Will Rogers once said, "If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati; everything comes there ten years later." That was at the turn of the century; the town has since made efforts to prove the philosopher-cowboy wrong. Lately, Cincinnati got a jump on the current wave of art museum renovations and expansions and commissioned star British architect Zaha Hadid to design her first U.S. building: the Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center, which opened in 2003. On a recent trip to Cincinnati, the CAC was my home base; I kept returning there for meetings and parties, so I got to know the famous building relatively well.
From the outside it's a complete success. Formal innovations rest on conservative principles, and the results are both exciting and tasteful. It gives an otherwise plain downtown a vivid streak of character.
Inside, all that personality is imposing. The space calls attention to how fancy it is, with too few right angles and too many awkward, blocky things in the line of view. The superfluous pizzazz provokes that special irritation we reserve for our starchitects. The design is good, however, in that the galleries offer variety in terms of size and natural light.
The museum has no permanent collection, and the unorthodox, open arrangement of the galleries keeps us from understanding the structural whole, so visitors are always explorers. Long, gentle stairways blur the boundaries between levels, which lessens the fatigue felt at a comparably sized museum like the Whitney. For curators the space is a challenge to work with, but the potential for great exhibitions is there.
"I love it; I hate it." CAC associate curator Matt Distel talks about the building like its a member of his immediate family -- a relationship of loyalty, a certain amount of conflict and growth. His current projects, "Incorporated" (Feb.12-May 8, 2005) and "Multiple Strategies" (Nov. 20, 2004-Aug. 21, 2005, organized with Peter Huttinger), are provocative, intellectual shows. Both stem from a respect for subversion. "Incorporated" is a group show of post-conceptual political art, featuring collectives like the Institute for Applied Autonomy, the Yes Men and Sabotage, whose passports for the fake nation "State of Sabotage" earlier this year were confiscated by Homeland Security.
Where is the State of Sabotage? It has no territory and no border; according to their website, "SOS is like a ghost in your mind ready to trigger off your private missiles."
These artists dont get much attention in the marketplace, but to do their best work they need to stay lean and hungry, on the fringe. Incorporated gives hope to those who think the art business has gone the way of show business; it reminds us that there are still serious young artists in America who are interested in more than their cultural temperature -- that is, whether theyre hot or not.
"Multiple Strategies" is a huge survey of multiples and editions, including some 300 works of art by 200 artists. The show takes a long view, but it doesn't unfold chronologically. Instead we tour through categories: "Art for All," Artist, Action, Object," "Artist as Publisher," Do-It-Yourself," "Like Life, Pranks and Interventions and "Multiple as Alternative Space."
Rows of vitrines overflow with artworks from artists all over the 20th-century map, from Duchamp and Beuys through Fluxus and Joseph Kosuth and on to ACT UP, Group Material, Bas Jan Ader, Jeff Koons and even Damien Hirst. Yoko Ono seems omnipresent. Like Picasso in the Museum of Modern Art's 20th-century painting collection, she pops up again and again -- here with the Fluxus artists, there with John Lennon, here again on her own, always refreshed and reborn.
Again, the show is interested in everything but the marketplace. The multiple is fun, its populist, it's cheap, it's cute, it's seditious, but its never a moneymaker here. Koons and Hirst play it closest to the edge, but in this context its clear how each brilliantly usurps value.
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It was with Fluxus in mind that I went to see Carl Solway, Cincinnati's most famous art dealer and a man who has long worked with the Fluxus avatar Nam June Paik.
"I'm a monogamous dealer," Solway says. "I was always that way." Solway found Paik in the early 1980s, not long after the death of Buckminster Fuller, with whom he had previously worked. It was just after Paik's 1982 solo show at the Whitney Museum, but the artist was nevertheless penniless and without a space to work in. Solway provided a studio and a team of assistants, and together they embarked on a long and fruitful career. "Making things with Nam June was a hell of a lot more fun than trying to convince some lady that her husband wouldnt be mad if she spent $800 on a print, so thats what I did."
Solway has owned a gallery for over 40 years; before that he ran his father's furniture store. "My parents didnt want me to run an art gallery and I didnt want to run a furniture store, but I ended up selling a lot more TVs with Nam June and more furniture with Joel Otterson than my father ever sold. Wherever you go, there you are.
With the Paik studio no longer in operation, Solway has turned his space into a more traditional blue-chip gallery. Currently on view is a show titled "30 Ways To Make a Painting." Across the board, the work remains elegant even when it is dated, in way unique to good not-quite-contemporary but not-yet-old art. Works by Polly Apfelbaum and Allan McCollum are easy pleasures, while Jack Chevalier and Chris Darton exude an '80s chic so specific it becomes foreign.
The show is not without brand new highlights, like the young Shirley Shor's Split (from the series "Flatland") (2003) ($12,000, edition of six). The piece is a flat-screen video monitor playing an endlessly varied animation of colorful, compressing rectangles. Its not unlike a screen saver, but somehow it transcends that most humble of expressive forms to become a "new media painting." Very smart work. Tell us Carl, what's the secret of finding good new art? "Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography -- I know it when I see it."
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No trip to Cincinnati would be complete without visiting the Cincinnati Art Museum's new Cincinnati Wing. The 18,000-square-foot addition was opened in 2003, and features art made "for Cincinnati, in Cincinnati, or by Cincinnatians." Head curator Anita Ellis, who has been at the museum for over 30 years, spearheaded the project from start to finish.
It is a fine piece of Americana, chronicling the history of a city that rose from a being a frontier outpost to a mid-country trade center. Much of the art, of course, is derivative of European trends, but where it varies from that tradition reveals much of the citys identity. The mid-19th-century furniture, in particular, displays a unique character, mixing Victorian density with American Folk. The results are rich and ornate, but earthy, like wealthy Americans must have seemed at the time.
Even better is the story of Rookwood Pottery, founded in Cincinnati in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols and subsequently developed into a mass-market phenomenon. Known for its matte glazes, the Rookwood technique allowed for elaborate, full-color painting on pottery, whose technical and artistic advances can be attributed in part to the intense rivalry of Nichols and the pioneer of U.S. studio porcelain, M. Louise McLaughlin. The results are some of the most garish vessels the world has ever seen.
For still more local history, visitors to Cincinnati can visit the newly renovated Taft Museum. Here, the collection of the famous Taft family -- the museum was opened in 1932 in the former mansion of Charles Phelps Taft, brother of President William Howard Taft -- is displayed, frozen in time (the museum makes no acquisitions). Its a chronicle of taste among America's rich, which at the time seems to have been for Oriental pottery, English portraiture and Impressionism.
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On a quiet side street in Cincinnati's decrepit-looking Brighton neighborhood, two generations of artist-run galleries sit side by side. The senior is Clay Street Press, owned and operated by Mark Patsfall. Currently on view is "the by and by," a selection of prints by Mark Fox, a Cincinnati artist who has recently moved to New York City. The Clay Street show is diverse, with works ranging from the late 1980s to today.
The show includes experimental works like a chain link fence made of printed paper and sold in segments ($2,500 each). My favorites, however, are the tactile etchings, works like Quepos Trio (2005, edition of 25, $250). This image of the heads of three birds, or of one bird becoming progressively wilder, is beautifully drawn, funny and formally resolved. At the same time, it looks impromptu; it's a personal drawing, like making a note. Its a print thats aloof to the viewer, and all the more attractive for it.
Next door is Publico, a gallery and collective whose members include Jimmy Baker, Britni Bicknaver, Evan Commander, Matt Coors, Paul Coors, Beth Graves, Russell Ihrig, Brian Nicely and Dana Ward. This group of BFAs, MFAs and their surrounding friends, all under the age of 30, define Cincinnati hip. They play in bands, read art magazines, know people everywhere and have shown their work in Chicago or in Brooklyn.
In the gallery currently is a group exhibition titled "The Trendiest Show Ever," in which artists riff on fashion, graffiti culture, cowboys and other subjects recently popular in art schools. The show is full of up-to-the-minute work. Sometimes its hard to say if something is being made fun of or bought into, but the energy is positive and the ideas are clever. Cool things like hermit crabs with Burberry shells and candles shaped like spray-paint cans read as bright creativity with just a whiff of youthful criticality -- theyre innocent, but not to be patronized or, in the long run, written off. A critic would just seem priggish by digging his rhetoric into them.
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The next stop was across the border in Covington, Kentucky, to visit the nonprofit Carnegie Arts Center. Four galleries and a theater are housed in one of Andrew Carnegie's classic libraries. All four spaces are under the direction of Bill Seitz, who was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant last year for his work at the center.
The main space features sculptures by Brent Oglesbee, assemblages of old-fashioned fans, engines and leather shoes, but built clean and tight in a contemporary way -- a blend of old and new that is, unfortunately, terminally regional.
Upstairs are paintings and drawings by Jason Franz and Alice Pixley Young, and wax sculptures by Kate Budd. Budd's sculptures are powerful and strange. They are palm-sized female forms, cast in pearly translucent wax, weirdly exaggerated and occasionally adorned with hair or ribbon. They are at once reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf, sex organs, Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, scary growths and maybe your mother. They left me queasy. As artists go, Budd is the real thing; in her hands femininity is a force of nature.
Back in Cincinnati, the Artworks gallery had recently opened a show of photographs by father and son duo Jon and Sean Hughes. The two work in photojournalism, which means theyve traveled the world. Of all the places they have gone, Cuba is their favorite -- and also the subject of the exhibition. The show is full of the spicy romance of Cuban life, which from the vantage of Cincinnati looks exotic indeed.
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The CAC and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco often share programming; the current CAC exhibition, "Erwin Wurm: I love my time/I dont like my time," opened first in San Francisco. Last year a show called "Beautiful Losers," which featured many Bay Area art stars, opened first here; its impact was completely different. In San Francisco, "Losers" was a confirmation; here it was a revelation. The impression on the arts community was deep, especially on younger artists, with whom it comes up again and again in conversation.
"Total Pile," an exhibition at the Semantics Gallery, drove the point home. Works by Joel Blazer, Ali Calis, Craig Dransfield and Maya Hayuk turned the gallery into a hand-drawn playhouse. Apparently the show was completely installed, including murals, in just 24 hours; will it be gone as fast? How long will the Bay Area Street-Folk effect last?
I caught one last event at the house of local artist Jay Bolotin, a soft-spoken Kentuckian who favors plain linen clothes. His home looks like something out of a Faulkner novel: a wooden stove, bear furniture, old mechanical doodads lying about -- until you see the twin Apple G5 computers. Bolotin is a woodblock printer by trade, but a while back he began toying with animation. Now, seven years later, hes finished a feature length animated film, The Jackleg Testament. Set to a massive musical score, the film retells the story of Adam and Eve with a few twists. It will be on view at the CAC this spring; it will also travel to Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.
ABRAHAM ORDEN is an art critic based in San Francisco.