The Graduates

A group of young artists just out of the Cleveland Institute of Art hasn't yet made the grade.

Dexter Davis is the undisputed star of Club Illusion, a show that recently opened in a temporary exhibition space on the East Side. The collages of the highly touted 34-year-old, a security guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art who last year had a solo exhibition at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, stand out next to works by three other recent graduates of the Cleveland Institute of Art. But in Davis's case, they also raise the question of just what all the fuss has been about. After all, William Busta--of the now-defunct William Busta Gallery in Little Italy and the co-organizer (with Julie Fedevich) of this show--once said that Davis's work would be known and collected fifty and even a hundred years from now. Certainly this exhibit, which also features works by Yong Han, Clay Parker, and Kam Shun Lee, demonstrates that there is no "house style" at the CIA, and that these young artists aren't afraid of working on a large scale. Beyond that, though, there isn't much daring to be found here.

Davis alone among these four does seem driven to express something. His collages evoke a kind of urban unsteadiness, a sense of lives always in danger of crumbling. But he doesn't find many gradations in this theme, and because these collages lack discrimination, wit, and compositional acumen, his urban grittiness is ultimately two-dimensional.

Davis's collages echo the diverse rhythmic strategies employed by his abstract expressionist heroes; they're full of forceful charcoal strokes and vigorous daubs of acrylic. However, the key to unlocking their meaning seems to lie elsewhere: in representational forms. Alternating with the abstract bits are recognizable passages: grim-visaged male heads that look like death masks, ferns that appear where a human brain ought to be, disembodied hands. There's nothing particularly innovative about such macabre combinations, but the human heads give all that abstraction a grounding and suggest that Davis has a few cards up his sleeve here.

Whenever he captures the human form, for instance, Davis draws on a visual vocabulary common to African sculpture. Such sculpture is usually carved from whole sections of tree trunks and tends to retain a stubbornly vertical feel, despite any variations that the artist may impose on it. Likewise these Davis collages, in which human bodies look like long rectangles of wood. The heads on Davis's bodies feature bulging eyes and foreheads full of decorative objects that mimic the shape of the underlying brains. Although these human heads often emerge from backgrounds consisting of muddy brown or dark orange tempera, they cut through the murk cleanly and are often the only objects to do so. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book--to have a recognizable shape emerge from an abstract background; the viewer automatically assigns importance to such a figure and sometimes reads its resilience as a kind of triumph.

The temptation is to say Davis is cutting corners here. If he's trying to weave together African art's emphasis on primary issues like birth and death with insights on these subjects gleaned from modern psychology, the seams show. His collages seldom develop a vocabulary of repeating shapes, relying instead on the colors or textures of the various collage elements to lend a sense of unity. As a result, a viewer who seeks to draw connections between sections of a work will frequently come up empty. Davis needs to realize that creating collages where everything seems in flux doesn't provide a built-in excuse for skimping on form. Color and texture can help to unify a piece, but if they're employed indiscriminately, they only make it look busy. And because Davis's variations on color and texture aren't moored to larger structural concerns, his allusions to African art seem pasted on. Similarly, the references to modern psychology--faces split into darker and lighter halves, and the frequent use of hands as a metaphor for connection--are crushingly rudimentary.

The collage titled "The Devil and Mr. Hyde" sums up the virtues and deficits of the half-dozen Davis pieces on display. First, there's the title. The Robert Louis Stevenson classic was about Dr. Jekyll and not the devil. Still, Davis's point is clear: This work is about a double-minded soul. To his credit, Davis does reinforce this theme formally, albeit in an obvious way. But he's less successful at teasing any deeper implications from his original premise. The piece features two human figures, each built up from rectangles, with heads that look like African masks. Their horribly distended eyes suggest either a capacity for overwhelming insight or stark fear. The figure on the left is fleshless, composed of striated forms that suggest woodcutting. The figure on the right, by contrast, has a face that still looks like the genuine article, covered with brown flesh and wearing a forlorn expression.

Davis reinforces the yin/yang theme by placing two hands at the bottom of the frame that point in opposite directions. The one pointing at the figure who looks like a human fly is solid black; the one pointing to the sad man is yellow, but with black woodcut patterns.

Although definitely gritty, Davis's work in Club Illusion displays a serious lack of subtlety. Human duality is a perennially relevant topic. Davis's figures, though, never seem to have a choice between good and evil--they're placed in such ominous environments that the deck seems impossibly stacked against them. If the artist is tapping into a strain of urban hopelessness here--the sense that one has failed before one has even started--he does so without nuance. The poetry of Nikki Giovanni mines such territory and is at least as unvarnished as Davis's collages, but she finds fine shadings of fear, helplessness, strength, and survival that Davis hasn't even begun to fathom. Consequently, although he works with color in these collages, Davis's prevailing emotional texture is monochrome.

While Davis occasionally manages to get a point across, the work of the other three artists in Club Illusion is thematically adrift. Yong Han, for example, is obsessive about motifs. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since such a preoccupation suggests a concern for proportion and structure. But it goes to naught when he doesn't develop those motifs.

In an artist's statement on display at the exhibit, Han suggests that he is currently fascinated by the surrealists, and his work in Club Illusion bears this out. His immense oils depict tents that float in outer space, bearing what look to be entire neighborhoods within their iron scaffolding. The neighborhoods are densely crowded with rudimentary houses that look like pieces in some sort of industrial wasteland, an obvious nod to the works of French surrealist Yves Tanguy. While Tanguy created canvases full of strange pebble-and-rock formations, his young disciple from Cleveland combines Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, a circus tent, and a suburbia out of control into a strange mixture of his own. Profusion is the point. The difference is that Tanguy infused what one sympathetic writer called his "boneyard of the world" with poetic resonances. The rocks and pebbles were like characters in some absurdist play, repeating innocuous phrases until they became ominous. Han, though, can't yet account for his profusion, and repeats the house motif to the point of simple-minded absurdity.

While Davis's and Han's flawed efforts at least provide some food for thought, the work by the other artists in Club Illusion runs on empty. Clay Parker's acrylic "Pensive Drinker" suggests promise; a despondent man cowering over a liquor bottle is expressionistically rendered with bold brush strokes and a head built up entirely from a few deft daubs of dark blue. Seen in profile, he's half a man--and disintegrating rapidly.

Elsewhere, Parker paints portraits of writers like Edgar Allan Poe, to little effect. For example, an acrylic of Poe features a set of red concentric circles emanating from the American writer's eye. Called "Lenore," it offers no insight into Poe or his writing (suggesting that Poe's vision was wide-ranging hardly counts) and thus emerges as a pretentious instance of name-dropping. Kam Shun Lee's paintings, meanwhile, have the pop-art exuberance of James Rosenquist, but otherwise seem undeveloped; they come across as elaborate rehearsals for works not yet attempted.

Each of the artists in Club Illusion has engaged in a dialogue with his materials and emerged with little to say. And if there's a lesson to be drawn here, it's that "finding one's voice"--the battle cry of every artist taking his baby steps--isn't necessarily about developing technical quirks. Instead, if you have something to say, the technique best suited for saying it will eventually come.

That's the sort of lesson it can take years to learn--and the sort of sermon that perhaps can only be delivered by someone whom a young artist simply can't afford to ignore. One such person was Robert Bergman, the recently deceased director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. About two years ago, Bergman took note of Davis's growing local reputation, calling it a "good first step." He then went on to compare an artist's chances of achieving national recognition to that of a talented high school baseball player becoming the next Kenny Lofton. Bergman could have gone for the usual dewy-eyed platitudes about how initiative and desire will always win out in the end, but instead he told it like it was. Such honesty speaks volumes--of how difficult it is to make a go of it in the art world, but, most of all, about Bergman.

Club Illusion, through May 22 at 4049 St. Clair Avenue, fourth floor, 216-321-9165.