CLEVELAND — I will admit that as a writer I have tended to enter into any intellectual endeavor through the entranceway carved out by words. So, as I assented to write my first formal art review, I expected to be challenged by the task of analyzing the imagery of an object rather than the language in a text. Yet, in a pleasantly ironic twist of plot, the textual components of the exhibition I observed turned out to be its most compelling.
Constant as the Sun is the third installation in the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art’s thematic series of exhibitions focused on artists working in Cleveland and various other cities in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, Western New York, and Eastern Michigan. It features work by 10 artists and collectives in a wide array of media, from found objects to film, that explore, according to the curators, the “psychographics” of community, or how geographic place and personal space influence the dynamics of social and cultural groups of people. For instance, Cleveland painter Darius Steward has a sparse yet carefully detailed painting of his wife, daughter, and son, titled “Baggage Claim No. 1 and 2,” in which the woman’s handbag, the infant girl’s diaper bag, and the boy’s backpack symbolize the psychological and emotional burdens of kyriarchy that black people in the US carry throughout their everyday lives.
Another Cleveland artist, Liz Maugans, is showing her “Artist Trust Project,” a wall of 300 self-portraits submitted by a diverse sample of Cuyahoga County artists. By drawing focus on the number and range of local artists, Maugans explodes monolithic notions of who “belongs” to the world of fine arts. Through this project, she hopes to foster a politicized artists’ group, or, as Maugans herself says, facilitate “open communication between artists and the [art] community.”
But, even now, the most vivid impression of the exhibition lingering in my memory is of the layered voices of people. These voices pop up in sound and video pieces, often taking a more documentary approach, such as in Kate Sopko and Angela Beallor’s installation, “Fallout.” Before you even enter the gallery, you can hear people’s statements floating out into the corridor, like, “I don’t know where I would go for protection,” or questions like, “Are you in the club, or aren’t you?”
Once in the gallery, these voices — of Cleveland-based men and women interviewed by Sopko and Beallor — draw you into the artists’ faux fallout shelter with its spare shelves of canning jars, rough hewn benches, and box tables, one of which displays a globe that might have sat in a 1960s classroom.
With “Fallout,” Sopko and Beallor extrapolate from America’s Cold War obsession with the threat of nuclear war. The structure references the 1960s federal defense policy of building community fallout shelters in public buildings while questioning who in current American society is being actively threatened or protected, what powers are protecting these groups, and whether protection can be actually be provided against institutionalized racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. Sopko and Beallor’s interview subjects present answers from all sorts of perspectives — they are black, gay, trans, Japanese, Jewish, or elderly — and their stories impel listeners to consider whether and how the American “community” can ever be wholly inclusive.
In “Do Not Consider Us Forgotten,” the Cleveland art collective named acerbic presents poems printed in stark, black type interposed over portraits of anonymous Clevelanders in street scenes. The plexiglass piece channels the disfranchised and disaffected population of Cleveland’s “Forgotten Triangle” — a divested minority neighborhood bordered by Kinsman Avenue, Woodland Avenue, East 55th Street, and East 79th Street in the city’s Fifth Ward. “We are here,” one of the most evocative poems, by collective member Ali McClain, declares. “These are our homes.” It is a statement that feels poignant and necessary as the poorer residents of the Triangle are currently being pushed out of their homes by gentrifying “improvement” projects and renovations in infrastructure, including the construction of the so-called “Opportunity Corridor” — a street planned to link East 55th Street at Ohio Interstate 490 to East 105th Street in University Circle and “reconnect” the economically devastated neighborhood to the more prosperous area burgeoning around the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University.
Nearby, “Opportunity for Who?” (2016), the thoughtfully produced documentary by Donald Black of acerbic, elucidates through interviews the fears of Forgotten Triangle residents as they face a new historical wave of dislocation. “There are opportunities out here?” one resident says during her segment in the video. “But for whom?” she presses the observer to consider.
“Fallout” and “Do Not Consider Us Forgotten” accomplish what appears to be the main objective of the exhibition as a whole: They impel us to interrogate what people mean when they say the word “we.”
I personally can’t think of a word Americans throw around more carelessly.
“We” is the most common signifier of inclusion, but it is also the sneakiest instrument of exclusion. It can function as an invitation or assurance of belonging, but it is just as often a reinforcement of marginalization. It can be loaded with implications, or it can be absolutely empty of the promises it seems to be making.
Consider the “we” that begins the US Constitution. Most Americans read it as fully inclusive. However, it referred exclusively to white male land owners when it was written, and it still doesn’t extend the rights of full citizenship to every man, woman, and child in today’s America.
“We” the people in Trump’s administration doesn’t include democratic voters, journalists, members of the intelligence community, many Muslims, many Mexicans, many blacks, women who want to exercise the full range of their reproductive rights, refugees, or citizens that believe the Confederacy is a blot on our nation’s history.
President Trump inspired misbegotten faith in the Republican Party by placing his supporters in an imaginary future America where all would be well. Yet, he has failed to make that America happen for them or anyone else. That is how “we” intoxicates the insider. This is how “we” poisons the outsider.
All in all, Constant as the Sun does a fairly engrossing job of exploring the fascinating and frustrating mechanics and machinations of “we” on the ground. Taking its title from a 1970 poem by Peter Graves called “Allison,” written for Allison Krause, one of the students killed by members of the Ohio National Guard in the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970. In the poem, Graves bids the “patriots of silence” to “go wave [their] pretty flags … and leave [protesters like Allison] with those that love [them].” He writes, “They are few but ever true / and constant as the sun.”
Nearly 50 years later, the artists in MOCA’s exhibition demonstrate that there still may be just a few seeking to unite the people of this country through understanding and with art — but they do remain true.
Constant as the Sun continues at the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art through September 17.
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