CIA's new Great Lakes Research exhibition puts the region's art culture FRONT and center

Certain images may come to mind when considering the art culture in different parts of the United States—the East and West Coasts, or the Desert Southwest. But what stands out about artistic culture in the Great Lakes region?

Amber Kempthorn - Your Silent FaceThat's exactly what Michelle Grabner, celebrated American painter and conceptual artist, set out to explore when she launched a yearlong tour of artists’ studios in major cities around the Great Lakes last year, investigating the heart of the Rust Belt and its social and economic influence on the art created in these cities.

“This region has been drastically under-represented in global arts courses,” says Grabner. “I don’t know if the Great Lakes actually represents a region or is more of a watershed, but [I sought] to understand the resources of the Great Lakes [and highlight that] they are actually global right now.”

The tour culminates with the launch of the Great Lakes Research exhibition, opening this Saturday, July 14 at Cleveland Institute of Art’s Reinberger Gallery. The exhibition is just one of the many events coming to Northeast Ohio as part of the inaugural FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. Themed “An American City: Eleven Cultural Exercises,” this citywide effort will unite museums, civic institutions, and other spaces across Cleveland, Akron, and Oberlin in showcasing work from national, international and regional artists.

As part of FRONT International, Grabner selected 21 artists from Toronto, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, and Cleveland to represent the Great Lakes. Locally, artists Gianna Commito and Scott Olson represent Kent, and four of the artists hail from the Cleveland area, including CIA associate professor Christian Wulffen, CIA alum and visual artist Erin Duhigg, CIA visual arts lecturer and College of Wooster adjunct faculty member Amber Kempthorn, and CIA alum and visual artist Darius Steward.

Erin Duhigg - Image Exchange (detail)“It’s an interesting sampling of artists from the Great Lakes,” says Nikki Woods, Reinberger Gallery director. “The show’s mission is to talk about issues in the Midwest. The conversations happening in New York and Los Angeles aren’t the only conversations happening that contribute to contemporary art.”

Grabner says that Midwest work ethic and dedication often comes through in the Great Lakes artists’ works. “We like to call it cliché, but there is some truth to cliché,” she says. “The relationship to life and studio is very different than in other artists living in New York or Los Angeles.”

Woods believes that when visitors take a closer look at the exhibit as a whole, they will see similarities among the artists and their works. “When you first come to see the show, it first looks like the art is so different,” she says. “The work may be different, but it’s all dealing with the same social views. When you spend time with it, you see how [visual] patterns emerge, and you see the identity of the region.”

Amber KempthornCreators of the Great Lakes

Grabner calls the exhibition a “sampler of what’s going on in the different cities,” and Amber Kempthorn represents the Cleveland factor of that equation with drawings and collage—using everyday items she collects and merging them with mythology.

“Magical realism is the best way to describe it,” says Kempthorn, who grew up in Akron and now lives in Hiram. “I collect old books, and I will actually buy objects if I really want to use them. For example, I bought an old lawn chair to create a still life, or I have an actual flannel, and I shaped it and photographed it.”

Erin DuhiggConversely, 2011 CIA grad Erin Duhigg uses her sculptural installations to question the role trust and belief play as social contracts. Her interactive installation at Great Lakes Research (entitled Exchange 2) involves a water cooler and plastic cups that visitors can use to help themselves to a drink, then toss the empty cup in the nearby trashcan.

A bit further into the exhibit, visitors will come across a wall of three-by-seven glossy index cards with fingerprints lifted from the discarded cups that day. “You’re constantly leaving data that could be used as you move through the world,” Duhigg argues. “[It makes you] stop and think about all the ways [your information] could be used in the world.”

Although conceptual artist Christian Wulffen was not raised in middle America, Wulffen sees his work—and that of every Great Lakes Research artist—as making up the rich fabric within the region. “Each individual brings something different from the background where they come from,” says Wulffen, who was raised in Germany.

Christian WulffenWulffen’s work involves photographs on vinyl and paintings, challenging the messages viewers interpret just about everywhere—from the back of a cereal box to an image imprinted on a glasses lens cleaning wipe. “There is nothing left today where you can’t distribute information,” says Wullfen, who has been a professor in CIA’s foundation program since 2003. “I see my material as a panel where I distribute information.”

In his work showcased at Great Lakes Research, Wulffen uses dark and light shades of grey and plays with how light radiates between the shades. “It depends on the audience how they see it and what they can interpret from it,” he says.

Bringing CIA to the fore-FRONT

While FRONT features dozens of venues all over Cleveland, Grabner says the Reinberger Gallery is the perfect venue for Great Lakes Research, because of CIA’s dedication to the objecthood and pedagogy in art. “They are dedicated to how to the craft and how to make it useful,” she says. “It’s how we think about visual language.”

Christian WulffenWoods agrees that the education component comes though, particularly in the works of the Northeast Ohio artists. “I think all of their work, disparate in form and content, says that we are a city of diverse voices and experiences,” she observes. “Many of these artists are also educators, so I think it also says something about how these artists work to shape the conversation around contemporary art in their communities.”

Woods goes on to say that she hopes exhibit visitors recognize the chance to explore the Great Lakes region’s many artistic voices. “I think ultimately it’s an exciting show that celebrates artists and is essentially a small slice of the greater region’s offerings,” she says. “I see this as a step in the right direction, to privilege the voices of artists who make their lives here, within the context of the larger triennial project of An American City. I believe, ultimately, that the work in this exhibition tells us that artists are an essential part of the cultural fabric of their communities.”

Great Lakes Research exhibition opens Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and runs through October 7.


Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.