After a grand opening weekend attended by hundreds of patrons eager to celebrate the launch of its new home in Hingetown last month, Spaces Gallery got right down to business and debuted its first new exhibitions of the year. The address might have changed but those shows, which include work by New York-based Australian collective Soda_Jerk, Cleveland's Anthony Warnick and Philadelphia's Imani Roach, prove the gallery's programming remains steadfastly poignant and provocative.
Entering through the main entrance, visitors first approach the Vault, Spaces' new screening area, featuring Soda_Jerk's Astro Black video series projected directly onto one of the gallery walls. Astro Black is a video series consisting of four episodes of sampled material that considers the origins and politics of Sun Ra's Afrofuturist mythology. Utilizing easily recognizable pop culture clips — Star Trek, the Matrix films — combined with perhaps less familiar sources to some — deejay Afrika Bambaataa and the band Kraftwerk — the films tell a surreal story about physical and psychological transcendence for African Americans. Beyond their import and impact, the films offer an easy introduction, style-wise, into the more complicated projects waiting further in the gallery.
Anthony Warnick's Except as Punishment for Crime explores the exploitation of the ever-growing inmate population for cheap labor by America's private prison corporations. The exhibition begins in a transition space, just behind Soda_Jerk's Astro Black, and continues into the main gallery. Warnick's exhibition begins with a wall vinyl that attempts to simplify the complex problem into a mathematical equation. Though the symbols may not have significance at first, a quick read of the literature provided offers helpful hints. An archived black-and-white photograph of a historic chain gang on the wall and plaster blocks covered in graphite on the floor lead the viewer into the main gallery.
The main space features both Warnick's work and Imani Roach's Havens. The only symbolic divider between the exhibitions is the line of columns in the middle of the space. To the left of the columns, Warnick's exhibition continues with objects created by inmates and photographs depicting the people (often men) who control the corporations that own the prisons.
Most of the objects in the main gallery's portion of Warnick's exhibition were commissioned by the artist to be produced by inmates, allowing him to explore the process directly by playing an indirect role in it. These inmate-produced items include three stacks of off-set prints on the floor, as well as disassembled American flags hanging from the wall. The middle of Warnick's main gallery wall features three portraits featuring transparent overlays (after Francis Galton) of the board of directors of Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Inc. and MTC Management and Training Corporation. These combined portraits depict and emphasize the great similarities among them — mostly all white, middle-aged men — and easily and powerfully contrast those men, the ones who profit, from the people incarcerated in the system.
Imani Roach's Havens explores the history of the "Green Book," a resource indexing restaurants, boarding houses, service stations and other safe havens for black motorists to patronize on their travels from the late 1930s until it was made (technically) obsolete by the passage of civil rights legislation in 1964. Roach's installation includes doors (both freestanding and leaning against walls), some featuring portraits of African Americans sourced from Cuyahoga County's property records or the archives of the Call and Post newspaper. These doors serve as metaphor for the key that was the "Green Book."
Roach's exhibition also includes two shrine-like tables created from doors and cinder blocks. Each multimedia table installation includes audio, including archival performances from comedian Dusty Fletcher and singer and jazz pianist Rose Murphy, both of whom regularly played Cleveland's black clubs during the 1940s and '50s, as well as recorded conversations about the history of race and mobility in Cleveland with residents of Kingsbury Tower. Echoing throughout the gallery, the audio impacts and informs the viewer's experience.
Dealing with issues of race, forced prison labor and civil rights, these new projects and their sobering tones find an amplifying harmony with Spaces' new home. With much of the work presented directly on walls and concrete floors, the objects are freed from formal gallery boundaries and thereby allow direct interaction with the viewer within the same space. Installed without frames, the displays remove the separation between the viewer and the objects and remind us that the past isn't necessarily as far away as we may be led to believe.
Roach and Warnick's exhibitions remain on view through March 25; Soda_Jerk's Astro Black closes on March 24. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and til 8 p.m. on Thursday. Spaces is always free and open to the public.