Cleveland Triennial Is an Artistic Scavenger Hunt With Civic Pride

An installation by Yinka Shonibare MBE, “The American Library,” 2018, at the Cleveland Public Library, is filled with books wrapped in African cloth and stamped with names of American immigrants.

CLEVELAND — The first-ever Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art here, conceived by the collector Fred Bidwell and directed by the artist and curator Michelle Grabner, is organized like a scavenger hunt. In addition to more or less self-contained shows at places like MoCA Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum, the festival includes a number of unusual stand-alone installations that seem designed to guide visitors all over the city and its surrounding suburbs.

Katrin Sigurdardottir mined clay in Iceland, formed it into tiles that she arranged in architectural stacks, and contributed several handsome and evocative photographs of those stacks to the Akron Art Museum’s well-balanced show, organized by Ms. Grabner and Ellen Rudolph, the museum’s chief curator. The tiles themselves Ms. Sigurdardottir buried around town, and one group, marked with a discreet sign in a grassy lot on an Akron back street, brings you right to the surprising doorstep of an ornate Lao temple.

Back in Cleveland, Yinka Shonibare MBE created a majestically proportioned installation, “The American Library.” It’s composed of a huge free-standing bookshelf, filled with volumes wrapped in African wax cloth and stamped in gold with the names of notable immigrants to the United States. The work highlights the glory of Brett Memorial Hall, at the Cleveland Public Library, with its Romanesque Revival ceiling and William Summer murals. And the Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst special sausage, designed for the festival by the artist John Riepenhoff and available from a number of food vendors, is a good excuse to have lunch at West Side Market.

One downside of this diffuse approach is that it can make what purports to be an art festival feel a little too much like a Chamber of Commerce advertising campaign, which isn’t pleasant even if, as I did, you find the pitch convincing.

The upside, though, is that each discrete group of art works has plenty of space to make its own discrete impact. And the most powerful may be in the Ohio City neighborhood, where you can find the 40-year-old alternative gallery Spaces; St. John’s Episcopal Church; and Mr. Bidwell’s Transformer Station gallery.

“A Color Removed,” conceived by the artist Michael Rakowitz and installed at Spaces art gallery, is a response to the fatal police shooting of the 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. The color in question is orange, because police blamed the shooting on a missing orange safety cap on the boy’s toy gun; people in Cleveland and around the world have donated orange objects of all kinds — tarps, food wrappers, a set of plastic vampire teeth — that are now displayed around the gallery. It’s an idea that could have been exploitative, manipulative or literal-minded. But because Mr. Rakowitz — along with the Spaces staff, and Tamir’s family, who are involved in the project — lets these objects accumulate with minimal intervention, it’s a pure precipitation of frustration and grief.

[Read Jill Steinhauer’s piece about “A Color Removed”]

Dawoud Bey’s “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” is installed just three blocks away in the beautifully peeling St. John’s Episcopal Church, once the last stop before freedom in Canada for many fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Large photographs of rural Ohio printed so dark that it’s hard to make them out are hung at eye level above the church’s pews like so many portals to the still-living past. In combination with “A Color Removed,” it’s devastating.

Notable at the Cleveland Museum of Art are a series of huge woodcuts by Kerry James Marshall, Allen Ruppersberg’s crisp lightbox photographs of Cleveland, and Marlon de Azambuja’s paradoxically whimsical “Brutalismo-Cleveland,” an airy little city of found bricks and cinder blocks held up with a menagerie of interesting clamps. At MoCA Cleveland, a pairing of Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s uniquely odd paintings of undersea glass towers with the Georgia-born painter Walter Price’s densely colored scatterings of fractured imagery walks the line between dream and nightmare.

But the most fully realized show is that one in Akron, where Ms. Grabner and Ms. Rudolph have mixed high-concept work by young artists well known in New York, like Walead Beshty’s impaled office equipment, with less familiar jewels, like aluminum grids of blinking lights by the Croatian artist and computer scientist Vladimir Bonacic, who died in 1999. The highlight is a group of comic, delightful, implicitly heartbreaking drawings and wall-mounted models by the young artist Nicholas Buffon, who lives and works in New York.

Working from memory and found images, Mr. Buffon has offered the museum 20 or so vignettes of gay life and history in Akron and New York. A drawing set on the High Line in Manhattan, which features a poster of Zoe Leonard’s furiously direct 1992 protest poem “I want a president,” focuses less on the poem’s political context than on four passers-by in autumn jackets who’ve stopped to read it. A meticulous wall-mounted model of the Stonewall Inn, site of the police raid and riot that kicked off the gay liberation movement, is notable for its details: 12 tiny pride flags and, in the window, a “B” from New York’s Department of Health. The drawing “Pizza Liberation,” 2017, in which the artist holds a drooping slice of pizza next to George Segal’s statues of the Gay Liberation Monument in the West Village, is irreverent, honest, and self-deprecating.

It’s also a distinctly individual take on a well-known landmark, rendered in a style that seems to take inexhaustible joy in the process of drawing — which makes it the perfect way to wind up a scavenger hunt.

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