A Place to Call Home
Amy Bracken Sparks
September 8, 1988
What do you do if you're a frustrated local artist seeing millions of "cultural" dollars being thrown to the same few causes and celebrities, when you are displaced from your warehouse studio because some developer decides it would make a better tourist attraction, when there are only a handfull of places which truly nourish local artists and want to promote their work? What do you do if you are unconnected, nearly broke and disgusted? You open your own gallery.
Which is exactly what artist R.C.Naso has done with a group of like minded friends in Tremont, site of the city's fastest growing artist community. No they didn't round up an influential board of trustees, garner a grant from the Cleveland Foundation or the Gund brothers, design a fancy logo and marketing strategy. They just moved into an abandoned building, got their tools and buckets out and started to make it habitable.
"I dont have any commercial aspirations" says Naso. "I just want to paint and have a place for artists to show their work. For anyone who thinks Cleveland's art scene needs a shot of adrenalin, this is it. Called simply the Studio/Gallery, its first show opens September 9th with an appropriately gritty group of artists, headlined by enfant terrible Robert Ritchie, mixed media guru Steven B. Smith, painter Ed Raffel and photographer Laura Stuart. But don't expect to pick up any lovely items that match the couch or are perfect for Christmas presents. For those you have to travel to Murray Hill. The artwork, like the artists and the gallery itself, reflects its surroundings.
To understand these artists you have to understand the raw streets of Tremont. You have to understand why Naso worked in the flats ten years ago and now won't even venture down there. As has happened in New York's East Village and now in the Bronx and Harlem, the pattern of a city's redevelopment begins with the artists moving into undesirable neighborhoods, fixing up old buildings, living and working there.
It isn't just because it is cheap, the neighborhoods also have an aesthetic charm built into their decay and neglect. It happened in the Flats and in the Warehouse District, now white-washed and redeveloped for the gentry and tourists. But the burgeoning artists community in Tremont sees it not as a stopping place, but as home. "Ten years ago I was involved with the Riverbed Artists Association" says Naso, "which claimed more than 100 artists working and/or living in the flats. It was a rough place back then. There were 40 studios down there, and while there are still studios (now called the Left Bank), all the original people were displaced." Many artists moved to Tremont, but to keep the spectre of gentrification and rising rents off their backs, many have decided to buy a home for the first time. "Hopefully," says Naso "we can finally call this home."
But how can a struggling little gallery keep itself afloat without incoming cash? "Were not looking for money," claims Naso, "We don't have any overhead. Whatever an artist sells we take a 25% commission which pays for mailing and wine for the openings." Artists who want a show can just come in and set up, and do whatever they please, as long as they leave the gallery the way they found it. Artists, mostly from the neighborhood, have already booked the space through January.
While Naso and the others are clearly excited by this venture, there is an undercurrent of tension and anger fueling their efforts. While some complain about the power of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the lack of education about contemporary art issues, the conservative taste of most Clevelanders, the questionable use of art consultants (why don't people just buy what they like?), virtually everyone complains about the lack of adequate arts coverage by the media, this paper included. Perhaps part of the reason is that for the past ten years SPACES gallery has been the only artist-run alternative space showing local and regional work. In any other city there are reams of tiny storefront galleries, usually run by and for artists, struggling to survive.
So what will you find opening night at the Studio/Gallery? A couple coats of fresh paint, a newly hung sign, cheap wine, Ritchie's amazingly transformed bicycles in the window and a sense of accomplishment and vitality. One whole wall will be given over to a collage of all four artists work, crammed together and facing the street. Junk-master and savior of detritus Smith will be showing some new pieces, no doubt difficult and uncompromising. Ed Raffel's photo-realistic paintings-for which he has won special mention in the last three CMA May shows-won't be featured this time. He's abandoned that style for a more abstract expressionistic one. Photographer Stuart is known for her hard-edged urban scenes, and for this show she has been shooting in the neighborhood, a place rife with images. And those who know Ritchie have come to expect a certin tone in his work. But his newer pieces, mostly mixed media and intricately painted windows and doors, show a meticulous side od Ritchie not often seen. Expect the show to be refreshingly irreverent, and difficult. But expect some excitement as well.
Comment on Smith's poetry... e mail smith at smithcrimes @-sign yahoo dot com