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Art About Town

Focusing on 2012's visual arts highlights

By Steven Rosen · December 26th, 2012 · Visual Art
todo_art_gravityoflight_jf11Gravity of Light - Photo: Jesse Fox

This may seem a strange way to start a review of the year in Cincinnati’s visual arts, but the piece that stays with me the most — haunts me, really — doesn’t even fit any traditional definition of art. It’s a bit of graffiti scrawled on the wall, at a high point so it overlooks Interstate 75 North, of the long-closed-down Stearns & Foster mattress factory in Lockland. 

It says, in white paint: Dead Pet.

I hesitate to label such graffiti as art — it is, after all, an act of defacement and vandalism. But in this case it resonates far more than much of the actual art I saw in 2012, including the brightly decorative and highly enjoyable public murals. The words are familiar from post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans — messages left on flood-ravaged houses for the rescue/recovery workers as they made their way through devastated, deserted neighborhoods. 

Whoever wrote it in Lockland was exercising some bitter irony. The Katrina connection to this dreary building in a beleaguered blue-collar town (and others like it) was poignantly clear. While what happened here has occurred more slowly than any natural disaster, the loss — of manufacturing — has brought with it great sadness. There is nothing now left for this building. Hopefully, there are not actual dead pets inside. But there are ghosts — of better times. I’m not sure if “Dead Pet”’s creator meant for it to imply so much, or if it was just done as a goof. If so, the work transcends the intentions.

Gravity of Light, an indisputable artwork, also left a great impact on me. It was a far different beast in its conception and implementation than “Dead Pet,” although it also had a haunting effect. The “immersive installation” by the star photographers/conceptual artists (and identical twins) Doug and Mike Starn had first been designed for a 2005 Swedish exhibition, and then displayed in Pittsburgh in 2008. But it found such a perfect home amid the decay of the decommissioned Holy Cross Church at the Mount Adams Monastery that it seemed made just for Cincinnati. (It was here as a FotoFocus event, presented by Cincinnati Art Museum as an off-site exhibition.)

Within the building’s crumbling infrastructure, they placed a giant open arc lamp that rumbled and hissed like a monster, giving off a white light so intense that visitors had  to wear safety goggles and sign a waiver to enter. (Staffers also recommended sunscreen for long visits.) The brilliant light illuminated monumental-size photographs along the walls, and many were not of comforting images: a moth heading toward flame, desiccated leaves, gnarled tree branches and the horrific portrait of what the Starns refer to as “the creature.” Across from that was an image of an eighth century blind monk, who seems to bear an “all things must pass” patient witness to everything else.

I’ve struggled to decide whether Gravity of Light is in some way spiritual/religious, whether that monk provides some kind of solace, or whether the installation is using the irrefutable truths of science (the arc lamp’s light; the nature photographs) to challenge the sentimental niceties and clichés of religion itself. It’s not easy to draw any single conclusion, and the sense of danger that envelops a visit to Gravity of Light precludes a long, meditative visit. But one thing is for certain — this was the single art exhibit to see in Cincinnati this year if you could only see one. And you still can, as it’s up through Dec. 30. (Information about visiting hours is at www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org.)

With Gravity of Light leading the way, Cincinnati’s first FotoFocus — a celebration of lens-based art — led the way as the year’s major visual-arts event. Maybe major arts event, period. Founded by Tom Schiff (former CityBeat financer/owner), who, with Director Mary Ellen Goeke and Co-chair James Crump (the art museum’s chief curator), seemed to be present at every one of the scores of events during October, FotoFocus was first-class all the way in its presentation of fine-art photography and photojournalism. 

It’s hard now to look back and believe the quality and variety of international, national and regional photographers, past and present, with work on display: Herb Ritts, Nancy Rexroth, Laurel Nakadate, Edward Steichen, Michael Lowe’s collection of conceptual photographs, Mike Disfarmer, Michael Wilson, Paul Briol, the photographers of the great Kentucky Documentary Photography Project of the mid-1970s … and so many more. 

Naturally, the show I liked the least of those I was able to see — Tyler Shields’ glittery, kitschy color photos of the fashionable and famous — seemed to draw the biggest crowds.

On opening night at Miller Gallery, it was tough walking through the partying crowds to see all the red dots (signifying sales) already up next to the prints.

Oddly, one FotoFocus show that I thought would be a sensation, Contemporary Art Center’s Image Machine: Andy Warhol and Photography, seems to be netting an underwhelming local response. The CAC had predicted it would be a cornerstone of the festival. Perhaps its focus, on how Warhol’s interest in photography, especially Polaroid snapshots, shaped his paintings and silkscreens, seemed a little obscure and unglamorous. 

But not only did the show, intelligently curated by Joseph Ketner II of Emerson College, provide great insight into Warhol’s motivations and working methods, it also offered good examples of his paintings, silk screens and filmed “screen tests.” While it is not a big Warhol retrospective like the recent one at Columbus’ Wexner Center, it is illuminating and worth seeing while it’s up through Jan. 20. Information here. (I did find that two 2012 CAC shows that attempted to stretch the definition of contemporary art, Spectacle: The Music Video and Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots, didn’t work as museum exhibits.)

I’ve heard talk, and had some thoughts of my own, that FotoFocus ’14 (the next one planned) should be scaled back from this year’s 70 or so participating venues, and maybe become more thematically focused so people have a better chance to see what’s being offered. Also, perhaps there should be more of an overall centralized approach to curation. 

We’ll see what develops. But if they’re looking for a marquee-name exhibit, here’s a suggestion: J. Paul Getty Museum, from where the art museum’s Herb Ritts: L.A. Style originated, currently has In Focus: Robert Mapplethorpe while L.A. County Museum of Art has Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ. Those would make for a great triumphant return to Cincinnati for Mapplethorpe’s work.

By the way, FotoFocus’ Gravity of Light followed Cincinnati artist Shinji Turner-Yamato’s heralded 2010 installation at Holy Cross Church, the suspended trees of “Hanging Garden.” These two exhibits have shown the potential that the old church — owned by Towne Properties — has to become a home for the kind of large-scale, ambitious, site-related, mature contemporary-art projects that are all too rare here but that other cities have. I hope some organization or individual can work in 2013 to secure the future of that site as an art space. It’s needed. 

Meanwhile, Turner-Yamamoto continued to distinguish himself in 2012 with his De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) show at Phyllis Weston Gallery, a series of wall pieces that seemed deceptively simple upon first glance but were meticulously, complexly assembled so that the material imbued the imagery with meaning. The large triptych “Sleeping Vishnu Tree” seems snatched straight from a dream to the canvas. This show continues through January; go here for details. 

Among other galleries, Carl Solway — who helped the composer John Cage develop a rewarding second career as a visual artist — mounted John Cage: A Centennial Celebration With Friends that also honored Solway’s own 50 years as a gallerist. Featuring work by not just Cage but also Nam June Paik, Richard Hamilton, Yoko Ono, Buckminster Fuller and many more of contemporary art’s great names, it revealed once again why he and his gallery are both civic treasures. 

So far, the hordes descending on downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel, which recently opened and immediately became the hottest spot in town, have made it hard for me to really contemplate the art there. Based in Louisville, 21c assumes that people who want an “art experience” with their hotel room and fine-dining restaurant no longer accept the picturesque landscapes of days gone by. Now, they desire a mini-Whitney Biennial right next to their mini-fridges — if the rooms have mini-fridges, that is. (By the way, 21c only collects work of artists living today.)

That’s why one of the art projects, on the walls of the Metropole restaurant’s waiting area, is “All the President’s Girls,” French artist Annie Kevans’ series of oil-on-paper portraits of presidents’ mistresses throughout history. I wish I could call it truly provocative, but amid the overall noisy business of the place you have to already know these modest portraits are there — and what they are — in order to find the time and space to look at them. 

I so far have found two pieces I love — Ryan Wolfe’s mixed-media sculptural work “Field of Grass,” along an upper-floor stairway, and Do Ho Suh’s “Floor Module Table,” which contains hundreds of miniature human figures underneath the glass surface of a table. There’s also one I’m already tired of — Werner Reiterer’s “heavy-breathing” brass chandelier, attached to a scaffold, on the sidewalk outside the museum’s entrance. You can learn more about 21c’s art, and plan a visit (it’s free), here.

Cincinnati Art Museum made news for its ongoing renovation of the old Art Academy building on its grounds, which will soon house offices and thus free up ground-floor space in the museum proper for large special exhibitions. That new space will debut in fall with the long-awaited retrospective of the work of the late Cincinnati-born Pop artist Tom Wesselmann. 

The art museum also made news in October when a retired military sharpshooter fired a secured high-powered rifle while photographers captured the bullets’ path past masterpieces on the first floor. It was part of a commissioned project by artist Todd Pavlisko, who will present the footage and other work in a show called Crown that will run May 25-Sept. 22.

I interviewed Pavlisko, a very talented locally born conceptual artist now based in New York, and understand what he hopes to say about the impact of time’s passage on both enduring art and all-too-brief life. 

But I also expressed misgivings at the time about the symbolism of firing a gun in an art museum, a place — like a church or a school — meant to be a refuge from violence. 

Needless to say, what has happened recently in Connecticut has heightened those feelings as that show approaches.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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