Capsule reviews of current area art exhibitions.

On View

Visions of a City With Soul -- Eighty years of life in Cleveland come alive in this ample survey of four photographers: Arthur Gray, William Barnhill, Jasper Wood, and Andrew Borowiec. What's striking is how different these artists are. Beyond using black-and-white film, they have almost nothing in common. Gray, in the 1920s, fondly captures Cleveland's economic heyday, when downtown was a vibrant, crowded shopping district and black smoke symbolized industrial health. But while his work is dated, it's also strikingly contemporary in certain respects. "Bridges at Night," a long exposure illustrating the curvy paths of traffic through and over the Flats, might have been taken yesterday. Wood, a self-taught artist in the late '40s, exposes Cleveland's extreme poverty with brutal honesty; his shots of unemployed men and grimy children playing in garbage-strewn slums burn onto the visual memory instantaneously. Urban loneliness, expressed via desolate, shadowy alleyways, seems to have been Barnhill's primary interest in the late '30s. But Borowiec, a professor at the University of Akron, has the sharpest formal eye. Shooting in modern-day western Cleveland, Borowiec composes scenes of remarkable depth and geometric eclecticism. Lines formed by train tracks, beams, and industrial structures intersect at every angle, setting up one surprising contrast after another. Perfect regularity, though, is what distinguishes his "Bridge Street, Ohio City." These hanging plants, evenly distributed over someone's chain-link fence, are almost too precise to be real, oases of consistency in an inconsistent world. Through March 31 at the Cleveland Artists Foundation (at Beck Center for the Arts), 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-227-9507, -- Zachary Lewis

The Great Grid -- Right-brain people are more likely than left-lobers to appreciate these giant new paintings by renowned Clevelander Patricia Zinsmeister Parker. The show's geometrical title notwithstanding, Parker's brand of abstraction appeals primarily on visceral levels, forgoing intellectual depth to overwhelm the senses with shape, color, and sheer size. Standing before "Heads and Tails," a huge grid of curved, painted paper, right- and left-brainers alike will revel in the sea of lime green and black, smeared by a paper-bag relic from Parker's earlier work. They'll also be grateful for the round-edged islands of yellow, white, and turquoise overtop the paper -- visual counterweights that draw attention from the grid's rigidity and break up the monotony of hue. The fierceness in Parker's execution, too, would excite anyone's blood. Ultimately, though, the piece amounts to a study in contrast, and only those who relish subjectivity on a grand scale will surrender to it for long. "Predominantly Yellow" is the show's most distinctive and -- at 41 feet long -- largest entry. Two horizontal rows of curved canvases, one stacked atop the other, alternately undulate, like huge ribbons flapping in the wind. Bright solid colors (only some of which are yellowish) and straight vertical lines mark off distinct rectangular sections. Nothing could be less like the gallery's flat white walls, and the structure's innocent appearance (remember those mats from grade-school gym class?) deftly overshadows its structural complexity. But, like so much else here, the piece's simple ends fail to justify such elaborate means. Through March 3 at Cleveland State University Art Gallery, 2307 Chester Ave., 216-687-2103, -- Lewis

Legal Aliens -- Among the 12 international artists exploring immigration in this show, only a few make a genuine impact, creatively questioning misconceptions and biases about the state of being foreign. The rest evoke confusion or rely on thin conceptual conceits. But it's hard to quibble with the curators' overall choice of medium. In theory, at least, video is the ideal tool for conveying movement and experience -- the essences of immigration -- and technology only reinforces the issue's urgency and relevance. The two strongest pieces make their points simply, quickly, and without words. Dan Acostioaei's "Essential Current Affairs" depicts a masked man and woman locked in a long, slow kiss. With their heads covered in black cloth, they look like terrorists, but their embrace is one of mutual sensitivity and tenderness. It's a strange, jarring contrast -- one that humanizes even those who would harm us and symbolizes the kinds of irrational divisions standing between otherwise caring people in a culture of paranoia. Sharon Paz's "Wandering Home" is less controversial, but also more universal and no less poignant emotionally. Two layers of video run simultaneously: a time lapse of a small apartment's interior and an ever-changing series of landscapes rushing past the windows outside. It's as if the room were a train, zooming cross-country, eventually returning to its original location. What a succinct, poetic illustration of the theme! Home isn't a fixed place; it goes with you, and its identity changes along the way. Through March 9 at Spaces, 2220 Superior Viaduct, 216-621-2314, -- Lewis

Model, Protagonist -- To Jo Nelson, an MFA student at Hunter College in New York, buildings are more than static objects -- they're unique reflections of humanity, and we interact with them profoundly. It's an intriguing hypothesis, but it could use a little more development and defense. Not that what she has here isn't interesting. Nelson keeps things simple and on-message by working with raw materials, rarely using anything other than plain wood, paper, and ink. Her two most insightful pieces, called "Fantasy Machines," draw attention to the many variables affecting our perception of classic structures. Both are wooden contraptions, simulating views of the Empire State Building and its environs and the Statue of Liberty from the perspective of tiny wooden people. In both, the people are on tracks, to be moved any height or distance from the building, and a freestanding light replicates the sun's many possible positions. Photos of the scenes bear a more than passing resemblance to reality, and the faceless mannequins could represent anyone; the potential for variation in mood and viewpoint is practically endless. Ink-and-pencil-drawn sketches for houses and rooms make weak puns on computerized architectural designs, with their eerie transparency and visual cacophony. But with "Timeline," Nelson is back to her strengths. These five house-shaped wooden blocks symbolize five progressive stages of suffering from Hurricane Katrina, from an untouched home to a charred, soaked lump. On one level, they're just houses, but on another, they're reflections of the people who once inhabited them. Through February 24 at the Sculpture Center, 1834 East 123rd St., 216-229-6527, -- Lewis

Portraits From Mali -- The late, great Malian photographer Seydou Keita (1921-2001) didn't consider himself an artist. In his mind, he was simply a tradesman who took portraits of upper-class West Africans. Yet the 17 large, stunning images gathered here, shot in the 1950s on black-and-white film, demand to be appreciated as art. Although self-educated, Keita was a sort of benchmark of sophistication and modernity; everyone who was anyone in Bamako society had him take their picture. Family after family approached him, individually or together, to be immortalized in their finest clothing, jewelry, and most elaborate hairdos or headdresses -- some would even bring along status-symbol props like radios and watches. Keita provided the backdrops: elegant fabrics bearing some striking Middle Eastern pattern that matched or somehow complemented his client 's clothing. Intimacy and cultural hybridism transform these untitled images into art. Printed in high resolution on huge, life-sized sheets of silver gelatin, the photos are so realistic, the subjects might as well be flesh and blood. Look at them too long -- stare into those vivid eyes -- and you'll feel as though you've invaded the subjects' personal space. Equally compelling is the mix of time periods. Keita's technical and compositional achievements with these photos are cutting edge for their time, but the dirt floors and crumbling cement walls are forever reminders of the old world. Likewise, nothing -- not even formal Western clothing -- overshadows these people's rich, lustrous skin and noble yet sympathetic faces. Through May 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, -- Lewis

Side by Side -- Group showcases of Cleveland-area talent are fairly common. Few exhibits, however, achieve persuasive coherence as this 10-artist show does, with related works that rub shoulders. It's not a gimmick. While most of the artists here have plenty to offer individually, the show's layout provides additional, insightful context, placing each piece along a spectrum illuminating both its uniqueness and its connections to its neighbors. At first, Laurie Addis' intricate linen weavings bear no resemblance to Neil MacDonald's pixilated landscapes of Salton Sea, an ecologically ruined lake in Southern California. But both rely on distance to achieve their effects. Like Impressionism in reverse, Addis' work gets better close up; wild variety and density of stitching emerges out of seemingly solid patches of dark, earthy colors. By contrast, distance brings MacDonald's images into sharper focus: Fragmentation and graininess coalesce into scenes of devastating decline and waste. From here, the leap to Mark Moskovitz's clever "Future Perfect" is not far. It, too, addresses environmental concerns. Biologically speaking, this large white bench made from plastic and polyester cord is going nowhere. But, like the earth itself, it isn't too late to avert disaster. The bench will decompose, if only it gets recycled. Pure abstraction is one major terminus of this artistic line, and Gianna Commito's complex geometric designs represent that end handily, ingeniously inducing three-dimensionality and drawing the eye into deep visual vortices with a force similar to the one holding the entire show together. Through May 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, -- Lewis

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