Modern poetry & art by the contemporary Cleveland artist & poet Steven B. Smith
Smith - contemporary poet

Anarchy-Art-On-The-Cheap Is Calling Akron Home
Unsettling exhibits amid neatness, order


Dorothy Shinn, Beacon Journal art critic
Akron Beacon Journal, Sunday, December 9, 1990


As artist-run galleries go, AAA Millworks Art Organization is typical.

The gallery, located in Building No. 17, Canal Place, 540 S. Main St., Akron, can be found in a series of leftover spaces just under the Canal Place arch -- a gatekeeper's office, a set of stairs, a foyer and a couple of landings on another set of stairs.

This setting -- the gallery-on-a-shoestring approach, and proud of it -- follows a time-honored tradition beginning with the salons des refusees initiated by 19th-century French Impressionists in protest of the official salon shows from which they had been excluded.

At Millworks, however, the idea of anarchy and the peril of the cutting edge is undercut by domestic niceties, such as neatness, order and safety, even while the exhibits themselves seek to break through viewers' complacency. Thus, in Out of Winter, the unsettling exhibit by Louanne Greenwald and Bill Radawec, four florists' arrangements have been put upon pedestals and allowed to die. This is all carefully explained by the Millworks staffers who are anxious that the works be understood. The vases of dead blooms are accompanied by a neat, black stenciled message: `Still life. Real life. Trompe l'oeill. A celebration of color in a table of white. The scent perhaps disguising some former presence. Or commemorating an absence. A gallery void of art: Contemplating temporality. Out of winter, they emerge, beautiful but brief, and in their withering, we recognize the futility of their beautiful existence.'

This is a post-modernist approach to art: bringing the work off the wall into the viewer's space; appropriating styles and approaches from art history; recycling an art-historical attitude into an updated, more ironic view of the same subject.

Thus, the vanitas paintings in 17th-century Netherlandish art that depicted meticulously realistic still life compositions with flowers, particularly flowers out of season, were really sermonizing tracts on vanity and mortality. Re-presented as real flowers that really fade and die, this exhibit calls into question painting traditions, the gallery scene, realism and our expectations. But it does so gently, carefully, so as not to make a mess or upset anyone too much.

Don Harvey's exhibit, Waterworks, is another carefully crafted event consisting of two long, clear pipes of water mixed with phosphorous hung vertically, one over the other, on a white brick wall above a stairwell. Superimposed on these is a video of water running from pipes into the Cuyahoga River down by the Cleveland Flats. The video, on a 10-second, continuous loop, is meant to be seen from outside. So you stand out in the cold, look through the glass doors and watch the water run into the Cuyahoga.

Harvey, who moved to Cleveland several years ago but still teaches at the University of Akron's School of Art, has long made the environment a subject for his work.

His approach comes out of the minimalist aesthetic, with its concern for systems and the well-made object. In this particular instance, however, his intent is to make you experience the environment but not suffer too much in the process.

Steven B. Smith's multimedia exhibit, Fragments, is the only one of the three exhibits that is fundamentally disturbing.

Smith, of Cleveland, publishes an alternative-art-type publication called ArtCrimes, which is an anthology of works by mail artists. The publication is run off on photocopy machines and stapled together along the fold.

Similarly, much of Smith's artwork is done on a photocopier, sometimes in black and white, sometimes in intense color. None of his works has a title.

Smith's exhibit is installed along the walls and on two landings of a second stairwell, entered through a set of doors beyond those where Harvey's video continuously plays.

The works, shown with five of his mother's, consist of 15 collages and three installations.

On the first landing is a table with three chairs, a pedestal holding a cracked plaster cast of a head, a bird cage with a chicken or turkey foot hanging from the little swing and a fistful of pennies scattered on the metal tray in the bottom. On the table are some recent issues of Artcrimes, as well as other publications.

Gallery director John Puglia says the installation on the first landing is a place to sit and relax.

Nothing so accommodating is intended in the installation on the second landing, however.

The space is arranged like a private devotional, with a plastic Virgin Mary on one wall, a plaster cast of the Crucifixion done in relief, and a greatly altered print of a Byzantine Madonna on the other.

In the center of the long wall is a large, convex mirror. Underneath the mirror is a small portable television that is showing a long, flat line across its otherwise blank screen. On top of the television is a plastic bag of what at first appears to be dirt. Next to the television is a brown corrugated box with a label that reads: `This package contains the cremains of Vincent Allen Smith, Aug. 13, 1987, cremated this 19th Day, of August 1987.

The plastic bag contains the remains of Steven Smith's brother. Puglia says Smith exhibits his brother's remains at all his shows and leaves behind some of his ashes after each exhibit.

Puglia said most visitors don't make the connection between the box and the bag right away. Some of the contents of the bag have spilled on top of the television, and Puglia said some visitors unknowingly handled the bits of human bone and ashes.

As shocking as this installation may be, the one beyond it is equally disturbing. Smith has collected the torsos of department store mannequins and placed them on the stairs, one behind the other, up to the next landing.

Puglia said Smith calls the mannequins, some of which have neon-filled glass tubes attached to their heads, angel guides to heaven. Access to this stairway has been blocked off, ostensibly for visitors' safety, but perhaps for symbolic reasons as well.

If you've seen the film Jacob's Ladder, you will understand.

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All content 1990 BEACON JOURNAL and may not be republished without permission.

special thanks to Mike Needs Akron Beacon Journal Public Editor
for helping me find this review and granting permission to post it.

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