The Plain Dealer | Steven Litt  |  July 22, 2018

FRONT International exhibit delivers the goods when it comes to artistic quality: review

CLEVELAND, Ohio - All it should take to convince anyone of the high quality achieved by the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art is a few moments of seeing Cyprien Gaillard's magical 3-D film "Nightlife" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.

A native of Paris now based in New York and Berlin, Gaillard spent two years filming slow-motion nocturnal scenes for "Nightlife," including shots of the bomb-shattered Auguste Rodin "Thinker" outside the Cleveland Museum of Art, and undulating Hollywood junipers blown by fierce winds in Los Angeles.

The result is a mesmerizing, 15-minute meditation on political violence and the vulnerability of art, accompanied by the haunting chorus "I was born a loser," from a recording of the 1965 Alton Ellis song, "Blackman's Word."

As the Gaillard piece and many other works of its quality demonstrate, FRONT has delivered the goods, artistically speaking.

FRONT's founding CEO, Fred Bidwell, a Cleveland art collector, philanthropist and cultural entrepreneur, and Milwaukee-based artist, curator and educator Michelle Grabner, the show's inaugural artistic director, have done an excellent job.

The show, which opened July 14 and remains on view through September 30 at more than two dozen venues and public spaces across Northeast Ohio, focuses on new or recent works by more than 115 contemporary artists from around the world.

Initial responses from coastal media outlets have been positive. Smithsonian magazine praised FRONT, which it called "the largest event of its kind in North America." The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal wrote upbeat news reports about FRONT, as has the website Artsy.

A bigger test is whether major publications send A-list critics to write reviews. Will the globe trotting critics who cover the Venice Biennale and other international shows that inspired FRONT come and compare?
The art world has paid little attention to Northeast Ohio and much of the heartland in recent years, but FRONT may help change that indifference.

A common thread in coverage so far is the notion that FRONT is a powerful artistic statement emanating from the part of the country that swung the 2016 presidential election Donald Trump's way, catching big media by surprise.

Bidwell is working that angle.

He told Artsy's Alexxa Gotthardt: "In the past couple of years, I think we learned that we need to look beyond coastal-city bubbles to better understand America; that the towns and cities in 'flyover country' are facing very different ideas, issues, and conflicts than those on the coasts. We need to deal with that."

FRONT's inaugural theme, "An American City," positions Cleveland as an archetypal metro, and as a blue postage stamp in a sea of red, a reality facing many cities after the 2016 election.

But just as not everything in FRONT constitutes a traditional artwork on a wall or pedestal, not everything in it touches on politics or even hews closely to the show's theme.

To the contrary, Grabner gave plenty of running room to more than a dozen artists FRONT invited to visit the city and make site-specific works.

One was Chicago-based Dawoud Bey, who installed a series of nocturnal landscape photographs among the pews in St. John's Episcopal Church at 2600 Church Ave. in Ohio City to evoke how slaves escaping the antebellum South moved under cover of darkness.

Built in 1836 as one of America's earliest Gothic Revival churches, St. John's was "Station Hope," the last stop on the Underground Railroad before Canada. By delving into this history, Bey has rooted his installation firmly in FRONT's theme.

So did English artist Yinka Shonibare in his work, "The American Library," installed in Brett Hall at the Cleveland Public Library.

The project consists of 6,000 books wrapped in colorful African Dutch fabric and imprinted on their spines with the names of prominent immigrants to the U.S. or their second-generation descendants, or black Americans who relocated during the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970.

Also included are the names of prominent opponents of immigration.

The work is a vast and deeply moving test of cultural literacy. How many names can you recognize?

The project vividly makes the point that without immigration - a very hot topic today - American science, art, literature and civic life would be vastly impoverished.

Also very much on target with the "American City" theme is Allen Ruppersberg's superb installation at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which depicts eloquent photographic vistas of Cleveland as seen from billboards scattered around town.

Conversely, the monumental silver-colored sculpture by Chicago artist Tony Tasset, placed on view just outside MOCA Cleveland at Toby's Plaza in Uptown, is a playful pop riff on gigantism in the history of art and not specifically an "American City" statement.

Some FRONT displays are more accessible than others.

The installation of artworks in the Frank Lloyd Wright Weltzheimer-Johnson house in Oberlin by Venezuela-born Juan Araujo feels insider-y and obscure.

The project alludes to the close ties between Oberlin College art history professor Ellen Johnson (1910-1977) and artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Morris. If you don't know that history in detail, the installation won't make much sense.

Despite such moments, FRONT is very far from a collection of artistic statements that feel like academic footnotes.

Consisting of 11 "Cultural Exercises," FRONT includes not just artworks in traditional venues or public art, but also theatrical performances, film and video screenings, free outdoor concerts, open houses and community dialogs.

To experience them, you have to get out and explore, which is very much what Bidwell and Grabner want to see.

FRONT's opening weekend was packed with such opportunities. Ohio City's Transformer Station gallery screened the comical and cartoonlike 2017 Jim Trainor horror film, "The Pink Egg," in which actors in unitards mime the cruel reproductive habits of insects.

On Sunday, FRONT organized a tour of the East Boulevard home of poet and artist Julie Patton, in which she displayed her own artworks among paintings and drawings by her late mother, Virgie Ezelle Patton, one of Cleveland's most distinguished African-American artists of the past half century.

Additional open houses will be held, with details to be announced on Julie Patton's and FRONT's website.

Also on Sunday, Spaces gallery hosted dinner conversation for 21 guests invited by the Tamir Rice Foundation and Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz as part of his "A Color Removed" project for FRONT.

Rakowitz accumulated a large number of donated orange at Spaces to explore issues raised by the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black child shot and killed by Cleveland police in 2014 while playing in a park with a toy gun from which the orange safety tip had been removed.

At dinner, Rakowitz served curried rice and shrimp while introducing community arts leaders to Samaria Rice, Tamir's mother, who sought help and advice in establishing the Tamir Rice Afro-Centric Center in her son's memory in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood.

At times moving and heartfelt, the conversation delved into the complexity of creating a living reminder of one of the most painful and racially charged episodes in Cleveland's history.

By encompassing such a wide range of powerful and deeply engaging artistic efforts, Bidwell and Grabner have set a very high mark.

This means that FRONT, which is designed to repeat every three years, will have to meet or exceed the standard it has set this year. That's already on Bidwell's mind.

"Topping what we've done from an artistic standpoint is going to be a challenge," he said. "But that's a great challenge to take on."

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What's up: FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art; new works by more than 115 artists from around the world.

Where: Ohio City, downtown Cleveland, University Circle, Glenville, Oberlin and Akron.

Venues: More than two dozen museums, nonprofit galleries, local institutions and public spaces.

When: Through Sunday, Sept. 30

Admission: Mostly free, but some venues charge admission. Call 216-938-5429 or go to

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