Capsule reviews of current area art exhibitions.

On View
Sarah Kabots Tablet, part of On the Flip Side at - MOCA through August 20.
Sarah Kabots Tablet, part of On the Flip Side at MOCA through August 20.

Form and Sounds -- Musical expertise isn't required to appreciate these visceral new paintings by Clevelander John Howitt, though a basic understanding helps. An ardent fan of jazz and classical music, Howitt translates profound musical principles and gestures into a comparably abstract visual language based on contrasting shapes, textures, and colors. Looking at these variously organized or chaotic compilations of dots, bars, and florally arcing loops is like reading musical scores: Whole compositions take shape in the mind as figures strategically placed on canvas conjure sounds of discrete lengths, pitches, phrasings, and volumes. (There's even suggestion of melody and accompaniment in the tension between upper and lower fields of activity, or between distinctly colored and -textured foregrounds and backgrounds.) Two of Howitt's idols are free-jazz exponents Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, which explains the loose, improvisational quality to much of his work. Likewise, Howitt tends to favor bright -- in this case, loud -- colors that stand out easily. But there are exceptions aplenty to both rules. Evenly distributed, cascading loops in "Spiritual Intimations" successfully imitates the light, deliberate touch of classical pianist Mitsuko Uchida (to whom it's dedicated), while the salmon pink and dark blues and greens in "Ode to Joni Mitchell" readily suggest the singer's calm, soothing voice. Howitt isn't the first artist to link sight and sound, but he's one of the few to do it so well. Through August 4 at E Gordon Gallery, 2026 Murray Hill Rd., 216-795-0971, -- Zachary Lewis


The Birth of Genius -- Unique among the many displays nationwide celebrating the 100th birthday of legendary designer Viktor Schreckengost, this exhibition unveils rare sketches and design concepts from 1924 to '29, when Schreckengost was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art (where he would eventually become the youngest faculty member in school history). In lieu of later masterpieces, the show features early school projects masterfully executed across a staggeringly diverse range. Whether sketching the human figure, designing a lamp, or conceiving a mural, Schreckengost excelled in every artistic attempt, lofty or mundane. He accomplished his task with unwavering finesse, understanding, balance, and attention to detail. A highlight among the figural sketches is "Nude Seated Female": Straight lines are nowhere to be found on this drawing of a seated woman -- only dynamic curves that set her in palpable motion. Perhaps the strongest harbinger of Schreckengost's design career is "Decorative Figure in Porcelain." Form and function unite stunningly in this design for an Art Deco statuette, its arched arm and flowing hair merging into a column that completes and supports the figurine. Of course, even the best of us has a bad day occasionally. Schreckengost's came during his sophomore year, when he sketched a male figure and apparently tried later to change its sex, adding breasts and bobbed hair with little success. But it's still a Schreckengost, and even this awkward piece has undeniable flair. Through August 18 at the Cleveland Institute of Art, 11141 East Blvd., 216-421-7403, -- Lewis

Kanwischer x 2 -- Edmund and Charles Kanwischer are father and son, but you'd have to view their work side by side to tell they have anything in common. This show provides that opportunity for the first time. Problem is, the thin conceptual threads uniting the two artists aren't all that enlightening. Edmund, the father, a retired Illinois professor, constructs crude, rhombus-shaped, marginally interesting sculptures of multicolored wood and found objects. They're like geometric abstracts in three dimensions, and it's no surprise to learn that the artist studied with Rothko. It's helpful to imagine the structures as little houses reflecting vastly different personalities: Some are bright and friendly, with doors, windows, and open interiors, while others are dark, solid, and seemingly impregnable. (One of them, a gray box with a wire-mesh opening, might be a prison.) Charles, an instructor at Bowling Green State University, picks up his father's "Would you live here?" theme and fascination with wood, but reveals greater talent and polish in his "Real Estate Series." Using only pencil and silverpoint in astoundingly realistic drawings resembling faded black-and-white photos, he captures the dual personalities of empty rooms as places either inviting or forbidding -- depending on your view of so much empty square footage -- with shadows lurking in corners and behind doorways. He also lets viewers decide whether the perfect but lifeless new homes springing up on vast, windblown fields where trees once reigned represent progress or travesty. It's clear what the artist thinks, even if the point is well worn: Like his father, Charles prefers wood in its natural state. Through July 9 at Raw & Co Gallery, 1009 Kenilworth Ave. , 216-235-0635, -- Lewis

MythAmerica -- Be sure to read the wall text from the start, or you'll waste time grasping for meaning that probably isn't there. Few of the nine artists readily convey anything significant on their own, without reference to the exhibit's broader and largely unfulfilled mission to examine the health of the American dream and the relationship between personal identity and culture . . . and even that crutch isn't very helpful. Consider Tim Rietenbach's "American Hairpiece": Astounding and amusing as this wall of presidential portraits in actual hair is, it's impossible to discern what we are to take from it. In Joshua Marks' "Desert Virus," imagining the American tendency to create and inhabit unnaturally perfect paradises is the key to grasping his large-scale model of scorched brown earth dotted with bubbles veiling oases of green grass. In other words: We're the virus, settling in places where we don't belong. Only the films of Cleveland video artist Kasumi truly stand on their own. Most compelling is "Free Speech Zone," in which creepy old-film snippets of a woman being gagged and a priest wielding a frighteningly large cross alternate with looped footage of President Bush laughing guiltily and blinking in empty-headed panic. Heavy-metal music whips this violent, brutally effective protest over diminishing rights into an ever-faster frenzy, like a DJ igniting a rave crowd. There's no arguing significance when you're out of breath. Through August 4 at Spaces Gallery, 2220 Superior Viaduct, 216-621-2314, -- Lewis

On the Flip Side -- Cleveland Institute of Art professor Sarah Kabot wields a sharp knife with exceptional precision, yet it's her quirky perspective that leaves an even deeper impression. These works on -- and in some cases of -- paper coach viewers to see the physical world as a compromise between positive and negative space. The show starts out small and then leaps to the gigantic. Virtuoso pieces "Blank" and "Grid" are sheets of college-ruled and graph paper whose blue lines have been surgically extracted. It's as if Kabot magically yanked out the paper parts, leaving nothing but thin veins of ink suspended in midair. The knife cuts the other way in an untitled photo of two trees with overlapping branches. Kabot leaves intact the part of the photos showing the trunks, but she carefully carves away the empty blue sky behind the branches. The startling effect is of two hands reaching out for each other -- a clear allusion to the central image in Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam." If Kabot has a thing for Michelangelo, "Reverse" must be her version of the Sistine Chapel. A floor-bound mirror image of the gallery ceiling, the room-size installation is an exact, paper-made replica of functional objects -- ductwork, lighting, and structural supports -- designed to be ignored. It's a stupendous technical accomplishment, but it's also a plea from an artist who would have us observe and engage with our surroundings more completely and profoundly. Through August 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, -- Lewis

The Persistence of Geometry -- The subject you hated in high school you'll embrace here: Geometry is the conceptual glue that holds together this mammoth exhibition underscoring the agelessness of pattern and repetition in art. New York curator Lowery Stokes Sims observed few limits in mining the show's contents from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art; it touches on pretty much every major culture, period, and medium -- from paintings and sculpture to pottery and tribal masks -- with emphasis on the 20th and 21st centuries. Those who've spent time in CMA's modern wing will see many old friends, including works by Pollock, Close, Motherwell, LeWitt, Siskind, Bearden, and Miró. Few of these people had geometry on their minds at the moment of inspiration. More often, geometric shapes and patterns are the means to other ends; they become significant only in their visual context. As with the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, the raison d'être of this exhibit is the pairing of objects whose only real link is a similar design motif. At worst, those connections are brilliant: a minimalist seascape by Hiroshi Sugimoto next to Brice Marden's color-field masterpiece "Sea Painting," for example. At best, they're downright spine-tingling. The most electrifying instance must be the ancient Egyptian weaving from 400 A.D.: Its tightly knit checker pattern is reflected in a porcelain Chantilly teacup from 1760 and in a high-resolution silver print of a sunflower from 1960. Presented together, they are almost more than the brain can handle. Through August 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, -- Lewis

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