Jesse Bransford: Recent Work -- Obscure, unappreciated intellectuals are Bransford's favorite people, their achievements his most cherished subjects. The young Atlanta-born, New York-based artist, whose show of recent drawings at Shaheen is his first solo exhibition, takes inspiration from thinkers whose accomplishments or ideas were ignored or even discredited in their day, often importing motifs from their work into his own. The thematic material in "Lycanthrope" seems lifted right out of a secret medieval manuscript. It's a scene of biblical devastation; the ground swallows up churches and homes, while a werewolf-like creature wielding flame and sword grimaces in delight. Where Bransford is going with this is anyone's guess. In "Merlin and the Dragon," a grizzled old man in a cloak hobbles along an astronomical chart toward a magical-looking tree. Bransford's style lends the image an ancient appearance, similar to that of an old woodcut; tweak a few details, and it would be perfect for a Tolkien edition. With "Wobble," Bransford seems taken with the notion that the universe is doughnut-shaped, and he replicates a diagram that proves it -- complete with vague measurements in Latin and a geometric outline. The artist then skips forward a few hundred years in a series of monochrome portraits of the great 20th-century intellectuals, drawing a quaint link between the ancient mystics and thinkers like Foucault, Sartre, and Rimbaud. They're drawings, but they look like silk-screen prints -- single colors against white backgrounds. Bransford's imagination is active and his knowledge is wide, but the conceptual foundation for his art here lacks sufficient substance. Until June 17 at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art, 740 W. Superior Ave., 216-830-8888, www.shaheengallery.com. -- Lewis
Memento Mori -- More than merely reminding us of our mortality, this timely but less than impressive group exhibition protests society's most preventable causes of death. War, of course, is a dominant theme, but it falls under the broader heading here of unnecessary and unwanted violence. The show takes its name from three pieces titled "Memento Mori." The best of them, by Leslie Organ, is also the least direct: a glass-encased icon built of leaves and acorns, nature's most transient objects. Tim Haag's, by contrast, is a blood-splattered, chain-bedecked memorial of the Kent State shootings that reserves nothing for the imagination. Gallery director Robert Thurmer's "Cold Blood" makes an effective, abstract, but in-your-face plea against guns by serving up large bullets on a silver tray, like metal hors d'oeuvres. Similarly, Barbara Pollack lets us watch violence burrow its way to a more profound level of tolerance in a video loop showing the amused facial expressions of a teenager playing a first-person shoot-'em-up video game. Other works, including a photo-portrait series shot in Colombia by Steve Cagan, assert that poverty and death are not so different. The show's tone is most succinctly captured by the subjects of Marion Epstein's print "Incredulous Man": Standing before the gates of Auschwitz, two classical Greek sculptures exchange puzzled expressions, as if trying to understand how mankind could sink so low. Through June 18 at the Cleveland State University Art Gallery, 2307 Chester Ave., 216-687-2103, www.csuohio.edu/art/gallery. -- Lewis
Michaël Borremans: Hallucination and Reality -- The world envisioned by this young Belgian artist is not an appealing place, even if his skill is in portraying it. In this large exhibition, Borremans outlines, in the most delicate hand, a dark, mechanistic, submissive society in which man and nature are traded and altered like commodities. His pencil drawings, overlaid with light watercolor and other media, such as white ink and tape, recall comic books of the 1940s. At that pre-nuclear time, certainly, his frames of scientists juggling tiny blue and red balls, of powerful men tinkering with fundamental matter, might have been perfect for some pulp novel. Yet it also speaks to current times, when stem-cell research, cloning, and terrorism are hot-button issues. "Slight Modifications," a veritable catalogue of human facial deformities, might be an illustration of the ills scientists now seek to eradicate; alternatively, "Cerebral Office" and "Boxing Heads" -- in which human heads are bought, sold, and stored on racks, as if they were shoes -- argue against genetic tampering. And the giant women towering over a model city, notepads at the ready, in "Terror Watch," demonstrate the ultimate in governmental invasiveness. Incidentally, the piece also exemplifies the strongest tool in Borremans' arsenal: perspective, or exaggerating differences in size. He does this most effectively in "Trickland," a vision of oversized humans crawling over a landscape and rearranging it as if it were a toy train set. Through September 4 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7340, www.clevelandart.org. -- Lewis
Once Familiar -- Claustrophobia may be your first reaction to this exhibition in the museum's sky lounge of works by four local artists. If you use the museum's spiral staircase, you will watch the ceiling get closer and closer, until you enter by poking your head through Carol Hummel's utterly unforgettable installation. Like Spider-Man on drugs, Hummel has spun a thick, multicolored web of yarn over both the gallery's open areas, complete with grandmotherly cozies over parts of the railings. Simultaneously abstract and immediately tangible, Hummel's work here questions the tame identity of yarn as well as its history as a medium. It won't seem quite so familiar after this. (A corresponding video project by Carey McDougall and sculptures by Dylan Collins were not yet in place, as of an early visit.) Just as devilishly creative and playfully subversive as Hummel's installation, though, is a series of faux-antique chairs by Stephen Litchfield, positioned like sentinels around the yarn. Narrow and wobbly, with cracker-sized seats and disproportionately high backs and long legs, Litchfield's humorous constructions are quite useless for sitting -- at least for human sitting. Otherwise, they're made to look exactly like their practical counterparts and would be considered fine furniture in the real world. Through August 14 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis
Pop the Top -- A bubble machine greets visitors at this cozy new Lakewood gallery; owner Richard Cihlar is probably next door, painting in his attached studio, which will soon be available to other artists. Looking beyond the imitation Warhol and Keith Haring on permanent display, it seems that the gallery's primary interest is not necessarily in pop art in the academic sense, but in the cultivation of local art. It's also clear that Pop the Top bodes well for Cihlar's taste as an exhibit coordinator. The show features 12 artists, most of whom live and work in Cleveland. Cihlar's work is interesting in its own right: elaborate, brightly colored, three-dimensional collages illustrating religious concepts and various aspects of our consumerist, disposable society. But the offerings get even better -- most notably with Steve Ziebarth's compelling "Portrait Piece," a set of 12 utterly distinct and realistic faces, painted in dark tones and arranged in a grid. Paul Jacklitch captures the over-the-top, carnivalesque traits of Vegas in his pure and digitally altered photographs. The show's biggest thrill comes courtesy of Stephanie Craig's "Five Pods": large gourds, singed and otherwise damaged so they resemble giant cocoons. As it happens, Craig, of Vancouver, is the only non-local artist here. Through July 2 at the Pop Shop, 17020 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 440-724-9261. -- Lewis
The Splendor of Ruins -- Two-thirds of the total canvas space in this exhibition of 17th- and 18th-century French landscape paintings depicts dense, untamed forests and wide-open, sunlit skies, sweeping vistas that extend for miles. The rest consists of toppled pillars, crumbling porticos, and the occasional biblical figure or earthbound divinity. This is how painters at the time liked their Greek and Roman ruins: overwhelming. They imagined classical structures as positively massive relative to human beings and painted from perspectives exaggerating that effect. Painters turned to ruins to endow their landscapes with airs of timelessness and exoticism, though they also offer reminders that nothing is permanent. In Hubert Robert's "Young Girls Dancing Around an Obelisk," girls in white dresses playfully encircle a giant Egyptian sculpture fragment as if it were a maypole; they think nothing of the remnants of ancient cultures they see every day. Ruins tended to be in secluded areas -- ideal settings in which to place young men slyly caressing the breasts of maidens, fierce-eyed warriors reflecting on lost battles, and lonely folk leading home their cattle. Some, like François Boucher, went too far: His "Landscape With a Water Mill" is so idyllic, it could be the backdrop to a fairy tale. More often than not, though, these artists strike near-perfect balances between reality and fantasy. Through June 19 at Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum, 87 N. Main St., Oberlin, 440-775-8665, www.oberlin.edu/allenart. -- Lewis
Tri-C West Annual Juried Student Art Exhibition 2005 -- The best works in student shows are those that fulfill the technical assignment while also accomplishing something personally expressive. Happily, there are many such in this giant multimedia roundup. "Teacher and Student," featuring an older painter mentoring a child with brush in hand, not only demonstrates Diane Zizka's facility with watercolors; it also captures a touching scene, perhaps from Zizka's childhood. Also looking backward in time, "Memories Lost" -- which depicts fragmented, hazed-over trees, doors, and statues -- showcases Marianne Gnandt's ability to layer photographs without suffocating her haunting, dreamlike concept. Of course, there's something to be said for sheer technique, as photographer Nancy Ballock proves with "Twilight at Huntington Beach," an impressive composition in which the beach, a stone pier, and the horizon form a triangular pattern against people standing at even intervals. Orsolya Bordczski's paintings on silk and gauze stand out amid a sea of competent but dull still lifes of food and clothing; "The Fall," a strikingly individual Art Deco-style vision of autumn personified and defined with thick lines of silver, bears a striking resemblance to a large, luxurious pane of Tiffany glass. Among the three-dimensional pieces, Brandon Hahn's "Wired," a metal-frame skull with a thick strand of copper wire attached to the eyes as if to plugs, is by far the most elegant -- and also the creepiest. Through June 18 at the Tri-C West Campus Gallery, 11000 Pleasant Valley Rd., Parma, 216-987-5322, www.tri-c.edu/art/docs/exhibitions/htm. -- Lewis
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