WOLFS Gallery in Beachwood provides panoramic glimpse of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s one-time annual May Show

By Steven Litt, cleveland.com

 

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show may be dead, but it refuses to go away, at least in the hearts and minds of those who won’t forget it and would love it if it came back.

Inaugurated by the museum in 1919, the May Show was for many years the pinnacle of the Northeast Ohio art scene.

It was a juried annual show of works submitted by regional artists, many of whom were either graduates or instructors at what is now known as the Cleveland Institute of Art.

The museum held the May Show almost without fail every year until 1993 when it discontinued the tradition in favor of making room on its busy calendar for different and more globally-oriented exhibitions on modern and contemporary art.

It’s impossible to tell what we’re missing by not having the May Show, and it’s unlikely to make a return, which is a good thing. There are many more places for Northeast Ohio art to be seen and appreciated than in the heyday of the May Show.

But for one more week, WOLFS Gallery in Beachwood is providing a selective and enjoyable panoramic glimpse of what the show once offered.

The exhibition evokes the May Show spirit with numerous black-and-white photos of the original installations at the museum. Works now on view at WOLFS are circled in red in the photos, authenticating their May Show heritage. Also available for perusing is an extensive collection of museum Bulletins with articles on the May Show.

But the main attraction consists of several dozen examples of works displayed in the exhibition from its earlier years into the early 1990s. Some were big prize winners, and many are worthy of fresh attention regardless of their May Show pedigree.

On the downside, the show includes a fair number of works that were recently shown in the exhibition entitled, “The Golden Age of Cleveland Art,’’ which closed at the Western Reserve Historical Society on April 4.

That category includes works by industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost, and Cleveland School artists Frank Wilcox, Elmer Novotny, Clara Deike, and Rolf Stoll. The presence of those works dilutes the sense of discovery that is the main reason to see the newer show at WOLFS.

But there are discoveries to be made, and that’s the reason to visit.

Among the more compelling and less familiar works now on view at WOLFS is a powerful and powerfully strange portrait by Clarence Carter of William Stolte, the former Cleveland Councilman, who posed in 1932, the year the painting won First Prize at the May Show.

According to his obituary in The Plain Dealer, Stolte, who died in April 1934, after suffering injuries in a car crash (before seatbelts), was a respected Democrat who represented Ward 19, encompassing today’s University Circle, during World War I.

“He was a big man physically,’’ the obituary noted, “and was regarded as a councilman of high caliber.’’

Carter (1904-2000), an important 20th-century artist whose work blends American Scene realism and subjects with an eerie, Twilight Zone surrealism, portrayed Stolte in a pale gray, three-piece suit whose creases and folds have an almost polished, metallic quality.

Stolte’s pose, with his legs spread wide and his hands on his knees, emphasizes his ample belly — hardly a flattering pose. Even more odd is Stolte’s squinty expression as he looks to his left, casting a wary, sidelong glance toward someone or something outside the frame.

Was Carter satirizing Stolte as a Midwestern Babbitt? Or was he poking fun in some way at his landlord? Carter rented a dwelling from Stolte according to a 1971 catalog available on the Internet.

It’s hard to tell what motivated the portrait’s unusual psychological cast. Nevertheless, it’s a powerhouse painting, as the Cleveland Museum of Art noted in its Bulletin article on the 1932 May Show.

Another compelling pick in the WOLFS exhibition is “The Red Couch,’’ a second prize-winner by Lois Rossbach Ellis from the 1954 May Show.

Born in 1925, Ellis was a well-regarded Cleveland artist who earned positive mentions in reviews in The Plain Dealer throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, before she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village with her husband and young daughter.

The painting at WOLFS is a highly polished exercise in the manner of the French Nabis painters of 1890s Paris, who emphasized intimate subjects painted with flat shapes and patterns influenced by Japanse Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

The Ellis painting depicts a woman reclining in a pale aquamarine gown on a red couch set against patterned red wallpaper. Ellis’s drawing of the hands and face of her subject is tender and exquisite. The painting evokes a mood of serenity and grace.

That’s not true of another surprising work in the show, “Empress,’’ a coldly erotic 1925 painting by Stoll, a native of Heidelberg, Germany, who settled in Cleveland in the 1920s.

Painted in a dry, precise, hard-edged style, the work depicts four women of different races posed nude or dressed with headdresses or coiffures of faintly Turkish, Art Deco, and Japanese origin. Three of the women stand around a nude white woman shown seated on a gold throne with an Art Deco-style helmet on her head that anticipates decorations on the Chrysler Building in New York, built in 1928.

Gallerist Michael Wolf said the painting was never exhibited in the May Show, but he included it anyway, arguing that it would or should have been exhibited. With its strange cross-cultural symbolism, it’s a work that calls for a deeper explanation. The show offers an opportunity to ponder exactly what Stoll had in mind when he painted it.

The most refreshing aspect of the WOLFS exhibit is that it robustly embraces the May Show’s post-World War II decades, a period that has received less comprehensive study than the pre-war heyday of the Cleveland School, as the city’s artists were then known.

“Dark Lady,’’ A quasi-abstract, quasi-photorealistic painting by Christopher Pekoc, shown in the 1978 May Show, depicts pieces of fabric, paper, and leather swirling in space.

Painted with a smooth, air-brushed surface, the painting inhabits an uneasy, tantalizing visual realm between abstraction and reality. Its textures seem oddly plausible, but also beyond logical understanding, like images seen in a dream.

Another intriguing work is Gretchen Oldfather Troibner’s 1988 “Dancers,’’ a painting of women dancing with androgynous, sexually ambiguous partners amid trees with brown, tubular trunks in a dark, strangely schematic landscape outside a white clapboard house.

Also not to be overlooked is “Head Doubt (Part 2),’’ a trompe-l’oeil watercolor and mixed-media drawing by longtime Cleveland State University art professor, and now professor emeritus, George Mauersberger, that he exhibited at the May Show in 1990.

The work depicts newspaper clippings, sketches, and an extension cord tacked or taped to a realistic-looking looking wall made of grainy wood planks. At the bottom of the wall, a plastic cup holds up a piece of bearing a piece of cardboard with a black-and-white photograph taped to it. The plastic cup is an illusionistic trick used by the artist to make it seem like a real object sticking into the viewer’s space.

Wolfs has performed a service by exhibiting such works, along with those of other postwar Cleveland artists including Kenneth Nevadomi, and the late Richard Andres, an Abstract Expressionist whose work will be the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the gallery.

As I mentioned in my review of the show at the historical society, Northeast Ohio lacks a visible, well-funded center of gravity for the study and appreciation of regional art. Among other things, the field needs a deeper understanding of the connections between early and middle-20th-century Cleveland art and the more recent decades represented by Nevadomi, Pekoc, Mauersberger, and others.

The Cleveland Museum of Art marked the city’s bicentennial in 1996 with a big, excellent, definitive show on the first 150 years of art history in Northeast Ohio. The museum hasn’t followed up with a comprehensive exhibition on Cleveland art of the postwar era. It should.

The WOLFS show, particularly the less familiar and more contemporary works in it, indicates the need for a more complete and more holistic understanding of the art of the region.