Capsule reviews of current area art exhibitions. 

On view at Arts Collinwood Gallery: This portrait of Hank - Williams and other works by Jon Langford.
  • On view at Arts Collinwood Gallery: This portrait of Hank Williams and other works by Jon Langford.

Afrofuturism -- How might technology affect race relations and African American culture? It's an enormous loaded question, but Afrofuturism is thorough and imaginative in its answer. Seventeen artists address the issue in a large and diverse multimedia exhibition from the Obsidian Gallery in Minneapolis. If there's a unifying theme, it's that racial advancement won't be unidirectional; rather, it'll zigzag and reverse, always looking backward even as it moves forward. "Black to the Afro-Future: A Road Map," by Oakland artist Amanda Williams, simultaneously embodies and critiques this theme. Straight red lines of paint and string veer over a black wall like a treasure map, their circuitous paths intersecting at Altoid tins painted to depict stages of black history. Strategically placed text at widely separated points mark "where we want to be" and "where we're supposed to be," suggesting that in reality, racial utopia may be impossible to achieve. But not everything here is so serious: Seitu Jones of Minneapolis injects a satisfying dose of satirical humor with "Noirex," a fake magazine advertisement for a pill that "corrects excessive melanin" -- i.e., turns black skin white. Enjoy the funny before-and-after photos, but also note the fine print that details the staggering side effects, which include "loss of rhythm." Through June 9 at Spaces Gallery, 2220 Superior Viaduct, 216-621-2314, www.spacesgallery.org. -- Zachary Lewis

Nashville Radio -- Trained in art at Leeds University, punk rocker Jon Langford can manipulate ink as well as a guitar, which he has done for years as founder of the Mekons. This show, presented by Arts Collinwood with the Beachland Ballroom, features Langford's realistic portraits of country-music legends (Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash), rendered much as pop master Andy Warhol portrayed Marilyn Monroe -- only with a tougher, weather-beaten folk-art aesthetic. Langford's prints -- small plywood panels that embrace the wood's natural grain -- evoke old sepia-tone photographs or barn-wall billboards, with grainy scratches like war wounds and occasional bits of text. It's clear that Langford reveres these people, and his treatment of them speaks volumes about their status as creative forces and cultural icons. Langford extends this sensibility to album covers, including some for his own recent band, the Waco Brothers. Particularly striking is his faded red, white, and blue "Freedom and Weep" cover, depicting an eagle pierced by a dollar sign. Rough-hewn like a woodblock print and expressing a stern social critique, the illustration enjoys the same in-your-face immediacy as a colonial-era political cartoon. Through May 13 at Arts Collinwood Gallery, 15606 Waterloo Rd., 216-692-9500. -- Lewis


All Digital -- Still lobbying for separation of art and computers? This exhibit will counter your most defiant belief in the primacy of traditional media. Just try to experience John Simon's work without wonder, let alone brush past it quickly. His "Endless Victory" has all the color of a Mondrian painting, though it consists only of a rimless laptop screen, its surface constantly in motion with tiny dots moving antlike along ever-shifting paths. The most elaborate of Simon's many entries, "Victory" is also the only one that appears to spin on multiple axes; painters have executed some fancy tricks over the centuries, but nothing like this. In Leo Villareal's "Instances," three black screens covered in tiny white lights display a sequence that looks and even sounds like fireworks; it may not be the grandest technological achievement here, but it's magical nonetheless. Still not convinced? Walk into the room where Charles Sandison has set up cameras displaying the complete text of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. Typewritten words skitter randomly over dark walls, forming meaningless phrases that exist for only a few seconds. Imagine refrigerator-magnet poetry, only many times larger and operated by some divine, invisible force you experience physically rather than just visually. Through May 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis

Cleveland Comic Book Artists Original Art Show -- This show provides a thorough, eye-opening snapshot of Cleveland's rich pool of comic artists. Among them, John Backderf (aka "Derf") is the most widely published of the bunch. Brutally sarcastic, Derf's nervous-handed weekly strip The City (which appears in this rag as well as many others) spares no one in its mockery of contemporary life in Northeast Ohio; Derf's bitter tomatoes might not be welcome in every circle, but there's undeniable truth in his art. Though Gary and Laura Dumm both employ bold colors, the husband-and-wife illustrators are worlds apart, stylistically. Laura's work is angular and composed of straight lines, bearing the clean, crisp look of a graphic design. It's also more innocent in spirit: Her few pages here concern a jazz-loving cat named "Bongo Monkey." Gary, by contrast, deals with hot political and social topics, getting into particularly salient territory in a poster-size image titled "Free Trade Isn't Free," in which Chinese laborers paint the White House red as punishment for the national debt. A series titled "Skullface" by Andy MacDonald and John G. is the most unusual entry and also the most violent. Dispensing with words and traditional block-by-block format, their heavily shadowed work depicts a vigilante character busting up evil clowns. Like everything here, it's far more compelling than anything Hi & Lois are up to. Through April 30 at Bela Dubby, 13321 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216-221-4479. -- Lewis

Curve Series: Jon Pylypchuk -- To call this show disappointing is to compliment it backhandedly, for disappointed is precisely how Canadian-born Jon Pylypchuk wants viewers to feel upon encountering his bitterly satirical take on life. The title of this one-room installation suggests anger instantly: "You Asked Me to Come See Your Routine -- You Call This a Fucking Routine?" But it takes some time to deduce the object of that anger. Scattered around the circular gallery are six tree-like objects crudely fashioned of dark wood, their branches angular and leafless. Standing near these are six short, low-tech, humanoid figurines, also made of wood, but with velvety brown hair and snowmanlike eyes and noses. All are wearing baggy denim pants around their ankles, looking dejected or oblivious, in the fashion of today's hip-hoppers. Some appear to be hugging or humping the trees. All in all, it's a sad, barren landscape, populated by lonely, undignified, animalistic creatures clinging to anything that offers protection or comfort, or makes them feel good. As a portrayal of humanity on earth, it's both frightening and disturbing, and it holds out only two options: suicide or utter depravity. But as effective as "Routine" is at conveying these notions, many viewers are likely to turn away from Pylypchuk's bleak philosophy. Through May 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis

Drawn, Exposed, and Impressed -- The first in a series of shows presented by the art museum at the Museum of Contemporary Art, this small collection of recent works on paper covers vast aesthetic territory efficiently and attractively. Among the drawings is an unforgettable charcoal view of Cleveland's lakeshore by Laurence Channing, as well as Chuck Close's portrait of a young, wild-haired Philip Glass (titled "Phil Spitbite"), composed of Close's trademark tiny squares and shaded circles. Tops in the "exposed" category are Spencer Tunick's "Ohio 4," photographic evidence that hundreds of Clevelanders really did get naked outdoors one chilly morning in 2004, and Bert Teunissen's "Nuit St. Georges #8," an inkjet photo of a woman posed in an elegant sitting room, which rivals the subtlety of any Dutch master's still life. Printmaker Neil Welliver spared no pain to create "Stump," a multicolored woodcut print crawling with moss, ferns, and shoots. By contrast, black and white are all Richard Serra needs in "IV Hreppholar" (a city in Iceland), an etching made with a thickly scarred slab of basalt. The piece resembles a dried patch of tar, and you may find yourself entranced by the beating it's seemingly endured. Through May 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-7340, www.clevelandart.org. -- Lewis

Electric Lemonade -- Nothing passes for dull at this tart, refreshing show of contemporary local art: Works goofy, garish, and gruesome clamor for attention, while more serious pieces transcend the clatter. Amber McElreath's paintings on large wooden boards fuse influences of stained glass and Cubism, fragmenting figural portraits into tiny shards of pastel greens, browns, and oranges. Though the works are untitled and superficially abstract, a keen eye can discern images such as a young person playing piano. Each piece artfully implies a complex, multifaceted identity -- one awaiting the viewer to discern. Elsewhere, Kate Tobin's prints employ a more raw tack: Her best work, "Soul Contamination, Soul Preservation," consists of numerous images of a baby in a gas mask, crawling through a barren landscape. Searing, unrealistically bright colors suggest a deadly environment, while the baby conveys a sense of fragility and utter dependence. In other words: Life is rough, and survivors rely on extreme measures. Adding sugar to the show are Steve Sorin's black-and-white photographs of Barbie dolls in dramatic situations. Riffing on romance and Barbie's body image, Sorin pairs her with a classically masculine Greek statue, setting them in ludicrously clichéd scenarios. In "Adios Ken," they huddle near a picturesque cemetery, Barbie's hair flowing passionately in the wind. Through May 27 at the Pop Shop, 17020 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216-227-8440. -- Lewis

Life Studies -- Instead of mere paper, Hudson artist Peggy Kwong-Gordon creates her cohesive, spiritually grounded drawings on manila fiber, vellum, and pressed wool -- natural and intrinsically beautiful substances that symbolize her Chinese heritage and Taoist philosophy. By way of subject, take your pick as to what's the most honest. Maybe it's the self-portrait, in which pencil-drawn Chinese characters outline the central figure against a backdrop of English text; what better way to represent the Chinese American soul? Then there are the "Visual Glossary" pictures: large, single-frame images of Chinese characters on wool paper that just happen to look like the concepts they represent (the word "Tao," for example, is defined as a "gateway" and resembles an open door). But not everything operates on such a high intellectual level. Youthful joy oozes from a long set of loose, improvisational gouache drawings called "Writing Happiness." Each is a composition in perfect, weightless balance: a single squiggly white line (perhaps an unraveled Chinese character) against a primary-color background. With "Shards," though, Kwong-Gordon points most profoundly to her union of text and soul. She makes a paper mold of her own body, draws Chinese characters on it, and attaches pieces (hands, bust, rear end) to the wall, linking them with faint pencil lines. Again, the material itself is of primary aesthetic interest. Where others might have used simple plaster or newsprint, she uses Lokta paper, a fiber formed from a rare bush in the Himalayas. Through May 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis

Surfing and Spying -- The comic-book-style illustrations of Miami artist Beatriz Monteavaro require a bit -- make that a lot -- of explanation. This is the latest stage in a zany stream-of-consciousness tale Monteavaro has been developing since 2003. For those unfamiliar with the absurd narrative that inspired these pen-and-ink drawings, they would make no sense at all -- and even knowing the story doesn't help that much. Unfortunately, Monteavaro's sole aesthetic purpose seems to consist of cramming in plot clichés and passé pop-culture references wherever possible. In this outrageous leg of narrative, water-skiing Go-Go's rescue Adam Ant, Gary Numan, Picasso, and Bela Lugosi from zombies on the Planet of the Apes. Or something like that. Monteavaro's work is nervous and erratic, but often highly detailed. She tends to leave landscape features blank or thinly covered in a wash of uniform color while applying layers of dense hatch marks to faces and clothing. Most of the images are roughly letter-size, and mostly they're much ado about nothing. If there's a masterpiece among these neurotic fantasies, it's the poster-sized depiction of the story's climax: Our heroes, the Go-Go's, wearing tiaras and fluffy white miniskirts, arrive on boogie boards in Paris like dames in shining rhinestones. Sickly green buildings and an angry purple sky complete the campy scene. It's a nonsensical ending to a pointless adventure. Through April 28 at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art, 740 West Superior Avenue, Suite 101, 216-830-8888, www.shaheengallery.com. -- Lewis

35th Annual Student Art Exhibition -- Random, variably coherent personal gestures push social and political messages to the corners of this intermittently inspired show. Though her small black-and-white images are easy to overlook, photographer Erin Bauers is one of the brightest lights here. Her best work is "Me," a creatively indirect self-portrait in which tough, leathery toes symbolize identity; they're the digits of a survivor -- much like the beaten wood plank against which her feet are posed. Senior Christopher Kulcsar's impressive oeuvre includes his own staged obituary. But his work is best exemplified by a large, stereotype-shattering painting called "Can't Live Without My Radio." Sitting on a stoop, three black teenagers pose around a boombox as if it were their group's fourth member. They're not bad kids, Kulcsar is saying -- but without their music, perhaps they would have been. Among the few political works is Grafton Lee's "First Amendment Awareness Project," a photo series documenting a performance-art piece in which Lee sat outside the Federal Courthouse and repeatedly dipped a copper plate bearing the letters "1st Amendment" (formed of thickly molded salt) in a bucket of water, effectively illustrating -- and protesting -- the gradual erosion of a vital principle. Judging by the nearly empty street in the photos, few people witnessed the event live last October. Through May 6 at Cleveland State University Art Gallery, 2307 Chester Ave., 216-687-2103, www.csuohio.edu/art/gallery. -- Lewis

Thresholds and Feel How Good It Looks -- This is not a two-artist show, but two artists exhibiting separately under one roof -- and the roof is about all they have in common. In Thresholds, Artemis Herber of Cleveland Heights paints dark and mysteriously affecting urban landscapes with profound sensitivity. Her close-ups of signs and utility poles, painted in satiny acrylic, verge on pure abstraction, their deft nuances in tone and brush stroke recalling master color-field paintings of the 1950s. Among her best works are her landscapes -- lonely, alienating urban expanses viewed from unusual angles. In "Station," a tiny mom-and-pop gas station holds its ground next to a factory's looming black smokestacks and huge empty parking lot; shining through the polluted gloom is the warm glow of yellow light from the store's windows, suggesting life and humanity inside. Anywhere else, the shop would seem dingy and depressing, but in this setting, it's practically an oasis. Herber's work invites repeated viewing and reflection -- a sharp contrast to the 3-D creations of University of Akron student Meghann Snow (Feel How Good It Looks), which yield a sense of playful, fleeting pleasure. She miraculously achieves compositional balance by haphazardly applying paint and other materials to canvas until it looks right. Like Herber, Snow works primarily with paint, but her palette also includes caulk, wire, tape, and other prefab materials with distinct textures. Randomness prevails, straight lines are rare, and silly titles yield little insight. Yet somehow it all makes sense. Through May 6 at E Gordon Gallery, 2026 Murray Hill Rd., 216-795-0971, www.egordongallery.com. -- Lewis

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Staff Pick Events

  • Jasper Wood's Cleveland @ Canopy

    • Fri., Oct. 28
  • A Studio Tour @ Artist's Archives of the Western Reserve

    • Sat., Oct. 29
  • A Special Discussion @ Cleveland Institute of Art

    • Tue., Nov. 1

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