Blakxtraploitationism — Billed by curator Julius Lyles as "a visual, social, political, racial interpretation art exhibit," Blakxtraploitationism presents work by artists who refuse to shy away from loaded content. And, with more than 50 objects by 11 artists, the group exhibition smartly contrasts artworks relaying up-front, blatant messages with more nuanced pieces. Richard Karberg's "The Sons and Daughters of Darfur" consists of photographic reprints of three slides of Darfurian children that the artist took while traveling in Africa in the 1970s. Beneath the casual vacation-snapshot aesthetic and bright, carefree colors lies the question of whether the children remain alive as adults today. On a nearby podium stands one of ceramist Tracy Amenn's cookie jars, Aunt Jemima-type figures with bloated red lips shown doing menial household tasks like baking and the laundry. Amenn's unapologetic appropriation of the black mammy stereotype is undeniably shocking. Viewers' responses to Lyles' "Seduction of the Colored Preference" may depend on their political leanings: The artist paints rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama cozying up to each other, with an adoring Clinton leaning her head on Obama's shoulder. The most powerful images in the show are the three black-and-white portraits of Iraqi men photographed by Frank Xavier Weiss, a member of the U.S. military — pictures that possess a humanizing element absent from the barrage of war images supplied by the news media. Through May 3 at Asterisk Gallery, 2392 Professor Ave., 330-304-8528. — Theresa Bembnister
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. — Bembnister
The Formal Absences of Precious Things — Tannaz Farsi's work has presence. It must be reacted to, not merely looked at. Farsi fills the room with oversize, clear vinyl pillows, over six feet tall and four feet wide. As viewers maneuver through the claustrophobic space, four plastic tubes run from the side of each pillow up to the ceiling, attached to a hidden, incessantly droning air compressor that keeps the pillows constantly puffed. Fluorescent lights placed behind the translucent pillows emit an eerie glow, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere. Farsi projects four videos on the gallery wall — nearly still images of outdoor scenes, shot from her apartment. Set off to the side, a pair of disembodied arms and hands, cast in clear resin, rests above what appears to be a control panel covered in dozens of knobs, suggesting that this surreal scene is under the command of some unseen force. The tubes running from pillows to compressor imply a lifeline or interconnectivity. Farsi's mastery of sensory engagement is impressive; the sights, sounds, and sense of space transform the gallery into a sterile area with an unsettling quality. Through April 26 at The Sculpture Center, 1834 E. 123rd St., Cleveland, 216-229-6527. — Bembnister
Sam Taylor-Wood — Make sure you see this exhibition soon. Not only is it profoundly affecting, but it could change at any moment. 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
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