A Take on the Lake

The new Spaces exhibit views Erie from an inward perspective.

Great Lake Erie: Imagining an Inland Sea
"Eletric Plant From Beaver Island" By John Pfahl, - photograph.
"Eletric Plant From Beaver Island" By John Pfahl, photograph.
How well do you know Lake Erie? Curator William Busta and the 16 artists represented in a new show at Spaces, called Great Lake Erie: Imagining an Inland Sea, are suggesting that we may need a refresher course. This insightful exhibit isn't saying that Clevelanders need to be reminded of the lake's physical location. We all know where it is on the map. No, Busta, the former owner and proprietor of the William Busta Gallery in Little Italy, has something else in mind. He's interested in the lake as an anchor for Cleveland's regional identity.

This approach -- focusing on Lake Erie's impact on our collective psyche -- is particularly sensitive to the mythical dimensions that bodies of water have had on the American consciousness. Think, for example, of the old West, where settlers set up camp next to a stream. The stream played an integral role in the lives of those hardy individualists. It provided their drinking water (a bare necessity), but since it held out the possibility of gold, it was also a symbol for their dreams of a better future. For the early settlers, the stream was a physical presence that also provided spiritual sustenance; so, too, with Clevelanders' relationship with the lake.

In the best work of this show, the artists capture this dynamic. The premise seems to be that it takes effort to understand one's relationship with one's surroundings. Living near the lake doesn't guarantee understanding it; examining one's own responses to the lake does. The exhibit's title alerts us to this idea. "Inland Sea" refers to both physical and spiritual qualities. As the artists explore the lake, they are reinvesting it with the mythical stature that it doesn't have in everyday life. They are, in the final analysis, asking us to view the lake with the awe and expectancy that those early settlers had when they panned their streams for gold.

There are as many approaches as there are artists. The show features photography, installation art, video, painting, and sculpture. The artists hail from Ohio, New York, Michigan, and Ontario. What they all have in common is their familiarity with the lake on a day-to-day basis. The variety of media chosen and the geographical diversity (the curator hasn't limited his sights to Cleveland artists) attests to the desirability of looking at the lake from many perspectives. As Busta has written in another context: "The construction and maintenance of [regional] identity is not a passive task -- it requires dynamic effort." Lake Erie, in other words, is not an entity Clevelanders can claim as their own until they have devoted some thought to it. Places exist on a map, we are told, but they become infinitely more meaningful when people, like the artists in this show, add their stories and associations to them.

Cleveland artist Michael Loderstedt creates work in this spirit. Included here is a series of 16 understatedly effective color photographs that the artist took via a radio-controlled camera mounted atop a sailboat mast. It's an odd fish-eye perspective, with the nose of the boat in the foreground and a curved, compressed horizon line in the distance. Each photo, all about journey and exploration, announces in the lower left corner the time the picture was taken, the longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates, and a brief description of weather conditions. We are directed to the exact place and time, and yet the prevailing feeling is that this is a universal journey that continually takes place. The challenge in understanding one's environment, Loderstedt seems to say, is to be attuned to the specific while holding on to the large view. That is what the artist does by affixing these captions and by then contrasting a wide blue expanse with the intricate fragment of boat that we look down on from the mast.

Another Cleveland artist, Patrick M. Kelly, stresses the danger of lake exploration. His enormous multi-paneled painting called "Sailor Take Warning" snarls. Here is a sailboat facing a storm, which, to put it mildly, is not of the TV soundstage variety that overwhelmed the S.S. Minnow and its crew. This atmospheric work is a mixture of orange, blue, and yellow shards that is at once true to the colors of Lake Erie in bad weather and evocative of the flamboyantly ominous canvases by 19th-century English painter J.M.W. Turner. On shaped canvas, the boat juts out from the wall as though the storm is in the process of tossing it right into the viewer's space. The panels are sometimes not precisely aligned with one another, and such irregularities add to the feeling of impending doom. It's as though thunder and lightning are threatening to jar the pieces of the painting loose. It's virtual reality on paint and the strongest work in the show.

Some artists are content to limit their inquiry to specific aspects of the lake. Such works are regional in a narrow, circumscribed way: They lack the added expressive dimension achieved by artists like Kelly and Loderstedt. Take Detroit artist Brian N. Nelson's multimedia work titled "I Forgot How the Circulation of Years." It projects images of flowing water on a movable table on which the artist has placed several carved salt disks. The work reminds one that there are salt deposits 2,000 feet below Lake Erie and that they were formed by sea water thousands of years ago. The piece seems to ask viewers to think about the slow changes that have taken place beneath the lake all these years. Unfortunately, its confessional title raises questions that the piece doesn't answer.

Like Nelson, other artists in the show isolate objects typically associated with the lake and ask us to think anew about them in a gallery context. These are modest works that put a regional spin on the ideas of the 20th-century French modernist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp shocked his viewers by placing unaltered mass-produced objects (like a bicycle wheel or a bottle rack) in art gallery settings; these "ready-mades" were designed as provocations that would, among other things, challenge the viewer's preconceived notions of what art should look like. The installations and sculptures in this show by the collaborative team of Cleveland artists Ray Juaire and Patti Fields don't work with mass-produced objects, but with pieces of rust, bark, and rubber fittings they have rescued from the lake. These objects are accompanied by texturally related backgrounds. Just as bicycle wheels are mass-produced on dry land, these are the mass products of the lake. "Debris Field" is an installation that consists of 43 such items, individually mounted on custom-made square panels. In this work, the artists make lakeshore detritus interesting.

Other work here, however, cannot make the mundane interesting. The photography of Akron's Maria Golden shows people going about their lives with the lake as a backdrop, but rarely does one sense any connection between the two realities. An exception is a photograph of what appears to be a grandfather with his granddaughter. The photographer groups the human figures to the far left side of the frame, while on the right side, a placid lake seems to comment on their relaxed interaction. More effective are the color photographs by Buffalo resident John Pfahl. These photographs of the lake and its surrounding skylines are from his Arcadia Revisited series. Arcadia, one recalls, was a region in ancient Greece regarded as an ideal of simplicity and contentment. Pfahl, in photographs like "Electric Plant From Beaver Island," shows us an idealized landscape, where some lakeside vegetation and tree growth in the foreground blends melodiously with the calm lake waters in the middle ground and the electric plant in the background. In fact, one of the young trees in the foreground intersects two smokestacks in the background. Not only is this a clever formal device for conflating space, but it helps Pfahl make his point: Nature and industry not only can peacefully coexist, they can thrive in each other's presence.

This fine show has a compelling concept, and frequently, the artists play off of it with interesting results. For these artists, Lake Erie is not merely a place they experience on weekend boating trips, but a living presence in their lives that acts as a barometer for their feelings about themselves and their region. Busta has a strong curatorial voice, and this show raises hopes that he opens up another gallery soon.

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