Marlon de Azambuja, Brutalismo—Cleveland, 2018. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Courtesy the artist and Instituto de Visión

FRONT International

Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art

Native Clevelanders, like myself, are used to national derision, enduring myriad “mistake on the lake” jokes. So, it was clearly evident to us that FRONT founder Fred Bidwell and artistic director Michelle Grabner intended to turn those Rust Belt assumptions around. Their triennial is modeled on Kassel’s Documenta, which was originally conceived as a way of connecting postwar German artists with the global art community. FRONT, rooted in the Great Lakes region, has a similar goal of highlighting Midwestern artists and bringing in the world (or at least members of the coastal art communities who typically find nothing to see in the “flyover” states).

The expansive first iteration, “An American City: Eleven Cultural Exercises,” spread across three cities—Cleveland, Akron, and Oberlin—partnering with major museums, art institutes, nonprofits, and public sites. With all the right partners, over 100 national and international artists, and over 100 programs ranging from research to residencies, if FRONT cannot jumpstart the regional art scene, nothing will. While the attractions included art world luminaries such as Kerry James Marshall, Yinka Shonibare, and Barbara Bloom, the truly stellar aspect was sensitive curation—matching artist to site, planning a wide range of programs, balancing local concerns with broader ambitions, highlighting points of pride, and remembering to commission a craft beer and sausage (the FRONT Experimental Kölsch and Cleveland Curry Kojiwürst by Milwaukee-based John Riepenhoff).

The FRONT team secured key locations such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Akron Art Museum, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, all of them underappreciated nationally despite their extraordinary collections. Organizers also placed provocative works in public locations, including the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, the multi-ethnic West Side Market, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Weltzheimer/Johnson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Oberlin, and the spruced-up streets of Cleveland. The most successful commissions, whether by regional or international artists, were the most site-responsive.

Chicago-based Dawoud Bey researched Underground Railroad safe houses as the basis for his installation Night Coming Tenderly, Black. Ohio was a pathway to freedom for runaway slaves, with Cleveland being the last stop before escape across Lake Erie to Canada. Bey’s dark-filtered, black-framed photographs were mounted on the pews of St. John’s Episcopal Church, activating a site thought to have been a historic “station” providing shelter. His dim landscapes evoked the experience of a twilight or nighttime journey through 19th-century rural Ohio. Here, as in many of his series, Bey considered how to visualize African American history, largely unrecorded, for the contemporary imagination.

British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare brought immigration—a blatantly contentious political issue—to the Beaux-Arts setting of the Cleveland Public Library. Against the backdrop of WPA-era wall murals, he filled the shelves of a 48-foot-long, two-sided bookcase with approximately 6,000 volumes wrapped in his signature print fabric, which represents the post-colonial, multicultural mix of Africa, Europe, and Indonesia. Each spine was stamped with the gilt name of a first- or second-generation American immigrant, along with the names of “dissenters,” anti-immigration voices such as Sarah Palin, Steve Scalise, and Donald Trump. Library staff enthusiastically embraced this project, helping to research the names of local immigrants and African Americans who relocated during the Great Migration to mix in with well-known examples like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Louise Bourgeois, Ana Mendieta, Joan Baez, Yo-Yo Ma, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. The library also provided historical context, offering educational materials that included videos of speeches by Presidents Obama, Reagan, Bush, and Trump to reflect contrasting policies on immigration, as well as public information films such as The Making of an [Italian] American (1920) and Alien Enemy Detention Facility (1942), which documents a Japanese internment camp. Recruiting library staff and posting uncovered archival materials online enhanced the social relevance of The American Library, Shonibare’s sequel to The British Library (2014). It was a captivating installation on a large and small scale, combining the grandeur of the architectural setting with the intimacy of perusing the bookcases; the magic of libraries for readers entwined with the fun of domestic spying on friends’ shelves.

Michael Rakowitz took on a painful local issue—the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice—with his community-sourced installation A Color Removed at Spaces gallery. When Rice was shot in 2014 while playing in a Cleveland park, the orange cap of his toy gun was missing, a detail later used to exonerate the white police officer responsible. Rakowitz placed collection boxes around Cleveland for donated orange items, effectively redacting the color. He then arranged safety vests, toys, traffic cones, and Halloween pumpkins in evolving installations, combined with contributions from local African American artists and Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria. By engaging the community, Rakowitz sensitively contextualized this tragedy within the broader national issues of gun control, extrajudicial killing of African Americans, and criminal justice.

Setting politics aside, Brazilian Marlon de Azambuja and New York-based Barbara Bloom examined museum space with two projects of institutional critique through an architectural lens. De Azambuja’s Brutalismo—Cleveland was the latest in an installation series examining urban architecture through materials specific to place. Concrete blocks, bricks, and masonry stones were clamped together in a miniature cityscape. Perfectly sited in a glass-box gallery, the assemblage could be viewed against two visions of the Cleveland Museum of Art—the original 1916 Beaux-Arts building and Marcel Breuer’s 1971 Brutalist addition. It was also juxtaposed with the University Circle skyline, which includes a Frank Gehry-designed outcropping. In Oberlin, Bloom responded to the eccentricities of the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Robert Venturi-designed addition, as well as to its impressive collection of paintings, prints, and photographs related to architecture. The Rendering(HxWxD=) took the theme of architectural rendering in every imaginable direction—from taping symbols to the floor, which gave the impression of entering a blueprint, to cropping the museum’s paintings and drawings as a way of focusing in on architectural themes. In a comparison of how three dimensions become two in various art traditions, details from Japanese paintings and Mughal miniatures were reproduced sculpturally—a reverse engineering. A Piranesi engraving of a column seemed to open out to a window framing the postmodern Venturi column outside. Whether this elaborately plotted installation resonated with the average museum-goer was open to question—though the Allen Museum is known for its teaching collection, rife with lengthy wall texts, so it was well matched in pedagogical ambition.

The revival of a series of downtown wall murals, beginning with a 12-story, Op Art stunner by the beloved and under-recognized Julian Stanczak, was a generous and accessible gift to the people of Cleveland. Carter Manor was originally commissioned in 1973 as part of the City Canvas public mural program, an urban planning effort to counteract white flight from downtown Cleveland following the 1968 riots. Since the 2008 recession, city officials have made a similar push to enliven the downtown streets and tax base. Repainted with vibrant, technically improved acrylic paint, this Carter Manor is expected to last far longer than the five-year lifespan of the original.

FRONT has international aspirations, and its initial version succeeded on a regional level. The spotlight on the Great Lakes area filled a void of information and access for artists and audiences, not just in northeast Ohio, but also in Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee. According to planners, the 2021 edition is already in the works.