CLEVELAND — On a recent humid day in downtown Cleveland, widow and sculptor Barbara Stanczak watched from the eighth floor of a parking garage as individuals painted a re-creation of the abstract mural her late husband, Julian Stanczak, painted on the same building almost 50 years ago.
At one of the oldest churches in Cleveland and at what was once an Underground Railroad hideaway for escapees, Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey’s installation takes viewers through the experience of fleeing through the night with his dark landscapes.
At the Cleveland Institute of Art, Kent State University art professor Gianna Commito’s contemporary painting can be viewed with 20 other artists who live and work in cities around the Great Lakes in the exhibition The Great Lakes Research.
On the campus of Case Western Reserve University, artist Tony Tasset’s giant silver sculpture depicting his wife’s hand doubles as a gathering space.
And in a remote neighborhood in East Cleveland, a sculpture by Cleveland artist Dale Goode shines in the sun on a vacant lot between residential homes where kids play and adults sip tea on porches.
These creative thinkers are just a few of the more than 100 artists worldwide who are part of the first exhibition of contemporary art found in both established institutions and less conventional spaces across Cleveland, Akron, and Oberlin.
FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art opened this month and closes Sept. 30. Tucked into obscure neighborhood locations and on hospital and university campuses, painted on downtown building facades, installed at art museums, and performed on stages throughout the region are live music and stand-up, video and film programs, publications, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and artworks in a variety of other media that address what it means to live both together and apart in urban settings, said Michelle Grabner, triennial artistic director.
“I really spent time [in Cleveland], coming to know the city and understanding each artist I wanted to bring on and what would be an interesting venue for each of them,” Grabner said. “My goal as an artist and a curator is to offer artists different platforms and resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have. These resources and platforms can expand their work in ways that they could not have expected.”
Grabner, a painting and drawing professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, was brought in to curate the show in 2015 by Fred Bidwell, an entrepreneur and contemporary art collector who envisioned the collaborative and organized it through the nonprofit FRONT Exhibition Company. The event cost upward of $5 million to bring to reality, expenses that were paid for through donations, grant funding, and out of Bidwell’s own pocket.
Directors are calling it the largest art event of its kind in North America.
“I don’t think it is an idle claim to say this collaboration is unique in this world,” Bidwell said.
‘Homage to ?Charles LLoyd’
When 54-year-old Barbara Jones looks out across the street from her porch on West 112th Street, she no longer sees just a vacant lot. Tucked to the back of the grassy plot is Homage to Charles LLoyd, a sculpture made from scrapped metal cans by Cleveland artist Dale Goode.
A sign at the front of the property describes the piece and its role in FRONT.
“Maybe it will help pump the neighborhood back up,” Jones said hopefully. “This was such a beautiful street. I’ve lived here for 54 years, and it’s so different now. We are trying to clean things up, and it’s pleasant to have something like that.”
Neighbors have rallied around the sculpture, making sure it’s not vandalized, said Goode, 69, who canvassed the street to explain the installation to residents.
He was one of six Cleveland artists initially asked last fall to be a part of FRONT. A prolific artist whose past exhibition and gallery work has included abstract paintings, monoprints, and three-dimensional sculptures created from discarded materials and painted a bright gold, Goode says Homage makes a statement about the rapidly mounting garbage problem worldwide.
“It may look really simple, but this was a very challenging piece to do. I see myself continuing on in this vein for awhile,” he said during an interview at the Cleveland Art Museum. “I want to draw the public’s attention to the amount of waste that we are producing as a society. I just cannot believe the amount of stuff that I see on the streets and in the junk and scrap yards.”
In 1973, muralist Julian Stanczak was one of a dozen artists chosen to design and execute murals for a downtown Cleveland civic art project called City Canvases.
FRONT organizers have revived the 45-year-old project with both an exhibition explaining the project in the Old Arcade historical building in downtown Cleveland and a series of murals across nine downtown blocks, including the re-creation of Stanczak’s mural in the same location at Prospect Avenue and 9th Street. Barbara Stanczak said the original piece was done with oil paints and lasted less than 10 years on the wall. The piece uses colors and lines to play with optical illusions. Artists used old sketches and color swatches and the help of Barbara Stanczak to bring it back.
“There are only three colors involved. He wanted to keep things simple but have the optical mix be very, very rich,” she said in a thick German accent as she watched painters bring the piece back to life. “You will see when you have a distance from it, that it will mix in the eye of the viewer, not physically in the paint bucket, but in the viewer’s eye, to many, many different colors.”
Stanczak died in March, 2017, after a lifelong career as an abstract painter whose pieces play with light, color, lines, and patterns.
“I’m very happy the city is honoring him, because people from all over the world are going to come and they will see it and remember. They have heard his name and know his work. He died, but it is not the end,” his widow said.
Artist and professor Gianna Commito had to speed up her schedule a hair when she was asked in late spring to be a participant in The Great Lakes Research multi-artist exhibition for FRONT.
Commito, who works in layers to create spatial interactions in her architecturally inspired pieces, finished the solo work in a little over a month. She said she usually works on several pieces at a time to create a body of work, a process that takes her about a year.
“It was really fun seeing it as an individual piece knowing that it was going to be the only piece representing me as opposed to a body of work. I tried to get a lot of information in there,” Commito said.
A transplant from Maryland who moved to Kent, Ohio, in 2005 to teach painting at Kent State University, Commito described her work as reflecting the idea of urban landscaping, and despite the rush, she was excited to be part of the global event.
“I’ve lived here almost 14 years and I think it’s great that they are folding in some artists who decided to live in this area even if they grew up somewhere else,” she said.
FRONT’s summer-long, multi-venue experience was modeled after European-style city-wide art exhibitions and is being marketed as a treasure hunt through the city and region. Its events and installations are viewable in 28 different venues.
“The exhibition was built to move across place and time, from city to city, museum to hospital, library to school, public market to steamship, art gallery to back yard,” Grabner said.
Bidwell, who with his wife, Laura, opened Transformer Station in one of Ohio City’s neighborhoods to share their contemporary art collections, sought the partnerships of more than a half dozen established art institutions to bring FRONT to fruition, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, MOCA Cleveland, the Akron Art Museum, SPACES gallery, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin.
Installations in Cleveland are in three different neighborhoods and can be viewed by walking or by bike. They also note that the entire exhibition is connected by Cleveland’s train system, the Regional Transit Authority’s Red Line. Organizers say visitors should plan an entire morning or afternoon for visiting both Akron and Oberlin’s installations.
FRONT hopes to host the larger-than-life show every three years. Bidwell says the goal is to attract 75,000 people to the event from outside the city and to create an economic impact of about $50 million.