Hit and Run at the Cleveland Museum of Art

2 Nov

Shona or Tsonga headrest, 19th/20th c.

Relatively few good U.S. museums are free–the Smithsonian, of course, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, but…I’m glad I have my museum badge (research associate, tralala!) to get through some of the increasingly expensive doors. The Cleveland Museum of Art, however, is one of those fabulous free spots, and one of the best aspects is that you don’t have to stay for hours to get your money’s worth–you can just stop and go, directing your attention intensely at a selected area. Such a day was today–I didn’t have much time, but it was enough to enable a quick stop to see a temporary exhibition, The Art of Daily Life: Portable Objects from Southeast Africa.

Nguni wooden milk vessel, 19th/20th c.

It’s a small gem of a show, sandwiched between two 20th century galleries in Room 226. Unfortunately the lack of light (at the request of a lender) results in a gem that looks as if it’s in need of a good scrub. The beautiful colors of the beads–so clear in the studio-lit photos–fade in

Staffs from southern Africa

the environment, and the gleam of patina on a wooden headrest that’s seen decades of use can only be noted from a particular angle. The central elements–beer pots and staffs–are the only objects set free from their vitrine cages, and provide a wonderful island of viewing. The objects include nods to tobacco in the form of snuff containers and pipes, some with whimsical anthropomorphic turns, as well as wooden pillows, stools, milk containers and costume elements. Even though many museums may own such pieces, they are rarely displayed, especially en masse, and they make a great case for the design sense of Southern African groups such as the Zulu, Nguni, Swazi and others. Graphic and industrial designers, among other art lovers, should take a long look

Augusta Savage's "Gamin"

at the exquisite craftsmanship and sense of geometric balance, always with some asymmetrical elements to provide interesting byways.

The lightning visit took us out through other modern galleries, and I stopped in my tracks–I hadn’t been to the 20th century section since its reinstallation, and was thrilled to see works that hadn’t been on exhibit before. I’m a huge fan of African American art, and there was Augusta Savage’s Gamin, a bright-eyed kid in a 1929 news cap. Savage, a Floridian, showed talent even as a child, but her deeply religious father tried to steer her away from “heathen” inclinations. Encouraged by others, she persevered, and got into Cooper Union, a premier school that accepts only the best, and has remained tuition free (though this policy is currently under threat). Like every other American artist before WWII, she was taught to believe the art world’s center was Europe, and she applied for fellowships that could get her there. Awarded one, she found it snatched away when they discovered her color. Another came her way, but she had no way to pay her transatlantic passage. A hurricane in Florida blew her injured father and her mother to her small Harlem apartment, and she struggled to feed the household working in a laundry. Finally, with the help of those who believed in her, she was able to continue her studies in Paris–and it was this sculpture of her nephew that garnered her the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship that funded her trip. Like many of her works, this is plaster painted to look like bronze; Savage rarely had sufficient funds to cast her works in metal.

The Harlem of Jacob Lawrence, back in the day

The same gallery included a Jacob Lawrence not previously on exhibit, and acquired in 2007–his 1958 “Fulton and Nostrand,” depicting a busy Harlem intersection. Lawrence began his public career with a huge splash–at only 21, his Toussaint L’Ouverture series was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art, rapidly followed by historical series that explored the lives of other heroes (John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass), Harlem life, and the migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial North. The acclaim was heady; by the early 1940s he had a solo exhibition at NYC’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and his works had been reproduced in Newsweek, The New Yorker and Vogue. It was a meteoric rise comparable to Basquiat’s later rise to stardom. But then it crashed–not through death or dissolution, but because of a tremendous art world shift. Lawrence’s abstracted social realism fit with the late 30’s and 40s, but after the war other stars were on the rise. New York had snatched the art world’s capital status from Paris, and Abstract Expressionists were in vogue, Jackson Pollack leading the pack. Lawrence loved exploring subjects–abstraction suited him, but not the non-objective approach. Left behind, he had a breakdown, and checked himself into a sanitarium in the early 50s. This tempera on masonite work shows a post-recovery work, much in the vibrant spirit that he had had

Brian Ulrich, Untitled (Shoes)

before. This carried him throughout the rest of his career; he moved to Seattle, he taught, and he lived long enough to see his work reassessed and appreciated once more. I’d never seen this particular painting–the hustle of New York is fully evident.

Hustling, hustling out of the museum to  make an appointment, I couldn’t resist one last gallery–another special exhibition. From a distance I couldn’t discern the medium, but could see repetition of objects in an interior–I hoped it might be a Wayne Thiebaud. But no! It was the photo exhibition CopiaL Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores by

Ulrich's Granger, IN is reminiscent of the repetitions of Pop Art, with the same exposure of soulessness

Brian Ulrich, and I had to look through its several rooms. Ulrich explores the American Dream, retail-style, in full force and self-destruction. The ultra-saturated colors provide that florescent urgency, the works coated in darkly humorous tweaks. It’s a terrific show. To see the same shoebox store transformed into three different incarnations, or row after row of guns on display (that was an Ohio location), or gleaming red checkout counters with an off-to-the-races air–oh, it’s irresistible in large format. Don’t miss it, it’s up through mid-January.

Dexter Davis's crustily delicious surface

Leaving the museum, I was dying to stop in the cafe, but there was no time. It wasn’t the lunchtime necessity that drew me, but the knowledge that museum employees had their work on display. I don’t know if this is true of other museums, but the CMA has many talented guards and other staff members. Not Sunday painter kind of talented, but deeply talented artists, like Dante Rodriguez and Jim McNamara, and Dexter Davis. All terrific human beings, as well as wonderful artists. Imagine my pleasure as I was swooping out of the contemporary gallery when a work caught my eye, I went over to get a closer look, and it was a Dexter Davis piece, a multimedia work entitled Black Heads. It’s a gorgeously rich surface with meaningful imagery, and it killed me to give it short shrift because I was in a rush. But it isn’t going anywhere. I’m proud the CMA knows what it has and knows what it likes, and that Dexter gets to see others enjoying his work on the regular.

Hey, for a 40 minute jaunt, I packed in a lot of pleasure. It was thrifty, and it was exactly the kind of thing a Bon Vivant should be doing on the regular. Join me!

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