Just when you're cruising comfortably past the predictable local art scene, you're sideswiped by a gang of unknowns — and it's Tremont gallerist Dana Depew behind the wheel. Every summer for the past five years, Asterisk Gallery's maverick director has hunted down 19 local artists and grabbed a representative sampling of their work for an annual survey called, naturally, 19. The resulting show mixes a sprinkling of Cleveland art-scene veterans into a biggish batch of exciting newcomers.
Depew doesn't have the inclination or space to show everything; Asterisk isn't MOCA. Photography is absent from 2009's installment (except for conceptual artist Bruce Edwards' reflective series of "Beach Party" stills taken from a TV screen, showing the indescribable Annette Funicello with Disney-studio male counterparts), and there's no actual performance. On the other hand, Laszlo Gyorki's "Pencil Pushers" — consisting of a number of pencils apparently shoved violently into one of the gallery's load-bearing pillars, then broken off — is the next best thing to live action, evoking close encounters with cactus, porcupines and killer bees, or maybe a really rough season finale of The Office. Gyorki also shows an impressive 3D frieze made from discarded packing forms as an example of future archaeological reconstructions of our culture's preoccupations.
Lively and lyrical abstract oil-and-pen-on-canvas paintings by Dana Oldfather speak of identity and freedom, scooped from contrasting shapes and textures, while Sunia Boneham's fun, complicated, colorful paintings smeared on things like wire and beer cans wind out from the wall like a bad hair day in a dumpster. Haunted-seeming paintings by Janet Snell (with titles like "He looks with his one good eye"), a selection of experimental works on canvas by Brian McCollum and paintings on archetypal themes by well-known Cleveland artist Lisa Kenion, all tucked into the basement, no doubt merit a more formal presentation.
Back upstairs, Robin Latkovich and Yvonne Bakale present delicate, diminutive landscape-based works touching on big issues like awe and environmental degradation, and painter William Rupnik has some splashy things to say about beauty and bulimia. But perhaps the strongest, strangest paintings are those of Linda Herman in her installation-like suite of works titled "Summer of '69." These are gut-wrenching meditations on the Apollo 11 lunar landing and the death of her mother in a car accident 10 days afterwards.
There's a thick, weathered wooden beam by conceptual sculptor Jake Beckman that appears to lean and sink into a free-standing wall, Shauna Merriman's clay and wax studies of body tissue, Sally Hudak's ceramic mouths fading into a section of brick wall and Elizabeth Emery's miniature landscape studies in found-material texture and color.
Right in the front of the gallery, Cathy Kasdan's amazing wardrobe includes an Icelandic sweater knitted from plastic shopping bags. Two extraordinary videos — one by Laila Voss depicting cycles of destruction and the other by Thea Miklowski showing bare feet and legs sliding and inching their way from bed to street in an epic journey — are among the strongest works here. Conceptualist Michael Wallace shows us the deadpan greeting cards he sent to notorious crooked politicos like San Francisco's Ed Jew and deposed Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, along with their bemused responses. If you're headed to 19, prepare to have your mind stretched and blown.