Art for Art's Sake: Alternative Art and Unusual Themed Exhibits Contribute to Success of 25-Year-Old, Artist-Run Gallery

Article excerpt

In the 1970s their numbers were great. In fact there were 300 of them. Today, there are 30. They're non-profit, alternative-space galleries, and one has been in existence for 25 years now in Cleveland.

Since 1978, the Spaces Gallery on the West Side of Clevelands's trendy" Flats" area has provided more than 7,500 artists in the visual and performing arts with an arena for presenting challenging ideas. Past exhibits have included "Alteratations--Altering the Human Figure," an exhibit of photography, sculpture, paintings and video; "Creating in Crisis: Making Art in the Age of Aids," an artists' exhibit held in conjunction with AIDS Awareness Week; "Impressions of Michelangelo" a dance performance; and "Radical Ink" an alternative comics exhibit.

Director of Spaces since 1982, Susan Channing says Spaces is all about the artists, promoting thought-provoking art, and creating awareness in the community.

"Psycho" Art

The recent (March 19-May 14) "It's a Wonderful Life: Psychodrama in Contemporary Painting" exhibition is a successful example of what Spaces is all about. The linking of surreal representations of provocative works by 24 artists, with the 1946 Frank Capra film, gained Spaces print and radio coverage in the Cleveland area, and strong attendance (more than 1,000 people). Though now considered a heartwarming holiday classic, the film "It's a Wonderful Life" like the Spaces exhibit, deals with issues of despair.

The range of works was impressive, and included images by Henry Darger, a reclusive Chicago artist who died as an unknown in 1973. Darger's watercolor and pencil drawing, "They Are Coming with Bloodhounds," appears innocent and sweet at first glance, as it depicts innocent young girls running in an outdoor, bucolic setting. Upon closer examination, however, looks of horror and fear are seen on the girls' faces as they appear to be fleeing from an unknown evil force.

This battle between good and evil in the human condition is shown throughout Darger's work. Darger spent much of his childhood in custodial institutions after the death of his father and led a solitary existence as an adult. Just prior to his death, he asked his landlord to oversee the disposition of his belongings, which included several hundred drawings, as well as a 15,000-page novel rifled "In The Realms of the Unreal," plus another 8,500-page novel.

"Drawing was Darger's way of making sense of the world," says co-curator of the exhibit, Joanne Cohen. An independent art consultant with JRC Art Advisory, Shaker Heights, Ohio, Cohen teamed with co-curator Julie Langsam, an artist and associate professor of painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art, to put together this in-your-face exhibit.

During a tour of the exhibit in its final weeks, Spaces' Channing observed that, with an exhibit of this intensity, the artists "provoke people to think about issues" that people may not otherwise necessarily want to think about.

For example, scenes of familiar middle-class dysfunction are seen in works by New York artist, Sandra Scolnik. Her works are full of subtle symbolism, including characters with blank stares and missing hands and/or feet and picture frames with images scattered about the floor, and a fire emerging through the picture frame just above the fireplace.

In a painting by Glen Ellyn, IL-based Geoffrey Bent, raw, angled brush strokes are used to depict a headphone-wearing woman sitting oblivious to her surroundings, which includes a car burning in the background with a black cloud of smoke. Titled "Detachment," the painting pokes humor at the self-absorption of today's world.

Poking fun at mid-life crises, the "Fallen Warrior" a self-portrait in graphite and colored pencil by Arthur Cohen shows, the New York artist clad in tight pants and falling forward in a contorted pose with Helmut Lang shoes on his hands, and more designer shoes on the floor, perhaps showing the potentially damaging effects of misplaced and materialistic priorities. …