It would be no great surprise to find a retail showroom like the Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery tucked away on a chic block in London, New York or Chicago. But the Lesko enterprise, operated by Kenneth and his son Ross, waits for customers at the end of a corridor in a rambling brick structure that once housed the American Greetings complex on West 78th Street.
Not that it's alone; other galleries and studios dot the building's erratic floor plan, including several of Cleveland's longest-running businesses specializing in contemporary art. But the Lesko Gallery has its own big-city flavor, featuring cultivated enthusiasms, art-historical insights and an elusive quality that used to be called "taste." If that sounds snobbish, maybe it is. But the Leskos themselves aren't. The discrimination they cultivate translates into an unselfish commitment to the artistic vision of groups like the Cleveland School, which is well-represented in their inventory. Other areas of the Leskos' eclectic expertise include vintage Italian art glass and tribal sculpture.
For three decades, the Cleveland family conducted business on the road. That's the way much of America's fine-arts market operated throughout the past century, presenting work at annual fairs and sales events. Much of it still is. New York, Chicago and Miami — and to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco — are America's art poles, both as homes to permanent galleries and as hosts to international shows like Art Basel Miami Beach, New York's Armory Show and Art Chicago. Ross says most of the family's clientele was New York-based, but he remembers trips to more obscure venues as well, to places like Minneapolis, Dallas and Denver.
Now rooted on Cleveland's west side for six years, the Leskos are developing a client base one customer at a time. "We weren't sure how our aesthetic would match up with the market," says Ross. "It's an experiment."
In the meantime, the gallery mounts offbeat shows of considerable interest. Culled from an extensive inventory, the exhibit Modernism 1927-1970, on view through April 3, consists of about 30 oil paintings, watercolors and sculptures by European and American artists.
There are no famous artists here, but name recognition isn't the point: Some are so obscure that even the spelling of their names is a matter of speculation. That's part of the fun. Ross calls their paintings "mystery" works, and his face lights up as he talks about them, recognizing affinities and stylistic elements that point to a given time period. What does matter is an indefinable something that tugs at the unconscious. The viewer's role is to be tuned in enough to respond to the strangeness, as well as the artistry, of this content.
"It's almost forensic," says Ross of this process. Inspiration, talent, history and personality haunt the gallery walls, asking to be known. The same could be said of the gallery itself.