Artist Courttney Cooper works from memory, using ballpoint pens and found paper. Credit: courtesy Western Exhibitions

It’s storming heavily outside as I ring the buzzer for Western Exhibitions. It’s my first gallery experience since the pandemic locked us down months ago and I feel like I’m breaking some sort of rule. Am I supposed to be here? Is my mask on tight? Where’s my sanitizer? I remember the last opening I was at in the building. Bodies were packed so incredibly close, we had to leave early to catch a breath of fresh air. Ah, the before times, I think to myself.

By appointment only, folks can visit Western Exhibitions—which shares a building with DOCUMENT, Paris London Hong Kong, and Volume Gallery—to view the newest exhibition, “Visionaries + Voices.” The group show features paintings, drawings, ceramics, books, and sculptures from Cincinnati-based art studio, Visionaries + Voices (V+V). The studio is a nonprofit that provides studios, supplies, and support, and organizes exhibitions, for 125 visual artists with disabilities. The works exemplify the active arts community in Cincinnati and how everyday tools and materials like colored poster boards, pencils, and other ordinary objects can be transformed into a fine arts practice. Text is a huge component of the exhibition, whether it’s to explain an image, accompany an illustration, or complete a piece.

I love Cincinnati. Anyone who says they think it’s a garbage town or that Ohio sucks or whatever other weak opinions has just never been there. Like, really been there. I spent a few summers there wandering the streets and falling in love with the grit. When I look up and see Courttney Cooper’s expansive and elaborate maps of Cincy at Western Exhibitions, I’m glued to the details. Cooper works from memory, ballpoint pens, and found paper. His maps go beyond the traditional landmarks and extend into seasonal events that make up the city’s history. The first map I see says “Cincinnati USA” on the top portion with text reading, “OK-TO-BER-FEST,” “IT’S Oktober Fest Time Today Batman,” and “OKTOBERFEST zinzinnati Authentically German.” Below the top text is a sea of buildings, winding streets, and homes. Cooper will sometimes go in and update the drawings if a building has been torn down or constructed. These works are incredibly layered with texture, description, words, and labyrinths of lines. Staring into the abyss that is Cooper’s work is like getting lost on purpose.

Many of the artists in the show utilize text and poetry in their work. For example, Jenny Crowe’s double-sided journal entries are made with magic markers. The text bleeds together to create patterns and illegible words which ultimately take up the entirety of the paper. Viewers can either choose to attempt to read the text or simply experience the visual result that the text creates. I chose the latter.

Other pieces incorporating words are Dale Jackson’s loud and expressive works on colored poster board—they cover an entire wall in the gallery. The brightly colored yellow, red, orange, green, and pink paper greets you when you walk into the space. The stream-of-consciousness text, written in Sharpie, makes associations between Oldsmobile, Delta Air Lines, Nike, Michael Jackson, and a Mercury Marquis. Reading the text is fun. Seeing references to memory and noting the recurring themes creates a dizzying effect. I tried to connect the dots—why the continuous references to airlines and cars?—and soon realized that there might not be an answer. “THE END” is written on the bottom of each poster board. A large stack of posters sits on the gallery’s front desk, creating a rainbow of sincere storytelling and poetry.

Trip Huggins’s works reference historical moments and current events. Jim Jones is a double-sided drawing made with crayon and graphite. Drawing a figure of the cult leader, Huggins directly explains how Jones poisoned his followers. In the center of the text are the large black numbers that read “666.” Displayed in double-sided frames, Huggins’s works are created with crayons and colored pencils, and are torn from a sketchbook.

The pieces in “Visionaries + Voices” are sincere and humble. The creative works of these Cincinnati artists breathe life back into the art scene of Chicago.   v