The title of “A Poet*hical Wager,” an exhibition of work by eleven international artists on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland through January 28, 2018, comes from a pun made by poet and scholar Joan Retallack, in her book of same name. “If you’re to embrace complex life on earth, if you can no longer pretend that all things are fundamentally simple or elegant, a poetics thickened by an h launches an exploration of art’s significance as, not just about, a form of living in the real world,” Retallack writes.
While the exhibition design eliminates wall texts as a prompt to embrace complexity, most of the works are made in conventional mediums like painting, sculpture, and collage. Doug Ashford’s Next Day (New York Times, pages A1-A28), 2015–16, redacts the entire first section of the New York Times on the day following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center with an overlay of graphic color fields. There are three winsome selections from Iman Issa’s “Heritage Studies” series (2015–); the minimalist sculptures take inspiration both from objects the artist encountered in museums as well as the museum-style didactics that identify their sources, materials, dates, and provenance, making hers the only works in the show with accompanying wall text, as they are part of her presentation. There are also subtle interventions. Oscar Murillo’s Black Paintings (2017), a grouping of oil-stained canvases, hang in the rafters. Rashid Johnson’s Shea Wall (2017) presents a cinder-block partition, mortared with Shea butter, in a remake of Allan Kaprow’s Sweet Wall (1970), a participatory protest intervention staged close to the Berlin Wall, in which Kaprow and others built a cinder block wall using bread and jam as mortar. Emanuel Tovar’s Cantos Baldíos (2017) was performed at the opening night gala as well as for the public opening day festivities. Two musicians stood back-to-back, immersed knee-deep in a block of unfired clay, as they played various simple wind instruments that emulate birdsong, in an approximation of dialogue.