Monday, May 11, 2009

The Little Gallery That Could

The Little Art Gallery That Could
By Tom Wachunas

A total of 130 works by 74 Stark County artists were submitted for the 67th Annual May Show at North Canton’s Little Art Gallery. The jurors selected 26 entries for the exhibit. After seeing the show, I was left edified for the most part, though with a lingering question: Where are the abstractionists? By that I mean artists who make works that are conceptually abstract in the purest sense of the word. The few pieces here that come close are really better termed a kind of hybrid of expressionism and impressionism.

Isabel Zaldivar’s “Red Volcano Rocks” is a loose, heavy, and tactile acrylic foray into landscape that seems to sacrifice promising color passages for explosive painterly energy. It’s a trade-off that causes the picture to get muddled. Her watercolor, “The Blue Stone Pot,” on the other hand, is a more thoughtful distribution of color, and fuses spontaneity with bold variations in shape, all effectively held together with intricate “accidents” of the medium. More organized and compelling in its color dynamic, too, is Gene Barber’s mixed media “Past Dreams.” The linear details that emerge from his lush, fiery field of glowing hot colors successfully draw you in to “read” them.

That’s not the case with the “writing” details visible in the show’s only fly in an otherwise pleasurable ointment. “Text Messages & ‘O’ Faces,” a large acrylic by Jack Valentine and Stefanie Hilles, is one of those disastrous experiments that makes me wonder seriously what the artists – and worse, the jurors - were thinking. Suffice to say that here is a dreadful mix of half-discernible graffiti swirling in a sea of multi-colored mud. It’s a far and surprising cry from Valentine’s first-place winner in the three-dimensional category, a ceramic and mixed-media sculpture called “Bob.” That piece is a fascinating if not enigmatic form that brings to mind a vase morphing into something that might be found under the hood of a clown’s car.

I certainly don’t mean to imply by my opening question that a successful group show is contingent upon a healthy dose of abstract works. In fact this show is a tantalizing mix of styles and content, even if it is predominantly a show of representational work. Best-in-show honors went to Ted Lawson for his electrifying watercolor, “Freak Street Kathmandu.” It’s a finely balanced, excellently drawn composition that captures all the exotic vitality and seething visual data the title implies.

In this age of post-modernism’s penchant for cosmetic and arbitrary re-statements of 20th century art movements, painters like Frank Dale and Michelle Mulligan might seem like anomalies or lonely standard-bearers of forgotten traditions. It’s particularly gratifying to see their work here – Dale, for his oil portrait “Tricia,” (second place winner in oil and acrylic category), and Mulligan for her oils “Beaujolais” and “Gracie,” both garnering honorable mentions. These are magical, achingly elegant works executed in the tradition of the Flemish masters of the 15th and 16th centuries. Ironically enough, amid the often tiresome (though not largely in this show) bric-a-brac and brouhaha of contemporary art, these masterful entries by Dale and Mulligan are resplendently fresh.

A particularly surprising work to me is an honorable-mention watercolor by Judi Longacre called “Sheer Delight.” This is perhaps the strongest piece I’ve yet seen by her, and a sure sign of real growth and confidence on her part. It’s a deceivingly simple composition that deftly contrasts the organic torso with a striped ground, delicately balanced with a light touch of fine lace. And aptly titled.

Noteworthy here is the installation of the show. For starters, the newly floored gallery, along with its exquisite track lighting, is as elegant an art gallery as you’ll find in the greater Canton area. And curator Elizabeth Blakemore has done her finest job to date in hanging it – no small feat when considering the wide range and sheer number of works to tastefully display in a gallery where the only thing lacking now is more space.

Photo: “Sheer Delight” watercolor by Judi Longacre, one of 26 entries in the 67th Annual May Show at the Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library. Exhibition on view through May 31, 2009. Phone: (330) 499 – 4712 ext. 312
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