Wide Open Spaces
Geraldine Wojno Kiefer - The Cleveland Edition
September 13, 1984
A 3,500 square foot area for art - that's more than most local galleries can boast. In fact, it's nearly half the gallery space the Cleveland Museum of art recently added to its rambling facility. Spaces, however, compares to other art-viewing halls only in available area. For it is Cleveland's premiere "alternative space," known for its no-frills enclosure, set up and run by artists for artist-generated shows.
"Kowalyk, Krider, Sauselen and Smith" stunningly inaugurates Spaces' eighth season. Although each Ohio artist works in a highly personal idiom, a shared sensibility, which Spaces' artists selection committee pinpointed when it grouped them for this exhibition, forges individual statements into a chorus. The exhibit demonstrates concise, cohesive and powerful visions in forms that merge fantasy with gutsy extractions from real life.
Spaces' curators, unlike those on other museum and gallery payrolls, are hardcore artist/volunteers who serve on its board o trustees. From about 250 proposals submitted semi-annually, this group, which includes Director Jan Farver, carves out a roster of exhibitors and the "winners" hang their own shows.
The week before the September 7 opening of "Kowalyk, Krider, Sauselen, Smith," the artists came in with their work. With days to go and nothing on the walls, Farver calmly remarked, "We didn't tell them what to show; in fact, we have a general idea of what they'll do, but not a list of specific objects. They can do what they want, and we'll try to make it all fit together."
So why this motley quartet: Ron Kowalyk, a painter from Cleveland Heights; Steve Smith, a fetish object maker who lives in the Bradley Building; Chas Krider, a photographer from Columbus; and e.l. sauselen, a poet from Bucyrus, Ohio?
Continued Farver, "There's a certain funky surreal element here, a shared sensibility. We put these people together because we think they're good." And representative of a trend? Spaces doesn't generate shows, it responds to would be generators. What the gallery presents is by its own self definition a sampling of art that is happening "out there."
Some of these group shows, it must be admitted, have been uneven. After all, Faver cautions, Spaces is a forum where artists can fail as well as soar; the important thing is that they have to be allowed to fail, But in this inaugural show of the gallery's eighth season, the cohesion of sensibility is clear, the juxtapositions are obvious if not eerie and the tempo is pulsating even without the benefit of an opening night band. This is contemporary myth making at its best.
One can really begin anywhere, but it's nearly impossible to proceed to the back of the gallery without making a beeline for Kowalyk's acrylic paintings. Kowalyk belongs to what might be called the "juice and tomato school of painting, an amalgam of abstract expressionist brushwork, hyper-realist angst and a squeeze of perverse humor. Kowalyk bows deeply to British realist/expressionist Francis Bacon, but invests his own narratives with much more personal obsessions. The title of one work, "The Wallpaper That Drove Me Crazy When I Was A Little Boy," says it all. Glimpsed through a grid, another Kowalyk trademark, leer the artist's sacred cows, baseball caps and hot dogs, a knife, dragonfly, spaceship (updated, of course by memories of the Starship Enterprise) and the ubiquitous Mr. Potato, that silly tuber with the plastic stick-in ears, nose, eyes and moustache. In other works, Mr. Potato (who, as Dr. Kottel Schellen, appears to be Kowalyk's alter ego) is impaled, sent into hyperspace, surgically opened and equated with the skull and crossbones of deadly poison. But wait, salvation cometh, a winged, starchy angel more commonly known as the trademark of De Kalb corn. Kowalyk's myths posit him as a child of a culture reared in the media, but a child who refused to grow up. For him there are always more myths to be made, more "thrillers" to be exhumed.
Exhuming taboos to break them, Chas Krider's hand-tinted, black-and-white photographs begin not with his childhood nightmares but with the children of the night: break dancers, musicians, street dog-venders and leather-jacketed punks. His "Urban Nights, Urban Knights" series is, in Krider's words, a portrait of a place and the people who live there. What is obvious about these people is their icon-like nature. Uniformed or heavily made-up, Krider's knights are not so much personalities but vessels on the run, waiting to be filled.
"As I worked on Urban Knights during 1981 through 1983, angels would occasionally appear in my images," Krider wrote. "My next avenue of possibilities came to be titled "The Order of the Holy Glove." Mythmaking, chivalric and religious pokes, erotic titillations and a beatification of the high school prom arise from these wholly staged images, which constitute a unique hagiography. We recognize these fallen angels, saints and martyrs from the streets that Krider originally stalked. On the surface couriers of the "holy glove," whose manifestation changes from image to image, they dramatize a certain naivete, a search for purity and illusion in a world drained of such super-realities.
Krider made references to St. Sebastian, a Christian martyr bound and pierced with arrows in two of his images. Steve Smith even more irreverently puts religion into the forefront of his collages and reliefs, particularly "Cross Breeding" and "Examination of Conscience."
Smith, a computer programmer by day and object maker by night, stalks the streets like many of us stalk bargains. He comes up with stuff as unrelated as rubber eyes and automobile nameplates, then fits them into his own glittering icons, which, although unlike Krider's ethereal statements in their gutsy out-of-the-gutter immediacy, recall them in intensity and drive.
Smith's work bursts out of the aesthetic realm and confronts religion treated as an empty formality, along with other modern horrors like war, gossip, dishonesty and torn human relationships. And it does so literally, as bits of broken glass, fencing and metal shards spring menacingly out of the picture into our space. Some of Smith's fantasies are part of public domain, some are intensely personal, but all are unremitting and barbed with wit.
Pulsating tempos, strange but bang-on juxtapositions, obsessive, personal myths that touch upon universals - these strains tie the three "traditional" imagemakers to the fourth, e.l. sauselen.
Sauselen is a painter, musician and poet, drawn equally to the power of Oriental mysticism and to the fertility of the dictionary. "Dau Aud Uda," a bound volume of three 81-poem books, mesmerizes like a mantra. A casual flip through the manuscript reveals a very simplistic format: a top zone of hieroglyphs, a middle zone composed of a staff with musical notation and a lower, more substantial zone of text. The pages, composed on the typewriter, then photocopied, have a tight visual logic based on bilateral symmetry or alignment with a right or left margin. Each 12-line poem is filled with alliterative pairs such as "cranny creeper," "delta delight" and "shlock school scrawl script." Although sauslen gets his words straight from the dictionary (no words were repeated in this tome), it is no accident that some of his combinations strike deeper chords. Out of this stream-of-consciousness writing comes personages such as "Existential Executive," "Amiable Anatomy" and "Factual Fanatic." They invite closer scrutiny until observation is replaced by reading softly out loud. Humor then plays host to a heartbeat: "paw marks / on the barbed brick / made the pork jump / and the pelt arch / in the heart zone / on the groove floor / as the lights flashed / from the flute vase."
Could a guest or staff curator have brought these four artists together? Probably. But heretofore no one has. Spaces' open-minded, artist-oriented philosophy has provided the vehicle for one of the most exciting group shows of the season. And the season has barely begun.
Comment on Smith's poetry...
e mail smith at smithcrimes @-sign yahoo dot com