Now or Nothing: Contemporary Art and the Queen City
Report From… Cincinnati, Ohio
Twenty-one years since the Contemporary Arts Center fought, and beat, obscenity charges stemming from images in Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, the City of Cincinnati and its arts community want you to know that times have changed and they’ve moved on. But not everyone is convinced. “The chilling effect that manifested itself directly after the trial continues today” observes Jerry Stein, a 38 year veteran of art reporting for the Cincinnati Post and witness for the defense during the 1990 trial. “You may not get art directors and curators to admit that, but anyone who suggests that they don’t consider the ramifications of the police showing up at a gallery, is in denial.” As a metropolis that has historically maintained a tense relationship with anything cutting edge or socially progressive, one might think that the current artistic milieu emphasizes landscapes, still lifes, and above all else: safety. But contrary to Stein’s remarks, the reality of the situation seems far different. When it comes to big name, even contentious artists, lately, Cincinnati is awash in them.
In just the past year, the Contemporary Arts Center has welcomed exhibitions by Pat Steir and Marilyn Minter; Selection from the Coleccion la Jumex; and Shepard Fairey’s retrospective exhibition, Supply and Demand, which courted minor controversy over the content of murals placed around the city. Perhaps the CAC’s biggest coup is the February debut of Keith Haring: 1978 -1982. Organized in collaboration with the Kunsthalle Wien, this exhibition pulls together an array of rarely seen drawings, collage, flyers, and short films; among the most compelling are some of Haring’s earliest. Works from 1978 and 1979 illustrate a marked fascination with the all-over approach of Tobey and Pollock, and these pieces – nearly all untitled — present a young man invested in the exploration of art’s formal problems. A selection from his journal highlights Haring’s interest in the way shape reads as isolated form or part of larger groups, and this examination gives rise to works such as 1979’s Untitled, a substantial ink and acrylic piece that echoes de Kooning’s 1950 masterwork Excavation. As good as these initial pictures are, by 1980 there is a perceptible decline in quality. The lone holdout is Matrix, a 1983 ink on paper opus that fuses figuration and all over pattern into a seamless work in excess of 35 feet. But as his style matures, Haring’s interest in compositional strategy wanes, and while his desire to circumvent the New York power structure and bring art into the public sphere is admirable, ultimately visual sophistication is sacrificed to get there.
Also on view, Rosson Crow’s Myth of the American Motorcycle brings together seven paintings specially commissioned for the CAC. Her ambitious, loose depictions of neon signs, choppers, and biker bars, struggle under the weight of their size. To handle this, Crow has devised a single effective compositional tactic: images that emphasize the horizontal, girded by overblown vertical drips and strokes of enamel paint. It works, but when Crow deviates from the formula, as in The Boneyard and Motorbike Junkyard, the paintings grind to halt. Crippled by a shift in format and without the horizon of the canvas to guide her; Crow is out of her depth. Densely packed around the edges, or jumbled in the center of the support, these paintings idle lifelessly. Relevant as these shows might be, the Contemporary Arts Center isn’t the only venue featuring that which is new. The Cincinnati Art Museum has been getting in on the action with a show by Kara Walker and, at present, The Way We Are Now: Selections from the 21 c Collection.
Based in Louisville, Kentucky, 21c bills itself as the only museum – in actuality a boutique hotel – dedicated solely to the art of the 21st Century. Putting aside the thorny issue of a public museum validating the collection of a for profit hotel, the exhibition is a free-for-all of recent work that leans heavily on photography and sculpture. A standout, and one of the few examples of painting in the show, is a group of small works by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. Intimate oil on linen portraits, The Evidence of Things Not Seen features images of men arrested during the 1956 Montgomery bus boycotts. A layer of transparent silk printed with the photographs of the 1956 mug shots hovers inches above the surface, creating haunting ghost images and a complex pictorial space.
The inclusion of part of the 21c collection in the museum atrium also yields some unintentionally awkward moments; in particular the juxtaposition of Kehinde Wileys’s The Prophet and The King II (part of the 21c collection) with the comparably sized and framed A Venetian Woman by John Singer Sargent (part of CAM’s permanent collection). Rather than highlight Wiley’s connection to tradition, his limited formal vocabulary is brought into sharp relief by the painting’s proximity to the Sargent. Wiley’s overreliance on flat pattern, lack of varied surface incident, and complete disinterest in conveying any sort of credible space is glaring. Not only are these two not in the same league, they’re not even playing the same sport. The Prophet and The King II may not be much good, but at least it’s new.
So how does one rectify Cincinnati’s current embrace of all things contemporary with Stein’s comments? “The evidence is in what you show”, claims the seasoned critic. “Over the past twenty years I cannot pinpoint a single significant exhibition that equals the visual power and directness of The Perfect Moment.” And in this respect, Stein might be on to something. The Cincinnati Art Museum may have exhibited Kara Walker, but Harpers’ Pictorial history of the Civil War (Annotated) rates among her tamest and least interesting work to date. Shepard Fairey’s Supply and Demand certainly brought massive attendance for the CAC in 2010, but his calculated politics, bland imagery, and empty sloganeering parody the posture of a confrontational artist. Meanwhile, Rosson Crow is big for being, well, big, and while Keith Haring’s ubiquitous use of the phallus may ruffle a few feathers, his sincere embrace of the stance of the artist as activist hardly defies the values of Midwestern America. These shows may draw large numbers from the general public, but for the discerning viewer, there’s little challenge to taste. It’s possible that over the past twenty years, artists have simply set their sights lower (Stein admits as much), and major institutions, obsessed with the bottom line, are more interested in ticket sales than visual stimulation. While contemporary art may now be all the rage, when it comes to quality, Cincinnati might have further to go than it thinks.