Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Stories That Lurk and Linger

Stories That Lurk and Linger
By Tom Wachunas

   “…things that linger and call over the years to be included in a new thing…”  - Joseph Carl Close

   EXHIBIT: Storytellers – Works by Joseph Carl Close, Steve Ehret, Kat Francis, David McDowell, and Erin Mulligan / at Cyrus Custom Framing and Art Gallery, 2645 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio / Viewing hours: Monday - Friday 10am ish - 6pm, Saturday 11am - 3pm, Closed first Saturday of the month, Closed on Sundays /  CLOSING PARTY on Saturday MARCH 4, 4 pm - ? / 330-452-9787 /

   In Dan Kane’s Jan. 26 Repository article on this exhibit (here’s a link, so you can read each artist’s statement:  )  painter and exhibit curator Erin Mulligan tells us, “ ‘Storytellers’ is about the narrative inside a piece of art. Without the story, why would we care to look?”  A loaded question to be sure.

   It does bring to mind the tattered platitude of “every picture tells a story.” Do we in effect ‘care to look’ at a painting because we assume it has a story to tell, a story either borrowed or authored by the painter? Does the story have a discernible plot, settings, characters, a  beginning, middle, and end? Is it fictional, historical, autobiographical? In other words, is our caring to look at an artwork motivated primarily by a desire to discover and read, as it were, a narrative of the artist’s making? 

  Yes and no. The gestalt of looking is twofold. While it can ignite an acquired cognitive appreciation of purely formal or historical concerns, it can (and I think should) also inspire us on an intuitive, subjective plane. In the most impactful aesthetic experiences, both of these aspects come into play, often with equal force. It’s not unusual then – in fact I think it is an intrinsic part of our human nature – to construct a narrative of some sort even when we’re confronted with visual content that seemingly subverts or negates the existence of one. In the absence of an instantly familiar or vaguely implied representational tale, we understandably enough tend to weave our own out of the signs and symbols provided by the artist, no matter how cryptic. Thus we might become active authors in our own right, if for no other reason than to find meaning in the act of our looking.

   Considering these aspects, then, the stylistic and iconographic eclecticism of this exhibit leaves plenty of wiggle room for your imagination. Some of the pieces, including the superbly executed entries from Kat Francis and David McDowell, have the viewer-friendly patina of book illustration art. The watercolor and graphite drawings by Francis exude a spirit of both innocence and adventure – fittingly so, as they describe bedtime stories she makes up with her son. In similar media, some of McDowell’s drawings, such as his self-portrait as the Norse god, Odin, are illustrations for an upcoming book, “The Butt Naked Field Guide to Trolls.” 

   One of Steve Ehret’s oil paintings here depicts an omnivorous yellow bug, at once ghoulish and goofy, prancing atop a patch of grass. The title would seem to tell the whole story: “Hey uuh Fred…Honey…Where do you think all the Squirrels, Bunnies, Racoons, Possums, Bird Feed, Banana Peels, and Skunks went? Fred…?” Yikes. Meanwhile, there are three much more abstract paintings - complex configurations wherein Ehret has rendered layers of  organic planes and otherwise amorphous shapes of viscous paint occasionally punctuated with bizarre, sketchy figures. Are they trouble-making gremlins hiding between the layers? Or maybe they’re ghosts anxiously attempting to make harmony out of all that color chaos. 

    There’s an uncanny sense of archaeological urgency in the work of Joseph Carl Close. He salvages the past to give it a voice in our present. In his arresting, totemic sculptures, inanimate found objects collectively morph into avatars, guardians, or warriors. Equally haunting, his paintings have an  aura of retrieved memories, his own as well as ours. His wispy brushwork at times recalls the expressive spontaneity of Velasquez or Rembrandt. His palette is equal parts earth-toned pigments and what seems like the smoke from burning wood, encircling these mesmerizing pieces with the aroma of sublimity.   

    For years Erin Mulligan, with a startlingly facile brush, has been birthing a weird and wondrous menagerie of hybrid creatures who populate eerie worlds. Her paintings are fantastical, hyper-realistic episodes in an ongoing saga soaked in Gothic whimsicality. “All of the pieces created for the show have a story for you to unravel and characters to get acquainted with,” Mulligan tells us. “They may be separate stories or one big story or both, it is really up to you!”
   Up to you indeed. To a large extent, viewing all the works in this exhibit is something like taking a multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank test on your own imagination. In the process, you might discover how every story tells a picture.

   PHOTOS, from top: Traveler 2, by Joseph Carl Close; This Intense Gravity, by Joseph Carl Close; Shadow People, by Steve Ehret; Odin, by David McDowell; Adventure Land, by Kat Francis; Cats Are Actually Aliens! By Erin Mulligan            

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

An Extraordinary Gift from Massillon Museum

An Extraordinary Gift from Massillon Museum (Part I)

By Tom Wachunas

   “All painting, no matter what you are painting, is abstract in that it's got to be organized.”  - David Hockney

   “Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature. I prefer to see with closed eyes.”  - Josef Albers

    Consider this as advance notice of what promises to be a wholly edifying (not to mention ambitious, intriguing, and otherwise very exciting) exhibit at Massillon Museum. Before reading any further, however, I respectfully urge you to click on this link to learn more (then, hopefully, my following comments will make some sense): 

    If nothing else, the above-posted comic strip highlights how some – perhaps many - folks are predisposed to viewing art in a gallery or museum. On the face of it, the idea of listening to a painting might seem antithetical to our assumptions about the visual arts. And yet, consider how often you might say about a work of art, “It speaks to me.” What’s the nature of its voice? How is it that we can indeed sense, with some intentional reflection, that we’ve heard something? In the end, what ultimately contributes to our fully appreciating the content and meaning of an artwork? 

   Our eyes only? Hardly. In the context of looking at art, seeing, in the strictest sense of the word, is but one element of the process. In what I have often called ‘willful looking,’ we must necessarily source multiple components of our existence – physical, cerebral, and spiritual. 

   Granted, we’ve come to depend upon our eyes as a primary conduit for channeling such a realization. In the absence of healthy eyesight, though, what path for embracing the proverbial “art experience” is open to those deprived of it? Meeting that challenge is very much the heart and soul of this upcoming exhibit, so consider it a remarkable gift to the blind or vision-impaired in our midst. But I also think that the interactive, multi-sensory design of the exhibit is a unique reminder to all visitors that art – especially abstract art – can potentially engage our whole being. It’s an invitation to become active participants, which is to say co-creators, with the artist in a shared response to being alive.

   I’ll leave you for the moment with these words from the 20th century Modernist painter, Arshile Gorky: “Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes....Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.”

   The Massillon Museum's spring exhibition, Blind Spot: A Matter of Perception, will open Saturday, February 18, 2017, from 3:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon. Persons with blindness and low vision and their guests will be welcomed at 1:30 p.m. The Massillon Museum member's preview will begin at 2:00 p.m. The free public event will include refreshments inspired by paintings in the exhibition and a performance of specially commissioned music at 4:00 p.m…

   Blind Spot: A Matter of Perception is based on ten abstract paintings from the Massillon Museum's permanent collection by Richard Andres, David Appleman, Julius Faysash, Clare Ferriter, Richard Florsheim, Sherri Hornbrook, Leo Thomas Kissell, Walter Quirt, and Theodoros Stamos. Each painting will be accompanied by a three-dimensional cast aluminum model and a braille label, which all visitors will be invited to touch. Large-print labels will also be displayed. A touchscreen adjacent to each painting will provide an audible description. More than a dozen components will enhance the experience of visiting Blind Spot.

   The Museum has commissioned three students from the Cleveland Institute of Music's Composer Fellowship to each write a piece inspired by one of the paintings in the exhibition. Alex Cooke's composition is based on Celebration by Richard Florsheim; Joseph Tolonen has written a piece based on Abstraction by Walter Quirt; and Qingye Wu used Shoreline by Julius Faysah as inspiration. A Canton Symphony Orchestra quartet will perform their compositions at the exhibition opening.

   Additional exhibition components that guests will encounter at the opening include tactile gallery maps, accessible exhibition design, tactile response artworks created by students at the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Cincinnati, and low-vision goggles. The exhibition will continue through May 23, 2017, and special programming will be provided throughout its duration.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Reverent and Raucous Homage to Vienna

A Reverent and Raucous Homage to Vienna

By Tom Wachunas

    On one level, the January 28 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra, billed as “A Night in Vienna,” was unarguably a dazzling homage to Strauss family waltzes and polkas. But on quite another, it was as an unprecedented occasion for some memorable shenanigans on the part of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann.

   The evening commenced with the overture from Pique Dame (Queen of Spades), an adventurous love story in two acts by Franz von Suppé, who had emerged as the preeminent champion of the Viennese operetta by the late 19th century. The overture is a cunning romp through both comical and mysterious musical episodes interwoven with a sparkling flute melody. Towards the end, tension builds and gives way to a jocular evocation of galloping at ever increasing speeds, clearly leaving the audience here in breathless wonder. The remarkably impish and ebullient energy of the orchestra was a harbinger of titillating things yet to come on this occasion, but not before a complete change of pace and mood ensued with the next work on the program.

   A far cry from the exuberance and velocity of Pique Dame, the performance of Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished) was nonetheless utterly mesmerizing in its lyrical depth. Despite its unfinished state, Schubert’s work presents us with some of the most achingly beautiful melodies in the symphonic tradition. It’s fitting that here, a palpable aura of warmth seemed to settle over the orchestra. Call it an extraordinary reverence for the emotive impact the piece. Riveting in its tonal nuances, the ensemble successfully articulated all the dramatic capacity of the music to evoke a spirit at once fiercely noble and melancholy.

   Unfettered joie de vivre returned for the opening selection of the evening’s second half.  Rachel Waddell, CSO Associate Conductor, led the ensemble through the many thematic twists and turns of Zigeunerbaron (Gypsy Baron) Overture, by Johann Strauss, Jr. This lushly orchestrated work is a bubbly hot stew of piquant gypsy tunes and Viennese waltzes, and a perfect vehicle for Waddell’s distinctively animated conducting style. Yet far from being extraneous or distracting, her demeanor was wholly appropriate to the character of the music. She often leaned into the ensemble, swaying left and right, her arms sweeping the air in wide, pulsing arcs. Even her fingers were expressive, seeming to tickle the orchestra into a thoroughly exhilarating response.

   Zimmermann returned to the podium for the evening’s remaining  selections of polkas and waltzes. Not surprisingly, the caliber of CSO artistry was unimpeachable throughout. Particularly memorable, though, was watching how the Maestro morphed into what could fairly be called the Minister of Mischief. His attitude at the podium was often so casual that he wasn’t really conducting the ensemble at all, instead mugging to the audience while engaging various incidental activities.

    During Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning Polka) by Johann Jr., for example, he opened an umbrella after being spritzed with water by cellist Michael Kosko. For Josef Strauss’s Jockey Polka, which he dedicated “to those enrolled in Gamblers Anonymous,” Zimmermann was the featured soloist, so to speak, adding the rhythmic, percussive sound effects of the jockey’s whip right on cue. Talk about slapstick humor. And the crowd-pleasing antics didn’t stop there.

   After a magnificent performance of Johann Jr.’s Kaiser-Walzer (Emperor Walzes), the orchestra was equally inspiring in an encore performance of the composer’s An der schönen blauen Donau (By the Beautiful Blue Danube). Following that, for the Champagne Polka, Michel Kosko again approached the podium to pour champagne for himself, concertmaster Vivek Jayaraman, and a delighted (and apparently very thirsty) Zimmermann, who in turn offered a glass to an audience member seated in the front row. Closing out the proceedings, Zimmermann stirred up the house with a gleeful clap-along rendering of Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky March.

    In the end, while the champagne may have been the cheap stuff, this portion of the evening was top-of-the line fun, and an otherwise a rich celebration of the Strauss legacy.  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Clay Speaks

When Clay Speaks

By Tom Wachunas

    “…You finally reach a point where you’re no longer concerned with keeping this blob of clay centered on the wheel and up in the air. Your emotions take over and what happens just happens. Usually you don’t know it’s happened until after it’s done.”  - Peter Voulkos

   “You are not an artist simply because you paint or sculpt or make pots that cannot be used. An artist is a poet in his or her own medium. And when an artist produces a good piece, that work has mystery, an unsaid quality; it is alive.”  - Toshiko Takaezu
   EXHIBIT: Frozen in Fire – Ceramic works from the Canton Museum of Art Permanent Collection / THROUGH MARCH 12, 2017, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, Ohio  / 330-453-7666

    For this exhibit, here’s how Lynnda Arrasmith, Chief Curator at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), addresses her exquisite selection of ceramic works from the CMA permanent collection: “The flames are released. The heat rises and settles over the pieces in the kiln, freezing them in their current forms. For better or worse, they are now frozen in fire. Not all pieces will survive this process and the artist must choose the piece which, in their eyes, has met perfection. The Frozen in Fire exhibition explores the insight of artists being satisfied with their work. Is the pot just a container to hold things or does it hold ideas?  Each vessel is meant to be looked at, appreciated and contemplated.”

   Somewhat resonant in those words (as well as in the words by the late clay artist, Toshiko Takaezo, quoted at the top of this post, referencing “…pots that cannot be used” and the mystery of their “unsaid quality”) is that pesky old question which  some – perhaps still many -  might consider about the ceramics medium. Is working in clay a craft, or a fine art? Of course history shows that the two aren’t mutually exclusive at all. So while clay is certainly a medium long-associated with traditional ideas about utilitarian forms, this breathtaking exhibit presents a lavish array of objects that transcend the notion of clay vessels as banal containers. It’s the difference between the innocuous and the inspiring. 

   This is a remarkably eclectic collection of objects that spans the full gamut of ceramic methodologies and iconography. Call it a sumptuous mélange of tasty baked goods. Some are stuffed with vivid imagination and whimsy, like Jack Earl’s Cloud Man, Dan Lovelace’s teapot tank called 1st Battalion, Juliellen Byrne’s delirious Rat Jacket, or Janice Mars Wunderlich’s comical Puppy Queen. Others are absolutely startling transformations of clay into hyper-realistic facsimiles of other materials, such as Richard Newman’s Baseball Glove, Marilyn Levine’s Black Shoe Bag, and Victor Spinski’s Tool Box I.  

   Included among the more intriguing abstract configurations are Tom Radca’s Stoneware Wall Tile, suggesting an aerial topography of geological terrains, or fossilized expanses of soil; Paul Soldner’s Wall Piece with Two Figures, with its unfurled layers of stamped and carved surfaces; and Betty Woodman’s wall installation, Egyptian Papyrus, a multi-part deconstruction of ancient urn forms.

   Considering the disarming simplicity and earthy charm of Toshiko Takaezu’s three vessels here brings me back to her words, “An artist is a poet in his or her own medium,” as well as the curator’s question, “Is the pot just a container to hold things or does it hold ideas?”  Containers, or containment? 

    The image evoked of completed ceramic objects being “frozen in fire” is a particularly fascinating and dichotomous one. Yes, baked clay can be said to be frozen, as in still, or physically static. But certainly neither mute nor dead. Is it any wonder that a passionate ceramist should find something poetic waiting to be drawn out from something as common as clay, that gritty, viscous stuff of natural forces and processes that have been at work for millennia? When a potter or sculptor surrenders to such an alluring substance, he or she is communing with something primal if not intrinsically mysterious in order to utter something about being alive.

   And in the end, isn’t the essential function of all our finest artistic pursuits to speak the un-sayable?

   PHOTOS, from top: Egyptian Papyrus, by Betty Woodman / Stoneware Wall Tile, by Tom Radca / Cloud Man, by Jack Earl / vessels by Toshiko Takaezu / Vessel I by Anna Silver / Basket Form II, by Dick Schneider