Constantly Seeking Reinvention: MOCA Looks in its Backyard for Inspiration

For the first year or so of its reinvention in University Circle, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland has been a showcase for out-of-town artists. This isn't a bad thing. Museums ought to offer new lessons and experiences, even to connoisseurs of the local arts scenes. However, an institution must be of its community, not merely in it. To that end, MOCA is hosting two showcases of artists from Cleveland and the Rust Belt.

Everything All at Once brings together four Cleveland-area artists repurposing overlooked or discarded materials. It is the aim of the show to invoke a new mindset that sees possibilities in a region whose institutions haven't risen to meet the needs of the times, thereby changing "everything all at once."  Realization is Better Than Anticipation brings together a dozen artists living, and dead, from states made anemic by the departure of mid-century industry like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee. If any shared theme connects them, it is a preoccupation with making, either in the context of artistic creation, or productive work that leaves its practitioners with a tangible end result.

Dana Depew, the prolific creator of immersive sculptures out of materials salvaged from scrapheaps and tree lawns, invites visitors to stroll through his Rust Belt Crystal Palace.  It is a sort of gazebo made of windows, both transparent and stained-glass. Purple half circles, blue wedges, and green rectangles hover beside colorless squares divided by black panes. Looking at any one wall stirs recollections of Piet Mondrian, the Modernist known for his paintings of geometric figures and bold Euclidian lines on white planes. However, the structure as a whole, into which maybe four people could comfortably fit if they're mindful of their elbows, is illustrative of the usefulness of unwanted things.  

Jenniffer Omaitz's Tectonic Limit is a wall-mounted assemblage made from scrappy pieces of wood, plastic, cardboard and polymers. Whether it is interpreted as an abstraction or a hyperbolic representational piece, one still walks away with the same feeling. It is ready to fly apart from its energy, but is kept in a precarious balance between order and chaos. Looping plastic arcs look like bridges and highways, and frames and grids of various materials suggest buildings. It is a modern metropolis, overstuffed but unsure how to order itself, with ruins mixed in with prime real estate. Unlike some of the more forward-looking pieces in the show, Omaitz's work invokes not so much what could be, but how things are.

Jeffry Chiplis rescues used neon signs from restaurants and storefronts, and rearranges tubing for his own artistic purposes. One piece is made from red and blue letters from the now-defunct John Q's Steakhouse. Chiplis has broken down and rearranged the original characters, making them unreadable, but still recognizable as alphabetic. The aesthetic effect recalls the paintings of Adolph Gottlieb, whose abstractions incorporated squiggles suggestive of ancient writing systems.

Knowing the neon tubing once belonged to a destination restaurant overlays another level of meaning. We know the letters once were readable, but now are not. Memory of the restaurant corrupts before it fades out, leaving behind symbols that were once clear and forceful, but which are now muddy and vague.   

Works from the late Rev. Albert Wagner, who claimed divine inspiration to be the source of his creativity, are here displayed beside more traditional "fine" artists, instead of being relegated to an alcove set aside for outsider artists. The Cleveland-based minister worked in traditional media, like the acrylic paint used in the painting "Sunburst," but also used whatever was on hand at the moment. A log with a vaguely nose-like protrusion is given a piece of crockery for a head covering, and made a representation of Moses. Under glass, we see a plate and a saucer Wagner says he broke in the middle of the night on the urging of disembodied commandments.

In his video The Salesman, Jacob Ciocci, though hailing from Kentucky and based in Pittsburgh, elevates a local celebrity in the person of Marc Brown, the proprietor of Norton Furniture known for his surrealistic late-night TV ads.

In an infinitely looped video, Brown proclaims, "Good news for people with credit problems," over a swirl of imagery and audio making Norton's ads look grounded. There are clips of anime, Brown himself walking by the shore of Lake Erie, and a man in a Humpty Dumpty costume proclaiming despair.

The Salesman is not as scary as it sounds. Actually, it's weirdly refreshing, flushing out any extraneous thought and commanding full attention.

The two exhibitions offer something new to both local art-world insiders, and people hoping to familiarize themselves with it.

Everything All at Once and Realization is Better Than Anticipation both run through Oct. 13 at 11400 Euclid Ave. Adult admission is $8 per person, with discounts available for students. For more information, call 216-421-8671 or go to

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