Saturday, October 18, 2014

Strained Credibility

Strained Credibility

By Tom Wachunas

    The contemporary thing in art and literature is the thing which doesn't make enough difference to the people of that generation so that they can accept it or reject it.”  - Gertrude Stein

    “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear…” –lyric by Spephen Stills, 1966, from “For What It’s Worth”

    EXHIBITION: Stark County Artists Exhibition, at Massillon Museum, THROUGH JANUARY 4, 2015 / 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon  (330-833-4061)

    For those of you who have not read the review of this show by artist/blogger Judi Krew, I provide this link:  Like her, I too have a piece in this annual juried exhibit, for which I am deeply grateful as always, and one of these days I might break my self-imposed rule against using ARTWACH to speak of my own work and devote a post to it. The jury’s still out on that one, so to speak.
    Meanwhile, let me also add that there is nothing in Krew’s assessment with which I take issue, and in fact I feel compelled to re-iterate some of her larger points. You will notice the thick black redaction lines through some of her text. I understand that this was done so that her critique wouldn’t be taken as “too mean,” though for the most part I think a reader could fill in the blanks reasonably well enough. I, on the other hand, will let fly my heart and leave it to you to discern the character of its trajectory.
    Jurors of group shows can often be easy targets for second guessing, especially from rejected artists, and it’s usually a fool’s errand to complain or berate their choices too much. But more than any other Stark County show in recent memory, this one practically begs for it.
   So I’ll not overly indulge in subjective dickering about which artists received which awards (Best In Show, Second Place, Third Place and two Honorable Mentions). Besides, there are no surprises here, which is not to say I agree with all of them. In fact, one wouldn’t necessarily need a printed program at all to see how the jurors had tipped their hand before the official awards announcement at the opening reception on October 4. It was simply a matter of probability.  Do the math (which Krew lays out quite sensibly in her comments). Of the 34 artists represented, five artists had all three of their submissions accepted into the show when one piece chosen for the exhibit was ample enough demonstration of their skill and unique vision. Of those five artists, four were awarded something.
    Award winners notwithstanding, the general quality of the artworks throughout the exhibit – whether in content, craft, or both – is wildly inconsistent. Of the 48 pieces on view, I noted about ten pinnacles of mediocrity - an unusually high percentage, it seems to me. Such wholly unremarkable works simply should not have been included, and I shudder to think how many other more deserving works didn’t make it into to this surprisingly sparse showcase.
    All that said, there are more than a few entries that merit praise and attention. In the realm of clay, Laura Donnelly’s stoneware plate, Three Rabbit Day (Second Place), is a fine example of elegant ceramic exactitude. But the raku bowl by Paulette Bartenstein, A Feast of Crows, is considerably more compelling if only for its visceral rendering of the birds and iridescent glazing.
   Amid the photographic entries, Michael Barath’s black and white Phoenix is an especially arresting double exposure. And Judi Krew’s  Mother and Child: Forgotten is a haunting view of an arched chamber aglow with ethereal light, like a softly colored mausoleum fallen into ruin.
    The three paintings by Pamela Glover Wadsworth (one, Buttondown Bravado, awarded Third Place) constitute a prime example of the aforementioned jury overload (and certainly no fault of the artist). While her paintings deftly embrace the influence of several Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s-1960s, I was more drawn to the relatively less derivative acrylic painting by Sherri Hornbrook, Conversation Grid, with its boldly colored spatial ambiguities, and witty interplay of patterns and contemporary glyphs.  
   Overall, this is indeed a STARK display, right down to the almost complete absence of sculpture. To make matters worse for the few sculptures that are present, Kelly Stoddard’s abstract steel Ataxia has been shoved against a wall into a corner like an afterthought;  Lindsay Bryan’s delicately cut and printed paper Waves (Honorable Mention) has been shoddily tacked and taped into the same corner (the work would be much better served by a creative way to suspend it in open space); and the three utterly enchanting clay figurines by Jennifer Avers Benson (one of which, Beech Street Spirit, earned an Honorable Mention) have been grouped together atop a hideous, bulky wooden cabinet. Where’s an appropriately placed pedestal when you need one?
    Interestingly enough, the sheer emptiness of the expansive gallery floor, combined with the generally neutral look and feel of the walls, conjures an eerie impression of an empty ballroom, awaiting the arrival of spectacularly attired guests. Ah well, maybe next year the dance will be more grand.

    PHOTOS, from top: Conversation Grid by Sherri Hornbrook; Waves by Lindsey Bryan; Birch Tree Spirit by Jennifer Avers Benson; A Feast of Crows by Paulette Bartenstein; Mother and Child: Forgotten by Judi Krew    

Monday, October 13, 2014

Trending Now...Some Assembly Required

 Trending Now…Some Assembly Required
By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: TrendFACTORY: Stark – Prints by Leslie Mutchler, THROUGH OCTOBER 27, Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Gallery hours are Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. / Sat. 10 a.m.-Noon

For more information contact Jack McWhorter at 330.244.3356 or  Leslie Mutchler web site at

    Note to my students: If you decide to write your paper on this exhibit, I suggest reviewing the chapter on Alternative Media. Give special attention to Conceptual Art and Installation Art, which will hopefully spark some connections.
    Billing this as an exhibit of prints by artist Leslie Mutchler, an assistant professor teaching 2D and 3D Foundations at the University of Texas at Austin, is only a little deceptive to the extent that it could set up an expectation of seeing a traditional display of fine art prints. While there is an “edition” of images here, in the form of triangular patterns printed on multiple cardboard sheets gathered into wall-mounted racks, they’re actually a secondary focal point. Here, assuming the posture of the casual, passive observer might prove unsatisfying if not inappropriate. This installation is a hands-on collaborative experience – an assembly plant of sorts, designed so that viewers become active makers.
     After following the artist’s general instructions (posted in very large text on a wall and demonstrated in a video loop) for assembling her 2D prints into a 3D form, paricipants then enter the digital world by photographing their constructions and emailing the picture to the posted tumblr address. The last step in the process is to disassemble the form and leave the remains on the floor of the gallery for “recycling” (though for whom or for what purpose is not made clear).
    Mutchler’s printed designs aren’t particularly remarkable art works per se so much as elements or steps in a larger process. In this context, gallery visitors could regard them as found objects to be appropriated for another purpose. From that perspective, they bring to mind the seminal thinking of Marcel Duchamp and his “readymades” (a term he coined to describe pre-existing, found objects).
    The most notable of those was Fountain (a porcelain urinal he placed on a pedestal) from 1917, which wholly usurped historically established ideas (a pre-existing system) about artistic originality. It was essentially a declaration of the supremacy of the individual artist, not history, in setting the parameters of art.  What he set in motion nearly a century ago is still very much a major component of postmodernist artistic concepts and practices – a “trend” if ever there was one. In commenting on the significance of Duchamp’s employment of appropriation, critic Hal Foster wrote in 1985, “…the artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art objects, and the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacle.”  
    I think Foster’s assessment captures the overarching spirit of this installation. On one level, TrendFACTORY could be seen as a metaphor for how we embrace given (or found) systems of manufacturing, delivery and consumption of a product. Further, there is the suggestion/implication that the making and dissemination of art is a social act.
   Evidence of the collaboration with Mutchler will ultimately exist not as a material object for display in a brick-and-mortar gallery, but on line as a virtual symbol of individualized decisions. Uploading a symbol of the maker’s activity in effect imprints the internet with the maker’s presence, which is of course itself an ongoing, ubiquitous trend these days. If you participate, you might consider your virtual sculpture as a surrogate selfie.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Rousing All-American Fare from The Canton Symphony Orchestra

 Rousing All-American Fare from The Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

    Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s program notes for this, his 34th season with the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), are full of enthusiasm and gratitude for the recently opened $5.4 million Zimmermann Symphony Center adjacent to Umstattd Performing Arts Hall. “At last,” he writes, “the CSO family (orchestra, music, library, staff and board) will be housed under one roof. This is a dream come true for me…”
    Zimmermann’s lively comments throughout the October 5th season-opening concert were equally celebratory in nature, with an especially poignant note that even though the elegant new facility (now affectionately referred to by many as the “Z”) bears his name, “…this is not about me – this is about YOU.” And so it is that Zimmermann’s thoughtful selections for this very eclectic program, called “American Mosaic,” were not only a collectively exciting tribute to American orchestral works spanning nearly 100 years, but also a potent symbol of this American orchestra’s – and its supporters’ - spirit of dedication, ingenuity and perseverance .
    The first of nine selections on the program was John Corigliano’s Promenade Overture (1981). The work is a giddy reversal of Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony” from 1772, wherein the musicians exit the stage one-by-one during the final adagio, leaving only two violinists to play the last muted notes. Here, after an off-stage brass fanfare, the orchestra members entered, while playing, in a procession starting with the piccolo, followed by flutes, cellos, winds and so forth. The music is a strange pastiche of strident, cacophonous passages (hard on our ears at times, but nonetheless performed on this occasion with heady abandon), countered by lush, pastoral swells.
    Then, during the stirring climax, principal tuba Tom Lukowicz came lumbering down an aisle from the back of the house, scrambled up on to the stage, and blasted a final single note, leaving himself breathless and the audience roaring with laughter. It was a hilarious, bold-faced period to a complex musical sentence.
    The orchestra sustained its high energy level with a powerful reading of the Festival Overture on the American National Air, an 1879 work by Dudley Buck, which incorporated a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” nearly a half century before it became America’s national anthem. The mood shifted to a subtler sort of majesty with Aaron Copland’s 1950 arrangement of the Shaker folk song, Simple Gifts. The soaring, crystalline voice of guest soprano Allison Pohl invested the humble tune with a profoundly contemplative, even magical sensibility. Pohl brought that same sensibility, along with palpable urgency, to her dramatic performance of Take Care Of This House, from Leonard Bernstein’s 1976 Broadway musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. More vocal magic ensued with Howard Hanson’s Song of Democracy (1957), inspired by excerpts from two Walt Whitman poems. Here the combined members of the Canton Symphony Chorus and the Walsh University Chorale were in magnificent form, perfectly matching the orchestra in clarity, lush sonority and sheer exuberance.
     And what would a tribute to American orchestral music be without some aural fireworks? There were plenty on hand during the second half of the evening. The combined choruses returned to the stage for The Promise of Living (the best-known song from Aaron Copland’s only full-length opera, The Tender Land). The work is a shining example of Copland at his most lyrically engaging, and this performance was nothing short of breathtaking.
   The remainder of the program was given over to works by Leonard Bernstein. While Aaron Copland has often been identified as crafting a sound that embodied quintessential values of American dignity and industriousness, I think Bernstein went on to inject the “American sound” with an irreverent playfulness. The orchestra delivered his explosive Symphonic Dances (drawn from his West Side Story score) and the iconic Overture to Candide as if possessed by Bernstein’s own quirky genius at melding gleeful musical rudeness with heartrending grace.
    Finally, there was the duet of Allison Pohl and baritone Britt Cooper (director of the Walsh University Chorale) singing Make Our Garden Grow (from Candide). The radiant combination of her piercing sweetness with his silken tonality elevated the song to a metaphysical plane. Indeed, if hope and nobility can be said to have a sound, this may well have been it.
    To quote Gerhardt Zimmermann, “Tutti Bravi to all!” 

    PHOTOS (from top): Gerhardt in front of the “Z”; Allison Pohl and Britt Cooper    

Monday, October 6, 2014

Summoned by Puppets

Summoned by Puppets
By Tom Wachunas

    “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”

    - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

    Once upon a time, nearly three years ago, the highly accomplished local artist Erin Mulligan-Brayton was listening to opera music and painting an image of puppets. She had also at that time been reading Frankenstein, and suddenly an idea was born – to make Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel into a puppet opera. She promptly contacted Craig Joseph, curator of Translations Art Gallery in downtown Canton.
    Thus began an ambitious collaborative journey into previously uncharted theatrical territory in these parts. Joseph mobilized an eclectic group of 24 individuals into teams – conceptualizers, builders and performers. Ultimately he directed what can rightly be called a resplendently quirky hybrid of ingenious shadow play, melodramatic pantomime and puppetry (including masks, shadow puppets, rod puppets, body puppets and a marionette).   
    The story, finely honed into nine scenes that unfold in just under an hour, begins with Robert Walton (enacted by a masked Justin Edenhofer), captain of a North Pole-bound ship that has rescued Victor Frankenstein, stranded on the ice floes, weakened and near death from the cold. Walton nurses Frankenstein back to fragile health, and hears his woeful tale.
     Throughout the performance, live black-robed and hooded stagehands (or deckhands, really) manipulate props and scrims with solemn economy of movement suggesting, perhaps, acolytes of a religious rite executing their ordained tasks. The cleverly crafted visual mechanics - including wooden nooks and niches occupied by animated shadows, ghostly video imagery (designed by Zach Christy) and exquisitely expressive puppets - have an eerily medieval feel, infused with a spirit of alchemy and conjuring. It is an urgent and tenebrous spirit, well befitting this story of an obsessed scientist who would be God, the Creator of life, and the terrible consequences of reaching beyond his own prideful grasp.
    What further elevates the production from the level of a simple theatrical curiosity is its earnest embrace of operatic form. In this case, the score for the remarkable chamber orchestra (music by Steve Parsons, libretto by John Popa) has been pre-recorded (excellently mixed and mastered by Ron Flack and John King of Realgrey Records and available for purchase at the gallery). I think, though, the live audience experience could be considerably more enhanced by placing additional amplification at the front of the house, to better envelop us in the soaring drama of the music. The recorded vocal performances - from Damian Henri (as Victor Frankenstein), Bart Herman (as The Creature), Amanda Medley (as Elizabeth Lavenza), and James Graysmith (as Captain Walton) – are emotionally gripping and constitute a discretely powerful aural event in itself. There are moments – lyrically and musically – reminiscent of Sondheim-ian works at their most intelligent and intense.
    An additionally compelling aspect of conveying Victor Frankenstein’s harrowing descent into torturous grief and remorse is the progressive diminishing of his physical stature. We see three masked “real person” versions (enacted by Jimmy Ferko, Christopher Hisey and Kyra Stephens) that culminate in a shrunken puppet – an emaciated doll cradled ever so gingerly in Captain Walton’s arms. Meanwhile, the created monster grows (that’s Donald Jones underneath the massive overcoat) until he teeters over all he surveys, his face frozen in a look more lonely and forlorn than terrifying.
    Who would have thought that something so innocuous as a puppet show could embody the gravitas of this classic tale? This one works surpassingly well at pulling on our heartstrings.

    Frankenstein: The Puppet Opera, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton. Performances  on Oct. 10, 17 and 24 at 8 p.m. / Oct. 31 at 8 and 10 p.m. / Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. TICKETS are $10 at

    PHOTOS by Craig Joseph and Donald Jones

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Destination Dreaming

Destination Dreaming

By Tom Wachunas 

“It would be asking too much to want to sell only to connoisseurs - that way starvation lies.”  - Claude Monet

    “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.” – Sherwood Anderson

    “Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.”
     -Frank Zappa

    First, the following (in italics) is a letter I sent to The Repository letters editor in response to an article on the Downtown Arts District. I’m happy to report that my letter was published in the Sept. 27 edition:

          Dear Editor,
         The article in your September 22 edition, “Part-Time Arts,” raises some serious questions as to the future of the Downtown Arts District. While I understand the desirability of galleries operating on a more regular basis during weekdays, frequency of business hours alone is no assurance of success.
    Additionally, a marketing campaign launched by ArtsInStark and the Stark Convention and Visitors Bureau, no matter how lavish, is no assurance that either local citizenry or tourists will, once visiting the District, spend discretionary dollars on items beyond food, T-shirts, jewelry or other tchotchkes.
    The District’s galleries are presumably in the risky business of selling and not merely showing original art. Ideally, visitors wouldn’t just look, but consistently buy. But does anyone have an ironclad formula to guarantee that kind of sustainability? I wonder. Is there even a sufficient number of Canton citizens who have the desire and wherewithal to have real art in their lives? As it is, I admire the courage of all the gallery proprietors currently making a go of it. And to the District promoters, I say happy hunting.
    I was content enough to leave it at that until I read another article in the Sept. 29 Repository on plans for a new arts district in Louisville. Specifically, this quote from architect Rodney Meadows, who expressed concern over Louisville’s proximity to Canton, is provocative to say the least: “If you are going to have an arts district in downtown Canton, which is fairly strong, I just don’t know if Louisville can sustain it. Louisville is hard to support the arts. It is a sports city. It is one thing to open a space. How do you sustain it?”
    How indeed? On its face, Meadows’ statement would seem to imply that Canton’s “fairly strong” arts district is somehow surviving in a thriving urban milieu. What comes to mind here is the notion of variable societal mentalities -  the age-old perceived gap between the sensibilities of the proletariat and the “cultured elite.” Does anyone out there really need to be reminded of just how wildly sports-minded greater Canton truly is and always has been (at least in my memory)?  Does being a “sports city” necessarily imply it will remain inherently arts-poor and hence an obstacle to creating a viable market for fine art? And by extension, in an ideal setting, is it possible to think of “the lower classes” not as disconnected from so much as potential partners in all our cultural pursuits?
   Still, characterizing Canton’s arts district as “fairly strong” feels a bit like mild overstatement to me, particularly if you read the aforementioned Sept. 22 article. Here’s a link -   

Sounds like the movers and shakers who envision Canton as an appealing “destination” are looking to inject some additional fuel into an apparently sluggish retail art machine. Now that they’ve built it, questions remain: Who will come, and why?
    If Canton wants to be a serious contender in the business of being a sustainable tourist destination through an enriching, relevant art gallery corridor, then a number of challenges need to be more fully embraced. Not least among those is a concerted effort to better sensitize and educate the public both locally and regionally. There’s no shortage of accomplished, motivated and inspired artists in our midst. It may well be an impossible dream, but if the public sector as a whole isn’t attuned to the vital importance of growing a more balanced, enriching life experience, those same artists might permanently exit Canton’s confines in search of wider playing fields.
    But that would be no disaster, right? After all, Canton will always have its sports.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Insidious Misdirections

Insidious Misdirections

By Tom Wachunas 

    “…Against those who insist that an object’s status as forged is irrelevant to its artistic merit, I would hold that when we learn that the kind of achievement an art object involves has been radically misrepresented to us, it is not as though we have learned a new fact about some familiar object of aesthetic attention. To the contrary, insofar as its position as a work of art is concerned, it is no longer the same object.” – Dennis Dutton, from “Artistic Crimes,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, 1979 

    Highly recommended reading:

    EXHIBIT: Intent To Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., THROUGH OCTOBER 26

    Once again, many thanks and praises to the Canton Museum of Art for bringing us a high-caliber show, this one being the Midwest premiere an important travelling exhibit (the first two stops were in Massachusetts and Florida) that fascinates on all levels. Curated by Colette Loll, founder and director of Art Fraud Insights (here’s a link: ), the exhibit has been featured on the CBS Evening News as well as in The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
    Here, original works by Honore Daumier, Amedeo Modigliani, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others, are interspersed with some 50 pieces by five of the world’s most infamous art forgers in modern times: Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947), Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976), Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), John Myatt (b. 1945), and Mark Landis (b. 1955).
    One common element among these con men is that none was able to forge, as it were, a livelihood from producing work in his own style. This is not to say that they were wholly incompetent artists in their own right. Far from it. And at the very least, they were masterful imitators. Look at Elmyr de Hory’s Portrait of a Woman and it’s certainly plausible that he could pass it off as an authentic Modigliani. Similarly, experts in 1941 were certain that Han van Meegeren’s  eerie Head of Christ was convincing evidence of Vermeer’s so-called “lost religious period.”
    But for four of these artists (Mark Landis being the exception, since he donated his pieces to museums and no money was ever exchanged), the frustrations and anxieties that came with not being recognized for their talents led to their seeking lucrative commercial success by duping curators, connoisseurs and other experts of the day with their outright fakes (duplications) or forgeries (falsely accredited works done in the style of the original artist).
    For all the intriguing and disturbing facts that are so well organized and presented here as to the biographies, motivations and ingeniously deceptive practices of these con men, it seems to me that the exhibit raises just as many  thorny considerations  about art world practices, motivations and values in general. These considerations take on even more depth particularly if you choose to delve into two excellently written books relevant to this exhibit - both available for purchase at the museum: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures, by Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team; and The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist, by Mark Forgy.
    While Forgy’s account of his years with his mentor Elmyr de Hory often smacks of misplaced hero worship, both books shine a glaring light on the intricate (and maddeningly arbitrary) wheeling and dealing within the art world. It is at times a corruptible and complicated world that insouciantly operates in a whatever- the- market- will- bear milieu. It is a world wherein objects of unquestionable artistic merit as well as contemporary objects of dubious worth can be equally regarded as negotiable commodities available to the highest bidder. To the uninitiated, it would often seem to be a world whose stock-in-trade isn’t really the savoring and protecting of true art so much as the pure hype of celebrity, profitability and the allure of ownership.
    I believe that the actions of the individuals spotlighted in this exhibit (again, with the exception of Mark Landis, whose activities were apparently driven by deep compulsion to be regarded as a philanthropist) demonstrate unmitigated hubris. Aside from a lust for financial profit, their activities are wholly indefensible despite any rationales built upon flimsy moralizing (such as in Eric Hebborn’s statement, “Only the experts are worth fooling. The greater the expert, the greater the satisfaction in deceiving him”), and regardless of any perceived aesthetic merit to their forged works. The deliberately fictionalized provenances (origins and ownership histories) of their works corrupted our grasp of authentic cultural realities. Of the more than 1,000 forgeries thought to be foisted on to the world market by Elmyr de Hory, for example, many are still in museums and have yet to be exposed.
    But I also think one could make a fairly good argument that if “fakery” in this context can be defined as dressing shallow artifice in the guise of significant fine art (and reaping ridiculously hefty monetary reward), then the art world at large has succeeded more than once in pulling the wool over our eyes. Think of it as the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome. Case in point: In 2013, Jeff Koons’ kitschy, mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture, Balloon Dog (Orange), became the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold at Christie’s for $58.4 million.  
    Who’s fooling whom?

    PHOTOS, courtesy , from top: Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976), Portrait of a Woman, in the style of Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884-1920), 1956-1957, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Scott and Pamela Richter / Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), Head of Christ, in the style of Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675), 1940-41, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / Mark Landis (b. 1955), Women Seated on Lawn, in the style of Charles Courtney Curran (American, 1861-1942), ca. 2000, oil on pressed board. Courtesy of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum / Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), Standing Young Man Leaning on a Plinth, in the style of Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 -1721), 1970s, black and red chalk on laid paper. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Gift of Dian Woodner, 2008.38.6. / John Myatt (b. 1945), Charing Cross Railway taken from the Savoy, in the style of Claude Monet (French, 1840 – 1926), 2011, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Clive and Shyamali Fenton, UK. Photo: Washington Green Fine Art.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Seeing the Elephant

Seeing the Elephant

By Tom Wachunas

    “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”  -Dante Alighieri

    “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

    “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
-Matthew 13:49-50

    EXHIBIT: INFERNO: Ten Artists Recreate Dante's Masterpiece, THROUGH SEPT. 27 at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. PARTICIPATING ARTISTS: Erin Mulligan-Brayton, Bobby Rosenstock, Rich Pellegrino, Kari Halker-Saathoff, Marcy Axelband, David McDowell, Margene May, Marti Jones Dixon, Gabriel Mejia, Steve Ehret.

    Whether seen as the divinely ordained final home of the hopelessly wicked, or a human construct to describe earthly cruelty and suffering, Hell has always been a hot-button topic. I suspect that for some (many, actually), the proposition of facing an eternal fiery punishment – either metaphorically or literally - for a life ill-lived is simply too complex, large or seemingly impossible to grasp. It's the ultimate elephant in the living room.
    I’ve often encountered the moral relativism espoused by individuals who are either ambivalent toward the notion of Hell or outright dismissive of it. Such folks might couch their attitudes in cavalier witticisms like Mark Twain’s “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company,” or Aldous Huxley’s “Maybe this world is another planet’s Hell.” Or there’s always this nifty observation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
    For the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Hell was the subject of Inferno, the first part of his iconic masterwork written between 1308 and 1321, The Divine Comedy (part two being Purgatorio, and part three, Paradiso). [The work is anything but “funny.” ‘Comedy’ here refers essentially to the classical literature term for a narrative without tragic ending.] This epic poem (14,233 lines!) is an allegorical vision of the journey toward God from the perspective of medieval-era Christian theology. Inferno tells of Dante embracing the reality of sin and its consequences for sinners as he’s guided by the Roman poet Virgil in a descent through Hell’s nine circles of suffering. The farther they descend – the more distant from God – the more egregious the sins.
    Translations curator Craig Joseph invited ten artists to recreate this literary classic by making triptychs (a three- panel format of continuous narratives once commonly made for churches) to be mounted alongside his written synopses of the 33 cantos that comprise Inferno. This show is a companion to the exhibit of lithograph illustrations by Amos Nattini, organized by the Canton Museum of Art, on view at Walsh University’s Birk Center for the Arts through December 1.
   There is much to recommend the wholly spectacular Translations exhibit. In terms of diversity of media, and the technical/formal levels of excellence in individual works, it’s one helluva show (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). But I think the real significance of “the art experience” here is in how the participating artists, without necessarily communicating their own views about Hell, nonetheless collectively draw us, as individual viewers, inward to a transcendent probing of the compelling subject matter.
   Say what you will about roads paved with good intentions. I can tell you only that I have absolutely no desire to ever know what Hell really looks and feels like. That said, I’m deeply gratified by what the powerful visual interpretations offered here bring to my mind and heart. And for that, I leave you with these words from the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, from his 1945 work, The Great Divorce – itself an allegory in the spirit of Dante’s Divine Comedy:   
 “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

    PHOTOS, from top: “Crossing the River”, mixed media on paper by Rich Pellegrino; Canto XIV, mixed media by Kari Halker-Saathoff; Cantos XVI & XVII, acrylic and graphite on canvas by Marcy Axelband; “The Devil”, mixed media fiber by Margene May; “Inferno II”, oil on board by Marti Jones Dixon