Art Behind Bars
Elizabeth Morton - Dialogue Magazine
For nearly a year, the Committee for Public Art has administered "Art Behind Bars," an exhibition space located in two windows of a former industrial building in Cleveland's Historic Warehouse District. Art Behind Bars is funded by the Ohio Arts Council, and also enjoys the support of local developers, businesses and residents. The windows are on a well-traveled hill leading from downtown to both the industrial and recreational center of the city, and this location enables the artists to address a broad and diverse audience. Artists are permitted to submit proposals utilizing one or both windows, or to incorporate the room behind the windows into their installation. This site provides an alternative for artists desiring to stretch the limitations of traditional art forms and exhibition spaces. A look at the current installations on view demonstrates the innovative ways in which artists have manipulated media and space in these windows to create unique and provocative displays.
"Sun/Source," by Edgar Heap of Birds, occupies the regular Art Behind Bars space, and the artist has designed a word installation for each window. For Heap of Birds, "language has not only feeling, but also gesture, size color and space," and therefore the resonance of the text alone is insufficient to communicate his statements relating to both his Native American heritage and universal themes such as love and satisfaction. Without additional imagery or the formal trappings of a museum or gallery context as distractions, these simple "words on a wall" allow the artist to communicate his message directly to the passerby.
Coincidentally, not far away is another window installation concerned with Native American, entitled "Joc-O-Sot of the Erie Street Cemetery." This installation is one of two additional window exhibits sponsored as part of Historic Preservation Week activities. It details the life of a Sauk Chief who achieved fame in the Blackhawk Wars, toured Europe as a vaudeville act, died in the Warehouse District in 1844, and was buried in the Erie Street Cemetery. The goal of the artists Mary Jo Bole, Don Desmett, and Paul Badger is to bring to attention the abuse suffered by both the Chief and the cemetery, and in sharp contrast to Heap of Bird's strategy, they use their four-window space to overwhelm the viewer with multiple layers of depth and a wide variety of media, including passages from newspapers and books, artifacts, and their own creative depictions of Joc-O-Sot's life and times. While the precise meaning of a Cheyenne word in the "Sun/Source" may seem enigmatic to the viewer, no Cleveland Indians fan should have trouble recognizing our mascot, Chief Wahoo," plastered over the back wall of the last window. The juxtaposition of this grinning cartoon character with the documentation of the tragic history and prejudice suffered by Native Americans raises disturbing questions about our society's stereotypes of Indian culture.
The third window installation currently on view is an outgrowth of the enjoyment and positive feedback two artists received from their collaboration on an Art Behind Bars project last fall.
The creators of "Warehouse Diptych II," Steven B. Smith and S. Judson Wilcox, were two of the earliest "urban pioneers" to settle in the Warehouse District. Their collaborations have made clear their deep involvement with the neighborhood, as well as their concern with the impact that redevelopment will have on the district's character.
In the raw space of an entire first floor of the former Tobacco Works Building, the artists have constructed an elaborate assemblage of warehouse artifacts, "altered retail accessories," and their own original ceramic creations.
Self-described "arts activists" Smith and Wilcox want to make art a more viable aspect of community life, and have made their installation an "art event" by incorporating poetry readings and musical performance. Consistent with the Committee of Public Art's goal of maintaining the artistic identity of the Warehouse District, the artists strive to demonstrate both the rich history and present vibrancy of the community.
Judging by the number of people gathering outside "Warehouse Diptych II" on their way home from ball games or nightclubs, Clevelanders seem to be taking notice.
Performance artist Ray Langenbach's Arts Behind Bars installation in March was another ingeniously effective way of extending the exhibition space into the streets. Langenbach was stirred by the devastating effects Cleveland's potholes were having on his car, and in his piece, "Redistribution of Asphalt," he called upon his fellow citizens to join him in taking action to correct the problem and to thus improve the quality of life in the city. The artists used the window space to display a shovel and an immense mound of asphalt, and twice a week he stationed himself outside, giving ten-pound sacks to Clevelanders whom he urged to fulfill their "civic duty" by filling in the pothole of their choice.
Anticipating a confused or cynical response from those whose definition of art was confined to wall paintings or garden sculpture, Langenbach proclaimed, "People like to categorize almost everything. To me, this kind of art is equally necessary as the other kind." Indeed, as these projects demonstrate, the uniqueness and effectiveness of Art Behind Bars lies in its injection of art into the city's street life and as its function as a forum to question our assumptions about how we view art, our city's history, and ourselves.
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