Allana Clarke & Firelei Báez: 13 Standouts at Cleveland’s Front Triennial, From a Healing Fountain to a Functional Barri

Alex Greenberger, ARTnews, July 20, 2022


The second edition of the Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art was themed around healing before there was even a pandemic. That all may explain why the show, which opened to the public this past weekend, does not include many Covid-themed works. But the aftereffects of the virus and the tumult that has followed linger everywhere throughout the exhibition.

Curated by Prem Krishnamurthy, the exhibition is titled “Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows,” a reference to a Langston Hughes poem. Some of the 100 artists included are international stars, though many are not; a good amount of them were born in or around Cleveland, or are based in the city and the surrounding region. Their works are spread across Cleveland and the nearby cities of Akron and Oberlin, making for a sprawling show that cannot be seen quickly.

Despite the fact that the artists are of multiple generations and many different nationalities, they have some common ideas on their mind: the necessity of psychological regrowth in the wake of tragedies, music as a community-based form of rehabilitation, and archives as fonts of information about prior disasters.

On the whole, the healing that Krishnamurthy represents is somewhat nebulous—it’s clear that the artists and the communities they hail from are badly damaged, but we are left to imagine who or what has wrought such havoc. Virulent racism and disease hang as a backdrop to many of the works, yet most artworks represent neither of these things, and only rarely are either mentioned in wall text throughout the show.


Krishnamurthy’s show is all very metaphorical. That can make for viewing that is mixed in quality, and occasionally a bit frustrating, even though what is on offer is, on the whole, generally thought-provoking.

But when this year’s Front is good, it has a lot to teach us about how best to mend during a very difficult time. Below, a look at some of the highlights of this edition, which runs through October 2.

It seems that one hidden goal of this triennial has been to shift the history of abstraction to include more non-white artists, in particular Black ones, among them Robert Reed, Julie Mehretu, Chakaia Booker, and Charmaine Spencer. One of the youngest artists to fit within that lineage is Allana Clarke, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and is now based in Detroit. She’s exhibiting a powerhouse work: At a Depth Beyond Anyone (2022), a thick sheet of black plasticky material that tumbles off the wall and onto the floor. It’s made out of hair bonding glue, which is used by Black woman to attach extensions, and its folded surface is mottled like scarred skin. Comparisons to prior giants of abstract art could be made—this piece bears similarities to Lynda Benglis’s latex pours and El Anatsui’s bottle-cap sheets—but Clarke’s process-based sculpture provides its own unique thrills.


 

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