Criminals At Large
Steven B. Smith's Farewell Artcrimes Is His Best Ever
by Douglas Max Utter
Cleveland Free Times
August 9, 2006
Among the beliefs that divide artists from non-artists (at least in their own minds) is the idea that real art is always a matter of transgression. This criminal behavior can occur anywhere in a range from mild contextual malfeasance, all the way to bona fide instances of metaphorical murder. Often enough, especially during the last century, writers and painters have been reviled and ridiculed, sued, jailed, banned and executed for their tendency to skip the anesthetic and trim fat directly off a culture's comfort zone, prodding the status quo in its wide derriere: Art's most urgent duty is to pierce beneath the dead surface of common perception, challenging every received word, every color, every line, note and gesture until the world is made new again.
For just over two decades, poet, artist and jack-of-some-trades Steven B. Smith has published an ongoing paean to and compendium of such verbal/visual aggressions. Himself an incessant recombiner of aesthetic DNA (usually the kind found stuck against the bottom of a chain-link fence), he adds plenty to the mix as visual artist, poet and all-round progenitor. On his way out of town Smith, ably assisted by his new partner/bride Lady and Cleveland artist and co-editor Beth Wolfe, has left behind the 21st issue of ArtCrimes — the biggest and best ever, chockful of everything from punk inadvertence to lyric poetry, from surrealist photo collages to surprisingly straight-ahead drawings, paintings and cartoons. If you can find one of the 700-odd copies (try Mac's Backs on Coventry Road or SPACES), buy it. Collectible and at times profound, it epitomizes a whole era of down-and-dirty, Inner-belt art, bordered with random weeds and dented guardrails.
One obvious model for these ArtCrimes is the sort of beat generation-era publication that Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Seymour Krim would have been proud to produce in the halcyon days of Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg et al, when almost any art was apt to be regarded either as obscene or traitorous. This last ArtCrimes is subtitled Duck and Cover, and in the fine tradition of the City Lights publications it resembles, is often overtly political, as well as frankly sexual and casually sacrilegious.
The hefty booklet is still a couple of pounds short of a tome, but at 144 pages, it dwarfs the previous pamphlet-sized editions. And leaving content aside for the moment, it may well be the most significant publication of the Cleveland underground art scene in recent history. All of 177 artists are included — people working in either words or pictures or both. Most are alive, some are dead (the book is dedicated to a few of those, including the revered Daniel Thompson, plus a few figures of wider reputation like William Butler Yeats). Almost all are memorable.
Reading any issue of ArtCrimes has been an adventure. When you plunge into the currents of the aptly named Duck and Cover, best take your fine-art discernment out of your wallet and keep it clenched firmly in your teeth. It's almost like Deliverance. Unkempt poets, painters and less-definable types snipe at unwary readers from pinnacles and deep canyons of quality and subject matter. But in fact, almost all have been visible in the city's galleries and performance venues or on the printed page for a decade or more. Included are notable visual artists like Melissa Craig (also a former ArtCrimes editor), and revered CSU prof Ken Nevadomi, George Kocar and Dexter Davis (even Utter finds a small place). American Splendor artist Gary Dumm contributes a two-page spread, Harvey Pekar himself actually draws a stick-figure rendition of a downtown incident, and many of the area's best poets claim a page or two. Maj Ragain, Daniel Gray-Kontar, Chris Franke, Michael Salinger, Amy Sparks, Ben Gulyas, John Byrum, John Stickney, Ray McNiece, Jim Lang, Peter Leon and many others add extraordinary works, often sandwiched between vapid, puerile — crap.
But so what? Truly wonderful talents mainly known to Ohio audiences like Marvin Smith, Terry Durst and Marsha Sweet are represented, as are veterans of the larger art world — painter and former Cleveland Institute of Art instructor Catherine Redmond, for instance, writing a poem from her New York digs. They share space with local legends like Robert Richie, cartooning here under the name of Dick Head. The book opens with one of Scott Radke's haunted hybrid soft sculptures, part goblin/part sea serpent, sporting a bird's nest and an egg in its midriff, and continues with all sorts of hybrid surprises, including a 1990 poem/letter written to Ben Gulyas by Charles Bukowski. Painter/sculptor/chanteuse Brenda Stumpf shows up with a mysterious charcoal sketch, and many others wear several hats as they scramble to live for art and the city at the same time: There are artist/gallerists like Joan Deveney and Bridget Ginley or bookstore owner Suzanne Degaetano. And there are ghosts. Daniel Thompson, for one, and of course Smith's beloved Mother Dwarf Smith. Even d.a. levy, patron saint of all Cleveland's beat/ hippie lit, is represented.
In short, Duck and Cover is a big, fat, mass wedding of retro-beat, neo-dada and genuine curbside rust-belt art, found or made by artists who don't give a damn about the New York radar, let alone the perceptions of more local hierarchies. If there is a cutting edge to ArtCrimes, that heedless idiosyncrasy is the source of its sharpness. This is an irreverent, incorrect chorus of voices, each answerable only to its own disheveled muse, driven to create not by any institution, market or public expectation, but by the dictates of stubborn inner need.
Or as Bukowski remarks here on page 138: "They stuck something in me and it said WRITER and there I've been. Like a wooden leg or a windshield wiper."