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September 20, 2013
By Carolyn Jack
It’s not the kind of show many arts institutions would opt for. But other arts institutions don’t have Nicholas Fenell. The 2011 Cleveland Institute of Art graduate is guest-curating a powerful new exhibition at The Sculpture Center, Made in Mourning: Contemporary Memorial and Reliquary.
“I’ve always had an interest in cemetery art,” says Fenell, who serves as intern at the Sculpture Center on Euclid Avenue, just East of CIA’s McCullough building.
A painting major turned sculptor, he likes ephemeral materials, such as the white roses he worked with once, using their gradual decay as a part of the artwork. He did his BFA thesis work at the East Cleveland cemetery, creating art there that resembled monuments, but was designed to fall apart – his way of addressing and soothing the fears that accompany the passage of time and the passing of life.
Other local memorial projects he has undertaken include a wall installation that he created at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood, Ohio, as 2013 Jewish Arts and Culture Lab Fellow. Through it all, he has observed something: to most contemporary Americans, he says, “death has become taboo.”
Fenell hopes Made in Mourning will help viewers feel less anxiety about death.
Assistant Professor Lane Cooper hopes so too. She is one of the 11 artists featured in the show, which she calls “very emotional and very real.”
“I’m sure other galleries have done shows around death. I think the big difference between this one and other treatments of this subject is that most are going to be mediated; they’re historical or they’re by people who are removed from the viewer. The artists in this show are part of this community, mostly. The works deal largely with death in this very personal way,” Cooper said.
Ann Craddock Albano, executive director and chief curator of the Sculpture Center, hopes Made in Mourning will remind people that cemeteries contain art collections. She and Fenell had talked about a cemetery exhibition at their very first meeting in 2011, when he was applying for the internship, Albano recalls.
“I discovered that almost no one knew that East Cleveland Township Cemetery existed,” she says. And, of course, she adds with a laugh, “cemeteries have lots of sculpture,” so a joint Sculpture Center/CIA project featuring funerary art seemed natural.
Fenell started researching immediately and eventually created a proposal for an exhibition including work by 11 artists, including Cooper and Martinez E-B ’12, and a lineup of talks called “The Dirt on Death Lecture Series,” which runs Sept. 26-Dec. 26. He also wrote his first grant, getting funding for the project from the Ohio Humanities Council
“I was so impressed with all the ideas that Nick had, especially the lecture series,” Albano says. “So he’s been incredibly ingenious and resourceful. It’s been really nice to mentor an artist-turned-curator.”
In fact, Fenell is the Sculpture Center’s first guest-curator. In planning the show, he says, he has tried to focus on the contrasts between public mourning and private mourning. Mexican artist Guillermo Trejo, for instance, has created work focusing on the politics of death at the U.S.-Mexico border. Martinez E-B extends some of the themes he explored in his BFA related to very public roadside memorials.
Cooper’s work is less public, more personal to its creator: a video about her family’s Appalachian tradition of Decoration Day, a kind of family reunion for both living and dead. She created the video in 2007, after visiting her family in Alabama. Though it wasn’t officially their Decoration Day, the gathering seemed like the right occasion to visit their two main family churchyards and care for the graves. Cooper captured their time together. Months later, her uncle and one of the cousins she had spent time with on the trip, Mike Cooper, died from complications associated with AIDS.
Now, the video serves almost as a funeral for those she lost, something to share with the rest of her family and help them see that they’re part of a long procession of people.
“We come and we go,” Cooper says, “but some part of the meaning and comfort of our lives is being part of that process.”
That kind of unflinching look at life and death together is what Fenell hopes viewers will be able to take after experiencing Made in Mourning.
“One thing I’m hoping they’ll take away is a more open feeling about death and mourning,” Fenell muses. “They should not be afraid to confront. If you can confront, it enhances the quality of life that you’re living.”
Made in Mourning runs through Dec. 20, with work on view at both the Sculpture Center (1834 E. 123rd St.) and the East Cleveland Township Cemetery (nearby at 1621 E. 118th St., just north of Euclid Avenue). Gallery hours: Wednesday through Friday,10am-4pm; Saturday, noon-4pm; or by prior appointment. Go to sculpturecenter.org/show_details/2013_Fall_Exhibitions.html or call 216.229.6527 for more information.
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