Saturday, August 16, 2014

Vivian Maier's Compelling Fixations

Vivian Maier’s Compelling Fixations

By Tom Wachunas

    “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”  -Diane Arbus

    “When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.” – Weegee

EXHIBIT: Vivian Maier: Photography’s Secret Master, THROUGH DECEMBER, 2014, at the Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton Arts District / gallery hours Wed.-Sat. Noon to 5 p.m. /

    For starters, very special thanks are in order. First to John Maloof, who is primarily responsible for bringing to world attention the life and work – indeed the phenomenon – of photographer Vivian Maier. After his 2007 acquisition in Chicago of boxes containing some 100,000 negatives, he proceeded to embark upon an amazing labor of archiving the images, and ultimately became the dedicated custodian and chief curator of Maier’s oeuvre. In the process he was inspired to become a photographer himself, as well as co-direct, with Charlie Siskel, the acclaimed 2013 documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier.
    Additional deep thanks to Tim Belden, owner of the Saxton Gallery of Photography in downtown Canton. His astute recognizing of the importance of Maier’s astonishing photographic legacy prompted him to mount a stunning, thoughtfully selected exhibit of 30 of her black and white photographs.
    Lastly, I thank you, my readers, in advance, for your time in reading  about Maier’s life and work by clicking on the links provided above. I think that by doing so you will surely better appreciate the circumstances and trajectory of her story.
   The official Vivian Maier web site bio tells us, among many other things, that by all accounts from the people who knew her, Maier was, “… eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride… An unabashed and unapologetic original.” But what all the intriguing details about her life and work ultimately don’t tell us is exactly why a well-travelled nanny who never left her home without her camera – a woman who was a clearly gifted, wildly prolific (and apparently obsessive) photographer - was so secretive about her pictures of the urban street milieu around her. She never showed her pictures to anyone.
    Many of Maier’s images seem born of an insatiable curiosity and empathy. They exude an ineffable aura of living in the now, suggesting a desire to vicariously connect, however briefly, with the citizens she encountered – children, the old, the busy and bored, the scruffy and refined, the poor and marginalized. Call it a passionate, authentic abiding in human evanescence.
    There’s no vapid, manipulated artifice here. The views of urban life in Maier’s images aren’t pre-planned, euphoric or idealized constructions steeped in romantic hyperbole. Nor are they dystopian. They are quite simply an honest surrender to reality as she found it.
   Many of her crisply composed pictures are moments populated by individuals wholly oblivious to her presence - the photographer as gentle stalker or spy. But there is also a substantial presence of straightforward shots of camera-aware people. Their reactions to being photographed were richly varied. These arresting scenarios, such as the first of the five I’ve posted here at the top, sometimes convey a strange awkwardness if not ambiguity, inviting us to wonder about possible narratives. In the photo just below it, the woman in the center, clutching her purse and looking directly at us, might feel uncomfortable, perplexed or even upset by the camera’s intrusion. Has Maier interrupted the amorous attentions of the man with his arm around her shoulder?
    In a New York Times review on January 19, 2012, critic Roberta Smith hailed Vivian Maier as “…a new candidate for the pantheon of great 20th century street photographers” who could be seen as contributing to the history of the genre “…by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction…”  I wholeheartedly agree.
     Did Maier simply think it not all that important to present herself as an artist? Is it completely unreasonable to think that her privacy about her photographs was an uncanny exercise in humility? Or was her compulsion fueled by needs we’ll never know? A mystery, and a compelling mystique.
    Still, as easy as it sounds now to say, I can’t escape the sense that her work was somehow ultimately missional in nature, making us as viewers the grateful recipients of a remarkable blessing.

    PHOTOS, from top, from : untitled, August, 1954, New York City / untitled, no date, New York City / Armenian woman fighting on East 86th Street, September, 1956, New York City/ untitled, 1959, Grenoble, France / November 4, 1955, San Francisco, CA.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Warp and Woof of Meaningful Ornamentation

The Warp and Woof of Meaningful Ornamentation

By Tom Wachunas

    “He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers – all of them master craftsmen and designers.”   (Exodus 35:35)

    EXHIBIT: Attack of the Fiber Artists, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH AUGUST 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / viewing hours Wed.-Sat., Noon to 5 p.m.

    First, here’s an excerpt from the brief history of the Textile Art Alliance, as found on the group’s website at

     The Textile Art Alliance (TAA), an affiliate group of the Cleveland Museum of Art, is an active organization of artists, designers, craftspeople, educators, and collectors with a common interest in the textile and fiber arts. Formed in 1934, TAA’s purpose is to promote the fiber arts through exhibitions, educational programs and purchases to enlarge the textile collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art…”

    Second, there’s the title of this exhibit: “Attack of the Fiber Artists.” Attack? Sounds a bit radical, as if the show were an assault on our aesthetic sensibilities. So while I’m certain the title is meant in good fun, I can assure you there’s nothing malicious, subversive or even mildly revolutionary about the 46 works on view. That said, it is a thoroughly electrifying and eclectic presentation of contemporary works in fiber.
    When I looked at Elizabeth Mather’s Portrait of Mollie – a quietly stunning, tightly textured representation of a woman’s face in shadow - I was intrigued by the description of the medium: “Handwoven Twill, Double-weave Pick-Up with Layer Blending (Cotton and Wool).” Now, “oil on board” or “acrylic on canvas” I can fully appreciate. But “double-weave pick-up” and “layer-blending?” I was all agoogle. I felt prompted to better grasp what I always sensed, even if unfairly, to be the more cloistered aspects of fiber arts methodologies. And after an admittedly perfunctory web search, I still can’t tell you all that much about warp and weft, shaft and shed, basting and bearding.
     Suffice to say that the world of fiber art and artists is just that – a world - replete with its own demanding techniques, tools, and disciplines to be seriously embraced, not to mention daunting vocabulary. I imagined cryptic conversations between fiber artists looking at each others’ works with comments like, “I love how that selvage works on the trapunto,” or, “Your tatting and broderie perse work really well together.”  Yikes.
    In any case, beyond the clear, consistent mastery of pure craft that is in abundance here, there is an equal attention to compelling visual design and engaging ideological content. Many of the works exhibit a spirit of exuberant spectacle and elaborate ornamentation, such as the large (42”x78”) abstract Stormy Night at Blue Lake by Helen Murrell, alive with staccato rhythms of alternating cool and hot colored rectangles, all embedded with myriad patterns of swirling thread; the wildly celebratory and playful Petroglyphs I have Known and Loved by Rosalind Kvet; and Primordial Slime, by Mary Ann Weber, with its layers of textures in relief (beads, feathers and sea shells). The unfettered joy implied by the vibrant rainbow motif in Diane K. Bird’s I’m Losing My Memory, I’m Losing Me actually becomes a tragic irony when you read the incorporated text penciled across the raised bands of color.
    In other works, the tactile physicality and dimensionality of mixed textures is downplayed, evoking more contemplative, even primal moods. The three intimately scaled (each 18”x6”) Snake Pictograms by Jennifer Whitten, featuring intricately varied thread patterns and earthen colors, are somewhat reminiscent of Native American ritual sand paintings. And there’s a distinctly painterly feel to Peggy Cox’s small (18”x12”) abstract Icelandic Journals -  flat overlapping swatches of fabric in muted tones with ghostly snippets of faded writing, suggest perhaps ancient parchments.
    One other thing that my aforementioned web search yielded was a glossary of humorous acronyms reportedly common among quilters and other textile artists. A few examples: FART – Fabric Acquisition Road Trip; PhD – Projects half Done; UFO – Unfinished Object; WHIMM – Works Hidden In My Mind. And my favorite, WOMBAT – Waste Of Money, Batting And Time.
    Relax and enjoy. You won’t find any WOMBATs here.

    PHOTOS (from top): Portrait of Mollie by Elizabeth Mather; Stormy Night on Blue Lake by Helen Murrell; Petroglyphs I Have Known and Loved by Rosalind Kvet; I’m Losing My Mind, I’m Losing Me by Diane K. Bird; Primordial Slime by Mary Ann Weber     

Friday, August 8, 2014

An Important Message From Craig Joseph

An Important Message from Craig Joseph
    As some of you faithful readers may already know, a fascinating project spearheaded by Craig Joseph, curator of Translations Art Gallery, is soon to be realized. With nothing further from me at the moment, I pass on this email communication (received on Thursday, Aug. 7) from him that contains all the pertinent information. PLEASE read and participate as you are able. Many Thanks,
   Tom Wachunas

   Hello, Art Colleagues and Supporters -
   This week, we started our 30-day fundraising project for one of the biggest undertakings the gallery has ever embarked upon: FRANKENSTEIN: THE PUPPET OPERA.
   As you may know, I've been working on this - on and off - for about three years and it is finally coming to fruition.  Probably the most involved, most original collaboration that the gallery has ever done. Involving artists, composers, writers, actors, puppeteers, designers, musicians and singers.  A team of 30+ folks making something from scratch.
   I'd appreciate any support that you can give. We are trying to raise $6000 in the next month, and a donor will match everything given today.
   If you're able to give, please do so early because we get extra traction and attention from Kickstarter if we have a really strong first week. They will start publicizing the project out to folks around the country.
   Here's where you can read all the details and give:

  Thanks so much – Craig

   Craig Joseph, Curator
   Translations Art Gallery
   331 Cleveland Ave NW
    Canton, OH, 44702

Monday, July 28, 2014

Elegant Ephemera

Elegant Ephemera

By Tom Wachunas

    “…Thus there exists an essential truth that must be disengaged from the outward appearance of the objects to be represented. This is the only truth that matters…Exactitude is not the truth.”

-Henri Matisse, 1947

    EXHIBIT: The Art of Living – art by Lisa Vincenzo at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, THROUGH AUGUST 23 / 330.499.4712 ext. 312

    Read Lisa Vincenzo’s statement for this, her first-ever solo show, and it should become clear that for her, drawing isn’t limited to being only a preparation, a step in realizing a future “finished” work. “Drawings are my diary,” she writes, “and I simply draw from life.” Her desire is for us to see her pieces as windows on her “…deep empathy and love for all living things.” Her drawings, then, aren’t merely academic exercises in recording the precise look of her subjects so much as her response and relationship to their essences.
    And what a vigorous, captivating response it is! Beneath the drawings’ sketchy appearance is a confident, visceral spontaneity - rendered in a variety of deftly handled media including watercolor, ink, pencil, charcoal, lithography and even IPad. Whether bold or delicate, the visual choreography of her mark-making is imbued with purposeful energy without being fussy or extraneous.
    This is to say that even at their most abstracted, the drawings indicate an intuitive grasp of communicative gestural dynamics. Without dependence on “realistic” detail, pieces such as Midas Breaks Free (India ink) and Spirit Horse (watercolor), for example, still effectively convey the horses’ mass in motion. Her watercolor, Women with Strings, for all of the paint’s muscular blackness, flows nonetheless with lyrical expressivity. Vincenzo understands how variations in the breadth and character of lines, the saturation of tones and relative sizes and qualities of shapes can set up engaging visual rhythms that guide our eyes around the picture plane.
   A particularly exciting component of the exhibit is the inclusion of 13 IPad color pieces (Kitten, shown above, is an example). While intimate in scale, they fairly burst with a celebratory radiance. Rather than opting to wow us with any number of the dazzling special effects available through digital technology, Vincenzo offers disarmingly simple compositions that have a painterly air. Several of them, in their refined, elegant design, lusciously saturated color and simplified shapes remind me of the arresting balance of Matisse’s late-career paper cut-outs.
   With these digitally-generated images, I think Vincenzo successfully presents unassailable proof that efficacious drawing need not be constrained to historically traditional tools and techniques – techniques in which she is clearly adept. In a broader sense, her works remind me that at its core drawing is, after all, pure configuration. It is a way of seeing, then organizing spatial relationships, in two or three dimensions, between various formal elements including line, shape/form, texture and tonality/color.
    Vincenzo’s art is a passionate commitment to being in the moment, to  skillfully observing the ephemeral, and making palpable the spirit of life itself.  

    PHOTOS (from top): Kitten (IPad); Airport (India Ink); Woman with the Red Umbrella (Pencil); I Dream of Jungles and Stars (Charcoal and India Ink) 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Where Hand Meets Heart

Where Hand Meets Heart

By Tom Wachunas

    …Forms seem to rise and fall like so many gaseous clouds and liquid streams, conjuring perhaps, ghosts of a volatile, primordial soup.” From ARTWACH, January 22, 2010

    EXHIBIT: Gene Barber at Journey Art Gallery, 431 4th Street NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH AUGUST 13, (330) 546-7061

    After several years’ absence from the local exhibition circuit (due to health concerns), I’m pleased to remind you that Gene Barber is back, with a strong showing of 15 pieces at Journey Art Gallery. Along with a group of very recent acrylic paintings on canvas, there are four exquisite older drawings. Untitled and Warrior Princess (pictured above), for example, are mesmerizing organic abstractions – superbly designed and composed, and  featuring Barber’s linear precision along with his pointillist ink technique.
    His recent acrylic paintings still possess the sinuous, raw physicality and luminosity of his older abstract canvases, perhaps even more so. But with these pieces, I sensed a shift in Barber’s overall design of the picture plane. Older works were configured such that his palette within a single painting was generously varied, with lots of push-pull between warm and cool hues. Further, the arc of his organic shapes and directional linearities were distributed more widely across the plane, usually edge to edge.
    These newer paintings, however, comprised largely of a dominant hue with analogous variations (sometimes including sublime whispers of  contrasting hues), are subtly tighter, more compressed. I included the quote at the top of this post because the overall spirit it describes in Barber’s paintings from four or five years ago still holds true now. And he continues to paint with his fingers. He literally lets his hands, his flesh, manipulate the ephemeral, indeed primal energy seeming to seethe below all that gestural surface expressivity.
    And from that energy below, that heart if you will, something specific emerges in each canvas. These new paintings have concentrated focal points that hover in the center of the plane, or nearly so. They’re distinct pictorial events - visual to be sure, but I suspect metaphorical as well.
    Call them what you will – announcements, discoveries, revelations, personal epiphanies. In any event, welcome back, Mr. Barber.

    PHOTOS, courtesy Su Nimon (from top): Cosmic Birth; Bird Feeding; Warrior Princess; Untitled

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bjorn To The Task

Bjorn To The Task

By Tom Wachunas

     “Frankly, this culture of unbridled narcissism and oversharing has become like a metastasizing cancer that is eroding all traditional notions of personal discretion and public decency.” – Anthony L. Hall

   “I strongly urge you to study portrait painting, do as many portraits as you can and don't flag. We must win the public over later on by means of the portrait; in my opinion it is the thing of the future.” –Vincent van Gogh, from a letter written to painter Émile Bernard

   “…I hope that this project inspires people to look inside of themselves and ask, "What inspirations have I been ignoring and how can I begin to set them free?"  We are all worthy of it.  We are all artists.”   -Bjorn Bolinder

    EXHIBIT: The One-A-Day Project: Re-imaging the Selfie with Bjorn Bolinder, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH JULY 26, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / viewing hours Wed.-Sat., Noon to 5 p.m.

    I admit to having an ambivalent attitude toward the social media onslaught of “selfies.” On the one hand, they constitute a viral phenomenon that earned dubious legitimacy when “selfie” was declared “word of the year” in 2013 by the Oxford English Dictionary. Essentially, selfies are a trend that further illustrates our societal lust to overcome anonymity. Call it an apotheosis of cultural self-absorption. And ironically enough, I think that after a point, this pictorial plethora has succeeded in rendering a homogenized, rather silly sameness to the countless individuals who indulge their desires to be quickly “known” and otherwise friended, flattered or envied. Fifteen minutes of fame, anyone?
    On the other hand, if we consider the selfie trend in the larger context of self-portraiture as a human practice, there’s nothing new about it at all – just the mechanism and, to a considerable extent, the “aesthetics.” I still recall all those goofy images generated during the last century of faces and bare butts squished on to the glass plates of Xerox machines. (You could call them yesteryear’s analogs to today’s digital dross.) But I’m speaking here of self-portraiture as a viable artistic pursuit. And from that perspective, a substantial number of artists have historically engaged the practice and left a distinguished legacy of compelling works – Dürer, Rembrandt, van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, to name only some.
    This is where things get a bit dicey. Are selfies an art form simply by virtue of their being photographs?  It’s an arguable point, and I tend to regard them as a kind of pop art subset – a highly accessible if not “lowbrow” democratization of the photographic medium. Even as many online exhibitors might employ photo shop editing, their motivation seems more about vanity and superficial “special effects” than genuine creativity.
    The photographs by New York City-based artist Bjorn Bolinder are at once a commentary on the whole notion of selfies and a transcending of their usually generic, mundane or cutesy content. I’ll not be recapping here what initially prompted this collection (for that, please click on the above links to Translations Gallery and Bolinder’s web sight for the expanded statement and examples of his work) except to say, with great admiration, that Bolinder is clearly passionate about and committed to the sheer discipline of daily prioritizing his creative process.
    So yes, on the surface, the subject matter is Bjorn times Bjorn times Bjorn, day after day, spanning more than 100 consecutive days…But collectively, these images are a scintillating diary of sorts -  an intriguing visual autobiography of ideas, inspirations, possibilities to be realized and challenges to be met both technically and aesthetically. More than monotonous or ordinary repetitions of his face, these superbly crafted images embody the soul of a storyteller, alive with a sense of theatricality, played out in various settings and atmospheres. They’re alternately whimsical and haunting, playful and contemplative, dramatic and fantastical.
    The photographs aren’t framed or mounted in the conventional manner but rather suspended in air, hung with clothes pins on lines that stretch wall-to-wall across the gallery. Viewing them is literally a moving experience, requiring us to walk through the rows, all the while reading the hand-written notes interspersed among the photos explaining the progression of particular concepts or goals. Indeed, motion itself is a recurring thematic aspect in many of the images, and not so surprising when considering Bolinder’s background as a dancer.
   This collection, then, is a record of making each day a realized, tangible product – an intentional step in an ongoing dance, so to speak. As such, the exhibit presents the wondrously designed choreography of a rich imagination.

    PHOTOS, ©Bjorn Bolinder 2014, from top: Air Slumber, Cell Jump, Fangtastic, Jump/Catch, Typical Saturday Night

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Shifting Perspectives

Shifting Perspectives

By Tom Wachunas

    “Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing sensations.”
    -Paul Cezanne

    “I don’t paint things. I only paint the difference between things.”
    -Henri Matisse
    EXHIBIT: Organic Medley- art by Irene Tobias Rodriguez, at the Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library THROUGH JULY 12, 185 North Main Street, North Canton/ 330-499-4712,  Ext. 312

    This one almost got away from me, and I apologize for the late posting. But if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s just six days left (gallery closed on Sundays in summer) to see a generous sampling of work from one of this area’s more versatile and prolific artists.
    The creative sensibilities of Irene Tobias Rodriguez are so eclectic that were she a songwriter, her tunes might be variously categorized as easy listening (light classical), folk, pop, even jazz. As it is, the award-winning, robust diversity on view here takes the form of mixed media sculpture (including painted gourds), quilts, woven baskets, jewelry, drawings, digital art (mixed media) and acrylic painting.
    In the realm of painting, her well-crafted style is representational and hovers somewhere between the fluid, painterly surfaces of Impressionism and the more exacting details and textures of Realism. Genres range from maritime and landscape (urban and natural) to still life, floral and animal.
   I was particularly drawn to two aspects of the paintings, the first being what Rodriguez calls her Puzzle Paintings. Seven of them are on view here. These scenes are executed on separately cut pieces of board and assembled into a whole, like a puzzle.
    Each piece is a “mini” painting in itself, and their junctures create a linear element threaded throughout the picture plane. It’s a playful technique, to be sure. Yet rather than crudely fragment or intrude upon the overall unity of the image, this method intensifies the experience of pictorial depth in a fresh way, not too unlike Paul Cezanne’s explorations of binocular vision, rendering simultaneous viewpoints of a thing.
    In her exquisite Segments of an Apple Tree, for example, Rodriquez presents the apples convincingly enough as sumptuous, discrete orbs while introducing spatial distortions. Subtle shifts of details on the surfaces are such that our sense of nearness to, or distance from the fruit generates a pulsating effect. The ambiguities of depth and light that this method allows are even more amplified in the equally intricate Lone Feather, wherein a few of the puzzle segments are sunk below the surface of the painting.
    As for the second aforementioned intriguing aspect, there are two works here that are of a distinctly different character than the rest of the acrylic paintings. Each manifests a Modernist ideation that, prior to seeing this show, I didn’t really think was a significant component in Rodriguez’s already impressive creative arsenal. The two men in the dramatic Ordinary Discussion are rendered with a fluidity of line and intensity of palette that evokes the brooding lyricism of European Expressionists such as Munch, Kirchner or Nolde.  And the somewhat abstract Rabbits Two exudes an ebullient color dynamic and elegant compositional balance that brings to mind Matisse, particularly when he observed that, “…in all the tones there must result a living harmony of colors, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition.”
    So maybe in a metaphorical sense, Rodriguez is a songwriter, and a very facile one at that, capable of changing her tunes to best fit the idea at hand. You could count these two works, along with her Puzzle Paintings, among her greatest hits.

    PHOTOS, courtesy Irene Tobias Rodriguez, from top: Lily Path; Segments of an Apple Tree;  Lone Feather; Ordinary Discussion; Rabbits Two