Learning to Crawl -- Before you can crawl, you need balance. It's clear from this show that Matt Sesow and Dana Ellyn Kaufman, Washington, D.C.-based artists in a self-proclaimed experimental phase, will soon be standing upright. But their work also is polarized, either obvious or confusing. Many of their acrylic and oil paintings here belong to a project called 31 Days in July, pictures inspired by last month's daily news, one image per day. Most are Kaufman's blunt, literal, pulp-style reactions to specific events: Karl Rove's unpunished blunder, the London attacks, the G-8 conference; others are more general and surreal (one compares Kate Moss to a starving African child). Her best one powerfully juxtaposes Lance Armstrong's victory with the aftermath of an Iraqi car bomb. Sesow is the duo's abstract expressionist, painting frightening alien figures with pointy nipples, bulging eyes, hooks for hands, cue-ball heads, squat legs, and huge feet. They're messy, furious, and slightly cubist in perspective. But while his work is more engaging, it's largely uncommunicative. He references the Madonna and Child in "Ascending," but what to make of "Generic Overdose," in which a hideous creature crouches mysteriously in pain or fear? There's an intuitive depth to Sesow's work, but crawling, for him, will entail guiding us more clearly to appreciate him. Through August 30 at Inside-Outside Art Gallery, 2688 W. 14th St., 216-623-8510. -- 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
The NEO Show -- Despite its huge variety of media, this juried exhibition of 80 Northeast Ohio artists doesn't offer enough viable alternatives to established tradition. In lieu of deeply considered art are bright colors, appealing surfaces, technical creativity, mechanical gizmos, and ingratiating effects that mostly entertain rather than nourish. Take, for example, Jason Lee's "Greener," a cute installation consisting of backlit photos of grass and a miniature white picket fence; Stephen Litchfield's three-key piano; or Benjamin Kinsley's increasingly annoying video of a young man twisting and shrieking. These were among the best of 1,300 applicants? Thankfully, there are a few saving graces. One never tires of Hildur Jonsson's complex but elegant fiber weavings, and at least one painter -- Brian Sharp -- hasn't abandoned pure abstraction. Photorealist James Seward offers the fine painting "My Father in the Living Room of Our 10th House," a massive close-up of an old man's craggy face, and photography itself is well represented by Herbert Ascherman Jr.'s beautifully obscured black-and-white nightscape and by Michael Loderstedt's sadly effective view of Waccamaw Neck, South Carolina, a historical site currently marred by discarded garbage. Through September 4 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7350, www.clevelandart.org. -- Lewis
Nina Bovasso -- Stepping inside the new painting installation by New-York-based artist Nina Bovasso at the Museum of Contemporary Art is as exciting as going for a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Her huge design on the rotunda gallery's curved wall looks like paisley gone mad; it surrounds the viewer with an almost dizzying spinning effect. The eye scans the perimeter and flits about the room, frantically seeking visual balances on either side of the circle between a psychedelic array of tall flames, dots, branches, buttons, and swoosh patterns, while the brain seizes almost subconsciously on matching colors across this huge carnivalesque palette. Bovasso fixed her own pictures to the wall like large 21st-century diptychs, then painted new designs that grow around, toward, and away from them like ivy. One near the window is a big, red explosion of paint that seems to spew more design fragments into the atmosphere. No two perspectives are alike in this gallery. Views and responses to those views change according to the focal point and the viewer's position in relation to it. Bovasso spent a week climbing up and down ladders to complete the installation. It's a wonder it didn't take her longer -- and that she didn't fall off. Through August 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis
Out There: Landscape in the New Millennium -- Traditional landscape painting may be fading into the sunset, but there's still a bright future for landscape art in general, as this new exhibition of contemporary international works makes clear. Corsican artist Ange Leccia's hypnotic, beautifully disorienting video installation titled "La Mer" features a camera positioned directly above a seashore, filming white-capped waves breaking and retreating on dark sand; displayed onscreen, the wave pattern looks strangely like a slow, undulating geyser. American Jennifer Steinkamp also works magic through video in "Dervish 14," a digitized time-lapse loop of a tree as it winds and unwinds through the seasons. The rest are all photographs: American Tom Bamberger depicts the wide, imposing front edges of dense natural mini-environments, whether thick clumps of "Brown Grass" or a field of high-tech windmills. Ellen Kooi posits people as intrinsic elements of the Dutch countryside in her large, haunting photographs; a row of people emerges directly out of the ocean and onto the land to form a wall in "The Dike," while in another picture, a man frozen in a seemingly impossible backflip forms a bridge over a creek. Rosemary Laing, in four images from a series called "One Dozen Unnatural Disasters in the Australian Landscape," draws intriguing comparisons between fire as a destructive force and the harsh climate of her land. Through August 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis
Sculpture Garden -- The small sculpture garden at Atmosphere's new Tremont digs is filled with engaging sights. Alex Stoll's burnt-steel dragonflies and squirrels hover over shrubbery like busy real-life creatures. A large insect with brightly colored metal bars for legs oversees the garden's back half. Near the front, Lothar Jobczyk's "Garden Spirits" -- sandstone blocks with craggy, totemic faces -- poke their heads above the plants; commendably, Jobczyk managed to give each one a personality without squandering their dense, stony qualities. But the sculptures by Frank Brozman and Jerry Schmidt are the kings of this jungle. Brozman's are abstract realizations in brown steel of familiar materials and physical processes. Ornate flower planters are among his more obvious examples, but he can be subtler: At first, his "Insatiable" looks like nothing more than a large flat piece of steel connected to its stand by a metal coil. Viewed from the side, however, it becomes a face and stomach forever trapped in a cycle of feeding and regurgitating. Schmidt's "Photogenic" compares in size to the giant insect, but surpasses it conceptually: A circle of blue steel punctures a large, flesh-colored plate, like a lens coming out of a camera. Not only does it evoke photography in this way; the whole, curvaceous, semi-animate thing appears to be posing for a picture. Through the summer at Atmosphere Gallery, 2379 Professor Ave., Suite 1, 216-685-9527. -- Lewis
Secrets Whispered in the Night -- If these paintings truly represent Maria Winiarski's dreams, she cannot be sleeping well. But their vaguely uneasy atmosphere is also precisely what makes them interesting. This self-taught, resolutely original Lakewood artist here presents a series of exceedingly strange primal images that bear a greater resemblance to hallucinogenic visions than to reality. A cross between a surrealist, a fauvist, and a cave painter, Winiarski bothers little with strict three-dimensional perspective, and her color palette is either brilliantly bright or muted and gritty. She paints with oils on canvas, except, oddly enough, when she's using rubber-backed floorboard. Her greatest concern, it seems, is in creating single-frame mysteries. They can be beautiful, even elegant. Consider the vaporously thin blue fabric draped over a reclining nude in "Sleeping With Her Mask." They can be ugly, like the grotesque "Warrior" with the snake growing out of his head. Some seem like mistakes: Winiarski may not have wanted the free-spirited young girl in "Dancing With Vermeer" to have such a misshapen foot, for instance. The enigma, in almost every case, is how to interpret her works. Winiarski is at her peak when she leaves at least a few clues, as in "Styx," in which a woman contemplates her next step beside the mythological river of Hades. But lack of narrative resolution is OK, if less compelling. A witch with flowing blond hair holding two birds ("Blue Canary") will make a fine conversation piece. Then again, so will almost everything here. Through September 3 at E. Gordon Gallery, 2026 Murray Hill Rd., 216-795-0971, www.egordongallery.com. -- Lewis
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