institution that has never been afraid to experiment and occasionally fail, but that also has regained vitality and momentum in recent years.

As the exhibition proves, Spaces remains a vital anchor in the city's art scene.

Not-to-miss moments in the show, which opened Friday, include a video in which cat owners channel their pet's ideas of what a feline utopia would look like. There's an installation on how President Donald Trump would rewrite the U.S. Constitution, using his own words and tweets as evidence.

And there's an installation featuring the claustrophobic office of an imaginary writer whose library includes thousands of made-up titles such as "You Pay for Tax Cuts, Moron," "Anti-Fascist Protection Wall," and "The Trump and Stormy Love Story."

The show is raffish, quirky, whip-smart, defiantly non-commercial, and totally unafraid to offend, especially from the left side of the political spectrum.

Entitled "20/20 Hindsight = 40 Years," the exhibition was organized by four of the six directors who have led the institution since it was founded in the spring of 1978.

The former and current directors - James Rosenberger (1978-79), Susan Channing (1986-2007), Chris Lynn (2008-2013) and Christina Vassallo (2014-present) chose works by 17 artists and collective groups whose associations with the gallery struck them as particularly meaningful during their respective tenures.

The directors then either commissioned new works for the show or asked the artists to contribute recent projects.

The result is a rich, dense, visually captivating exhibit that beautifully shows off the possibilities of the gallery's recently renovated ground floor space in Ohio City's Van Rooy Building at 2900 Detroit Ave.

Spaces moved to the new location last year after having spent 26 years in its less visible and less flexible former home in a loft building at 2220 Superior Viaduct.

Designed by Cleveland architect John Williams of Process Creative Studios, the new gallery is a series of crisp, white spaces inserted into a late 19th-century factory built with sturdy brick facades, thick walls and stout wood columns.

With only 4,000 square feet of exhibit space, the galleries might sound small. But the 40th anniversary show leaves Spaces feeling packed and comfortably airy at the same time, which is a nice trick.

There's enough on view to justify a 90-minute visit. You could take it all in at a glance, but I'd recommend a prolonged look.

The works on view show how Spaces has differentiated itself from the other established principal arts institutions in town, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and more recently, the Transformer Station, located a block south from Spaces on West 29th Street.

While the other institutions often focus on work that's polished, refined and ready to enter someone's permanent collection, shows at Spaces have a raw, exploratory and experimental edge congruent with its mission of supporting new work by the artists it selects.

Accordingly, some of the art in the 40th anniversary show misfires. For example, I found the installation by Asheville, NC artist Kevin Hogan about his immigration from England to Cleveland and his later move down South to be highly personal and autobiographical without communicating why an audience should care.

On the other hand, the feckless writer's lair created by Ward Shelley of Easton CT, with Douglas Paulson and Adam Zimmerman, is a total hoot. It's a walk-in environment whose tilted floor is engraved with a map of the Cuyahoga River and whose ceiling is arched by the models of the I-90 and Lorain-Carnegie bridges. It's very Cleveland.

The titles of the fake books in the library are combined with floor-to-ceiling stacks of file boxes labeled with ideas for future projects on subjects such as "Pearshaped things," "Lemmings: Why?" and "Bottom Food."

Some viewers may not appreciate Shelley's brand of humor, but the installation made me laugh harder than I have in an exhibition in a long time.

Also outstanding is the photo-essay by Pipo Nguyen-duy of Oberlin, who used a tiny hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City in his native Vietnam as a stakeout for shots of the unusually vibrant and eccentric goings-on in a small alley and plaza outside.

For Nguyen-Duy, who feels westernized after having left his original homeland, the wistful, arm's length photos are a variation on the theme of "you can't go home again."

Cleveland artist Daniel Rothenfeld adds to the local aura of the show with a mockup of a public art mural depicting Gravity Place, a fan-shaped arrangement of streets laid out on the Columbus Road Peninsula in 1833.

Rothenfeld received approval at the most recent meeting of the city's planning commission to install a version of the mural at the actual location of Gravity Place, where some of the intersecting radial streets are still visible.

Numerous excellent examples of video art in the show include the previously mentioned CATopia video, made by Ben Kinsley and Jessica Langley of Colorado Springs.

Also outstanding is the hauntingly beautiful "Gray Elegy," a 2015 animated video by James Duesing of Pittsburgh, depicting what might be described as the dance of a floating plastic bag attacked by a robotic cutting machine.

The audience is asked to participate at Spaces, too. Viewers are invited to enter a phone booth equipped with a 1940s-vintage telephone wired to the "Animation Hotline" New York artist Dustin Grella.

A recording invites viewers to narrate a short memory about Spaces, which Grella has offered to turn into stop-motion animations made with numerous individual drawings and paintings.

A tape loop of his whimsical animations, based on an earlier round of crowd-sourced voicemails, is on view in the phone booth, showing exactly what Grella promises to do with anything Spaces visitors decide to record.

The resulting animations will be featured in a solo exhibition at Spaces starting Friday, Nov. 16. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see them.

Click here for the original article.


What's up: "20/20 Hindsight = 40 Years"

Venues: Spaces

Where: 2900 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

When: Through Friday, June 15

Free event: Saturday, April 21, 3-5 p.m. Current and former directors discuss the institution in a free panel discussion. William Busta moderates.

Admission: Free. Call 216-621-2314 or go to

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