The second edition of the Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art was themed around healing before there was even a pandemic. That all may explain why the show, which opened to the public this past weekend, does not include many Covid-themed works. But the aftereffects of the virus and the tumult that has followed linger everywhere throughout the exhibition.
Curated by Prem Krishnamurthy, the exhibition is titled “Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows,” a reference to a Langston Hughes poem. Some of the 100 artists included are international stars, though many are not; a good amount of them were born in or around Cleveland, or are based in the city and the surrounding region. Their works are spread across Cleveland and the nearby cities of Akron and Oberlin, making for a sprawling show that cannot be seen quickly.
Despite the fact that the artists are of multiple generations and many different nationalities, they have some common ideas on their mind: the necessity of psychological regrowth in the wake of tragedies, music as a community-based form of rehabilitation, and archives as fonts of information about prior disasters.
On the whole, the healing that Krishnamurthy represents is somewhat nebulous—it’s clear that the artists and the communities they hail from are badly damaged, but we are left to imagine who or what has wrought such havoc. Virulent racism and disease hang as a backdrop to many of the works, yet most artworks represent neither of these things, and only rarely are either mentioned in wall text throughout the show.
Krishnamurthy’s show is all very metaphorical. That can make for viewing that is mixed in quality, and occasionally a bit frustrating, even though what is on offer is, on the whole, generally thought-provoking.
But when this year’s Front is good, it has a lot to teach us about how best to mend during a very difficult time. Below, a look at some of the highlights of this edition, which runs through October 2.
The biggest work at Front this year is also the best: an ambitious museum exhibition by Renée Green titled “Contact.” The project, which spans the whole of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, could easily be misconstrued as a survey unto itself, since it includes a number of Green’s preexisting video essays about the ways ideas travel through time and space. But it’s more complicated than that, and slyly so, given that Green often laces her work with allusions to thinkers who inspire her.
Rather than simply mounting a sampler of her own work, Green, who was born in Cleveland, has offered a tight vision of her own community. She begins literally with Partially Buried in Three Parts (1996), which features re-photographed images of the violence at Ohio’s Kent State University in 1968. From there, “Contact” turns poetic, placing works by others alongside her own. In one gallery, for example, Green shows an installation by Index Literacy Program that features plastic birds with magnets in their wings that viewers can place on their pointer fingers. That work appears in the same gallery as pieces by Laura Serejo Genes, Pedro Zylbersztajn, Nolan Oswald Dennis, and Jessica Sarah Rinland (all her former students) that also feature fingers pointing. These four artists have absorbed Green’s ideas, and she has in turn learned from theirs, and together they are all one.
Sarah Oppenheimer and Tony Cokes
Tony Cokes, whose videos feature little more than cryptic text against digital backgrounds, has works throughout Front, but the best of them is a collaboration with another artist, Sarah Oppenheimer. The two had never met before they were selected for Front, and their collaboration began virtually. Together, they produced a slick video installation with sculptural elements called SM-2N: sldrty? (2022) that feels like something truly special. Videos featuring quotations by novelist Gabriel García Márquez and curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung are beamed onto opposing walls. The projections are interrupted by hanging beams that can be moved, via a pulley system, by visitors, effectively hiding certain portions of the projection and revealing others. Aside from being impressive on a technical level, SM-2N: sldrty? thrills because it offers a vision of how disparate people can come together to remake each other’s worlds.
If there is ever an uprising in Oberlin, expect works by Barbara Kruger, Andy Warhol, Horace Pippin, and others to be hauled to the frontlines, thanks to a functional barricade that has been created by artist Ahmet Ögüt for Front. The Turkish-born artist has filled an entire gallery of Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum with Bakunin’s Barricade (2022), a mass of rubble, junked cars, existing artworks, and more that can, because of a contract that will be signed by the institution when the piece is acquired, be used during protests. Its name, Ögüt said, alludes to an unrealized proposal by the 19th-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin: socialists in Dresden could defend themselves against Prussian soldiers by mounting artworks from museums to blockades, to prevent anyone firing at them. Ögüt transposes this history to the present, invoking recent protest movements around the world following the murder of George Floyd as well as pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong, the 2013 uprising following the eviction of protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and demonstrations in Russia earlier this year following the invasion of Ukraine in the contract for the piece.
There’s little art to see by Cooking Sections in this triennial, and that’s on purpose: much of the London-based duo’s newest project will evolve in the years to come. During the next few years, Cooking Sections will work with local farmers to rehabilitate Lake Erie, which is facing lowering oxygen levels because of toxic algae blooms each summer that are already having negative effects on the Cleveland ecosystem. (The results of these rehabilitation efforts will be chronicled at the SPACES gallery, which has freed up a wall for Cooking Sections to update through 2025.) The project is titled To Those Who Nourish (2022), and it includes just two objects: submerged fountains near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that spray water and aerate the lake. This fascinating work may not offer much in the way of viewing, but it does provide one concrete example of an out-of-towner collaborating with locals in a potentially generative way, with impacts that will far exceed this show’s run.
Dream Variations (2022), a sculpture by Abigail DeVille composed of mannequins held together by rope, bungee cords, and a horn, looks like a multi-bodied being from another world. In fact, its materials—and the source of their inspiration—were found locally, in Cleveland’s majority-Black Fairfax neighborhood, where a teenage Langston Hughes lived for a short period. DeVille picked through disused homes there and came away with the objects in this sculptures and others nearby in the Quincy Garden. (Each work is loosely based on a Hughes poem.) Sculptors like Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge have worked with cast-off things, and like them, DeVille asserts that refuse is hardly dead. Instead, her tossed-out objects are imbued with a still-thrumming spirit. A similar ethos guides DeVille’s installation The Dream Keeper (2022), which features fencing, TV monitors displaying static, a film with archival images of Black men and women, and salt, an allusion to the mines beneath Lake Erie. The piece suggests that, though there have been numerous attempts to grind down Cleveland’s sizable Black community, it has remained no less alive and vibrant.
Several instances of violence that Dexter Davis has directly experienced have shaped the Cleveland-based artist’s life, including a beating by gang members in the early ’90s and a shooting in 2020 not far from the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he has long worked as a security guard. He has managed to heal from these events, and to process the trauma in his art. One collage at the Cleveland Institute of Art, titled Nosebleed (1993), features a scrap of the bloodstained white T-shirt that he was wearing during his assault, which he has placed alongside scrawled images of flowers with wilted petals. These blooms may sag, but they are not dead just yet. Davis is also offering a new work, Tree of Life (2022), in which viewers are invited to pick up a painted stick or a wedge and drive it into a hole in a chunk of wood while conjuring memories. The piece is a reference to nkisi, objects containing spirits that are found throughout the Congo Basin in Central Africa and are sometimes speared with pieces of metal.
Walk into the atrium of the Cleveland Public Library, and you may hear pop music filtering out of a grand room nearby. These sounds are playing on the ring of speakers that constitutes Jace Clayton’s 40 Part Part (2022), its name a reference to Janet Cardiff’s famed 2001 installation work The Forty Part Motet, which emits a predetermined recording of a 16th-century choral performance. For Clayton’s piece, viewers are allowed to plug in their phones and select a song of their choosing; turn the music off, and the installation goes silent. The sounds of Donna Summer, Beyoncé, and Adele wafted through this space on opening day, but these singers’ melodies did not come out as one may expect—they were periodically slowed down and paused by an algorithm interpreting the music. 40 Part Part is about letting go: neither Clayton nor the viewer nor the original performer of these tunes can entirely control how these sounds will come out.
This young New York–based artist grew up in Brighton, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, which has in the past few decades suffered immensely as the car industry has bottomed out. Perhaps fittingly, the subject of Palarchio’s sculptures is objects that have served their purpose and now seem useless. One untitled work from 2021 is composed of nothing more than a smoke alarm atop some grating and a cylinder cap; the alarm’s light blinks occasionally. Other works by Palarchio at the Akron Art Museum make use of petroleum coke, a material used in oil refining whose environmentally disastrous properties have been decried by activists. Like remainders of a society in decline, these sculptures act as reminders of a community that once was.
The unsettling sculptures of Isabelle Andriessen look like mutant bodies that skulk across floors. Crafted from ceramic, Andriessen’s works are augmented with oils, plastics, and other materials that alter these sculptures in real time. In other words, they are slowly evolving, like alien beings transported to earth. Nocturnals (2021), for example, is hooked up to aluminum elements that will eventually spur the growth of crystals on this lumpy form’s surface; beneath it lies a pool of mysterious urine-colored liquid. These sculptures have a certain creep-out factor to them—they unnerve because they are changing beyond the control of the people who preserve them—but they are also strangely beautiful, since they represent bodies which cannot be classified. Near these sculptures are works by the young Dutch artist’s father, Jurriaan Andriessen, who drew images of futuristic cities that are so densely packed with buildings as to be nearly unlivable.
It seems that one hidden goal of this triennial has been to shift the history of abstraction to include more non-white artists, in particular Black ones, among them Robert Reed, Julie Mehretu, Chakaia Booker, and Charmaine Spencer. One of the youngest artists to fit within that lineage is Allana Clarke, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and is now based in Detroit. She’s exhibiting a powerhouse work: At a Depth Beyond Anyone (2022), a thick sheet of black plasticky material that tumbles off the wall and onto the floor. It’s made out of hair bonding glue, which is used by Black woman to attach extensions, and its folded surface is mottled like scarred skin. Comparisons to prior giants of abstract art could be made—this piece bears similarities to Lynda Benglis’s latex pours and El Anatsui’s bottle-cap sheets—but Clarke’s process-based sculpture provides its own unique thrills.
In a glassy, light-filled gallery of the Cleveland Museum of Art, several giant archways rise diagonally from the floor; some are encrusted with what appears to be coral. Although these are fairly convincing as archaeological objects, everything in this gallery is, in fact, a new work by Firelei Báez, a New York–based artist of Haitian and Dominican descent. She has intended the vast ocean of all possibilities (19°36’16.9″N 72°13’07.0″W, 41°30’32.3″N 81°36’41.7″W), the sculpture being presented here, as a reference to the Sans-Souci Palace, the royal residence of the Haitian king Henry I, which was partially destroyed during an earthquake in 1842 and never rebuilt. The fish-out-of-water quality of this work is something Báez has embraced—she’s even made it seem as though the archways have jutted out of the wall, ripping off the paint in the process.
Falling in line with a modish trend on the biennial circuit, this edition of Front includes some dead artists, the best of which is Audra Skuodas, who passed away in 2019. Born in Lithuania in 1940, she arrived in Oberlin after a period as a refugee and spent much of her career in the town. The works she produced feature spindly bodies whose forms torque beneath ovular shapes that she termed “wounds.” Beneath some of them are mysterious inscriptions written in prim half-cursive: “The less vulnerable, the less poisonous to vibration, the denser the aggregate, the deader the matter, the less responsive to consciousness,” reads one. By the end of her career, Skuodas had eschewed these surreal images and texts entirely, but the wounds remained, repeating and rearranging to form mesmerizing abstractions. Though Skuodas’s work can be seen at Front venues in Cleveland and Akron, it is the art in her Oberlin studio, which is open by appointment, that makes the best case for her as a seriously underrated artist (outside Ohio, at least). A Skoudas retrospective ought to be in order.
Wong Kit Yi
Wong Kit Yi’s latest video, Inner Voice Transplant (2022), traverses multiple continents and centuries, and at one point ends up at the Cleveland Clinic, where, in 1998, the first successful voice box transplant was performed. That hospital is also the site where Wong is showing her new work, which touches on jiāngshī (stiff-bodied Chinese zombies), Freudian psychoanalysis, her mother’s spiritual journey amid a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis, and the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron. Wong’s drily delivered narration appears as subtitles that unfold like karaoke text. On select days, Wong herself is also on hand to read the text in what is being billed as a karaoke performance lecture (which sadly comes without singing). During one preview day, Wong raced to keep up with the text displayed on-screen as she read on about how, according to AA philosophy, alcoholism has no cure and healing is therefore impossible. Her failings to stay in synch with the text suggested a humbling, a surrendering to the forces that guide this world and a persistence in spite of them.