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.

Impassioned Ambiguities

Impassioned Ambiguities  

By Tom Wachunas

   “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time. ”
― John Patrick Shanley, author of Doubt

   John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt, is a 90-minute drama with no intermission. On one level, this riveting work could be called an unresolved cerebral and emotional thriller.

    The story unfolds in 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx. The school principal, Sister Aloysius, accuses Father Flynn of sexual misconduct with 12 year-old Donald Muller, the school’s sole black student. Seemingly convinced that her allegations are provable, Sister Aloysius embarks on a campaign to expose and oust Father Flynn. In the process she attempts to rally support from the boy’s teacher, Sister James, and the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller, who has her own very compelling reasons for resisting Sister Aloysius’ efforts.   

   In a recent Canton Repository article (January 4) about the current Players Guild production of the play, director Craig Joseph said, “The idea is to create a production that itself creates doubt. It fails if people walk out thinking, ‘He’s guilty’ or ‘He’s not guilty.’ It’s fun figuring out ways to shift and change the audience’s sympathies.” 

    Joseph has indeed figured out how to shift our sympathies in powerful fashion, thanks to the altogether gripping articulations from his cast of four. These articulations spring from the sharpness and depth of Shanley’s writing and its many forays into wily ambiguity. What’s written, however, could never come fully to light and life but for the prowess required to speak a language without words. Here in the intimate surrounds of the Guild’s arena space we’re able to clearly see that the cast has mastered the potency of nuanced physical expression – furrowed brows, eyes frightened or narrowed, snarling lips, heaving or stiffened shoulders, arched backs. In this tense he-said–she-said game of cat and mouse, queries and allegations are wielded like swords, parried with responses at once eloquent and terse, and all to the point, as it were, of stunning uncertainty. Even the silences that punctuate the fast-moving dialogue are voluminous with myriad unspoken questions. 

    Meg Hopp is a relentlessly commanding presence as Sister Aloysius. She perfectly embodies her character’s wry and rigid world-view, steeped as it is  in the self-righteousness and pernicious judgementalism that fuels her strident refusal to grant the possibility of Father Flynn’s innocence. She renders a complex portrait, colored with debilitating pessimism and real exasperation with what she considers to be the inept pastoral leadership in her community. She sees Sister James as too impressionable, lacking in wisdom and real-world experience - a potential ally who needs to be molded. In that role, Lana Sugarman is wholly endearing in her obsequious way, exuding a sweet vulnerability and bubbly optimism. At first not believing the report of Father Flynn’s sinful actions, as the play progresses she struggles mightily to grasp the darker implications of the circumstances emerging around her.

   Ryan C. Nehlen’s magnetic portrayal of Father Flynn makes it easy to understand Sister James' initial incredulity. He’s gentle and confident, erudite, and indisputably charismatic. And yet from the play’s outset, when he delivers an intriguing sermon that extols the spiritual value of being “stricken by private calamity,” Nehlen’s delivery - alternately poker-faced and impassioned -  has the uncanny effect of presaging trouble ahead and his more acerbic exchanges with Sister Aloysius.

   A startling surprise ensues when Sister Aloysius has a short conference with Mrs. Muller, played by Joy A. Ellis. For all of that scene’s brevity, Ellis packs it with an authentic and heartrending emotional intensity – a shift that significantly enlarges the philosophical dimensions of the story.

   There’s good reason to call this play “a parable.”  On the surface, its words might suggest an 
indictment of corrupted Catholic patriarchy and priestly pedophilia. In the end, though, I think the apparent religious context is somewhat cosmetic in nature, and arguably better regarded as symbolic of a larger societal malaise. 

   Is it still reasonable to want our words to describe or report reality in absolute, unarguable terms?  In this troubled age of moral and philosophical relativism, words can be especially convenient weapons, too easily abused, leading to tragic judgements. If nothing else, Doubt presents us with the capacity of words to veil as much as they reveal, to incite and justify uncertainties rather than declare unassailable truths. Playwright Shanley’s sobering, arresting words are woven together into a gray tapestry of innuendo, of assumptions acted upon as fact, of accusations without proof. Think of his play as a compelling allegory of the doubtful practices rampant on so many of our current social media platforms, the “…chatter of our time.” 
   Doubt – A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley / Directed by Craig Joseph, at Players Guild William G. Frye Theatre,  Cultural Center for the Arts, 1101 Market Ave. N., Canton / THROUGH JANUARY 28, 2018 / shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
TICKETS: $20 adults, $17 seniors, $13 ages 17 and younger. Order at 330-453-7617 and  www.playersguildtheatre.com 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Euphoric Palimpsests

Euphoric Palimpsests  

By Tom Wachunas

   “…My paintings undertake a topoanalysis of spaces that have invited us to come out of ourselves. The paintings can be seen as contemporary impressions of the constructed world and its impact on or relationship with natural spaces, underscoring our persistent need to understand ourselves through space…”  - Jack McWhorter

   EXHIBIT: ENGRAVED FIELDS, recent paintings by Jack McWhorter / curated by Tom Wachunas / at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 4, 2018 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio 

   Palimpsest -  noun,  pa·limp·sest \ ˈpa-ləm(p)-ˌsest , pə-ˈlim(p)- sest  
1 : A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.
2 : Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface
3: Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

     My first encounter with the art of Jack McWhorter – Associate Professor of Painting and Art Department Coordinator, Kent State University at Stark -  was in 2010 at his Malone University solo exhibit of paintings, called “Forces Constant.” It was immediately clear to me then, and continues to be today, that he’s a painter’s painter - a masterful colorist who revels in the materiality of oil paint, the physicality of the brushed line or shape, the fluidity of intuitive, vigorous markmaking.

   Since that 2010 exhibit, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the evolving trajectory of his aesthetic, and very grateful for the opportunity to curate this collection of 15 new works on view at the Canton Museum of Art. The exhibit is luscious evidence (like thick icing on a cake) of his ongoing pursuit of what he calls in his statement “a topoanalysis of spaces that have invited us to come out of ourselves.” In his 1958 book, The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), defined topoanalysis as “the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives.” 

   McWhorter refers to this group of paintings as ‘engraved fields.’ The  reference is an apt one if you think of fields in the sense of being tactile expanses of forms occupying a structured space or environment, as well as regions of ideological or emotional activity. His fields, then, are both physical and conceptual arrangements, inscribed or otherwise articulated via layers of abstract calligraphy describing poetic singularities.

    Each layer of these painterly palimpsests represents a moment in time, either brief or protracted. There’s a remarkable feeling of constancy, at once fast and slow, between the painter’s hand and eye engaged in a give-and-take dialogue. One prompts a response from the other as compositional decisions are made and allowed to evolve and morph within ghostly structural grids that seem to simultaneously emerge and fade from view. 

   Give yourself permission to be drawn in. Take the time to be caught up in the sheer immediacy of the imagery. You just might get the uncanny sensation that the painted surfaces are still arriving, still moving, still coming into being. These…objects…breathe.

   Jack McWhorter has not set out to imitate or improve upon the look of nature. He doesn’t woo us with cosmetic, representational illusionism. Instead, his integrated systems of gestural and chromatic configurations are first and foremost true to themselves – ongoing revelations of what I recently heard him describe as his “personal archaeology.” While they might variably suggest things of private significance such as landscapes or architectures, or fascinating ontological phenomena in the realms of biology or chemistry, their meaning is far from exclusive. Think of them as metaphors for how we as viewers might navigate and process “…the sites of our intimate lives.” McWhorter’s personal archaeology in effect invites us to re-discover our own.
    Surely the most electrifying impact of these images rests in their compelling expressivity of color. Call it chromatic euphoria. McWhorter’s palette is so radiant, so exquisitely lambent, that it becomes an illuminating force – a memorable form in itself.

   Looking at these exuberant paintings is to encounter sights, indeed sites, wherein  the mysterious, the metaphorical, and the mundane are conflated into elegant coexistence. Welcome to the abstract sublime.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Ptolemy Diagram, 60” x 54” / 2. Ptolemy Diagram (detail) / 3. Path of Yellow Sand, 40” x 34” / 4.  Formation, 42.5” x 51” / 5. Engraved Field, 54” x 60” / 6. Signal Tree, 40” x 34” / 7. Sky Map, 48” x 40”

Friday, December 29, 2017

From the Outside In

From the Outside In

By Tom Wachunas

    “ Your life is a book, and every day is a page…”  – Elijah Pierce

    “…Elijah Pierce the artist and Elijah Pierce the citizen were one and the same. His carving bears witness to this fact. It provides us with palpable new text for the study and appreciation of art as a cultural production indelibly and dynamically marked by the singular hands of a maker…”  - Michael Hall

   EXHIBIT: Elijah Pierce: An American Journey, at the Canton Museum of Art / Curated by Timothy C. Keny, Keny Galleries, Columbus, Ohio, and Dr. John F. Moe, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio / On view THROUGH MARCH 4, 2018 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666

   Pierce biography:  https://www.cscc.edu/ElijahPierce/bio.htm 


   From 1969 to 1975, pursuing my BFA and MFA degrees at The Ohio State University (OSU) was an intensely cathartic experience. I remember those years as a protracted baptism - an immersion in the paradox that was Postmodernism. In both the contemporary art world and the microcosm of the Hopkins Hall Fine Arts Dept. at OSU, it was a period of crossing boundaries or shattering them altogether, of conflating so-called high and low cultures, of re-examining traditional definitions and terminology, of embracing old materials and methods while passionately exploring and establishing new ones. 

   In 1971, caught up in this heady milieu of multimedia experimentation, along came a fascinating one-man show mounted in  Hopkins Hall Gallery – painted wood relief carvings by Elijah Pierce (b. 1892 – d.1984), then a 79 year-old African American lay minister and barber based in Columbus. The exhibit was organized by one of my former instructors, Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and OSU graduate teaching assistant who had seen Pierce’s work exhibited at a local YMCA. So thank you, Boris Gruenwald, wherever you are, for befriending Elijah Pierce and introducing him to the world at large. The rest is a matter of history (click on the biography link above).

    I still remember being mesmerized by that 1971 exhibit. The visceral simplicity and raw immediacy of Pierce’s figural compositions in bas-relief (i.e., sculptural relief in which the modeled forms’ projection from the surrounding or background surface is relatively slight or low) had an illustrative clarity and child-like boldness of palette that would affect my own art for years to come. I was favorably smitten then – as I am now - by what continues to be rightly hailed as Pierce’s uniquely visionary Folk Art.

    Viewing this beautifully assembled CMA exhibit brings to mind traditionally held notions about Folk Art and some characteristics associated with the genre, such as primitive, self-taught, untrained, and ‘low brow.’  Those same descriptors could just as well be associated with another, arguably more useful term for the kind of art we see here, namely “outsider art.  Critic Roger Cardinal originated the term in 1972 as an English equivalent to what Jean Dubuffet called “art brut” (“rough art”)art created outside the norms of established cultural systems or the mainstream art world. In any case, the directness of Pierce’s pictorial language is enthralling and otherwise unpretentious in its refined unrefinement.

    A palpable aura of agelessness surrounds many of these pieces. They often possess an intuitive harkening to stylistic elements found in ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian iconography, as well as religious imagery from European Middle Ages. They include hieratic scale, or continuous narratives, such as in “Elijah Escapes the Mob,” or twisted spatial perspectives - what historians have labeled “composite view” - as in “Jesus Calming the Storm.”

   Other visions are infused with a salt-of-the-earth charm and even a cartoonish humor. Among those are  “Straining at a Gnat, Swallowing a Camel,” a literal rendering of Jesus’s words berating the hypocrisy of Pharisees,  and the wry “Three Ways to Send a Message: Telephone, Telegram, Tell-a- Woman.”  

   Elijah Pierce – a barber, a preacher, a woodcarver, an unassuming outsider probing our innermost responses to being alive. Collectively, his works are truly significant modern aesthetic touchstones of a life carved out in loving, tangible attention to God, tempered with a concern and compassion for the sociopolitical urgencies of not only his era but, prophetically enough, our own as well. Viewing them is to be immersed in a poignant conjoining of the banal and the Biblical, a bridging of the secular and Sacred,  the human and Divine. All told… a compelling baptism by wood.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Your Life is a Book and Every Day is a Page / 2. Jesus Calming the Storm / 3. Elijah Escapes the Mob / 4. Straining at a Gnat, Swallowing a Camel / 5. Three Ways to Send a Message: Telephone, Telegram, Tell-A-Woman / 6. Watergate / 7. Barber Shop and the Fight Against Evil