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Capsule reviews of current area art exhibitions.

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Jesse Bransford: Recent Work -- Obscure, unappreciated intellectuals are Bransford's favorite people, their achievements his most cherished subjects. The young Atlanta-born, New York-based artist, whose show of recent drawings at Shaheen is his first solo exhibition, takes inspiration from thinkers whose accomplishments or ideas were ignored or even discredited in their day, often importing motifs from their work into his own. The thematic material in "Lycanthrope" seems lifted right out of a secret medieval manuscript. It's a scene of biblical devastation; the ground swallows up churches and homes, while a werewolf-like creature wielding flame and sword grimaces in delight. Where Bransford is going with this is anyone's guess. In "Merlin and the Dragon," a grizzled old man in a cloak hobbles along an astronomical chart toward a magical-looking tree. Bransford's style lends the image an ancient appearance, similar to that of an old woodcut; tweak a few details, and it would be perfect for a Tolkien edition. With "Wobble," Bransford seems taken with the notion that the universe is doughnut-shaped, and he replicates a diagram that proves it -- complete with vague measurements in Latin and a geometric outline. The artist then skips forward a few hundred years in a series of monochrome portraits of the great 20th-century intellectuals, drawing a quaint link between the ancient mystics and thinkers like Foucault, Sartre, and Rimbaud. They're drawings, but they look like silkscreen prints -- single colors against white backgrounds. Bransford's imagination is active and his knowledge is wide, but the conceptual foundation for his art here lacks sufficient substance. Through June 17 at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art, 740 W. Superior Ave., 216-830-8888, www.shaheengallery.com. -- Zachary Lewis

Memento Mori -- More than merely reminding us of our mortality, this timely but less than impressive group exhibition protests society's most preventable causes of death. War, of course, is a dominant theme, but it falls under the broader heading here of unnecessary and unwanted violence. The show takes its name from three pieces titled "Memento Mori." The best of them, by Leslie Organ, is also the least direct: a glass-encased icon built of leaves and acorns, nature's most transient objects. Tim Haag's, by contrast, is a blood-splattered, chain-bedecked memorial of the Kent State shootings that reserves nothing for the imagination. Gallery director Robert Thurmer's "Cold Blood" makes an effective, abstract, but in-your-face plea against guns by serving up large bullets on a silver tray, like metal hors d'oeuvres. Similarly, Barbara Pollack lets us watch violence burrow its way to a more profound level of tolerance in a video loop showing the amused facial expressions of a teenager playing a first-person shoot-'em-up video game. Other works, including a photo-portrait series shot in Colombia by Steve Cagan, assert that poverty and death are not so different. The show's tone is most succinctly captured by the subjects of Marion Epstein's print "Incredulous Man": Standing before the gates of Auschwitz, two classical Greek sculptures exchange puzzled expressions, as if trying to understand how mankind could sink so low. Through June 18 at the Cleveland State University Art Gallery, 2307 Chester Ave., 216-687-2103, www.csuohio.edu/art/gallery. -- Lewis


Alicia Basinger: Shiver and Craze -- This recent Cleveland Institute of Art graduate is the latest headliner in MOCA's Emerging Artist Series, and she deserves the spotlight. A ceramist, Basinger makes clay seem like a brand-new medium by mixing it with previously unrelated elements. In "Timber," her most physically impressive work, tall cylinders of wire mesh form the skeletons of tree-like structures with clay skins; each stalk has its own personality, a unique combination of height, width, colors, and blemishes. Standing together in a pod, some of them approaching the ceiling, they take on a sacred, ritualistic aura akin to that of Stonehenge. Basinger also finds success in "Conversion," her deliberate failure to bake a thin layer of clay onto a large slab of steel; the clay peeled away, giving the surface an aged, worn look that's far livelier than the original. Using thicker, two-tone clay for "Passages," she ends up with a raised, heavily cracked surface resembling a patch of desert. One could stare for ages at "Bridge," a pretzel-like knot of blue porcelain loops so complex, they defy comprehension. "Vestiges," meanwhile, consists of a curious series of smaller and usually roundish objects comprising metal, ceramic, and ossified paper. They're survivors, all right: sturdy, nubby remnants of intense heat and profound chemical changes, like meteors that have fallen to earth. Through August 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis

Dissent: Political Voices -- Spaces' hard-hitting new exhibit of up-to-the-minute political art takes aim at numerous cultural preoccupations. A set of silk-screen-and-oil-stick pictures by Kayrock, Jef Scharf, and Michael Smith presents detailed, colorful, and humorous summaries of the national mood in such pieces as "Guarded Severe." Jason Byers' "Study for a Full Scale Assault," four satirical photos of a tiny tank made of birdseed, taking aim at downtown, seems to suggest that a terrorist attack in Cleveland is not a concern. Fans of the famous Disney rodent may be disturbed by Billie Grace Lynn's "Dead Mouse," a gigantic blowup lying on its side, drooling blood. Rutherford Chang's "Shredded Newspaper" illustrates the effect of a depressing front page. To make the point that the news can seem too strange to be true, Chang sliced a cover into thin strips and recombined them out of order, making the page look vaguely familiar, yet utterly foreign. Not everything in Dissent is so intelligent or broadly relevant. A third of the show might be described as blunt political pap. But this exhibit asks whether political art can be effective. Judging by Dissent, the answer is yes. Through June 10 at SPACES, 2220 Superior Viaduct, 216-621-2314, www.spacesgallery.org. -- Lewis

Drawn With Light: Pioneering French Photography -- Digital cameras are ubiquitous as cell phones, but in the 19th century, capturing an image on film was an advanced and highly technological art. This exhibit of 19th-century French photography lauds the accomplishments of those who were on its cutting edge. Eugène Atget's photos exude the joy he must have felt, freezing the opulence of a wealthy Parisian's garden on paper. He did so with such crisp detail and bold outline, one can imagine the textures of the trees and stones. Others, such as Édouard Baldus and Louis-Remy Robert, had figured out how to convey the architectural majesty of cathedrals: Baldus offers a panoramic view of the Parisian Notre-Dame in all its buttressed glory, including details as fine as a nearby pile of bricks and the church's reflection in the Seine; Robert, meanwhile, presents the cathedral fountain in Saint-Brieuc as the yellowed relic of an ancient era. Gustave LeGray's "Portrait of Edmond Cottinet" is artfully blurry on the edges, but holds its subject in a softened but clear light. A picture by Frank Chauvassaignes contains one of the most unusual effects in the show, a somewhat impressionistic rendering of a stream receding beyond sight into the background. It must have been a photographic triumph. Through June 8 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7350, www.clevelandart.org. -- Lewis

Kidist Getachew¹s Self-Portrait: A Study -- Though brief, this video installation by the Cleveland-based Ethiopian makes a deep impact. Getachew cites her interest in depicting interracial romantic relationships, though the piece functions more broadly to portray racial identity as a whole. Displayed on the ceiling, not on the blank screen at eye level, it requires viewers to look up -- perhaps evidence of Getachew's healthy self-respect. The film is silent; symbols and contrasting colors are its primary language. Dressed in what is presumably native Ethiopian garb, Getachew stands alone or interacts with two men, one Caucasian, the other black. They kiss her and caress her back and shoulders, or stand still in front of opposite-colored black or white panels. Sometimes they jockey for position in the foreground. The artist, dressed in white, poses before a red panel. All three figures later appear nude with chains around their necks, like leashes, the metal digging into their flesh. Despite its lack of narrative or sound, the film is visually striking and readily communicative. And here's the message, or at least part of it: As an Ethiopian, Getachew is neither entirely black nor white. And because her skin color is a hybrid, she's free to move between racial groups; she relates to black and white equally, but not without incurring both sets of prejudices. Through June 10 at Spaces, 2220 Superior Viaduct, 216-621-2314, www.spacesgallery.org. -- Lewis

Maya Eventov: Recent Paintings -- Russian-Canadian painter Maya Eventov loved Matisse and Gauguin as a child, and their influence still bears strongly on her work. Her acrylics reveal an interest in light -- the calling card of Impressionism -- yet she makes the concept her own with a refreshing style one might criticize only for being a bit decorative and overly consistent. Eventov applies paint in extremely thick doses -- so thick she can sign her name in it like wet cement -- then scrapes and smears layers to blend and shade into shiny, three-dimensional surfaces that reflect light. The technique requires great care, but also leaves room for spontaneity and subtle variations. In one picture after another, sunlight beats down on idealized Italian countrysides whose neatly plowed fields are interrupted by the occasional stucco villa. Though no people are seen, evidence of a relaxed, upscale lifestyle can be found in everything from the pots of exotic flowers to the elegant patio furniture. "Boats," meanwhile, peers down a narrow waterway between cluster homes, as in Venice. Lines of bright white laundry hang between them, and a pair of rowboats sit off to the side. It might be the setting for a romantic film or a grand opera -- as might almost any of the paintings here. Through June 11 at Opus Gallery, 27629 Chagrin Blvd., Woodmere, 216-595-1376. -- Lewis

Nina Bovasso -- Stepping inside the new painting installation by New-York-based artist Nina Bovasso at the Museum of Contemporary Art is as exciting as going for a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl. Her huge design on the rotunda gallery's curved wall looks like paisley gone mad; it surrounds the viewer with an almost dizzying spinning effect. The eye scans the perimeter and flits about the room, frantically seeking visual balances on either side of the circle between a psychedelic array of tall flames, dots, branches, buttons, and swoosh patterns, while the brain seizes almost subconsciously on matching colors across this huge carnivalesque palette. Bovasso fixed her own pictures to the wall like large 21st-century diptychs, then painted new designs that grow around, toward, and away from them like ivy. One near the window is a big, red explosion of paint that seems to spew more design fragments into the atmosphere. No two perspectives are alike in this gallery. Views and responses to those views change according to the focal point and the viewer's position in relation to it. Bovasso spent a week climbing up and down ladders to complete the installation. It's a wonder it didn't take her longer -- and that she didn't fall off. Through August 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis

Once Familiar -- Claustrophobia may be your first reaction to this exhibition in the museum's sky lounge of works by four local artists. If you use the museum's spiral staircase, you will watch the ceiling get closer and closer, until you enter by poking your head through Carol Hummel's utterly unforgettable installation. Like Spider-Man on drugs, Hummel has spun a thick, multicolored web of yarn over both the gallery's open areas, complete with grandmotherly cozies over parts of the railings. Simultaneously abstract and immediately tangible, Hummel's work here questions the tame identity of yarn as well as its history as a medium. It won't seem quite so familiar after this. (A corresponding video project by Carey McDougall and sculptures by Dylan Collins were not yet in place, as of an early visit.) Just as devilishly creative and playfully subversive as Hummel's installation, though, is a series of faux-antique chairs by Stephen Litchfield, positioned like sentinels around the yarn. Narrow and wobbly, with cracker-sized seats and disproportionately high backs and long legs, Litchfield's humorous constructions are quite useless for sitting -- at least for human sitting. Otherwise, they're made to look exactly like their practical counterparts and would be considered fine furniture in the real world. Through August 14 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis

Out There: Landscape in the New Millennium -- Traditional landscape painting may be fading into the sunset, but there's still a bright future for landscape art in general, as this new exhibition of contemporary international works makes clear. Corsican artist Ange Leccia's hypnotic, beautifully disorienting video installation titled "La Mer" features a camera positioned directly above a seashore, filming white-capped waves breaking and retreating on dark sand; displayed onscreen, the wave pattern looks strangely like a slow, undulating geyser. American Jennifer Steinkamp also works magic through video in "Dervish 14," a digitized time-lapse loop of a tree as it winds and unwinds through the seasons. The rest are all photographs of one sort or another: American Tom Bamberger depicts the wide, imposing front edges of dense natural mini-environments, whether thick clumps of "Brown Grass" or a field of high-tech windmills. Ellen Kooi posits people as intrinsic elements of the Dutch countryside in her large, haunting photographs; a row of people emerges directly out of the ocean and onto the land to form a wall in "The Dike," while in another picture, a man frozen in a seemingly impossible backflip forms a bridge over a creek. Rosemary Laing, in four images from a series called "One Dozen Unnatural Disasters in the Australian Landscape," draws intriguing comparisons between fire as a destructive force and the harsh climate of her land. Through August 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis

The Splendor of Ruins -- Two-thirds of the total canvas space in this exhibition of 17th- and 18th-century French landscape paintings depicts dense, untamed forests and wide-open, sunlit skies, sweeping vistas that extend for miles. The rest consists of toppled pillars, crumbling porticos, and the occasional biblical figure or earthbound divinity. This is how painters at the time liked their Greek and Roman ruins: overwhelming. They imagined classical structures as positively massive relative to human beings and painted from perspectives exaggerating that effect. Painters turned to ruins to endow their landscapes with airs of timelessness and exoticism, though they also offer reminders that nothing is permanent. In Hubert Robert's "Young Girls Dancing Around an Obelisk," girls in white dresses playfully encircle a giant Egyptian sculpture fragment as if it were a maypole; they think nothing of the remnants of ancient cultures they see every day. Ruins tended to be in secluded areas -- ideal settings in which to place young men slyly caressing the breasts of maidens, fierce-eyed warriors reflecting on lost battles, and lonely folk leading home their cattle. Some, like François Boucher, went too far: His "Landscape With a Water Mill" is so idyllic, it could be the backdrop to a fairy tale. More often than not, though, these artists strike near-perfect balances between reality and fantasy. Through June 19 at Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum, 87 N. Main St., Oberlin, 440-775-8665, www.oberlin.edu/allenart. -- Lewis

Tri-C West Annual Juried Student Art Exhibition 2005 -- The best works in student shows are those that fulfill the technical assignment while also accomplishing something personally expressive. Happily, there are many such in this giant multimedia roundup. "Teacher and Student," featuring an older painter mentoring a child with brush in hand, not only demonstrates Diane Zizka's facility with watercolors; it also captures a touching scene, perhaps from Zizka's childhood. Also looking backward in time, "Memories Lost" -- which depicts fragmented, hazed-over trees, doors, and statues -- showcases Marianne Gnandt's ability to layer photographs without suffocating her haunting, dreamlike concept. Of course, there's something to be said for sheer technique, as photographer Nancy Ballock proves with "Twilight at Huntington Beach," an impressive composition in which the beach, a stone pier, and the horizon form a triangular pattern against people standing at even intervals. Orsolya Bordczski's paintings on silk and gauze stand out amid a sea of competent but dull still lifes of food and clothing; "The Fall," a strikingly individual Art Deco-style vision of autumn personified and defined with thick lines of silver, bears a striking resemblance to a large, luxurious pane of Tiffany glass. Among the three-dimensional pieces, Brandon Hahn's "Wired," a metal-frame skull with a thick strand of copper wire attached to the eyes as if to plugs, is by far the most elegant -- and also the creepiest. Through June 18 at the Tri-C West Campus Gallery, 11000 Pleasant Valley Rd., Parma, 216-987-5322, www.tri-c.edu/art/docs/exhibitions/htm. -- Lewis

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