Earlier this month, Loraine and Matt joined me at Second Sunday on Main (SSOM) in Over the Rhine, Cincinnati. We found each other at approximately the same moment I crossed paths with my friend, Peter, and so the four of us embarked on a quick tour of the Artworks murals along Goetz Alley — many recently completed, and some still in-progress — and in the general vicinity, including Loraine's own mural located on East 14th Street.
I pointed it out to Peter by way of introducing Loraine. But she was quick to remind me that she didn't paint the mural, herself! "This is Loraine's mural," I dutifully corrected myself, "Loraine designed this mural." (Loraine's work is primarily digital.)
Peter was reasonably impressed, and stayed with us for about a block, as Loraine related what background information she knew about each mural we encountered. And then Peter broke off in search of refreshment, with a lighthearted grin and a wave.
We arranged to meet up at Second Sunday because I had mentioned in passing that I was planning to go, in order to take some photos. And Loraine said that she had never been, but she had heard good things, so I invited her to join me. There's not much of a need for a tour guide at Second Sunday, but Loraine had just finished telling me about the mural she had designed as well as the promise of additional murals (by other artists) along the alley, so it seemed like a great opportunity to share in the act of showing each other around a place at once familiar and new.
Over Streetpops popsicles, Matt, Loraine, and I got to talking about food and entertaining. After this event, Matt said, they were going to have dinner at a friend's house. I was a little jealous, I think. I love gathering around food! "People in Cincinnati don't have enough dinner parties," I observed. Which was really just a way of saying I would like to have more dinner parties to attend or to host, than I presently do...
Loraine agreed with me enthusiastically. "I will have a dinner party!" she announced. "Soon, before I move away, and you're invited!" Here, the conversation looped back to fashion, a topic we had raised earlier in relation to Loraine's moving-out-of-Cincinnati bucket list, a desire on her part to reduce the contents of her closet (or at least try), and my own experiments in becoming a better seamstress.
I gestured to my humidity-appropriate ensemble, which by an earlier admission cost approximately $2 from a thrift store, and opined: "I would dress up for that. It would be so much fun!" Images of the black-and-white dress party I attended during my first week of grad school raced through my mind, complete with Melissa Haviland twirling tirelessly in a blurry white flair and Will Sooter in a full tuxedo tipping his hat to me like a gentleman.
I don't remember, now, how we got there, but Loraine mentioned "table landscapes", and all my thoughts of the past fell away. Table. Landscapes. I was intrigued.
I knew what she meant, but it struck me as a foreign sort of phrase, something to describe an aesthetic activity in which I have little practice or skill. That is, a more sophisticated way of setting the table for a meal than simply laying out enough plates, silverware, and napkins to accommodate each diner. Loraine dropped this phrase into conversation with the natural authority of a person well practiced in the art of "table landscapes" —of which I know little to nothing at all. And my imagination was obliged to generate a myriad of fictional examples to illustrate possible meanings for it. From literal landscapes of a table-top scale (such as architectural dioramas and environments for model trains), to the elaborate seasonal centerpieces one might expect from a younger, hipper, Martha Stewart. The images I was conjuring seemed inadequate and off-base.
Surely Loraine's "table landscapes" would look nothing like the things I had started to imagine? They'd have to be as seemingly effortless as Loraine's fashion sense, and yet as conscious of color and line as her precisely rendered digital compositions. They'd surely express something of Loraine's characteristic humor and vitality, too. But I don't know what to think a "table landscape" by Loraine might look like, and I was excited by the prospect she might introduce me to a new visual vocabulary. More excited than I had been about the prospect of eating, OR getting dressed up, OR going to a party!
In the time that has elapsed since Second Sunday, my reading of The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World by Roger White has progressed quite a bit. The chapter "Milwaukee as Model" in particular got me thinking about Cincinnati's local art scene within the larger context of contemporary art practice, the art market, and art history in the United States. To my knowledge, Cincinnati's reputation on the national level is still marred by events surrounding the Maplethorpe exhibition from many years ago. And yet in White's description of Milwaukee, I find numerous parallels to my first-hand experience of Cincinnati's artists struggling to establish and sustain our own artistic networks and careers outside the proverbial center of the "art world" market (New York City).
Milwaukee, as per White's narrative, began to draw international attention to its local art scene in 2006 with the Milwaukee International Art Fair. This event was emerging about the same time that Art Chicago was imploding. I remember attending Art Chicago at Navy Pier in 2003. It seemed to me, at the time, that my professors were proposing the city of Chicago as a viable alternative to New York or Los Angeles by virtue of being conveniently located within a day's drive of Cincinnati and playing host to an assortment of world-famous, high-end galleries via the annual spectacle of Art Chicago, itself. So when news of the end of Art Chicago reached me in or around 2006 or 2007, it struck as an unwelcome and ironic blow to the imagined career opportunities inspired in me during my undergraduate education.
Compared to Art Chicago, the Milwaukee International Art Fair was organized on a shoestring budget by a very small group — just five or six, young, local Milwaukee artists asking $150 booth registration fees from each participating gallery. While the fair only lasted a few years, maybe six, it had the lasting benefit of attracting people to Milwaukee from elsewhere stemming from its newfound reputation as an international art center in its own right. Roger White (the author of the book I'm reading, remember) describes the Green Gallery as Milwaukee's hippest, contemporary art gallery of that period, owing its success in large part to this recent change in Milwaukee's standing. By 2009, the Green Gallery ran no less than 2 gallery locations within the city, and one of these featured a (small) open-mic comedy club. Its proprietor, John, was actively turning down work in the film industry by that point, because profits from the gallery were sufficient to support himself.
...And then a fire ravaged artists' spaces along East Center Street, including the Green. The fire was devastating to Milwaukee's local art scene, because the scope of its local art scene was nearly as small as the scope of the fire along East Center Street. Artists were forced to disperse and relocate around the city, in the way artists often migrate within urban and post-industrial corridors in search of yet more affordable live-work spaces, often subject to the tides of gentrification. These post-tragedy circumstances also drove Milwaukee's artists to new fundraising efforts, art-making strategies, and organizational structures. Some examples cited in the book include Blue Dress Park and the Friends of Blue Dress Park, American Fantasy Classics, Imagination Giants, and 516-TJK (the "mobile project space" which is also a 1996 Honda Accord).
Roger White writes:
The relative absence of an art infrastructure in Milwaukee means that artists can play a bigger role in determining how things are going to go; in this respect, the scene is wide open to change in a way that places like New York, or even Chicago, haven't been for generations. But a lack of relevant institutions also means a lack of institutional memory: details fall through the cracks, and it comes down to the artists themselves to perform the archival work usually managed by museums and the more dedicated private collectors. Art history is a DIY operation.
White's chapter on Milwaukee is threaded through with his reflections on the meaning of localism. Through his observations, the city is presented as a study of what it might be like to decentralize America's contemporary art market from New York (and Los Angeles).
Seeing the nature of the problem through his prose gives me an idea. Something we can do in Cincinnati among ourselves and for ourselves. Something easy, inexpensive, and scale-able.
More on this to come!