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Face To Vase 

Two West Side Solo Shows Explore Identity, Time And Love

By depicting families, friends and themselves, artists in all media have generated a strange eternity of face-time. The art of portraiture is near the core of our modern understanding of ourselves. From the shocking freshness of Hellenistic funerary portraits through Rembrandt's dark sympathy, on into the egomaniacal present tense of technological culture inflected with individual infinities, every JPEG and cell phone snapshot asserts our existence, distinct from the continuums of species, time and space. Like a sudden image in a mirror, the human face affirms the magic of incarnation, making the eye stop and the mind blink amid constant flux and continual extinction.

During the 18 years of his artistic career, 84-year-old painter Sid Rheuban has tried his hand at landscape and still life, but in the traditional trinity of subjects - of persons, places and things - the ones with faces are clear winners in Rheuban's ever-growing body of work. Since he began a new life as an artist in an all-day drawing class at Cuyahoga Community College in 1990, the former Cleveland Press reporter (one occupation among many in the course of a busy life) has barely stopped working for a minute, painting hundreds of intensely colorful works in oil and acrylic. Bold and experimental, the largely self-taught Rheuban has found inspiration everywhere. The pure, bright colors of early 20th century expressionist paintings - of early Matisse, of Andre Derain and Franz Marc - showed him how to be fearless, unintimidated by mere reality. Sometimes his skies are blue, but just as often they're something else, maybe yellow or green. This holds true when he paints flesh too. His depictions of himself, of his wife and his son, plus dozens of friends, are as colorful as modern commercial chemistry can make them.

Not content with the dulling of paint hues as they dry on canvas, Rheuban looked for ways to re-create the vibrant translucency of color as it appears in nature. If his first breakthrough was a realization that the awkward, heartfelt drawing that came so naturally to him was, in fact, a type of expressive fluency, his second happened sometime in the mid-'90s.

He tried painting on Plexiglass, an experiment that gave him a further freedom from self-consciousness because, he says, "It stopped me from being able to look at the painting before it was finished." He dubbed the results "reverse paintings" and usually displays them smooth-side-out, offering a view of the painter's process as if from the inside (Rheuban's first colors and strokes are also first to meet the eye, rather than buried under later additions.) This counter-intuitive way of working quickly became his dominant mode. Most of the 37 paintings at his first comprehensive solo show held at CSU's art gallery used Plexiglass as a surface. He summed up the effect of this method and its relation to his intentions with the show's title, Psychological Expressionism. They have a quality that seems lifted directly out of the depths of the mind, reaching back to early childhood impressions of the way people's outlines bend into the world.

The 14 newer paintings now on display at 1point618 gallery continue this journey with sometimes startling success. Most are set in Florida, where the Rheubans spend part of the year, often featuring tropical foliage and other background elements like canals, striped fish and even the occasional alligator. One of the best paintings at 1point618 is his 2-by-3-foot "Girl on a Swing" (2008), a taste sensation of brilliant color and clear, confident line conveying a sense of non-stop surprise - like tossing back a handful of sour candies. It shows a green-haired "girl" (who may be a young woman in real life, but here looks at least 60) perching sturdily on the many-colored horizontal slats of a porch swing. These have a Technicolor intensity, as much like a flying carpet as a porch swing. The swing's red tinted, free-standing supports further enclose and command the composition powerfully, like an armature; a long rectangle of cloudless, mottled blue sky behind the figure's head seems as carefree as wasted time. But this is in sharp contrast to her focused, sidelong gaze, and the complexity of Rheuban's painterly construction of her flesh, which here backs a first layer of pale pink with patches of dark blue. It is as if her unease is made visible by the artist's hand, like wind rippling a pond. "Fred and Head" (2007) is another stand-out. Here the composition seems unconscious, succeeding on the basis of sheer conviction or maybe chutzpah as it inscribes figural elements against an all-over background of mind-blowing yellow. Fred's face and limbs are rendered in warm flesh tones (except for purplish blue around the eyes, green lips and hair). He sits on the right of the Plexiglass square in a short-sleeved shirt decorated with fish, and like almost all of the people in Rheuban's paintings at 1point618, he looks to one side, as if distracted. Beside and behind him, landscape elements float by like passing thoughts. A small stand of trees grows from an oval patch of scrub, but under that, almost wearing it like a hat, is a self-portrait. Sid's head (there is no neck or body) looks directly at us, gravely, as if to say, did you forget I was here?Ê IF PORTRAITURE is a relatively new way to tell the story of how each of us inhabits place and time, there are also other, older ways to be here. All artifacts speak of the hand that made them, as well as use and need intersecting with beauty. Vessels made from the earth offer a uniquely ancient and complete description of what it means to be human, aware of substance and spirit pressing against the skin of every living thing. No one understood this psycho-physics of function and loveliness better than Charles Lakofsky, who in the course of his 71 years became one of Ohio's most accomplished ceramicists. Widely respected as a younger member of the Cleveland School that included such names as Edris Eckhart and Victor Schreckengost, Lakofsky was born in 1922, teaching at Bowling Green State University during much of his life. The show at the Cleveland Artists Foundation at the Beck Center was organized by the Zanesville Art Center and will travel to the Fine Arts Center Galleries at Bowling Green State University.

The 60-odd pots and vases, plates and trays at Charles Lakofsky: Ohio Modernist Master are more autobiography than self-portrait, conveying a complex sensibility as it evolved during more than half a century of studio practice. Lakofsky's range of formal approaches is formidable, often inspired by the abstract expressionist art of his contemporaries during the late 1940s on through the succeeding decade. But the strong, gestural graphics of that international style owed much to Chinese and Japanese painting and calligraphy, and the exquisite utilitarianism of a Lakofsky vessel brings such influences back home, to their roots in functional design and a deeply considered bond between man and materials.

Lakofsky's vases can be breathtakingly, organically original, as unlikely and delightful as a newly discovered species of plant. One of these, standing about a foot high, is a dusty jade green stoneware work, scored with several tiers of dark vertical marks, like the fibers of a broad leaf, but also like an ancient counting or grooves worn by some hard, long-forgotten task. It looks as if it were once broken in two halves from top to bottom, which grew back together, staggered along a dividing scar. Another slightly taller porcelain vase also evokes damage and mending in an easygoing vernacular that could have been appreciated in many times and cultures. It looks like a square-ish bag, also grooved and constructed around a vertical seam, but billowing slightly as it rises, then crumpling smoothly in at the top, gathered in casual folds like leather, cloth or a large banana leaf. In an essay written for the show's catalog, writer Mark Bassett explains that Lakofsky cultivated more than 100 species of daylilies in the Bowling Green garden that he and his wife Helen tended. Sometimes he would design containers specifically for a given bloom. If, in the end, art is not so much about the self as about love, how wonderful a thing, to build raiment for a flower.Ê

arts@clevescene.com

More by Douglas Max Utter

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