Inspired by a 1973 arts program, a new triennial aims to make the city “a living museum of contemporary abstraction” and start a few conversations along the way.
Downtown Cleveland was in a state of upheaval in the 1970s. “It was a period of severe decline,” said Fred Bidwell, who was a college student in the city at time and now serves as the executive director of the Front Exhibition Company. Employers were deserting downtown. Retail was on the way out, too. “It was a really rough time in the history of the city, and the downtown was devastated by that,” Bidwell said.
In an effort to help combat blight, Cleveland created the City Canvases program in 1973. Through the program, a dozen murals by local artists appeared on the blank exteriors of downtown buildings. Most have since been painted over or razed.
Now, work based on the original program will be on display during FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. This triennial art show will launch in July, and the exhibit “Canvas City” will feature a re-creation of one of the original murals as well as works by new artists. Instead of combating blight, these murals will speak to a place experiencing what Bidwell sees as an urban revival.
“Rather than blight remediation, this is a way to take a city fabric that is changing—primarily in a positive way—and [ask] how can we make it more interesting, more intellectually challenging?” said Bidwell. Artistic Director Michelle Grabner, along with Bidwell, conceived Canvas City while visiting the home of Julian Stanczak, an artist who created one of the murals for the original Cleveland Canvases program. Stanczak was a Holocaust survivor who later immigrated to Cleveland, where he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He died in March 2017.
Grabner was drawn to the possibilities of Stanczak’s abstract mural. Most modern murals in the public space are very narrative driven, Grabner said, and she started thinking about how meaningful it would be for a city to take on art that left more to the imagination, where viewers would have to interpret what the colors and geometry in front of them had to say about their surroundings.
“With narrative-driven murals, you read them and understand,” said Grabner. “Abstract works demand an active viewership and changing one’s mind.”
Furthermore, the evolving nature of understanding abstraction works well with the longevity of a mural. “The beautiful thing about these large-scale murals is they stay up for a long time,” Grabner said, “and your understanding can shift as the city shifts, or as your circumstances shift.”
Grabner chose artists who she felt took on abstraction as a social responsibility, in everything from motifs to color to composition. “It’s not just formal, but about order,” she said. “When one thinks about order it’s always political, even if you’re having squiggly lines on a building.”
The Canvas City exhibit opens in July and runs till the end of September; for most of the initial exhibit, new artists will only have proposals for their murals on display. This is intentional, as the works are part of a triennial exhibition that will pop up in another three years. Between this exhibit and the next, Grabner and Bidwell plan to have the new murals populate buildings to form what Grabner termed “a connective tissue.”
One of the artists tasked with painting a new mural is Kay Rosen, a painter who works with typography. Rosen said that public art, “beautifies… because it becomes like this skin of art over the façades of certain buildings and calls attention to the architecture.” Rosen also remarked on the complexity of creating a mural: a challenge born partially out of the scope of the canvas.
When it comes to blank canvases, Cleveland is in many ways a muralist’s dream. Back in the 1920s, during a period of significant growth in the city, many new buildings were built with long, empty walls—the city intended for more buildings to come up alongside them shortly. But, Bidwell said, the boom ended after the Great Depression and others were later torn down, revealing “these big, blank walls which are now a part of the historical fabric of the city.”
Some artists are giving a good deal of thought to how their work will connect to that fabric. Odili Odita, an abstract painter who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, used to regard Cleveland as “the big city,” but said that now he reflects on both its grandeur and its decline. “I look at Cleveland as this grand old palace with [a] previous dynamic that may not be there in that fashion, but has the potential [to] re-shape itself,” Odita said. He believes that abstraction is language well-suited for examining a city: it opens up a space to tell residents a story about the place they call home.
Bidwell hopes the murals will alter Cleveland’s skyline and create conversations about its past, present, and future. He said that through Canvas City he hopes to create “a living museum of contemporary abstraction.”
Though Bidwell was still a newcomer to Cleveland when the initial murals appeared, he remembers feeling that they were a gesture towards vitality. A sign, he said, that even “when it was a bit of a depressing time for Cleveland and a lot of Americans,” someone still cared about the city and what it could become.