Monday, February 12, 2018

Modes of Transport

Modes of Transport

By Tom Wachunas

Double, double toil and trouble; /Fire burn and caldron bubble./
Cool it with a baboon's blood,/ Then the charm is firm and good.
   - “Song of the Witches” excerpt, from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

   “The finished surface holds the memory of what has been imprinted upon it by pressure, sometimes by moisture heat, and by time. It also bears the memory of an experience, an encounter with nature, or the hands of the artisan…”  - Nancy Farr Benigni
   EXHIBIT: CONFLUENCE: Textiles and Organic Prints By Nancy Farr Benigni / Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH MARCH 2, 2018 / Gallery Hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

   Rest assured that the above excerpt from Shakespeare is not to imply that the work of visiting artist Nancy Farr Benigni is in any way hellish or sinister. The quote is intended only as a kind of gateway to appreciating the mystique of her mark-making methods. In this context, think of ‘caldron’ as a causal device, such as a vat for mixing dyes, or for that matter, any procedure for causing  paper and textiles to hold us firmly in their thrall. There’s a preternatural allure, maybe even a spirit of alchemy, to Benigni’s works, embedded as they are with the potential to take us to some where, to some time. They evoke, conjure, transport.

   When is the last time, for example, that you traversed a wooded glen, a verdant meadow, a forest floor? Did you see – I mean really see – what you thought you were looking at? Did you closely examine the ground? Did you stoop down to touch it? Smell it? Listen to it? You were standing on a microcosm that spanned millennia.

   Another way to sense the surface on which you were walking is as a primordial fabric - a vast network of stratified patterns, textures, and colors woven together. Then you might imagine the loamy earth under your feet as a kind of loom - a frame for stretching out the warp and weft of protean organic materials arranged by natural forces. [‘Warp’ and ‘weft’ are the basic weaving components used to make thread or yarn into fabric. Longitudinal warp yarns are held in stationary tension on a loom while the transverse weft is drawn through, inserted over-and-under the warp.]

   Each of the individual components of this installation – woven fiber hangings imprinted with organic shapes, and prints on paper - is untitled. Think of them as chapters or episodes in a continuous journey presented under the collective title of “Confluence,” referring to the artist’s merging of creative procedures. “There is a mysterious quality,” Benigni writes in her statement, “in the processes of opening a bundle of leaves that have been steamed with paper or cloth, opening a woven piece gathered and bound with shibori knots, or the shifting threads of a painted warp as it is woven.”

   Pictorially, that ‘mysterious quality’ often comes through in the prints that suggest ghostly foliate fossils. In a compacted sort of way, the artist’s methods can be seen to imitate and accelerate some of nature’s own mechanisms for producing such forms.

    Further, Benigni’s beautifully woven vertical banners harken to ancient cultural practices of adorning textiles and garments, including the use of carved textile stamps. Some of those stamps, which Benigni has been collecting since her college days at Kent State University – remarkable works of art in their own right - are included in the exhibit (shown above in the last photo). I highly recommend a visit to her spectacular website (click on link at top of this post). See her edifying blog entries for an in-depth look at some aspects of her textile art.

   This installation at Kent Stark’s Main Hall Art Gallery is an altogether elegant articulation of a tactile metaphysic. Consider it a way of connecting to, touching, and remembering… histories. Our present act of intentional, close scrutiny can itself be a mode of transport into its mesmerizing charm, which is indeed “…firm and good.”

Sunday, February 4, 2018



By Tom Wachunas

   "I was educated in a professional art world that has been characterized by its shock value, biting social commentary, and 'in-your-face' commercial images. In contrast to that world in which I was raised, I am simply endeavoring to create in my art a respite for our weary souls."  -Diane Belfiglio

   EXHIBIT: Architectural Visions – acrylic paintings and oil pastel drawings by Diane Belfiglio, THROUGH FEBRUARY 16, 2018 / at Malone Gallery, in the Johnson Center at Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio. 
   MEET THE ARTIST at the CLOSING RECEPTION on Thursday, February 15 from 6:00-8:00pm.

   While this exhibit of 15 acrylic paintings on canvas and 14 oil pastel drawings on paper is a retrospective of works made between 1997 and 2012, Diane Belfiglio’s aesthetic still feels elegant, bold, and fresh to me. I suspect it will always be so, which is a good thing. Hers is an oeuvre I consider to be a see-worthy vessel that remains buoyant and sturdy in turbulent waters – intact and unabashedly beautiful in our splintered culture too often floundering in pointless pop junk and ugly sensationalism.

   And so in the same retrospective spirit, I offer the following excerpts from some of my past commentaries. I first encountered and wrote about Belfiglio’s work in 1998.
   From New Art Examiner, May, 1998:
   In Angled Ascent, we look upward at an L-shaped concrete staircase to the entrance of a red brick building. A patch of geraniums grows against the brick at ground level. Most notable in this painting is the handling of the shadows from the ornate green railing cast upon the steps. The shapes of the shadows jump off from the steps like gentle graffito, a signature, a calligraphic sign of light. In the real world, we often take for granted such settings as this one—stairs to a building—as unremarkable and pedestrian. But in the hands of Belfiglio, a clearly accomplished technician in the realm of drawing and otherwise rendering reality, the common becomes the extraordinary…

   From Dialogue Magazine, January, 2001:
…There’s magic in the minutiae. Belfiglio’s images are not frontal views of facades with panoramic surroundings. Rather, she focuses on an isolated corner or dormer here, an unusual window adornment or staircase there. The shapes of shadows cast by sunlight take on a distinct physicality, as if built into the surfaces on which they rest. In Victorian Vignettes IV, a steely blue shadow protrudes across the bright pattern of hexagonal shingles like a dancer darting along a tile floor.
   For all of their meticulous faithfulness to something recognizable, the paintings never succumb to the often-pointless technical flamboyance so common in Photorealism. On the other hand, there is no liberal application of paint, no tactile surfaces, no frenetic brushwork. Yet the paintings are nonetheless sumptuous in their luxuriant light and playful rhythms of form and shadow. At times they conjure the spirit of Edward Hopper minus the angst, or the great Impressionists sans impasto.
   There is something akin to reverence in the way Belfiglio approaches her subjects, as indicated in her statement for the show: “I was educated in a professional art world that has been characterized by its shock value, biting social commentary, and ‘in-your-face’ commercial images. In contrast to that world in which I was raised, I am simply endeavoring to create in my art a respite for our weary souls.” True to the works’ raison d’etre, these are contemplative visions for our thoughtless times. As such, they are acts of courage on canvas.

   - From ARTWACH, July 2009,

  …Belfiglio pulls it all together via a combination of highly skilled draftsmanship, masterful composition, and a remarkable (and absolutely necessary) understanding of color. And so it is that while the raison detre behind Belfiglio’s most recent work remains consistent with her past acrylic architectural series, the overall look has undergone a significant evolution, due in large part to her shift into oil pastels…
…Perhaps one way to fully appreciate the new direction in Belfiglio’s work is to think of her earlier paintings as boldly voiced sentences, or matter-of-fact statements articulated with muscular and cerebral confidence. These new pieces are quieter, though no less engaging. Like ballads beautifully sung.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Installation view / 2. Angled Ascent, acrylic, 1997 /  3. Victorian Vignettes IV, acrylic, 2000 / 4. Lawnfield Reflections, acrylic, 2004 / 5. Digression into Detail V, oil pastel, 2
a portfolio of BelīŦglio’s work can be viewed on her website: 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

From Impeccable Bach to Sensational Mahler

From Impeccable Bach to Sensational Mahler

By Tom Wachunas

   One way to appreciate the program selections for the January 27 concert from the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), titled “German Genius,” is as a thrilling homage to the Austro-German tradition of classical music. While the program certainly wasn’t a comprehensive survey, it was nonetheless an astute, two-point perspective on that tradition, spanning nearly 200 years, from the Baroque-era seeds that took root and blossomed in the marvelous compositions of J.S. Bach, to the monumental, verdant pinnacles articulated by Gustav Mahler in the early 20th century.

   On this occasion, beginning with Bach’s much beloved Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor, what was old seemed new again. The impeccable virtuosity of the featured soloists – Vivek Jayaraman, who served as CSO concertmaster for the 2016-2017 season, and current CSO principal second violinist, Solomon Liang – imbued the work with intense expressivity. 

   Here was a partnership of two distinct musical presences engaged in an extended conversation built on intricate contrapuntal themes. Jayaraman’s demeanor seemed for the most part stately and authoritative in a gentle sort of way. Liang’s stance was no less authoritative, and he was also especially animated in his youthful panache, looking at times like he was about to break into a dance.  Together, they brought a palpably joyous energy to the music, which fluctuates between passages of pastoral calm and aggressive solemnity. The blending of these individual voices was particularly remarkable during the achingly poignant Largo movement, as if the two had magically become one tender voice. Throughout, the crisp precision and warm tonality of their playing was beautifully balanced with the steady flow of harmonies and rhythmic coloring from the string ensemble.

   Hearing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is to embark on an arduous existential trek, a daunting trudge through both the darkest and brightest realms of being alive. Making the journey is ultimately a rewarding endeavor, like climbing a mountain. I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to perform it. I can report only that Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann and his 87 accomplished climbers, so to speak, rose to this complex, episodic occasion with astonishing resolve and thunderous sonority. They successfully brought the audience to its feet, standing in adulation of a sensationally triumphant musical summit. 

   Long before getting there, we first heard a doleful trumpet lead us on a lumbering funereal march. It was an inconsolable outcry of grief ending with a grim, muted thump from the low strings, only to give way to more savage turbulence of the second movement. The orchestra was a startling maelstrom, or ravaged landscape of conflicting psychological and emotional states, interrupted by an all too brief moment of soaring nobility from the brass. A very long silence ensued before the vigorous, lilting third movement. The wondrous clarity of the horns here evoked a spirit of innocence, nostalgia, and hope.

   And then there was the famous Adagietto movement, long regarded as Mahler’s encoded love letter to his wife, Alma. Here was an inspiring, contemplative portal to serenity, delicately carved out by the strings, like a quiet, sunlit stream, shimmering with gentle strums from the harp.
   The radiant, soul-stirring optimism of the Rondo-Finale concluded not with a protracted chordal crescendo, but rather with accumulating rushes of abundantly textured phrases ascending to a single crackling note, like a lightning strike. It was a bold-faced final period in an epic essay. This was not really an ending so much as an ebullient arrival.

    Mahler said once, “When I have reached a summit, I leave it with great reluctance, unless it is to reach for another, higher one.” That statement resonates all the more when considering how consistently the CSO arrives at ever more formidable artistic peaks with enthralling power and grace.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Can the past have a future in the present?

Can the past have a future in the present?

By Tom Wachunas

    “Painting is by nature a luminous language.”  - Robert Delaunay

   Here’s a brief hiatus from writing about other people and their art. Now that I look at what I just wrote, I’m thinking that whenever I write about other people and their art, I’m basically saying as much about myself as I am about them. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together… and thank you John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But I digress… 

  I want to report an epiphany. A sort of resurrection. I’ve been infected by a polychromatic palette. Who knows…it may be terminal. Kindly let me explain.

   With the notable exception of my annual 8 ½” x 11” Christmas  paintings on heavy cardboard (reproduced as  limited-edition, signed digital prints serving as  Christmas cards), the vast majority of my studio output over the past seven or eight years  has been either monochromatic in nature, or built largely on a black-and-white dynamic. During much of 2017, I experienced increasingly debilitating fits of dissatisfaction with the trajectory of my work. I had only a terribly nagging feeling that it was time to somehow alter my aesthetic. Analysis paralysis was beginning to set in. While a big decision seemed to loom ever closer in the cluttered corners of my mind, I remained for the most part frustrated, lethargic, uninspired.

   Flashback. The last time I was haunted by such an impasse was in 1999 or so. By that point, though I had been writing reviews for a few regional magazines, I hadn’t made a single visual artwork for about eight years. Exasperated, I remember purchasing, of all things, and inexplicably enough,  a plastic model of a dinosaur skeleton at a hobby shop, which I assembled, painted in muddy enamel earth tones, and mounted on a raggedy-edged,  pockmarked foamcore panel. Maybe it was the textures, the smell of the paint, the act of gluing little 3D forms on to a surface…but that eerie relief image of a floating dinosaur skeleton was just the spark I needed to begin making new original work in earnest.

   Several months ago, in preparation for an upcoming exhibit of my work slated for this July at The Little Art Gallery (which will be something of a mini-retrospective combined with some new works), I rummaged through the layered contents a large trunk I hadn’t opened since 1992 (the year I returned to Ohio after living in NYC for 14 years). Therein was a series of small (9” x 11”) unframed gouaches from around 1982 (two of them posted here in the top photo). They took hold of me the moment I saw them. They haven’t let go since. These were originally studies for larger oil paintings that no longer exist. So now I gazed at modest remnants, almost totally forgotten memories, abstracted and translated into gouache, of traveling and camping in the enchanting landscapes of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.  Yet the structural simplicity of my painted picture planes, the implied narrative of the imagery, and those dreamlike colors…resonated, intrigued, spoke.

   I heard. Something - dormant too long, nearly extinct - woke up and beckoned me. So call it a nod, an affirmation, an homage, this new bas-relief mixed media painting, 18” x 18”, finished yesterday, and which I’m calling “Homecoming” (bottom photo). A bright inroad through the belly of the beast (I incorporated that hobby shop Tyrannosaurus Rex from 1999) to…where?

   Destination undetermined. Only, let there be color. More to come.