Thursday, November 16, 2017

Listening to the Land








Listening to the Land 

By Tom Wachunas

   "I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees." - Henry David Thoreau
   “Memory is the fourth dimension to any landscape.  - Janet Fitch

   EXHIBIT: Landscapes Lost and Found – Paintings and Drawings by Emily Vigil / at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH DECEMBER 3, 2017


   There’s a river flowing in every artwork of this exhibit by Emily Vigil. I’m speaking neither of sparkling streams in verdant woods, nor torrents of water rushing through fertile valleys. You won’t see spectacular illusions of majestic geography. Don’t look to be wowed by huge, hyper-realistic renderings of breathtaking panoramas.

   It’s another sort of fluid continuum that courses through these works, varied as they are in materiality, scale, and iconography. Call it a steady narrative current of memory, discovery, and desire. Vigil tells us in her statement: “…I finally allowed myself to reach toward other places, not always physically experienced, but imagined, present in our culture. My questions about place evolved into questions about time…” The spirit of this exhibit is equal parts nostalgic and forward-looking.

   Vigil’s expressionist painting style has a gestural earnestness that imbues even her most delicate observations of nature with visceral immediacy, as in her mixed media “Duet.” Accompanying the painting is a thoroughly charming poem (written in a style recalling the syntactic playfulness of e.e. cummings) describing her serene encounter with a damselfly and bee that we see in the paining. Vigil is a painter with the soul of a poet.

   Further evidence of her considerable writing gifts can be found in the booklet placed on a pedestal for viewers to read, titled “Echo, our home.” In it, Vigil lovingly relates how she came to name her northeast Ohio home - the land upon which she resides with her family. At the end of the tale, she writes, “That is how I describe our home – this land: a relationship – the wetland and the valley, filtering back an echo of my words…our words…Ever diminishing, they never quite disappear.”  Painter and poet…always listening.

   Some of the most alluring pieces here - including several acrylic transfer prints that have the grainy patina of old photos taken in diaphanous light – are remarkably small in scale. The smallest of her all-acrylic paintings, such as “Presence (Towpath Trail),” “Broken River,” and “Dreaming,” are intimate, elegant microcosms of painterly textures. 

    Collectively, these images describe a journey at once deeply personal and yet approachable – a geography both private and familiar, stilled and in motion. One of the larger paintings, “The Paths Inward,” is perhaps  an invitation for us as viewers to literally reflect on our own relationship with nature. It’s executed on a mirror, with only a few slivers of glass still visible, punctuating the scene with little flashes of light as you move around it. Sparks of life and changeability.   

   Think of the exhibit as a confluence of people, places, and things remembered, longed-for, or presently real… of ephemerality side-by-side with permanence. Here, the ever-diminishing is juxtaposed with the never-quite- disappearing.  And all of it is situated in an enchanting flow. Like a river.

   PHOTOS, from top: Presence (Towpath Trail), acrylic on fabric; Duet, mixed media; Broken River, acrylic on panel; Dreaming, acrylic on aluminum; The Paths Inward, acrylic on mirror; Broken Forest, oil on paper

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Tchaikovsky Fireworks from the Canton Symphony Orchestra





 Tchaikovsky Fireworks from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   A particularly edifying component of the MasterWorks Concerts from the Canton Symphony Orchestra are the “Performance Preludes,” presented one hour before the program. Traditionally, these 30 minute-long sessions are lectures by guest speakers, often accompanied by pre-recorded segments of music used to elucidate aspects of the upcoming program. 

   The prelude to the all-Tchaikovsky concert on November 4, however, broke that mold. It featured the Canton Symphony Chorus, directed by Dr. Britt Cooper, in a thoroughly informative live performance. Singing in Russian, the chorus gave us five excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s 1878 a cappella choral settings of texts from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the most celebrated of the Eucharistic services in the Eastern Orthodox Church. This stunning performance revealed an important aspect of Tchaikovsky’s musical passions arguably unfamiliar to many, and one that went far in deepening my appreciation of his eclectic spirituality.

   It was certainly a spiritual eclecticism that was brilliantly surveyed in the program that followed, beginning with the Polonaise from Act III of Tchaikovsky’s 1878 opera, Eugene Onegin. The music describes the moment when Onegin is smitten at the sight of the beautiful Princess Tatianna entering the palace ballroom and the ensuing dance. From the exhilarating trumpet fanfare at the beginning, through the delicate, spritely central theme for winds and an airy cello melody, and an emphatic dash to the thrilling final notes, the orchestra was simply dazzling in delivering some of Tchaikovsky’s most charming and decorative music.

    Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No.1 for Piano and Orchestra is music of a much more compelling sort, likewise the artistry of guest soloist Norman Krieger. The work opens with a dramatic, brassy fanfare, which quickly blossoms into one of classical music’s most instantly recognizable, iconic melodies. Interestingly enough, while it’s the full orchestra that initially pours out that eternally inspiring theme, the strident chords from the piano are initially only an accompaniment, albeit a lively one. When the piano does play the melody, it’s less stentorian and more intricate in character, setting up the call-and-response dynamic between orchestra and pianist that is threaded through the entire concerto.  

   Both the orchestra and the soloist were deeply sensitive to this dynamic - a chemistry of dualities wherein moments of heroic grandiosity (though never issued in an attitude of gratuitous bombast) alternate with gentler episodes of rapturous poignancy. Krieger’s technical prowess was unassailable. While his pounding cadenzas were surely a breathtaking melding of muscle and accuracy, he played throughout the work with real reverence for the music’s poetic spirit. This was especially evident in the delightful prestissimo passages of fast, frolicking fingerwork during the achingly beautiful second movement. 

   Then, con fuoco! Did someone yell fire? All of Krieger’s remarkable gifts of power, precision, and graceful lyricism launched together flawlessly during the third movement’s coda into a wondrously ascending race to the exuberant final chord. And as if to gently set us down from those blazing heights, he answered our boisterous call for an encore with a gorgeous, heartfelt performance of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 9, No.1.

   More fire was to come in the form of Symphony No. 4. A truculent brass fanfare opens this Romantic epic, and the orchestra effectively embodied the seriousness of the moment. This was, after all, as Tchaikovsky told in his original program notes, the arrival of Fate itself, the “ineluctable power of destiny” poised above our heads and poisoning our souls.

    Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s seemingly magical capacity for eliciting palpable emotion from his exciting orchestra has never been more authoritative. With an economy of gestures, he deftly sustained the ensemble’s aural depth, clarity, and radiant sonority - no simple task, considering the structural and thematic complexities of the work. The intensity of the first movement left us in an agitated, stormy atmosphere. An exquisite oboe solo opened the second movement - a contemplative, wistful journey punctuated with lush warmth from the strings and seductive solos from clarinet and bassoon. The piquant third movement was an intoxicating, dreamlike interlude – a mesmerizing episode entirely saturated with crisp, pizzicato strings.

   An urgent sense of impending victory pervaded the beginning of the turbulent final movement. Later in the proceedings, the Fate theme made a rude re-appearance, bringing an abrupt halt to what had just been a mood of optimism. But then, from this moment of gloomy, nearly total silence, a glorious crescendo commenced and accelerated at breakneck speed to an explosive, celebratory conclusion. 

   Further elevating the adrenaline levels in Umstattd Hall, a jubilant Gerhardt Zimmermann then led the orchestra in an electrifying encore  performance of Russian Dance from  The Nutcracker ballet.

   PHOTOS, from top: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky / Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann / Pianist Norman Krieger

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Meet me at the corner of stasis and flux







Meet me at the corner of stasis and flux

By Tom Wachunas

   EXHIBIT: no place is perfectly round - Sculpture installations by Jonas Sebura and Emily Duke / at Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH DECEMBER 1, 2017 (Closed November 10, 23-26) / Viewing hours Monday-Friday 11 a.m - 5 p.m.

    This exhibit is very much about place. I’m talking, first, about the cerebral locale we inhabit wherein we can be wholly mindful of our present moment in a specific setting. And secondly, while in that moment, are we willing to seek and go to a unique somewhere in our own experience, cued by the articulated materials placed before us? 

   Both Jonas Sebura and Emily Duke are Fine Arts faculty members at Kent State University’s main campus – he an Assistant Professor (Sculpture), she an Adjunct Professor (Ceramics). The separate sculptural works here are not outright collaborations between the two artists. Yet viewed collectively, there’s harmony in how their pieces converse with and otherwise complement each other as conceptual and material entities.  

   The three intriguing works from Jonas Sebura are imbued with a spirit of performative geomancy – that ancient and mystery-shrouded practice of divination through the placement (or place-ness) of lines or figures and forms within a geographic context. Here, that geographic component takes the symbolic form of low-lying, white polygonal tables, or planes, upon which his sculptural elements interact in varying states of balance and tension. They suggest the passage of time, a feeling of impending motion, or forward progression, as in “The Approximation of What Is and What Could Be.” On one end of the table, there’s a concrete fossil of a footprint, and on the other a mold of the foot itself. A journey undertaken. 

   The slick, black, monolithic forms in his “Landscapes and Lay Lines” might be impenetrable totems, or mute sentinels of vexing, unknowable things. There’s a cryptic element of arrested animation in the form of a tiny jewel-like bauble dangled from a hand attached to a tree branch… all of it seemingly presided over by a startling mask made from resin-cast teeth and mounted atop a thin upright rod. Ruminating on angst?

   While Sebura’s pieces exude an improvisatory, lyrical theatricality, the five works by Emily Duke are relatively more calculated designs that evoke a tranquil domesticity. The starkly handsome coffee table arrangement in “Matching Suite” is a facile balancing of horizontality and verticality, as well as textures. Looking down through the tinted glass top of the table, the shaggy black yarn of the rug below becomes a muted grey plane subtly echoing the smoky surface of the narrow conical form – call it a lamp shade - hovering above.

   A similar playfulness transpires in “The Flavor of My Private Identity.”  The physicality of the hanging towels gets slyly undermined when you find that their presumed soft, fluffy texture is illusory - a printed image, not actual fluffiness. I’m reminded that a constructed illusion or facsimile of a place (in this instance, a wall in a bathroom), though perhaps a memory, is still a unique somewhere in real time and on its own terms. In veiling the actuality of the towels’ texture, the mimetic formality of this tableau becomes a fascinating metaphor, or mental place, for considering the nature of privacy.

   As discrete units, the artworks in this exhibit certainly give us a sense of individualized aesthetic approaches and/or personal identities of the artists. In this context, you might think of Emily Duke in the role of a structural engineer, perhaps even a mathematician, and Jonas Sebura as an alchemist. She creates elegantly prosaic counterpoints to his mystical, brooding poetics. That said, together they’ve made the gallery into a unified tableau of contrasts, or dualities: density and transparency, reflective and opaque, smooth and coarse, organic and geometric, personal and public, literal and metaphorical.

   And then there’s brain-teasing title of this exhibit. What might “no place is perfectly round” really mean? Is it a literal statement of fact, or some sort of riddle? 

   I could read ‘no place’ in the objective or quantitative sense, as in, “There is no such thing as a perfectly round place.”  Or I could regard it in the qualitative, subjective sense, meaning any location I find to be undesirable, as in, “This perfectly round house is no place, man.”  No place might then be anyplace I don’t like or want to visit. So then, is no place a variant of nowhere? But in that case, isn’t nowhere just a squeezing together of words which might mean that I’m actually… now here? 

    I guess dwelling in these elliptical considerations has taken me nowhere fast to a perfectly challenging place. And for those viewers among us who actively savor such challenges, this show is just the place to be.

   PHOTOS, from top: (1.)The Approximation of What Is and What Could Be, steel, wood, concrete, resin, crystals and sea shells, by Jonas Sebura / (2.) Landscapes and Lay Lines, steel, resin, wood, concrete and sea shells, by Jonas Sebura / (3.) detail from Landscapes and Lay Lines / (4.) The Flavor of My Private Identity, stoneware, printed silk Charmeuse, plexi-glass, thread, grout & wood, by Emily Duke / (5.) Matching Suite, pit-fired stoneware, steel, plexi-glass, tempered glass and acrylic yarn, by Emily Duke

Friday, October 27, 2017

Surrendered





Surrendered

By Tom Wachunas

      Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  - Genesis 32:26

   Yet another commentary on a very recent work of mine.

   I was a senior in high school when I first saw a picture of Paul Gauguin’s 1888 painting, “Vision After the Sermon.”  To this day, and far beyond the importance of the work as a pivotal and innovative aesthetic development in Gauguin’s oeuvre, the painting still fascinates me. More than ever before. 

  There’s something timeless about that intense red ground upon which two figures are locked in hand-to-hand combat. Historical analyses of the painting invariably tell us that Gauguin depicted Christian congregants meditating on a sermon about Jacob’s encounter with an angel. I’m not sure how and when folks began to embrace the notion that Jacob ever wrestled with an angel as such. The Genesis author made very clear that it was a man who grappled with Jacob all night long. Read the account for yourself in Genesis 32:24-39.  In any case, I’ve always seen both figures in the painting as immersed in the searing aura of spiritual struggle and catharsis. A baptism by fire. 

   As a Christian, I’ve come to understand that Jacob’s opponent was most probably the pre-incarnate Jesus, who is both God and a man like no other, and that Jacob did indeed receive his blessing, but not without cost. He was thenceforth left with a limp - a sort of permanent spiritual tattoo.

   And so it is that  reflecting on how deeply Gauguin’s dramatic imagery has remained imprinted  for so long on my consciousness, I had originally named my work – a relief painting made from found clothing and feathers, all stiffened with several coats of latex acrylic - “Gauguin’s Tattoo.” I struggled with making the piece sporadically for nearly a year – my own nightlong wrestling match, if you will. In the end, however, I called it simply enough, “After the Sermon.”

   What sermon? Nothing less than the totality of Scripture. 

   “After the Sermon” is a symbol of an outcome, a consequence, an aftermath. On one level it’s a processing of that contentious, selfish, and ultimately dangerous state of mind and heart wherein we humans so easily indulge in inventing and reinventing God as we would like him to be. We think we find peace in conforming him to our own image and desires. We can certainly be a proud lot, yes? Armed with all manner of philosophies and intellectual probity, it is in the end only a sinister sort of joy that we take in our arrogance, our pride in thinking that our idea of God must in fact be the indisputable reality of God. But God isn’t an idea.  

   On a more personal and important level, “After the Sermon” is about calm after the storm, stillness after the arguments, the surrender that heals the limp. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving. Resting on and in the only reality there is, Christ, there is what the Apostle Paul called in Philippians 4:7 the “peace of God which transcends all understanding.”

   That’s His story, and I’m stickin’ to it.