Recent years have seen the rise of the genre of "ruin porn" -- landscape or interior photographs of urban spaces, usually Midwestern, abandoned to crumble under weeds and time. Such pictures probably serve as news for the rest of the country as to the state of the region. But their reportorial value is lost on the regions wherein they originate; the Rust Belt already knows it's rusty.
Fortunately, Pretty Vacant, an exhibition at Arts Collinwood meditating on the fate of the struggling cities of the Great Lakes, takes the fact of the region's economic and infrastructural decline for granted. Indeed, the exhibit's five contributors are showcasing their attempts to adapt and thrive in tough but fertile post-industrial environments that artist Dave Desimone describes as "the new American frontier."
Pittsburgh's Ron Copeland's wall-mounted assemblage-collage-paintings fix together pieces of previously used wood. They are painted with white, black, blue, and orange. The lettering and figures, original or fabricated, look like they began their careers as advertisements for sales which have been over for decades, and were part of an economic optimism that no longer exists. Off to the side in one piece, we see a scene of middle-class tranquility: a white couch and white lamp under an empty picture frame in an orange living room.
The piece is an attempt to salvage an object of aesthetic value out of artifacts from an economic dream which might not be achievable. It works, in that it achieves a pleasant balance of colors and for the soft sense of loss it inspires.
Cleveland's own prolific Dana Depew built a skyward-pointing arrow out of scrapyard steel for his "Crashcourse in Civic Pride." A row of faded Realty One sings declaring "Open" line its body, which also hosts the Roget's Thesaurus entry for "hope" and a headline from The Plain Dealer's July, 4, 1976 edition: "When Cleveland Meant Hope." A battered electric fan turns a flowery pinwheel.
All the items speak of uplift, and many for Cleveland in particular. However, they are all of the past; the newspaper clippings are 36 going on 37 years old. The Realty One signs are faded, and sometimes deeply scratched. The viewer is left wondering whether the artist thinks the best days are behind us, or whether the artifacts remind us of what we could still be.
Greg Ruffing of Chicago takes a stab at diagnosing the causes of our circumstances, blaming ideology in one of two photos of a Detroit factory, which between them have enough title for a whole exhibit. One is "Packard Plant #3 with Excerpts from Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The digital photo depicts the interior of the former auto plant of the title. Its code was subjected to random insertions of passages from 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smiths's treatise, now read as a foundational defense of capitalism. The end result is a dreary abandoned warehouse painted over with blocks of pure colors from across the spectrum.
Smith's vivid contributions to the piece can be thought of as visual representations of how ideas permeate and shape the habitats we construct for ourselves, or symbols of the randomness of market economies' spontaneous orders and disorders.
The artists of Pretty Vacant are frank, so this is not necessarily a show of uplift. They aim to show where we are, and what we can do now that we're here. They point to a horizon, but don't say what is over it.