Monday, March 20, 2017

Variable Degrees of Refinement

 Variable Degrees of Refinement

By Tom Wachunas

“…I thought that I heard you laughing / I thought that I heard you sing /
I think I thought I saw you try / Every whisper / Of every waking hour /
I'm choosing my confessions…”  - lyrics from “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.

   EXHIBIT: VISIONS Art Exhibition – Celebrating 20 Years / works by the Canton Artists League, THROUGH APRIL 16, 2017 at Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666

    For those viewers with a hardy appetite for traditional renderings in landscape/floral, portraiture/figural, and still life genres, this exhibit of 75 works by 40 local artists from the Canton Artists League (CAL) is sure to satisfy. Viewed as a whole, you might think of it as an eclectic concert program by a polyphonic choir. CAL has always demonstrated a democratic embrace of both professionals and amateurs, with seasoned, trained performers (often of a conservative ilk) rubbing frames, as it were, with less accomplished, though free-spirited practitioners. So it’s not surprising that in a group show of this magnitude we can encounter some distinctly off-key (or “pitchy,” as a voice coach would say) voices. More on this later.  
   In the course of 25 years of viewing Canton-area artists, I was sure I’d seen far too many quaint scenes from nature crafted in watercolor – an especially popular medium in these parts. But then along comes Hilda Sikora, here with her simply exquisite The Journey Home, and I swallow my hubris with a humbling but grateful gulp. And for that matter, still life works such as Five Heirloom Tomatoes, by Sharon Frank Mazgaj, or Copper and Pears, by Nan Rearick, (both painted in oil, I think – can’t be sure, as none of the artists here provide any info as to medium, which is an unfortunate omission on their part), are impressive exercises in tangible lusciousness.

   Similarly in the realm of traditional subject matter, the paintings by Frank Dale and other artists he has trained in the Flemish method (there are several present for this occasion) are arresting if only for their pristine, glass-like surfaces. Yet for all their technical prowess and sheer prettiness, they nonetheless come off a bit like so many anachronistic bromides.

    So while the many conventionally handsome representations here of things we routinely call lovely or tender are certainly nothing to sneer at, there are pieces on this diverse program that resonate in more compelling ways. I’m referring to the relatively more abstract works. Residing in less formulaic or predictable aesthetic terrain, some of them still exhibit a brand of palatable preciousness in execution as they straddle borders between the furious and the finessed, the raw and the refined. In that regard, check out the paintings by Isabel Zaldivar and Lynn Weinstein, or the prints by Anna Rather and Nancy Saulnier.

   Which brings me back to the aforementioned “off-key” selections. For example, The Virgin of the Lilies, by Christine Wyatt Williams, is a stunning enough homage to Classical elegance and religiosity – a literally iconic application of Frank Dale’s “Old Masters” technique. But then something urgent and uncanny transpires when looking at the painting called Mother and Child, by Ileana Mihalteanu Saru, mounted very close by. It’s as if a cacophonous screech is shattering the calm of a gentle aria. Saru’s brushy slashes and smudges are unabashedly crude, but unflinchingly honest. Vive la différence. The proximity of her roughness to Williams’ studied serenity provides one of the most memorably tense, indeed theatrical passages in this ambitious concert of local talents.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Five Heirloom Tomatoes, by Sharon Frank Mazgaj / 2. Jazz, by Nancy Saulnier / 3. Iceberg Ahead, by Lynn Weinstein / 4.  Tropic of Columbus, by Nancy Michel / 5. The Journey Home, by Hilda Sikora / 6. Crashing and Receding, by Anna Rather / 7. The Virgin of the Lilies,  by Christine Wyatt Williams     

Monday, March 13, 2017

Once upon an app, with bated breath...

Once upon an app,  with bated breath…

By Tom Wachunas

   “…Each piece is like a page from a book, only neither the beginning of the story nor the ending is always clear. Some of the stories are obvious; some are hidden a little deeper. Like a good adventure story, we wait with bated breath as we turn the page and continue reading.”  - Michael Weiss

    “We are entering the Age of Integration! ...The digital artist is the vehicle to that kind of cultural change. We are the first generation of this new breed and we will most surely be remembered...for we bring a quake of expression and technique that makes the art world very uncomfortable and that is as it should be. “ – Gene Hirsch

    “Art is, now, mainly a form of thinking.”  – Susan Sontag

   “Fine art is knowledge made visible.”  - Gustave Courbet

   EXHIBIT: Whimsical Worlds of Wonder by Michael Weiss / Studio M exhibition at the Massillon Museum, THROUGH APRIL 2, 2017 / 121 Lincoln Way East (Ohio Route 172) in downtown Massillon / 330-833-4061 / Viewing hours: Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am - 5:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm - 5:00pm

   Full disclosure: What you are about to read is rooted in unabashed self-plagiarism. I’ve copied and pasted much of the content, while tweaking a few phrases here and there, from a review I wrote back in January, 2014, of an exhibit of Michael Weiss’s work (interestingly enough under the same title as this current show at Massillon Museum) at Malone University’s McFadden Gallery. Here’s a link, in case you’re interested: 
   More full disclosure. I’m doing this because even though I have nothing substantially new to add to what I wrote three years ago about Weiss’s pictorial content or methodology, I still think this current exhibit is  fascinating enough to merit our continuing attentions. That said, it has prompted some additional considerations along conceptual lines, which I’ll elaborate a bit more at the end of this post.

 Meanwhile, Michael Weiss lists all the works here as “digital illustrations,” and collectively they exude an epic air – as in a sweeping, ongoing narrative. Call it a representational saga spanning love and longing, loss and discovery, desire and fulfillment. Aside from the facile digital wizardry evident in these images, they amply demonstrate that Weiss is a mesmerizing storyteller.

   His pictures are enchanted scenarios that found their beginnings in book titles and quotes, song lyrics, and even movie taglines. But then, somewhere in the artist’s fertile imagination, such snippets of inspiration (sometimes identifiable enough by their titles) seem to have taken flight into unexpected dimensions. They range from delightfully narcotic, eerily tranquil dreamscapes (that occasionally bring to mind the paintings of surrealists Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte) to more lyrical meditations on the mystical. Yet even at their most haunting or strange, these visions still reside in the comfortable neighborhood of the familiar and accessible.

    Weiss has mastered a digital technique that gives his surfaces a stressed, aged look that can convey a sense of timelessness. The characters that populate his locales – rendered as if seen through scratched glass - might well represent actual individuals and situations from his life. But they could just as well have something in common with our circumstances, caught as we might be in the misty thrall our own dreams and journeys. That’s the universal allure of stories. All of us have them, and telling them is but one of the traditional functions of “representational art” that continues to this day in our culture.

   Is this, then, what we mean by illustration?  If so, must the visual art about our stories be necessarily limited to mimetic transcriptions (albeit with some quirky stylistic embellishments) of tangible reality? Seeing Weiss’s pieces gathered here was a déjà vu experience, to be sure. It made me wonder. Two or three years from now, will his work have the same overall look? Or will he have outgrown his dependable (though certainly intriguing) image-making formula into something even more compelling while still true to the stories he wants to tell? I wait with bated breath.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Roots / 2. The Keeper/ 3. The Island was Never in the Same Place Again / 4. Out for a Walk

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Stream Felt and Born

A Stream Felt and Born

By Tom Wachunas

   “Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it's an ambivalence of forms and space.” - Joan Mitchell

   “You have to know how to use the accident, how to recognise it, how to control it, and ways to eliminate it so that the whole surface looks felt and born all at once. “ - Helen Frankenthaler

   “We must not be content to memorize the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. Let us go out and study beautiful nature.” - Paul Cezanne

   EXHIBIT: DELIBERATIONS – Paintings by Alyce Gottesman / Kent State University at Stark MAIN HALL ART GALLERY / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH APRIL 7 (Gallery closed March 27-31 for Spring Break) / Viewing hours: Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

   Painter Thomas Cole once observed, “To walk with nature as a poet is the necessary condition of a perfect artist.” His landscapes, along with those from his Hudson River School cohorts, were spectacular embodiments of the Romantic-era Zeitgeist. Yet all of those breathtaking vistas and panoramas were but a brief phrase, as it were, among myriad volumes of painted works that surrendered to the allure of nature for their content. 

   While the hallowed tradition of rendering natural beauty via mimetic realism continues to this day, it was the advent of non-objective abstraction that freed painting to be more than an illusionistic window on superficial realities. An entirely new and liberating visual dialect enabled painters to transcend the limitations of making pictures “of a place,” and instead create surfaces that were discrete places unto themselves. When inspired by nature, such surfaces have the capacity to speak all the more powerfully of not just nature’s materiality, but its mystical essences as well. Abstraction at its most gripping, for both painter and viewer, is often an intuitive and otherwise adventurous progression from the prosaic to the poetic.

    Here then is a dialect in which Alyce Gottesman is remarkably fluent and engaging. For a closer look at her background and portfolio, I recommend clicking the link posted above. “…My consciousness became attuned to the rhythms of the seasons and the energy of nature,” she writes in her statement, and continues, “This stream became the basis of my painting…” 

   Collectively, the works gathered here certainly do suggest an extended stream of consciousness. With a variety of opaque and transparent materials (including ink, pigment dispersion, graphite, acrylic) applied to such surfaces as canvas, wood panels, and aluminum, you might consider her paintings as highly tactile metaphors for the ephemeral and visceral textures, structural intricacies, or processes we encounter in nature. There is a tangible presence in these works of dialoguing with the materials. Those materials, true to themselves, have their way, or seasons, if you will. For a while they may pool up on the surface, glowing, or flow and drip in wild, unrestrained arcs and frenetic tangles. But there’s always the mark of the artist’s hand, drawing over, under, or through these configurations as if to correct or redirect, to negotiate a path, to find a balance of chaos with calm, an equipoise of accident and purpose.

   Long before reading anything about Gottesman’s aesthetic, I was immediately struck by the musicality suggested in her paintings. And indeed, she writes, “…The other important influence on my work has been my lifelong appreciation of music. Working in the abstract, I feel like I am channeling the vigor and cadences of nature and music. Rhythms appear as drips and brushstrokes; colors and patterns are quiet, loud, energized, erratic…” I saw them as musical scores of a sort, replete with bold cadenzas and gentle refrains, electrifying crescendos, subtle harmonies mingled with expressive dissonances.

   Consider these words from Wassily Kandinski, one of the 20th century’s earliest explorers of non-objective abstraction:  A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art.”

   Alyce Gottesman’s paintings are compelling places where rhapsodies happen.

    PHOTOS, from top: 1. Aftershock; 2. The Dream of a New Day; 3. Blue Synapse; 4. Ancestral Paths; 5. Fire and Ice; 6. Transformation

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Fury and Finesse from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

 Fury and Finesse from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

     The three works on the February 25 program from the Canton Symphony Orchestra couldn’t have been more diverse in emotive content. The Overture from Camille Saint-Saëns’ light-hearted operetta, La Princesse jaune (The Yellow Princess) ranks among the composers’ most charming if not often neglected creations. Projecting an infectious exuberance, the orchestra successfully delivered all of the work’s breezy melodies and delightful rhythms imbued with a distinctly Japanese ethereality.

   Prokofiev’s Concerto No.2 for Piano and Orchestra with Russian guest soloist Nikita Mndoyants was the centerpiece of the program. This concert was billed as “Passionate Piano,” though “Daunting Piano” might arguably be more apropos. While the concerto is a famously difficult one for the soloist, it can be equally so for some if not many listeners. Amid its florid cadenzas are dizzying passages of trills and torrents of sixteenth notes, relentlessly grinding rhythms, and acerbic dissonances. In this work the orchestra itself was often an audience of sorts. This is not to say that the ensemble members were inactive listeners, but rather that the music they were playing seemed to represent responses at various times ranging from tentative nods of approval to vigorous shouts of both delight and terror at where the piano was leading them.
   Likewise, Maestro Zimmermann’s conducting demeanor was in no way detached or impersonal. On the contrary, he appeared fully invested in the sheer adrenalin rush of the music. At one point during the mesmerizing piano arpeggios of the third movement, he let fly his baton and it twirled through the air in a quick blur, landing inside the piano with a distinctive clicking noise. It was a curious accident, to be sure, yet oddly appropriate to the music, like a punctuation mark in a run-on sentence.

   The concerto is comprised of many such sentences. Some are notably piquant or lyrical in character, such as the Russian folk melody suggested in the final movement. But most are phrases of a more strident, ferocious nature, uttered many times with breakneck speed. Speaking them with clarity requires electrifying virtuosity on the part of the soloist. Guest artist  Mndoyants, winner of the Mixon First Prize at the 2016 Cleveland International Piano Competition, demonstrated as much, and more, with astonishing fluidity. Beyond his unquestionable technical prowess was a riveting command of the music’s explosively dramatic nuances, articulated here with steely determination.  The muscular, triumphant cadence of the finale conjured visions of a victorious athlete crossing the finish line after an exhausting run, and immediately lifted many of us in the audience out of our seats and into a hearty outburst of well-earned bravos.  
   In the end, I gained an appreciation that had always eluded me when listening to recordings of this concerto. Challenging music such as this is best experienced during a live performance. I don’t believe that even the finest recording can make its daring spirit palpable enough. It speaks most powerfully as an event - an adventure unfolding before us in real time.

   A wholly different sort of unfolding transpired in the orchestra’s magnificent performance of Symphony No.5 by Jean Sibelius. If Prokofiev’s concerto could be called devilish, then this Sibelius masterpiece of enthralling lyricism is comparatively divine. “In a deep valley again,” the composer tells us in a 1915 diary entry, “But I already begin dimly to see the mountain that I shall surely ascend…God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the fifth symphony.”
   Here was a call for every section of the ensemble to truly shine, and they rose to the occasion with awesome radiance. The horns were haunting, the winds sweet and crisp as they scampered and cavorted, and the strings  soared into heights of dramatic sonority as deftly as they seemed to hover in hushed  valleys of pizzicato contemplation.

   And then there is that glorious finale. Unique in the symphonic repertoire, we hear a breathtaking set of six robust chords, joyous shouts really, separated by silences, as if Heaven has ordered quiet. It was a stunning reminder that silences can be potent notes, indeed adventures, unto themselves. 
    PHOTOS: Thanks to fellow CSO devotee Bill Hoppes for his pic of Nikita Mndoyants talking after his performance with CSO Associate Conductor Rachel Waddell