- Seydou Keitas Portraits From Mali is at MOCA till May.
Portraits From Mali -- The late, great Malian photographer Seydou Keita (1921-2001) didn't consider himself an artist. In his mind, he was simply a tradesman who took portraits of upper-class West Africans. Yet the 17 large, stunning images gathered here, shot in the 1950s on black-and-white film, demand to be appreciated as art. Although self-educated, Keita was a sort of benchmark of sophistication and modernity; everyone who was anyone in Bamako society had him take their picture. Family after family approached him, individually or together, to be immortalized in their finest clothing, jewelry, and most elaborate hairdos or headdresses -- some would even bring along status-symbol props like radios and watches. Keita provided the backdrops: elegant fabrics bearing some striking Middle Eastern pattern that matched or somehow complemented his client's clothing. Intimacy and cultural hybridism transform these untitled images into art. Printed in high resolution on huge, life-sized sheets of silver gelatin, the photos are so realistic, the subjects might as well be flesh and blood. Look at them too long -- stare into those vivid eyes -- and you'll feel as though you've invaded the subjects' personal space. Equally compelling is the mix of time periods. Keita's technical and compositional achievements with these photos are cutting-edge for their time, but the dirt floors and crumbling cement walls are forever reminders of the old world. Likewise, nothing -- not even formal Western clothing -- overshadows these people's rich, lustrous skin and noble yet sympathetic faces. Through May 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Zachary Lewis
Side by Side -- Group showcases of Cleveland-area talent are fairly common. Few exhibits, however, achieve persuasive coherence as this 10-artist show does, with related works that rub shoulders. It's not a gimmick. While most of the artists here have plenty to offer individually, the show's layout provides additional insightful context, placing each piece along a spectrum illuminating both its uniqueness and its connections to its neighbors. At first, Laurie Addis' intricate linen weavings bear no resemblance to Neil MacDonald's pixilated landscapes of the Salton Sea, an ecologically ruined lake in Southern California. But both rely on distance to achieve their effects. Like Impressionism in reverse, Addis' work gets better close up: Wild variety and density of stitching emerges out of seemingly solid patches of dark, earthy colors. By contrast, distance brings MacDonald's images into sharper focus: Fragmentation and graininess coalesce into scenes of devastating decline and waste. From here, the leap to Mark Moskovitz's clever "Future Perfect" is not far. It, too, addresses environmental concerns. Biologically speaking, this large white bench made from plastic and polyester cord is going nowhere. But, like the earth itself, it isn't too late to avert disaster. The bench will decompose, if only it gets recycled. Pure abstraction is one major terminus of this artistic line, and Gianna Commito's complex geometric designs represent that end handily, ingeniously inducing three-dimensionality and drawing the eye into deep visual vortices with a force similar to the one holding the entire show together. Through May 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Ave., 216-421-8671, www.mocacleveland.org. -- Lewis
Legal Aliens -- Among the 12 international artists exploring immigration in this show, only a few make a genuine impact, creatively questioning misconceptions and biases about the state of being foreign. The rest evoke confusion or rely on thin conceptual conceits. But it's hard to quibble with the curators' overall choice of medium. In theory, at least, video is the ideal tool for conveying movement and experience -- the essences of immigration -- and technology only reinforces the issue's urgency and relevance. The two strongest pieces make their points simply, quickly, and without words. Dan Acostioaei's "Essential Current Affairs" depicts a masked man and woman locked in a long, slow kiss. With their heads covered in black cloth, they look like terrorists, but their embrace is one of mutual sensitivity and tenderness. It's a strange, jarring contrast -- one that humanizes even those who would harm us and symbolizes the kinds of irrational divisions standing between otherwise caring people in a culture of paranoia. Sharon Paz's "Wandering Home" is less controversial, but also more universal and no less poignant emotionally. Two layers of video run simultaneously: a time lapse of a small apartment's interior and an ever-changing series of landscapes rushing past the windows outside. It's as if the room were a train, zooming cross-country, eventually returning to its original location. What a succinct, poetic illustration of the theme! Home isn't a fixed place; it goes with you, and its identity changes along the way. Through March 9 at Spaces, 2220 Superior Viaduct, 216-621-2314, spacesgallery.org. -- Lewis
Out of the Blue -- A bright, cloudless blue sky marred only by a faint white curving contrail. Clevelanders gazing upward on 9-11 might have seen something like that, if it's true that the fourth hijacked plane did indeed turn around over Northeast Ohio on its way toward Washington. Launching into another completely new line of work, Parma artist Bill Radawec here imagines how that patch of sky might have looked in a thought-provoking series of minimalist pictures. Inspired equally by the works of Barnett Newman and by Hollywood blue screens, Radawec begins each image essentially the same way: with sky-blue paper or canvas painted in acrylic of the same hue. Size and shape vary considerably, from notebook- and poster-sized to narrow horizontal strips. The rest is nothing but white pencil, depicting various arcing jet exhausts from different perspectives. There are 30 examples here and many more in storage. Most hang near the ceiling, forcing viewers to participate vicariously by looking up. Simple, perhaps, but the overtones are complex, and the interpretive potential is as boundless as the possibilities a blue screen represents. It's a strange exercise, pondering Cleveland's oblique relationship to such a momentous event. And Radawec himself has long been fascinated by these sort-of-close encounters with tragedy (the first being the suicide of his artistic idol). More important, no one who noticed one of these contrails that day would have suspected the horrible reality. In fact, they may even have smiled, assuming they'd seen a stunt plane. How wrong they would have been. Through February 3 at Exit Gallery, 2688 W. 14th St., 330-321-8161, exitgallery.com. -- Lewis