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News . Feature Stories . The Plain Dealer Covers Alumni Exhibition

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September 25, 2007

The Plain Dealer Covers Alumni Exhibition

Cleveland's contributions to painting, sculpture, photography, industrial design and other disciplines have been considerable. And one big reason is the artistic education the Cleveland School of Art, now the Cleveland Institute of Art, offers.

Cleveland Institute of Art exhibits celebrate its graduates

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The psychological cloud that hangs over Cleveland has always obscured the city's gifts to American culture. Cleveland nurtured Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Arsenio Hall, Jim Jarmusch, Drew Carey and Halle Berry. Do we get some credit?

The question is the same in the visual arts as in the world of entertainment. Cleveland's contributions to painting, sculpture, photography, industrial design and other disciplines have been considerable. And one big reason is the artistic education the Cleveland School of Art, now the Cleveland Institute of Art, offers.

Over the past century, the institute's grads - most of whom left Northeast Ohio to pursue their careers elsewhere - have had a huge collective impact.

Raw proof is on ample display in a pair of new exhibitions that celebrate the 125th anniversary of the school.

One of them, "From Here to Infinity," on view in the institute's Gund galleries and curated by gallery director Bruce Checefsky, examines a smattering of works by 18 of the school's most famous grads.

Among them are the photographer Shelby Lee Adams (class of 1979), famous for documenting poverty in Appalachia in recent decades; the landscape painter April Gornik, widely admired for her luminous vistas; and Marc Brown, creator of Arthur, the Public Television aardvark much beloved by young viewers.

The other show, "The Big Bang," on view at Spaces and curated by Julie Langsam, chairwoman of the art institute's painting department, surveys some of the best work by 36 graduates over the past decade, whose careers seem poised for liftoff.

Taken as a whole, the shows pack considerable clout and demonstrate the powerful, continuing presence of the art institute as a force in the life of the city and the nation.

At the same time, the first of the two shows, which takes the more historical view, demonstrates another fact: The institute is a place of higher learning, not a museum. It doesn't have the resources, the space or the institutional clout to tell its own story as well as it might have.

One simple reason is the institute's galleries are too small to encompass a century's worth of outstanding creativity in the fine arts and industrial design.

Then, too, a good number of institute grads have been so successful that their works are now quite expensive and therefore difficult to insure and borrow. That, in a way, is a clear mark of success.

But the CIA exhibit - for all its pluses - leaves you dreaming wistfully about the show that might have been.

"From Here to Infinity" includes four excellent gouaches and watercolors by the lyrical American Expressionist Charles Burchfield (Cleveland School of Art class of 1916); four rare ceramics by the great industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost (class of 1929); and a handful of profoundly beautiful paintings by the seriously undervalued black painter Hughie Lee-Smith (class of 1938).

Also impressive is a large, geometric abstraction by Robert Mangold (class of 1960) and a pair of paintings by Dana Schutz (class of 2000), the art-world wunderkind who suddenly rose to high visibility and success in the early 2000s in New York after earning a master of fine arts degree at Columbia University.

But the sole representative of the school's important department of industrial design, launched in the early 1930s by Schreckengost himself, is Bruce Claxton, leader of a team of designers who created a series of colorful, rugged and highly appealing walkie-talkies, Nextel phones and hand-held data-reading devices for Motorola.

The Claxton display offers just the merest suggestion of how the institute's industrial designers have shaped American life.

The point would have been immeasurably stronger if the show had included the handiwork of Giuseppe Delena, a chief designer at Ford Motor Co.; Joe Oros, designer of the Ford Mustang; and Jerry Hirschberg, head of Nissan Design International.

Where, for that matter, are the creations of John Nottingham and John Spirk, two fabulously successful industrial designers based in Cleveland, who are living, breathing advertisements for their home city?

The show, alas, is too modest to cover its topic convincingly.

The institute's show at Spaces makes more sense as a cohesive statement, in part because there are no obvious omissions. Langsam, the curator, is exploring fresh territory. She also did a fine job maintaining a high standard for participation. Too many other group shows at Spaces vary wildly in quality.

Spaces also has a habit of picking clever-sounding themes and titles for its group shows that never stand up to scrutiny. In this case, the title, "The Big Bang," works. The exhibition introduces viewers to a series of artistic universes in the act of expanding before your eyes.

It's a voyage with many rewards, especially a computer video of the madcap, robotic sculptures of Charlotte Becket. One is a mountainous contraption that simultaneously vomits used cans and bottles from its summit and then gathers the trash in at its base, like a giant amoeba drawing sustenance from its environment. Another work features a series of crab-like electric-powered constructions with pens for legs, which scratch and crawl across a large sheet of paper, "drawing" a series of random marks as they go.

Also outstanding are Tom Vance's strange, cardboard lattice constructions, which obey a mysterious inner logic, and a Ben Grasso painting of a ship breaking apart at the middle and apparently sinking - in midair.

These divinely strange and wonderful objects pose answers to questions that few people could have imagined. It's fortunate that Cleveland has an art college that has encouraged such creative thinking in the past - and, from the looks of it, continues to do the same in the present.

-Steven Litt, Plain Dealer Art Critic

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

slitt@plaind.com, 216-999-4136

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