Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pied-a-Terre, s'il vous plait

Pied-a-Terre, s’il vous plait
By Tom Wachunas

Considered in a general way, the idea behind stage readings, sometimes billed as “readers plays,” might be uninteresting to some theatre goers. The notion of watching actors with script- in- hand, reading their parts amid sparse if any sets, and no real stage lighting, might even seem off-putting.

But when the material is riveting, and talented performers are fully engaged with their characters, you can easily become oblivious to the lack of traditional theatrical accoutrements and presentation, and in turn be fully absorbed in the moment. And that is precisely the case with an upcoming Rainbow Repertory Company presentation of “Pied-a-Terre,” a two-act drama written by Dr. John Anastasi and directed by Rainbow Repertory founder Lois DiGiacomo. The play will be presented/read August 15-16 at Cable Recital Hall in Canton Cultural Center for the Arts.

Anastasi is a cardiothoracic surgeon who worked in Canton in the late 1980s and is now based in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He is also a screenplay writer and an accomplished playwright whose work has been presented on New York stages. “Pied-a-Terre,” published by Samuel French in 2008, was produced as a showcase at the Beckett Theater at Theater Row (New York City), given a full production at Penn State University in 2006, and an Off Broadway premier in 2007 at the Kirk Theater at Theater Row.

“Pied-a-Terre” is French for, literally, “foot on the ground,” and the phrase generally means a temporary lodging, or a resting place. In the context of this play, the character of Jack, a Connecticut-based attorney, at one point uses the term to explain to his puzzled wife, Julia, why he bought an apartment in Manhattan. He thought she’d be pleased that they could have a second home. All of the play’s “action,” – more like history, really - transpires in that apartment, but as Julia progressively discovers, the place is, for her, neither restful nor homey.

When Julia, a television journalist with a pain-filled past, first discovers the apartment, her private exploration of the place is halted by the unexpected appearance of Katie, a beautiful young woman who, like Julia, is haunted by a startling past. Katie is wrestling with her own demons, one of them being that she’s a hooker, homeless before Jack let her stay in the apartment. Amid testy exchanges, the two women discover much about each other, and their relationship to Jack, as the story unfolds through various time-shifts. An important sub-text is a heartrending exploration of the complexities of cross-generational transmission of genetic diseases - in this case, Cystic Fibrosis. Long-standing secrets and delusions are revealed about all three characters in emotional admissions both searing and tender, exposing deep-running hurts and guilt.

I attended a rehearsal-reading of the play on July 25. This was at a point when much of the fine tuning had yet to be realized. Still, I was struck by both the intensity and authenticity of the performers as they forged their way into their characters’ deepest motives and dreams (or nightmares). Don and Jan Jones – husband and wife in real life- play Jack and Julia. Their portrayals of bittersweet humor and real anguish are genuinely poignant and muscular. So too with Anita Artzner in her role of the street-hardened Katie.

In deference to Lois DiGiacomo’s wishes, I will not here reveal the ending of the play. She characterized it to me recently as “falling off a cliff.” Fair enough, though maybe not quite as nihilistic as it might sound at first. And I’m not sure overused words like “surprise” or “unexpected” adequately get at the real heart of it either. You’ll need to judge for yourself, and there’s only one way to do that. Suffice to say that Dr. John Anastasi’s play is a relevant, lovingly written and engrossing story with a complicated (though certainly not un-navigable) ethos. You’ll be hanging on until the last minute.

“Pied-a-Terre,” (“Second Home”), a play by Dr. John Anastasi, directed by Lois DiGiacomo, August 15 at 8pm and August 16 at 2:30pm, Cable Hall, inside Canton Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 North Market Avenue, Canton
$12.50 Available at the door/ Reservations: (330) 456 – 7397

Photo: (Left-to-right) Playwright Dr. John Anastasi, performers Anita Artzner, Don Jones, Jan Jones

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Flawed, but Fervent Youth

Flawed, but Fervent Youth
By Tom Wachunas

As local print media has already reported, the folks at the North Canton Playhouse have been rightfully proud and giddy with excitement these days. They became the first community theater in Northeast Ohio to land the now iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical, “Rent,” since performing rights were released in April. The musical, which was written by Jonathan Larson and inspired by Puccini’s opera, “La boheme,” ran for three performances at Canton’s Palace Theatre July 24 -26. It is an explosive story of an intimate community of struggling artists living in gritty East Village Manhattan, where poverty, drugs, and AIDS form a harrowing backdrop against visions of love and success.

Let’s start with the bad news. At the heart of the problems in this particular production, directed by Marci Lynn Saling with musical direction by Brenton Cochran, was an unresolved inconsistency. The story’s searing emotionality and quick, spirited dialogue demands much of the performers (as both actors and singers) in the way of succinct vocal delivery. And it was largely in that realm where the core ensemble of characters was disappointingly uneven in meeting those demands. The result of such shortcomings was that too much of the lyrical content was lost. This was not due to technical problems in amplification, or competition with the very fine, balanced five-piece band. It’s about the singing. Possessing remarkable, raw vocal talent, which was in great abundance here, is not in itself the same as truly mastering the nuanced and professional quality of presentation to which any presumably serious singer aspires.

The much-touted youthfulness of so many of the cast members here points to not just their ages in years. Perhaps they may still be too young in the disciplines of sustained vocal training to step into such large roles with unwavering confidence. To varying degrees, much of the singing seemed to come from the tops of their throats and nasal cavities, particularly at times when the volume was most intense. In those instances, melodies were consequently not sung so much as shouted, screamed, and otherwise blurted with all the brute force of bullet fire. In many other moments, enunciation seemed to be a lost art. The beginnings and endings of phrases were simply bitten off and swallowed into indecipherable murmurs. Where was the diction coaching?
To be fair, the big vocal numbers calling for the entire company were stunning, particularly the show’s soaring anthem, “Seasons of Love,” delivered here with thunderous urgency.

And there’s more good news. What saved this production from becoming too much of a sophomoric foray into “the big time” was its commanding and monumental theatrical energy. What the performers lacked in consistent vocal finesse they more than made up for by embracing the narrative content with an endearing mix of unbridled joie de vivre and chutzpah. All of their portrayals were uncannily ardent and sincere, as if they had personally lived out their characters’ lives. Particularly memorable were Allen Seeley as the brooding guitarist/songwriter, Roger; Danielle Dorfman as the irrepressibly funny and brash performance artist, Maureen; Alex Garrard as the flamboyant cross-dressing drummer, Angel, who falls in love with Tom Collins, an academic played by Joseph M. Haladey III; and Alexx Culbertson, who plays the sassy club dancer, Mimi, with a remarkable self-assurance well beyond her 16 years.

In the end, what resonated most was the sense that all of the performers genuinely loved not only playing on stage, but also the people they were playing, and by extension, the intrinsic message of “Rent.” This is an uncompromising and at times outright disturbing look at life styles and life choices. The dense story line provides moments of real comedy in bittersweet counterpoint to real tragedy, all driven by abiding hope. It is, ultimately, the story of people who, realizing they are tenants and stewards of only one day at a time, embrace each others’ demons and dreams equally, with an unflinching desire to heal and be healed. One day at a time, in a place where love, not judgment, rules. And it is, now more than ever, a story for our time.

Photo: left-to-right, Allen Seeley, Alexx Culbertson, and Corey Gentry, rehearsing a scene from the North Canton Playhouse production of “Rent” at Canton Palace Theatre.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


By Tom Wachunas

Encountering the paintings by E.F. Hebner (Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University) currently on view at OSU Urban Arts Space, and discerning how and where they intersect with the history of abstraction, is a bit like talking to a soft-spoken stranger for the first time. You might feel instantly engaged by his cryptic yet poetic way of speaking, but can’t quite place his vaguely foreign accent. You ask him, “Who are you, where did you come from?” He might very well answer with the casual aplomb of, say, a Zen Master, “Oh, here and there.”

A mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Or is it a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a mystery? I never get that one straight.

The 17 acrylic paintings on masonite in this exhibition, called “E.F. Hebner / Excerpts…2009,” were done between 1994 and 2005, and are culled from a rich body of work that includes, to name only some phases, mixed media assemblages with an eye on Bauhaus elegance; sublimely meticulous representational collages; tiny “reductivist” abstractions; and original as well as collaborative performance pieces.

And it is arguably in the context of appreciating performance art where the significance of this particular group of paintings might be most fully embraced. Ironic, too, since “finished” paintings are ostensibly static expressions that don’t readily invite comparisons to “real time” forms. But here, all of Hebner’s past formal concerns on a purely visual level have been confidently re-packaged and illuminated by an implicit, palpable sensitivity to the interface of unfolding time and the process of making marks on a two-dimensional surface. In that sense, frankly, there’s nothing completely new here on an ideological plane. I’m reminded of Harold Rosenberg’s astute observations about Jackson Pollock’s work, for example, and how it heralded modern painting’s transcendence from the confines of traditionally delineated “pictures” into a broader evidence of purely dramatic “events”. That analysis describes the raison d’etre behind the work of countless abstract painters for decades since Pollock and his cohorts initially formulated their painting language. Painting as performance. The supremacy of gestures recorded in time.

Hebner’s images, however, for all their eloquent homage to abstract painting methodologies and techniques, are still delineated pictures of one sort or another, with their own internal pictorial logic, and gloriously so. They might even be narratives, though not in the common linear sense of having succinct beginnings and ends. Instead, they impart information about relationships between clearly defined components and their underlying histories. Viewing them, we are drawn into the ongoing lyrical middle of something that traverses subtly textured topographies at once hauntingly familiar and utterly strange. There are images within images. There are spaces within spaces. There are paintings beneath paintings. There be ghosts here. But certainly not the stuff of nightmares.

In fact, one quality in abundance here is an abiding sense of humor and serene playfulness, from the almost cartoonish rendering of bold, distilled shapes -always executed with a delightfully precise elegance of line - to the titles of some of the paintings, such as “Behoovity” from 1996, “Erstwhility” from 2003, and “Landscapey” from 2002. In the latter, blue air and ocean seem eerily reversed when considering that the painting’s top could be a shore, and its bottom “edge” a sky morphed into an urban skyline silhouette.

Many of the paintings are compelling explorations of a subtle visual tension, wherein areas of clustered shapes and lines are suspended within, or seemingly cut into the surface of broader, “empty” space that is often itself a shape taking form and breaking the picture plane. They exude a sensibility of being not so much intentionally constructed or pre-planned as they are intuitively de-constructed and re- discovered.

Dramatic events indeed, their extemporaneous quality is still a consciously manipulated one to the extent that Hebner’s uncanny and unerring eye for right color and design informed a decision to arrest the process at a certain, satisfying point. On one level, then, we are in effect looking at pictures that are about becoming pictures. A memorable example is the 2002 painting, “Unhidden.” It’s a marvelous foray into figure-ground ambiguity and controlled spontaneity. Perhaps the title refers to the very tiny red square nestled at the bottom of one of the long vertical stripes that comprise the heart of the painting. It’s easy to miss if you look too fast and could be, in the pictorial “story,” either a remnant of under-painting, or the emergence of a whole new passage.

Back to the metaphor of the soft-spoken stranger with the vaguely foreign accent. If he speaks in terms that are in fact both cryptic and poetic, it’s only because he describes a reality parallel to, as well as separate from, our own, and one that demands an appropriately unique, beautiful terminology. Similarly, what Hebner has accomplished is a meditative calligraphy that is both intensely private and immediately accessible. As viewers we become privy to exposed essences floating in a kind of dream state. And as with all good dreams, these images resonate and linger, gentle in their clamoring to be remembered.

Photo by Christopher Kay: “Behoovity” by E.F. Hebner 1996, acrylic on masonite, 20”x20”, courtesy OSU Urban Arts Space, from the exhibition “E.F. Hebner/Excerpts…2009”, through October 10, 2009 Reception: Thursday, September24, 7 – 9p.m.
50 West Town Street (Lazarus Building), Columbus, Ohio (614) 292 – 8861

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Something Old, New, Timeless, and True

Something Old, New, Timeless, and True
By Tom Wachunas

My parents had six children, and I remember that at least three of them took piano lessons in their youth. I also remember the not-so-veiled look of disappointment in my parents’ eyes on the day I told them I would not be following in my siblings’ finger exercises, as it were. I said I would much rather become a clarinet player like Pete Fontaine or Benny Goodman, and that was that. As it turned out, I became a consummately mediocre clarinet player. This was largely the result my stalwart resistance to mastering the pesky business of practicing, summer remedial lessons notwithstanding.

Years later I would plant the same banner of mediocrity firmly into my guitar playing, as countless others of the Flower Power Generation did. A self-taught wannabe star guitarist/singer/songwriter, I nonetheless nurtured a passionate interest in all kinds of music, despite the homemade ‘Disco Sucks’ t-shirt I wore around during my first summer living in Brooklyn, New York. An ill-advised fashion decision, to be sure, and I was lucky to escape many ugly street confrontations unscathed. I would soon learn it was far safer to print my negative opinions about some kinds of music in newspaper reviews rather than on my sleeve. After all, disco fans were too busy dancing to read the arts and entertainment sections of local weeklies. Let them eat…Chopin?

Indeed, it was hearing my mother play an etude by Chopin on our in-home baby grand piano that fueled what had been a smoldering cinder of interest into a full-fledged fire in my soul for classical music. Sometime around fifth grade I had developed the habit of listening to classical music on the radio at bedtime. Sitting upright in my bed, I was a virtual Leonard Bernstein, flailing my arms and contorting my face in imagined leadership of world-class orchestras as they poured forth their lush, sweet lullabies into my dreams. In that same year my parents had become marginally aware of this fantasy life, and for Christmas gave me a Hollywood Bowl Orchestra album of Chopin music. I immediately put it on the turntable and cranked up the volume for the benefit of our neighbors. Upon hearing one of the more enchantingly simple and short etudes, my mother casually mentioned that she had learned to play the same piece when she was very young. We coaxed her over to the piano bench, pleading with her to play it amid her mild protests.

And she remembered. Transported to some distant time in a long forgotten recital hall, she remembered. Her head tilted just so, as if receiving the music through the air, with her fingers recalling their perfect placement, and her eyes fixed on a place none of us could see, she remembered.

When the heartrending solo was finished, she, like the rest of us, wiped away a few tears, and said meekly, “Merry Christmas.” I had never heard my mother play piano, much less a live classical piece rendered so…elegantly. It was a moment that became, in the words of one of my Latin teachers, “etched on the fleshy tablets of my heart.”

It would not be until many years later (1989, to be exact), in Brooklyn, that I would have occasion to earnestly dust off those tablets and read what was written there. I was at a concert in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, there to write my first review of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra for a weekly paper that had hired me to be arts critic at large. And just like that kid on Christmas morning, I felt the magic all over again, the ineffable rush of delicious elation that comes with hearing live music by the old masters. I remembered.

Fast forward 20 years. For the second year in a row I am enjoying the distinct privilege of writing program notes for the Canton Symphony Orchestra. In looking over the upcoming season I am astonished at its variety and depth while still remembering the wonders from last year, and the year before and the year before that. And so it goes. Seventy-five consummate professionals consistently pouring out the stuff of dreams, all under the masterful baton of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmerman.

Come. Tilt your head just so. Fix your eyes – and ears - on places only they can take you.

Photo: Maestro Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting, courtesy

For concert information call the ticket office at (330) 452 – 2094
Online, go to

Monday, July 13, 2009

Negotiating Nostalgia: Remembering Frank DeVol (and Tall Paul)

Negotiating Nostalgia: Remembering Frank DeVol (and Tall Paul)
By Tom Wachunas

During the several years I worked in the retail record business in New York City, shortly after the invention of dirt, I had a considerable number of co-worker friends who can best be described as “characters on the edge.” We were comrades-in-arms, united in our creative, sometimes desperate efforts to patiently dispatch the challenging if not ridiculous questions from inarticulate and woefully uninformed customers. Many of them were, like us, baby-boomers.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times in a day – indeed, an hour – we were assaulted with variations of this question: “You got dis jam wit da piano an’ horns in it goin’ boo-WAAA-da-WAAA-doo-do-BAAA?” Our initial incredulous silence at these inquiries would then invariably prompt the customer to volunteer further, “Oh, yeah, it got dis woman singin’ ‘love, loooove’ in it, maybe.” Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere.

Many times, emboldened and rejuvenated by our liquid lunches, we would then dutifully steer the consumer to the female vocalist section, with the suggestion to purchase a newly released greatest hits compilation by, say, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Holiday, or Doris Day, and leave them to browse. Maybe a particular song title would jar their memory, maybe not. But the process somehow always elicited the same paternal editorializing from a lanky and lovable member of our counter-assault team, whom some of us called Tall Paul. His knowledge of pre- and post-war jazz big bands, and singers of that era, was encyclopedic. Gingerly lifting an album (one of those 12” vinyl discs still found at some garage sales) out of an overstuffed bin, his eyes seemed to almost tear up as he smiled broadly down at the customer (we all looked up to him in more ways than one), and proudly resurrected a dusty old saying as he intoned, “Now THIS is music made back in the days when men were men and women were proud OF it.”

OK, don’t be offended. Lest any of you over-sensitive guardians of sociopolitical correctness get your cultural sensibilities all discombobulated, keep in mind this was Tall Paul’s quirky way of recommending what he thought, and rightfully so, was truly timeless music at a time when disco was in its death throes, and punk and rap were clamoring for - and finding- a restless audience.

And so it is that I recently found myself thinking of Tall Paul and his remarkable reservoir of contagious passion for the music his parents cherished, effectively encouraging my own genuine appreciation of the same. The occasion of my reverie was the July 11 production of “Dream Awhile: A Tribute to Frank DeVol” at Canton’s Palace Theatre. The two-act multimedia event was a thoroughly engaging and lovingly assembled remembrance of famed Canton musician Frank DeVol (1911-1999), whom the Los Angeles Times once called – deservedly so - a “Renaissance Man in Motion…composer, conductor, arranger, pianist, instrumentalist, singer, writer, comedian, actor and record executive.” The tribute was directed by Herbert Crum, and written by ArtsinStark Marketing Director Judi Christy, with contributions by Canton Repository columnist and lifestyles editor Gary Brown, who also narrated the proceedings from off-stage. The ambitious production combined video and film clips, photos, family interviews, and live music and acting. Actor Don Jones played Frank DeVol.

I won’t go into DeVol’s massive and impressive resume here. For a substantial taste of that, I refer you to Gary Brown’s excellent piece in the July 6 issue of The Repository. Suffice to say here that DeVol, as we were so enthrallingly reminded throughout the Palace show, lived “a dream life.”

Judi Christy’s script is a credible, affectionate, and often wry portrait of a resilient and witty artist whose work spanned several decades of film and television. Don Jones wears the script, peppered with charming if not corny jokes, like a favorite coat, warm and familiar. He deftly and enthusiastically works his way through captivating reminiscences as he introduces some of the stars for whom he wrote arrangements, among them, Doris Day, played here by Peggy Coyle. Her rousing rendition of “Que Sera Sera” captures all the youthful verve of the original and then some. Another great collaboration was with Diana Ross and The Supremes for their hit, “The Happening,” brought to sparkling life here by Blu Lewis (as Diana) with Jamaica Singleton and Miah Bickley. But for sheer, haunting authenticity, and powerful vocal presence, perhaps the high point of the production is provided by Kent LaMar as he sings the Nat King Cole song, “Nature Boy.” Close your eyes, or keep them open. Either way, Nat King Cole is in the building.

That same kind of entertainment magic applies to the band here, too. Accomplished bandleader and saxophonist Jack Halkides assembled a thrilling orchestra in the true big band tradition. I’m reminded that a tasty recipe of soaring brass, mixed just so with sweet reeds, yields an invigorating and, like this evening as a whole, joyous experience.

I’m left wondering what we as a culture will hold in the future as precious or worth remembering. Will our children continue to savor and preserve what we consider important? Will they snicker – as children so often do - at our old-fashioned tastes in music and entertainment in general? Worse, will they forget altogether? Or will they be, as I was, fortunate enough to have a Tall Paul in their life?

Que sera sera.

Photo: Don Jones as Frank DeVol in “Dream Awhile: A Tribute to Frank DeVol,” Palace Theatre, July 11, 2009

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Garden of Artful Delights

A Garden of Artful Delights
By Tom Wachunas

Occasionally my sensibilities about art and art making need to be retooled, realigned, and otherwise re-inspired. I need to retreat from the celebration of intellectual complexity, confusion, and angst that pervades so much of modern and postmodern art. I need to remember that truly timeless and relevant art doesn’t by definition need to be complicated, outrageous, or arcane, no matter how well executed. I need to remember that, often, the most compelling art is that which can simply slow me down long enough to smell the roses, as it were. Thus slowed down, I might be better moved to savor, as many “serious” artists do, the countless and often ignored miracles of creation to be seen every day, right in front of me.

Speaking of roses, have you recently thought about how astoundingly intricate a flower really is? It’s structure? It’s specific function(s) in nature? How such delicate and apparently fragile things as petals can often withstand sustained 50mph winds and still stay on? The purpose of its aroma? Why women seem so much more passionate about them than men? And do bees have noses? But I digress.

These days the main gallery at the Canton Museum of Art houses a delightfully potent compendium of floral images in various media. While “Kimono” remains for me among the most excruciatingly beautiful exhibits I’ve ever seen, and a hard act to follow, this current show of 55 contemporary floral pieces – “Blossom:Art of Flowers” – is an excellent follow-up and, in its own right, every bit as enthralling and vivid a celebration of natural beauty.

The artworks in this traveling exhibit were selected through an international competition sponsored by the Susan K. Black Foundation, a Texas artist known for her floral paintings and in whose honor a memorial fund was established in 2001. A total of 1,742 pieces by 970 artists from 14 countries worldwide were submitted to a panel of judges in 2006. In effect, the show is not only a monumental homage to the marvelous skills of the participating artists, but also, in its eclectic range of styles, a comprehensive honoring of the history of floral art.

In the realm of flowers depicted in their natural habitat, there are many truly amazing entries here, but few more hauntingly beautiful than “Big Bend Bloom,” an oil by Dennis Farris. In the foreground a cactus with its prickly edges glimmering in sunlight bends toward the center of a vast Western landscape. Its lone red blossom peers out toward the distant, towering mountains bathed in sumptuous blue-gray mist. Serene and heroic.

“Shadow Play,” an acrylic by Elizabeth von Isser, is both a convincing close-up view of a Gold Poppy, and a glorious color-field romp in orange. A delicate tangle of filaments undulates in a sensual dance amid the dramatically shadowed petals, painted in smooth, sweeping strokes. Georgia O’Keefe would be pleased.

Sensual, too, is “Columbine,” a graphite and charcoal drawing by Catherine Giudicy. You wouldn’t think black-and-white to be an exciting first choice for rendering flowers, but she pulls it off here with startling mastery. The range of soft tonalities she achieves, the clean lines and edges, and the remarkable contrasts against a lavishly saturated, velvety black ground all contribute to an uncannily tangible vision so immediate, you half-expect it to burst into full color at any moment.

There are several excellent works here executed in the tradition of the classical still-lifes by 16th and 17th - century Dutch and Flemish masters. The presence of flowers in a still life still holds a visually unique, if not mysterious sway over our attention. Perhaps it has something to do with our desire, in lieu of actually being out in nature, to bring the outdoors in, thus assuaging our longing. The most alluring floral still-lifes, then, need to be thoughtful orchestrations of “geometric,” man-made forms (vases, table tops, and fabrics, for example) in harmony with the organic shapes and positions of the flowers. A particularly successful and thrilling example here is the very small oil painting, “White Daisies,” by Scott B. Royston. Here is a simple, dramatic, trompe l’oeil tableau wherein the crisply painted flowers seem to pop out and levitate against the black background as they rise from a richly rounded pitcher. Miniscule water droplets are poised on petal tips, and a lady bug scurries along a horizontal stem, like the period of an elegantly written sentence.

And indeed, in the context of this show, Royston’s painting is one exclamation point among many.

Photo, courtesy “Tulips with Horseshoe Falls,” oil, by Sherrie Wolf
“Blossom: Art of Flowers” at the Canton Museum of Art through Sept. 20, 2009
(330) 453 -7666

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

When the Medium Massages the Message

When the Medium Massages the Message
By Tom Wachunas

Over a considerable period of years, North Canton painter Diane Belfiglio has honed a particularly crisp style of realism that eschews expressive or generous paint application in favor of a more photographic presence. That is neither to say her acrylic canvases look like photographs, nor that Belfiglio intended as much. In her methodology, photographs do, however, serve as an inspirational starting point from which to design her tightly rendered, smooth-surfaced paintings of what she has described in past artist statements as “closely cropped architectural images bathed in the play of sunlight and shadows.”

Indeed, the operative term in her description is “play,” as the pictorial language she has fashioned is a startlingly clear and strong point-counterpoint between solid forms and their shadows (which are, to be sure, forms in themselves), all subtly illuminated by and interacting under an unseen sun. While her paintings are certainly faithful representations of recognizable “scenes,” they yield an even richer viewing experience when that “play” is regarded as an abstract dialogue between forms. Belfiglio pulls it all together via a combination of highly skilled draftsmanship, masterful composition, and a remarkable (and absolutely necessary) understanding of color.

And so it is that while the raison detre behind Belfiglio’s most recent work remains consistent with her past acrylic architectural series, the overall look has undergone a significant evolution, due in large part to her shift into oil pastels. Currently there are two of the recent pastels on view at Second April Galerie in downtown Canton: “Jamestown Geometry I” and “Jamestown Geometry IV.” Both drawings are close-up views of fence-like structures made of logs and standing in sand. As in earlier acrylic paintings, the pastel images exude a meditative energy. But here the overall pictorial information seems distilled, simplified, or “minimalistic” when compared to many of the more formally complex compositions of the paintings. And while clarity of line is still very much at work, edges are softer, and color transitions of one form into another are more subtle. In fact, the Impressionist technique of “filling in” the forms with tiny, accumulated flecks of varying colors is clearly more painterly here, providing a new dimension of surface interest and spontaneity, and a generally lyrical sensibility.

It’s worth noting that another of Belfiglio’s recent pastels, “Potomac Patterns II,” earned a purchase award in the 73d National Midyear Exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, and on view until August 23. Hers is one of only 74 works chosen for this prestigious exhibit (one of the oldest juried exhibitions in the country) out of 758 entries received.

Perhaps one way to fully appreciate the new direction in Belfiglio’s work is to think of her earlier paintings as boldly voiced sentences, or matter-of-fact statements articulated with muscular and cerebral confidence. These new pieces are quieter, though no less engaging. Like ballads beautifully sung.

Photo: “Potomac Patterns II,” oil pastel.