The Best of Times

Grants and galleries made 2009 an exciting year

Two steps forward, one step back — or maybe one step forward, two steps back. Cleveland's homegrown visual-arts scene dances a dysfunctional tango with local galleries dipping and swooning in response to what is unavoidably a marginal market. Ability and enthusiasm are never in short supply, but the reality for local artists is that money usually comes from elsewhere.

From that point of view, 2009 was better than most years, despite general economic woes. Tobacco-tax dollars earmarked by voters for the arts were distributed through the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. The $20K Creative Workforce Fellowships included 20 for visual artists living in Cuyahoga County. Such funding is without parallel in Ohio, and rare anywhere. It remains to be seen whether the county's generous stimulus initiative will drive growth, but it sends a convincing message of support to the arts community and makes it possible for a few artists to take time off from their day jobs. The result just might be more and better art, and deeper roots for the arts.

One CPAC Fellowship recipient (and winner of the 2009 Cleveland Arts Prize as Emerging Artist) was Tremont's Amy Casey, whose paintings of billowing masses of urban real estate lassoed in midair has won her national attention. MOCA Cleveland and Arts Collinwood both hosted mini-shows of her acrylic-on-paper images this year, giving Clevelanders samplings of the work that's impressing audiences in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Maybe the fellowship money will help to keep her here.

Like Casey, life-long Collinwood resident Randall Tiedman is featured in the latest Midwest edition of New American Paintings. The Cleveland State University Gallery and Arts Collinwood both presented shows of Tiedman's large, darkly Miltonic landscapes. His work is on view through January 10 at Ursuline College's Wasmer Gallery in a two-person show he shares with the powerful, versatile Patricia Zinsmeister Parker.

Cleveland's off-again, on-again gallery scene seemed stuck in the "on" position through much of the year. Several newer spaces like Front Room Gallery and Legation Gallery kept their doors open, while a hardy species of native gallerist enjoyed a growth spurt. In fact, many of the top stories of the year were about both artists and the galleries where they showed.

Thirty-year veteran Bill Tregoning opened a dramatically attractive new space at West 78th Street Studios, where he mounted two noteworthy exhibits. His Chris Pekoc/Night Visions examined the origins of Pekoc's stitched collages in his airbrush paintings from the 1970s. In a similarly analytical vein, Tregoning's Matt Dibble Paintings and Constructions took a thoughtful look at an important Ohio painter's work, contrasting recent abstract constructions with figural reveries from Dibble's construction-trade-oriented studio practice. Also at West 78th Street, Bill Scheele of Kokoon Arts Gallery extended his own three-decade career, showing complex works by Seattle-based Mexican-born artist Alfredo Arreguín.

William Busta continued to mount significant shows of some of the area's best artists at his two year-old space downtown. Strong solo shows by Cecelia Phillips, Hildur Asgeirsdóttir Jónsson, Douglas Sanderson, Stephen Yusko and Lorri Ott demonstrated the vitality and continuity of a diverse group of mid-career artists living and working in the region.

Gallerists who have achieved a level of real maturity over the past several years include artist/entrepreneur Dana Depew of Asterisk, internationally noted architect Robert Maschke and his 1point618 Gallery, Brett Shaheen with a national and international focus at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary, and Bonfoey, Cleveland's longest-running commercial space. Among the standouts were Craig Kucia's hallucinatory yet painterly oil-on-canvas works at Shaheen, John Pearson's installation of subtle, harmonious 3D works at 1point618 and Depew's yearly salute to Bernie Kosar, 19 — an engaging salon made up of 19 established and emerging artists.

Meanwhile the city's contemporary art museum, nonprofit galleries and educational institutions endured, providing a different sort of backbone for the community. Headed by SPACES and MOCA Cleveland, the list isn't long, but it's not getting any shorter, and that's a kind of triumph. The Cleveland Sculpture Center, Zygote Press, the Cleveland Artists Foundation, the Cleveland State University Art Gallery, Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, the Cleveland Institute of Art and Arts Collinwood all offered great shows.

There's also a new kid on the nonprofit block, the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory, which opened in 2008. One of 2009's most memorable events was the Morgan's summer show, War as Art/Art as War. Organized by Combat Papers of Vermont, it showed prints and other works made from paper produced from pulped combat uniforms. Most of the images were made by artist-veterans of Iraq and other wars involving American armed forces. The show's objective was to recycle and redeem trauma, reclaiming damaged psyches. Surely art has no more valuable or higher function.

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