Has the Cleveland State Art Gallery turned over its exhibition space to Valvoline? No, but it certainly smells that way. One of the pieces in Work, a new show focusing on recent efforts by the university's studio art faculty, uses machine oil -- and lots of it. Like some other efforts in this exhibit, "Cleansing" dares to be repellent at first, but if the audience shakes off the initial provocation, there are deeper meanings here.
Irina Koukhanova's disturbing installation consists of two rusted bathtubs, each containing abstract sculpture (the first in steel, the second in wood) and machine oil. A bath in machine oil is not exactly an attractive proposition, and that's Koukhanova's point. In a statement, she suggests that "Cleansing" is, at least in part, about ethnic cleansing. Citing the existence of "psychological and physical wars in the past and present," she uses the bathtubs to provoke viewers to think simultaneously about washing their bodies and the campaign to cleanse society of undesirables. This is an artistic environment that succeeds in visualizing the concept of "cleansing" from two different perspectives: one benign (the bathtubs), the other malevolent (the dense, murky machine oil). Furthermore, the partially submerged sculptures suggest that art can raise awareness, but it has no power to end something like ethnic cleansing. Although big statements are a favorite with many human rights artists, Koukhanova's acknowledgment that art cannot neutralize hatred is rueful and, ultimately, affecting.
This is a shocking piece that works. The potential pitfall with work that relies on shock value is that sometimes there isn't much else to sustain attention, but fortunately that's not the case with Koukhanova or with most of the art in this quirky exhibit. Koukhanova's art also emotionally engages the viewer, but unfortunately, much of this show does not.
Masumi Hayashi also mines the topic of human rights in her contribution. Hayashi creates photocollages that explore the remains of World War II Japanese American internment camps. In 1942, several months after Emperor Hirohito decided to bomb Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, fearful of possible collusion with the enemy, placed more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into hastily created relocation camps. Hayashi's work is not in a straight documentary style: Her concern is not to faithfully replicate her surroundings on film, but rather to introduce fragmentation and distortion in an attempt to "remap space." Like artist Chuck Close, who starts with photographs of his friends and then translates these photographs into precise replicas on a monumental scale, Hayashi starts with conventional photographs and ends up by reconstructing reality. By doing this, both artists give the viewer a glimpse beyond what an ordinary photograph can offer. Hayashi's aim, it seems, is to demonstrate that memory (that of the Japanese Americans) is complex and resists the efforts of those who wish to map it out. Indeed, the pieces that make up Hayashi's puzzle never really fit: The sky is sometimes 15 different shades of blue, the horizon line dips and swerves, and it seems to be spring in one portion of the piece while it's autumn in another.
Unfortunately, one doesn't really understand what's going on visually unless one reads the artist's statement and listens to a nine-minute recording (headphones are available) of interviews with some who were interred at these camps. Hayashi's photocollages boast a strong conceptual base, but absent the actual voices and halted speech patterns of the men and women who were so obviously traumatized by this experience, they are arid on an emotional level. The tape, by contrast, is genuinely moving, and one wishes that some of that emotional impact had found its way into the photocollages. It's not easy to paint a portrait with a tape recorder, but to an impressive degree, Hayashi encourages the storytelling ability of her interviewees without getting in their way. No one could possibly miss the still-vivid pain of the now-elderly Japanese man who tells Hayashi, "I thought I was 100 percent an American boy. In fact, I rejected Japanese values. I always kept wondering why Mom and Dad all the time made us eat rice with chopsticks. When the war started, I felt different. The racial insults hurt my feelings." If Hayashi decides to publish a transcript of these interviews, it would, on the basis of this tape, be something to look out for.
Robert Thurmer's compelling conceptual piece tackles neither the issue of human rights issues in general nor specific issues, such as the internment of the Japanese during World War II.
Rather, it functions like an aphorism -- it distills many experiences and clusters of meaning into a single image. The image is that of a halo-like fluorescent lamp that is suspended five feet off the ground by a wire whose origins are the labyrinthine maze of pipes and scaffolding that takes the place of a ceiling. The idea is immediately striking. The halo is a traditional religious symbol denoting the presence of a divine person, yet no such person is to be found here. In fact, the light emerges not from any divine realm, but from a mechanical transformer, and finally, the halo drops to earth not from heaven, but from an ominous assortment of steel pipes and scaffolding.
This is a visual world in which technology and transcendence are locked in a struggle. One suspects that this is a site-specific work, as Thurmer has exploited the steel tubing and scaffolding at the CSU gallery in a metaphorically rich fashion. The contrast between the halo of light and its twisted and tortured origins is singled out for the viewer's attention. Although the halo fell out of favor in post-Renaissance art, Thurmer seems to be encouraging viewers to wonder why. This installation, with its suggestion that the machine has replaced religion, provides one possible answer to that question.
The charcoal drawings of George Mauerberger in this show are technically expert, but lacking in emotional content. In their delineation of the forms of ordinary objects like Hefty bags, these drawings have a solidity and three-dimensional presence that would be impressive if it were directed to an expressive goal. They recall Renaissance-era drawings, in which folds of drapery were transformed into elegant abstract creations. The difference is that, during the Renaissance, these explorations of texture and pattern were not appreciated for themselves, but as one element of a larger work. The technical expertise was wedded to an expressive aim.
Here, the technique impresses, but the result leaves one cold. Nevertheless, the work called "Gold" stands out. In it, the artist has explored the folds and creases of a black trash bag with precision, but at least in this case, there is something more. The curve of the bag at far left is echoed in a corresponding curve at far right, as the artist draws a curling nautilus shape emerging from the tip of the bag. He thus makes a connection between the spirals' whorls (shapes that appear in nature) and the shape of the mass-manufactured Hefty bag. It's a fine way of suggesting how artists see similarities in shapes and textures everywhere. Seashells and trash bags may appear to have nothing in common, but artists can persuade us to think otherwise.
The acrylic works by Marvin Jones are a disconcerting mixture of forms that recall works of modern giants, such as the Swiss Paul Klee and the Catalan master Joan Mirò. Klee, in particular, looms large as an influence. That artist, in works such as 1922's "Twittering Machine," eschewed concern with modeled forms and instead created richly detailed work using simple lines, stick-like figures, vivid colors, and ribbon-like arabesques and patterns that evoked musical notation. Jones's "Fractured Figure," a recent acrylic on panel, distills a sense of despair in a creature whose arms look like crescents and whose body is built up from triangles. The pink background might suggest nuclear devastation, and the irregularly shaped head suggests some strange mutation has taken place. The links to Klee, however, are prominent, and as a whole, this work feels derivative.
Despite its lapses, Work is worth seeing. Although it's disturbing to see art that is conceptually strong but also devoid of emotional impact, this offbeat and frequently thought-provoking show proves that art professors have a lot more on their minds than student projects, lesson plans, and grades. Stay away if you're allergic to machine oil, though.
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