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True Grit 

Laurence Channing, an artist with the vision of a private eye, probes the soft spots in Cleveland's underbelly.

Raymond Chandler, the creator of all those detective novels that unapologetically inhaled the dank odor of Depression-era corruption in Southern California, was once asked for a pithy description of his fictional world. Responded Chandler, "It's not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain artists with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting patterns out of it."

Though his world is Cleveland in the 1990s and not Hollywood in the days of bathtub gin, Laurence Channing is such an artist. His gritty but cannily composed drawings of seldom-scrutinized urban byways show what happens when an artist combines a keen eye with a firm command of his tools--and then sets his sights on a rusted hulk of a city that, for all its warts, still bears more than a few traces of its former glory.

In dual displays at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art and the Bonfoey Company, Channing finds interesting shapes and patterns in Cleveland's aging factory districts. But along with steel mills and smokestacks, his vision extends beyond the city limits to encompass breakwaters and turbulent lake currents; in one drawing, the jagged rocks of Mentor Headlands emphasize the distance between the viewer and a distant lighthouse's promise of certitude. Which is to say, Channing serves up ample depth with his formal elegance.

The 57-year-old Channing has been making a name for himself ever since he started showing his work in the early 1990s (the several solo exhibits he received at the William Busta Gallery in Little Italy during that gallery's tenure attest to his increased local visibility). The clean "readability" of his images comes as no surprise; a graphic designer by trade, he's worked since 1985 as the Cleveland Museum of Art's head of publications.

Channing starts by taking dozens of color photographs of a particular site; he then grinds soft charcoal sticks into powder, decides how he wants to creatively transform selected elements of the color shots into black-and-white images, and, finally, applies the charcoal powder to paper with sticks encased in piano felt. This gutsy approach (Channing uses no pencils, pens, or brushes) is an apt way of combining form and content, especially for art that takes such thematic risks.

In the CCCA/Bonfoey double bill, Channing aims his camera lens and piano-felt sticks at an uncontrollable industrial world and draws something compelling from the confrontation. In the work titled "Hackensack," smokestacks dimly seen in the distance are offset by foreground bridges, whose pile-driving verticals clash with a meager patch of grass and a bit of lake. In "St. Clair," a parking lot, concession stand, and surrounding buildings are seen from directly above, lending the cars a uniform rectangular elegance while at the same time stressing their ant-like insignificance. The hexagonal shape of the concession-stand umbrella is used much as a composer would use a short melodic or rhythmic cell--as a basis for development and elaboration.

Indeed, Channing echoes the umbrella's diagonals everywhere in the composition; they show up in the legs of a folding chair, in the triangular painted strips on the parking lot, even in the sharp angles which separate the lot from adjacent street corners. Finally, the concession umbrella motif is recapitulated on a massive scale: The parking lot, aided by Channing's manipulation of shadow and line, is itself one great hexagon.

In works such as these, the overhead perspective is a compositional clue to Channing's keen emotional texture. After all, artists traditionally employ the bird's-eye view to suggest the vulnerability of their subjects. Hitchcock used it in North by Northwest to hint that Cary Grant, racing out of the U.N. building after being accused of stabbing one of its delegates, would, from that point on, be hunted like a wild animal. Channing has a more subtle aim. The anonymous cars in the parking lot remind one of the impersonal nature of city existence while simultaneously hinting that there's an abstract beauty to be found in sheer numbers.

With Channing, the sharp juxtaposition of black and white shapes, coupled with closely grouped rectangular units, almost serves to obscure the original parking lot scene. One is looking not so much at a lot littered with cars that belong to actual human beings, but at a gridwork of verticals and horizontals now and then punctuated with diagonals in a severely flattened space. Piet Mondrian, the twentieth-century Dutch artist, was also concerned--albeit in a far more radical way--with how he could boil reality down to a series of geometrical abstractions. Channing's charcoals can evoke such influences without being shackled to them.

The two current Channing exhibits are also an object lesson in how a disciplined artist refines his vision through self-editing. Channing alluded to this process a few years back, when he noted that it was essential to take expressive liberties with the photos if one hoped to avoid creating work that was "dead as a doornail." A series of preparatory studies at CCCA and Bonfoey allows us to pick the artist's brain and have a peek at the mysteries of the creative process. Comparing the studies with the finished work, one sees how Channing eliminates redundancies, sharpens his compositional focus, and imposes a point of view on sometimes intractable material.

The studies for the work entitled "So Long" are, at first glance, not that different from the finished work bearing the same name. Like the final draft, they show a car ascending a moderately steep road. In the background is a vista consisting of a rocky ledge that sports enormous circular patches of shrubbery in rhythmic intervals. Up at the top are barns, trees, and a house.

So what has Channing done between study and final effort? For one thing, he's lopped off the grassy field in the foreground, which, in the studies, was a barrier to immediacy. The car, previously seen in extreme long-shot, is now magnified in importance. Also gone is the suggestion of the car's destination. Earlier, a street sign and a truck shared the road with the car; now they're gone, and the car is the only sign of human life. Lastly, Channing, through the manipulation of dark and light patches, has drawn a connection between the diagonals in the barn's chalk-white roof (here, as in many other spots in the exhibit, he leaves the paper blank to thrilling effect) and the diagonal of the road that the car negotiates.

As a result, the title makes sense as never before. It refers not only to the length of the road, but to the sentiments associated with departure. The car has left a place, and the driver's sadness at the leave-taking is projected into the desolate landscape. One recalls works by the twentieth-century Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, whose empty train stations, with their sharply ascending platforms and their tiny human figures, always seemed to hint at a world in metaphysical limbo.

If Channing's richly textured body of work is to be believed, living in the big city is about a struggle between the desire for connection and the reality of solitude. All those contrasts between cars and extreme, high-angle perspectives, and those comparisons of raging waters and precariously perched lighthouses, seem to question a modern urban dweller's ability to maintain a coherent sense of identity. Significantly, though--and this is a measure of the work's complexity--in Channing's world, charcoal becomes seductive, and any risk to the individual's spiritual equilibrium is masked by the artist's commanding technique.

Channing's cool detachment consistently yields images that have an eerie allure. Like Raymond Chandler before him, he searches for and finds disturbing patterns in the naked city and creates compelling work that has shape, style, and a nasty sting--sometimes all at once.

Laurence Channing Charcoals, through June 30 at the Bonfoey Company, 1710 Euclid Avenue, 216-621-0178, and through August 1 at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Avenue, 216-421-8671.

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