ARTneo and the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve combine their collections to create a three-part exhibition for the CAN Triennial. Located in ARTneo’s gallery, Tregoning & Company’s south gallery, and Survival Kit, the exhibition features a historic look at the twentieth century in Cleveland art, featuring paintings, prints and drawings, and sculpture.
Both ARTneo and the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve (AAWR) provide consistent and constant exposure to the artistic heritage of the region. Through the programming and exhibitions of each organization, historic and contemporary context is created for current working artists. Three Angles celebrates the artistic accomplishments made by the artists of Northeast Ohio. Many of the area’s artists have achieved national and international followings, such as Richard Anuzskiewicz, Herbert Ascherman, Jr., David E. Davis, Hughie Lee-Smith, Leza McVey, Ed Mieczkowski, Phyllis Seltzer, and Joseph O’Sickey.
Beginning with the Cleveland School, a group of artists from the early twentieth century, the exhibition examines how influences from Europe’s avant-garde made their way into the works of the region. Two groups of artists formed at that time: the Secessionists who embraced the new techniques and styles, and the Cleveland Society of Artists, who upheld traditional academic standards of fine art. Established in 1911, the Cleveland Secessionists—including Henry Keller, William Sommer, and Abel Warshawsky—embraced European modernist concepts. Adopting Post-Impressionist and Cubist ideas, the artists fully explored the radical shifts taking place in art through the use of vibrant color and form.
Countering the wild aesthetics of the Secessionists, a group of artists joined together as the Cleveland Society of Artists in 1913. Artists like George Adomeit and Ora Coltman felt that one could uphold traditional values and craftsmanship through artistic style. The artists strongly adhered to academic traditions and a more conservative approach to creating works of art. These opposing factions created a dynamic body of work that not only conflicted with one another but also pushed and influenced their modes of creation.
Many of the lessons learned by these artists were furthered by the next generation through direct contact with the earlier artists at the Cleveland School of Art, now the Cleveland Institute of Art. The role of the institute and other schools, colleges, and universities in advancing artistic development has been crucial to the region’s ability to stay informed of important trends and movements. Edris Eckhardt, Elmer Brown, Kalman Kubinyi and many others continued to push modernism forward with works produced for the federal art program—known as the Public Works of Art Project—during the Great Depression. During this time, Eckhardt supervised the sculpture division of the Works Progress Administration’s Midwest region and promoted ceramic sculpture as a legitimate art form equal to stone and metal works. Through these works, she and her team promoted ideas of cultural tolerance and understanding in the face of oppression and racism.
Post-war artists in America found themselves in an environment that encouraged the development of a coherent set of artistic principles built upon and challenging earlier movements such as Cubism. Color field and action painting were viewed by critics as making up a new American avant-garde that is commonly known as Abstract Expressionism. In Cleveland, this movement was primarily rejected in favor of more representational works. However, James Johnson, who had studied under Richard Diebenkorn, began painting completely nonobjective abstract works in the early 1950s after moving to Northeast Ohio. Other artists in the area, like John Teyral, William E. Ward, and Anthony Vaiksnoras, adapted techniques to use in their more representational works while not fully being committed to Abstract Expressionism.
While this movement captures the existential aspects of an artist’s self, by the 1960s many artists in Cleveland began to explore geometric abstraction as a way to express more impersonal ideas. Both David E. Davis and Ed Mieczkowski created works that were logical and based on math and science. Davis’ sculptures in his Harmonic Forms series were defined by a geometric grid. He carefully created works with order, leaving behind commentary on personal and social issues. Mieczkowski, on the other hand, used geometric abstraction to create works that related back to Constructivism and inherently recalled the utopian ideas that the earlier movement espoused. With a large number of local artists taking up geometric abstraction for a variety of purposes, its lasting effect on regional art has been long lasting.
However, some artists were reluctant to follow suit, and still preferred to render representational images. At a time when the figure was not popular, artists like Shirley Aley Campbell, Phyllis Sloane, and Phyllis Seltzer focused on the human form. In the 1970s, Sloane and Seltzer created images of the human figure in a manner that reflected Pop Art’s use of flatness, color, or existing imagery. Seltzer reflected more heavily on social issues with her use of screen printed newspaper photographs for her King-Stokes Lightboxes. Sloane, however, created portraits using flat color and reduced details. Her goal was to create a simplified metaphor that represented the person she was portraying. Campbell’s interest was in anatomy and she painted her subjects in a photorealistic style. Her subjects were often from subcultures like bikers, burlesque dancers, and prostitutes.
Realism, abstraction, and social commentary all continued into the 1980s and 1990s, often times crossing paths. Artists like Michelangelo Lovelace and Gail Newman created socially charged works in a folk-art style. Lovelace reflected on both the positive and negative aspects of urban life in Cleveland while Newman utilized events from the news, street scenes, and her own personal life experiences. Patricia Zinsmeister Parker and David Haberman both worked in a Neo-Expressionist style relying on intuition. Ginna Brand and Elaine Albers Cohen utilized elements of geometric abstraction and Abstract Expressionism in their sculptural works. Cohen explored her interest in early cultures, while Brand’s interest was in the use of materials and how pieces could fit together.
The century of Cleveland area artists’ works showcased in Three Angles reveals a diverse array of styles and modes of artistic experimentation. There is no style that can easily be a defining factor of the “Cleveland School,” as the artists of the region were eager to adopt and explore multiple techniques and movements in modern art. Examining the works by media at three different gallery spaces illustrates the great breadth of talent and innovative creative thinking possessed by Northeast Ohio artists. Demonstrating their ability to observe and adapt ideas to develop their own unique voices, each artist adds to the artistic story of Cleveland.
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