By Kelly Crow
July 11, 2018 9:23 a.m. ET
Cleveland wants to be known for more than its craft beers and Cavaliers—especially now that LeBron James is leaving town. This weekend, the Ohio city on the southern banks of Lake Erie will launch a major bid to become the world’s next hotbed for contemporary art.
Organizers of a sprawling new exhibition, Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, have invited more than 100 artists to install works throughout the city as well as in nearby Akron and Oberlin. The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland will showcase many of the pieces, but other artworks will turn up in unconventional spots.
The triennial, which runs through Sept. 30 and is expected to be held every three years after that, is the brainchild of Fred Bidwell. A Cleveland collector who runs an art space called Transformer Station, he wants to add the Cleveland triennial to a global art circuit that has long included similar European shows such as the Venice Biennale in Italy and Documenta in Kassel, Germany.
“If Kassel can draw a crowd, surely Cleveland can,” Mr. Bidwell said.
Triennial organizers are using 28 venues, including a 1925 steamship moored beside Cleveland’s Great Lakes Science Center to show Los Angeles artist Allan Sekula’s film about seafaring economies, “The Lottery of the Sea.”
Several vendors in the city’s West Side Market will serve Milwaukee artist John Riepenhoff’s Cleveland Curry Kojiwurst, a sausage he created with help from a local chef and an urban farm. Mr. Riepenhoff’s past art projects have included brewing his own beer and making his own cheese, and he said his latest recipe, which contains everything from paprika to saffron, aims to capture Cleveland’s history “in a bite.”
At the Cleveland Public Library, British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare will wrap more than 6,000 books in African textiles to create “The American Library.” Mr. Shonibare has already embossed half the book spines with notable names of first-, second- or third-generation U.S. immigrants, from Steve Jobs to Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Even the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland will be used to display art. Wisconsin-born artist Philip Vanderhyden plans to bisect its gilded, three-story lobby with 24 video screens to show “Volatility Smile 3,” his slinky, animated take on the uncertainties of money.
Mr. Vanderhyden said the video, which slices and twists historic symbols of wealth like coins and wheat, aims to subvert the intention of the lobby’s Beaux-Arts architecture, which was designed to stoke confidence in the reserve bank. Even so, he said the bank approved his proposal to take over the space. “The economists liked my exploration of fear,” he said.
The triennial’s artistic director, Michelle Grabner, said she wanted Front to “feel rooted in the Midwest,” so she visited studios in places like Sheboygan, Wisc., and Buffalo, N.Y., before coming up with her list of participants.
The regional focus highlights several Midwestern artists, including Allen Ruppersberg, who gained an international reputation in the late 1960s for papering walls with Day-Glo prints containing snippets of advertising texts and phrases like “It’s Not Art (That Counts Now).” He was born in Cleveland, but Ms. Grabner said he has never exhibited locally—until now.
For the triennial, Mr. Ruppersberg scoured Cleveland’s steel yards and lakefront byways for billboards and then took pictures from their vantage points. The works will be shown in lightboxes at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The triennial is also re-creating a 12-story abstract mural by Julian Stanczak, a Polish painter who settled outside Cleveland after World War II. In 1973, he installed his striped piece on the side of a building in downtown Cleveland, and before he died last year, he gave Front permission to paint the same work in the same spot, at the corner of Prospect Avenue and Ninth Street.
Artists still living in the Cleveland area could also see their profiles boosted. Dale Goode, who sprays gold paint over bundles of wigs, rakes and other debris he finds in his Hough neighborhood, will show a glittering set at University Circle. Nearby, artist and Oberlin College professor Johnny Coleman will create a haunting installation and sound piece on the steps of an abandoned church in the neighborhood of Glenville.
Other artists from the Midwest used the invitation to investigate Cleveland, which picked up the pejorative nickname “Mistake on the Lake” after a loss of manufacturing jobs and urban blight in the 1970s.
Jonn Herschend, a multimedia artist born in Branson, Mo., but long based in San Francisco, said he was struck by how often he encountered Ohio natives in his travels who left the state but told him they wanted to return home. “I’m from Missouri and have no desire to return, so this longing is not simply Midwestern,” Mr. Herschend said.
As an artist whose works often take unusual formats like instructional videos or PowerPoint presentations, Mr. Herschend decided to capture this homesickness by producing “A Theme Song for Cleveland and Akron.” He enlisted composer Silas Hite, whose uncle is Devo singer and Akron native Mark Mothersbaugh, and the accompanying video features a local marching band, a step group and a roller derby team. It will be played at Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Most of the triennial can be seen in three walkable sections in Cleveland and in Oberlin and Akron, each located about 40 minutes away by car. Architecture buffs should head to Oberlin, where Lisbon-based Juan Araujo’s surreal paintings of midcentury homes will be hung throughout a 1949 Frank Lloyd Wright house. Nearby at the Richard D. Baron ’64 Art Gallery, Chinese artist Cui Jie’s futuristic urban scenes and sculptures, some of which she makes with a 3-D printer, will be on view.
The Akron Art Museum has devoted 6,000 square feet to 16 triennial artists, including Buenos Aires artist Ad Minoliti’s “emoji-like” geometric murals that take on playful shapes like pigs and robots, said chief curator Ellen Rudolph. Another must-see: Gerard Byrne’s “In Our Time,” a wood-paneled radio station installation that broadcasts 1980s pop tunes, weather forecasts and news tidbits—some from Cleveland, others from Pittsburgh and beyond.
“He creates a vortex of place and time,” Ms. Rudolph said. “It’s mesmerizing.”
Photo: A 1973 work by Julian Stanczak will be re-created in its original location in downtown Cleveland.
A 1973 work by Julian Stanczak will be re-created in its original location in downtown Cleveland. PHOTO: JULIAN STANCZAK/THE CLEVELAND CITY MURAL PROJECT