Exurbs: A Collected Environment — In this three-artist show, Laura Sanders, Dana Oldfather, and Susan Danko exhibit stylistically varied paintings loosely united by themes and settings exploring mindscapes as well as landscapes. In her "Heads Above Water" series, Columbus artist Sanders paints realistic pictures of children and adolescents swimming outdoors. This subject matter may sound suspiciously precious, but her paintings express a sense of isolation rarely found in images of youngsters. The children fight to stay afloat, gasping for breath as their faces break through the water's surface. In her larger works, Sanders groups boys and girls wading together, but the children aren't playing with one another. Instead, they gaze off into the distance or rub the water out of their eyes. Curiously, in some paintings Sanders includes muskrats swimming alongside the children. These semiaquatic creatures are at home in wetlands; positioning the effortlessly swimming animals next to the struggling children serves as a reminder that these humans don't belong in the water. Self-taught Cleveland painter Oldfather presents a series of prints and paintings starring a sketchily outlined female figure navigating an imagined world of miasmic, abstracted backgrounds. Titles such as "We're Going," "The Long Commute," and "Glide" reinforce her works' sense of journey. Cleveland Institute of Art graduate Susan Danko's flatly painted acrylic works resemble backgrounds from animated fairy tales. The highly patterned forest scenes forgo atmospheric perspective; the layered shapes representing trees, rocks, and shrubbery recede as they go higher up the canvas. Through April 26 at The Bonfoey Gallery, 1710 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 216-621-0178, www.bonfoey.com. — Theresa Bembnister
Charlene Liu: Recent Paintings — It's difficult to tell by looking, but Charlene Liu's works on paper are an amalgamation of drawing, painting, and printmaking. She uses a process called "chin colle," which involves attaching two pieces of paper together through the pressure of the printing press. Highly detailed and fantastical, Liu's depictions of plant life appear to be drawn from a mishmash of sources — a saltwater fish tank, a desert landscape, a forest floor — and assembled into a single organic entity. Although strikingly beautiful, Liu's work is infused with a sense of putrefaction and spoil. The wet-on-wet painting effect she employs produces circular forms that are surrounded by darker rings of color and resemble spores of fungi or bacteria. Her palette is that of organic matter in decay — mossy greens, bruise-hued purples and blues, and the golden and brassy hues of autumn leaves. Liu's mixed-media work serves as a reminder that things are most precious to us when they are almost gone or in the process of fading away. Unfortunately, there's a little too much white wall left between the separate pieces in this exhibition. Artwork that encourages such intense study and close observation could make room for the addition of another piece or two. But what is on the walls is spectacular and quietly explosive. Through April 11 at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art, 740 W. Superior Ave., Ste. 101, Cleveland, 216-830-8888. — Bembnister
Let All God's People Say Amen — For five years, Cleveland State University Urban Studies Professor Helen Liggett photographed the faithful members of Morning Star Baptist Church on Shaker Boulevard. The resulting series of more than 100 black-and-white photographs has none of the academic distance or analytical coolness you might expect from a scholar whose expertise includes urban planning and theory. Liggett's unposed photos are like snapshots from the congregation's scrapbook, tenderly capturing the commitment these churchgoers have to their faith and to each other, and — judging from the subjects' lack of consciousness of the camera — their trust in the photographer. Although the installation is at times distracting — the pictures without a foam-core backing are beginning to warp — this exhibition provides an intimate look at the worship and ministries of Morning Star. Liggett organizes the photos loosely by theme — singing women on one wall, young-adult mentoring on another — and artfully arranges them in patterns often reminiscent of a cross. The most successful grouping is displayed near the gallery entrance, where Liggett focuses on the parishioners' hands: calmly folded, clutched one in another, waving a fan, held high in worship, clapping. The emotion expressed in these photographs disputes the old adage that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Through April 5 at Heights Arts Studio, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-371-3344. — Bembnister
Sam Taylor-Wood — If there's one point British artist Sam Taylor-Wood makes in this bold, searingly honest photo-and-video show, it's that everything is always in flux. And that includes people, a message Taylor-Wood proclaims with large photo-portraits of crying Hollywood alpha males. Onscreen, all are men of steel, but here we see tender sides, and the contrasts are both surprising and touching. Doubly fascinating: No two sadnesses are alike. Laurence Fishburne stares stoically, ignoring the tears dripping down his face. Daniel Craig, meanwhile, seems disturbed, as if witnessing something painful, while Hayden Christensen, aka Darth Vader, appears bitterly remorseful. Taylor-Wood herself is the principal character in several more pieces. In five photos called "Bram Stoker's Chair," the artist is seen balancing impossibly atop a wooden chair, gracefully defying gravity. They're haunting, balletic images, with her shadows dancing on the wall behind her. The truth in each is the same: She's flying now, but pain is just ahead. But nothing conveys flux more neatly than Taylor-Wood's "Still Life." In this time-lapse video, a bowl of nectarines, the quintessential still-life subject, is seen gradually rotting and molding to the point of collapse. It's a dramatic transformation, actually, and all those endless, static paintings of fruit will never look the same again. Through May 11 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, 8501 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland, 216-421-8671. — Zachary Lewis
TA-DAA — The artist known as BASK brings mixed-media works — graphic design, graffiti, and illustration — into a fine-art setting. And judging from the salability of his artwork — 15 out of 40 pieces were purchased on the opening night of his first Cleveland exhibition since 2006 — this combination of gimmicky, mass-produced slickness and counterculture cool has a broad appeal. The Florida artist stencils, scratches, paints, and draws on top of outdated floral-patterned wallpaper stuck to scavenged wooden boards. The media used for these pieces are truly mixed: BASK's smooth stenciled images provide a striking contrast to his childlike graphite scribbles and thick, broad strokes of paint. Rough wood grain and rusty nails are visible underneath his embellishments. In this show, BASK presents a recurring cast of characters — a little boy with a sanguine, toothy grin, a pointy-horned devil engulfed in flames, scantily clad females with come-hither glances, a swarm of adorable yet dangerous killer bees. Simultaneously cute and creepy, these anxiety-inducing characters attract and repel, even though rendered in an easy-to-swallow style. Maybe it's that seductive mix that's convinced so many gallery visitors to whip out their wallets. Through April 4 at Architecture Gallery, 1667 E. 40th St., Unit 1A, Cleveland, 216-533-5575. — Bembnister
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