Summer of Loving (Art): Festival of the New

The splashy green Festival of the New brochure tumbled out of my copy of The New York Times on Sunday sometime between the second cup of coffee and the first plate of eggs. Yes, I still read The Tim

May 21, 2003 at 2:06 pm

The splashy green Festival of the New brochure tumbled out of my copy of The New York Times on Sunday sometime between the second cup of coffee and the first plate of eggs. Yes, I still read The Times in spite of the make-believe columns by bogus reporter Jayson Blair. How else can I connect to the liberal world outside of Southwestern Ohio?

The insert grabbed my attention, if for no other reason than its hometown connection. In bold white letters, stamped on the brochure's front page directly above the image of a punctured marshmallow, I read that "everything's NEW again in Cincinnati."

I've called Cincinnati home for 14 years now, and I'm not aware of any significant new development outside of the recent victory for the Cincinnati Public Schools levy. Maybe "significant" is too stringent a qualification.

What the inaugural Festival of the New promotes is four months of art exhibitions, performances and family happenings, kicking off with the May 31 opening of the new Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). Many of the festival's 80-plus events look familiar: Cincinnati Opera's summer season, the launch of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's fall productions and Cincinnati Pops Orchestra concerts at Riverbend. The challenge is to find something at the festival that hasn't been staged before.

If I were a Festival of the New programmer, the list would look radically different. My wishful events would be, well, they'd be new, unprecedented and progressive. I'd omit all mentions of public artwork made of baseball bats.

But something unusual happened to me before my third cup of coffee and my second helping of eggs on this recent Sunday morning. I clutched the green Festival of the New brochure in my hand and turned somewhat proud about this town I call home, instead of downright cynical.

I liked the brochure's slick look and the hip portrayal of its inhabitants. I appreciated the festival's focus on the city because that's where I live and work. While there are too many familiar, big institutions on the list, I'm impressed by the inclusion of grass-roots operations like Semantics Gallery and SSNOVA.

The Festival of the New is civic self-promotion. But it's self-promotion that's fair, accurate and warranted.

There are plenty of interesting arts events planned over the next four months, and it's safe to say no one will attend them all. The larger question is this: What can brochures do? If the summer of loving art is about the new CAC attracting new art lovers to Cincinnati, then area arts spaces — from downtown galleries to off-the-grid spaces like the Carnegie Center of Columbia-Tusculum — should experience a significant boost in foot traffic.

If slick brochures are worth the paper they're printed on, they should increase the patronage base for all of Greater Cincinnati's arts spaces. If the festival is truly committed to new art, then lesser-known artists should also receive their share of the spotlight.

A worthy first step for Festival of the New travelers is The Carnegie Center in Covington, a space that didn't make it into the festival brochure. Thirteen mixed-media works by Bethel, Ohio, artist Robin Stinetorf fill the Carnegie's expansive first floor in an exhibition called Outside-In, and they make an impressive impact.

"Four Torsos" is the exhibition's centerpiece. Mounted on a wall in the center of the gallery, Stinetorf manipulates black-and-white Xerox copies of self-portraits of his bare chest. The look is delicately grainy, resembling a pop art silkscreen. What's most impressive is the detailed simplicity behind the artist's craft. The copies are carefully lacquered to rustic wooden frames.

Stinetorf is careful never to show his head or his hands. There are fractures in the images, a few select twists. Up close, "Four Torsos" becomes a subconscious self-portrait, slightly surreal. Behind its crisp images lies a man unsure of who he truly is but willing to use his art to find out.

If "Four Torsos" is the soul of Outside-In, "Debbie" — a Xerox reproduction of the Little Debbie snack cake mascot — is its laughter. It best captures Stinetorf's pop culture influences without being derivative and is playful, beautiful and mesmerizing. It's the highlight of a show from a lesser-known artist worthy of greater attention.

I consider making Outside-In the first stop in my own Festival of the New itinerary. Meeting "Debbie" has been an early highlight of what looks to be a great summer.