Friday, August 28, 2009

Frayed at the edges

Frayed at the edges
By tom Wachunas

Provocative. Innovative. Original. Edgy. Lots of well-worn buzzwords are in the air these days about the latest offering by the Massillon Museum, “Stark Naked Salon,” organized by Repository entertainment editor Dan Kane and Massillon Museum curator Alexandra Nicholis. The show features salon-style (floor-to-ceiling) installations by 11 area artists.

So, “edgy”? That’s short for yet another buzzphrase, “cutting edge,” which in its day referred to the work of avant garde upstarts, the next wave of new and original art world movers and shakers. For starters, let’s leave “original” out of the discussion. As exhibition formats go, this show is a throwback to 1980s New York City and its many enclaves of non-mainstream artists mounting impromptu, salon-style exhibits with guerrilla-like tactics of co-opting empty store fronts and warehouses. The salon tradition seemed to serve an urgent, viva-la-revolucion mentality. And stylistically, even the best works in this show owe much to many forebears. What was old is… still old. In fairness, though, it’s almost a given that many arts developments originating in New York and elsewhere, both mainstream and fringe, can typically take decades to take hold in the Rust Belt.

Beneath its ambitious facade of raucous bonhomie, “Stark Naked Salon” is an assault of sorts, having at its core an apocalyptic malaise – a pervasive sense of wounded or at least very tired human spirit. There are exceptions to this spirit, to be sure, notably in the photographs by Tom Wentling and Nick Brewer, and to a subtler extent, the paintings by Marti Jones Dixon and Erin Mulligan.

Wentling’s black-and-white pictures are sensual, elegant explorations of intricate patterns and textures with a marked sensitivity to dramatic contrasts of light and dark. Brewer’s color photos of people, whether in contrived, odd poses and settings, or apparently candid moments, can be both humorous and unsettling, though always charming in a quirky way. The oil portraits by Marti Jones Dixon are marvelous examples of thoughtful, expressive brush work in tandem with a masterful ability to render light both crisp and haunting. Her subjects are posed in stark rooms largely devoid of personal or “homey” objects, and these minimal settings tend to exude an air of loneliness and isolation. Erin Mulligan’s meticulously detailed, sometimes mischievous fantasies in oil are intriguing marriages of the familiar with the strange. Call it a tainted innocence. Her exquisite technique gives an antique patina to her brand of surrealism.

Viewed as a whole, however, the exhibition brings to mind not so much the quality of work by the individual artists (which is uneven) so much as the more fascinating question of their world views – fascinating in the same way a burning house can grip your attention.

Against the backdrop of a spray-painted (in black) mural of skewed and toppling buildings, Steve Ehret’s slick paintings and drawings of malevolent alien creatures in nightmarish landscapes are a jolting contrast to the comparatively tame beings (for the most part) that populate Mulligan’s world. Ehret’s mutations are in good company, though, with the nearby display by Bili Kribbs. Less refined in technique than either Ehret or Mulligan, Kribbs paints life forms that are equally bizarre, though distinctly more raw and cartoonish.

There’s a jarring installation by Derek Zimmerman - a howling rail against the machine of government ineptitude and intrusion; an homage to things black and pink by Scott Philips with its sign on top (self-condemnation, or a warning to viewers?)) reading, “Every way you look at this you lose”; paintings by Dylan Atkinson that, despite their worn, faded, and salvaged look, seemingly scream at us about what, exactly, I’m not sure; Ron Copeland’s collection, both very puzzling and very ordinary, of bric-a-brac including lots of junky painted frames and snippets of rambling advertisements. And perhaps the most visually rich and muscular of these mixed-media installations is by Joseph Close. He’s a sculptor and painter who brings a genuine, even monumental theatricality to his visions that are rendered with a muted, industrial palette. They are indeed cryptic and heady visions that nonetheless call to our hearts and minds with all the hypnotic persuasion of the mythological Sirens.

So, edgy. On the edge of what? Smooth sailing or shipwreck? Breakthroughs or precipices? Fascinating. Like a house on fire.

Photo: “Creature #1” by Erin Mulligan, oil, from the exhibition, “Stark Naked Salon” at the Massillon Museum through October 4, 2009, 121 Lincoln Way E. in downtown Massillon. For more information visit

Friday, August 21, 2009


By Tom Wachunas

There are varying theories about the exact procedures behind the “Flemish Technique” of early 15th-century painting masters such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Robert Campin. Most of those theories were developed in academic contexts during the 19th and early 20th centuries in an effort to preserve a precious tradition and teach its “secrets.” The fact of the matter is that available information recorded by the original practitioners on their specific formulas is somewhere between very scarce and non-existent. Still, we certainly know enough about manipulating oil paint so that the stunning and magical effects rendered by those old masters are achievable today. To do so with any degree of success, however, is nonetheless a task both daunting and noteworthy.

What was old is new again, and astonishingly so, as evidenced by the work of Stark County painter Frank Dale. His current show at the Canton Museum of Art is not only a passionate homage to an important chapter of art history, but a vital record of truly compelling painting in any era. And while the show is titled “In Search of Beauty,” there is clear proof here that he has found and delivered it abundantly.

Possessing neither the overbearing angst nor the vapid glitz displayed in many postmodernist works, Dale’s subjects are unabashedly traditional – portraits, still-lifes, landscapes- and lovingly painted. By that I don’t mean to imply a shallow sentimentality, though authentic sentiment is clearly present. The transcendent strength of his work springs from his consummate craftsmanship as a technician with brush and color, combined with an uncompromising eye for purely simple, uncluttered composition.

Look closely, for example, at how such paintings as “Young Woman in the Park” and “Summer Storm” lead and hold our eyes. In the former, our attention to the central face of the seated woman, resplendent in white, is diagonally reinforced by Dale’s handling of color and texture of the rocks toward the upper left, her hair, and the surface of the hat on her lap, toward the lower right. In the latter, the diagonal dynamic is at work again, this time between the red stop sign in the right foreground and the red car parked farther back, toward the center. Thus pulled into the scene, we look up the street to the looming storm clouds and can almost smell the ozone.

Beyond the mastery of formal pictorial devices that make these paintings worth savoring, though, is Dale’s technique – like that of the Northern Renaissance painters- of applying resin-oil glazes in thin layers. This produces a palpable depth of space and atmosphere, and a vibrancy of color that is simply not possible with direct, “single layer” application of paint.

These are pictures with a pulse, drawing us deep below their mirror-smooth surfaces. We become delightfully lost in their ethereal subtleties, as in the hypnotic drama of “San Diego Harbor Sunset,” with its spectacular range of liquid orange hues seamlessly blended into wisps of cooler, evening sky shades. Or the portrait called “Leitzel.” Her profile is kissed ever so gently by a halo of white, mesmerizing in much the same way that shimmering gems hold us captive.

And if you find your heart skipping a beat over such marvels as this, or your breathing arrested, be assured there’s plenty of life-giving breath here. It’s in the paintings.

Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art, “Leitzel,” oil on panel, 14” x 20”, 2005, by Frank Dale, from his exhibition “In Search of Beauty,” on view through November 1, 2009. For information, visit or call (330) 453 – 7666

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Desperately Seeking Connections, part 2: Tommy Morgan is ON the building

Desperately Seeking Connections, part 2: Tommy Morgan is ON the building
By Tom Wachunas

Like it or not, the Internet has become for many an increasingly effective performance and exhibition venue, launching some into well more than their 15 minutes of fame as well as infamy. Call it virtual, then, though often of questionable virtue. The Internet offers plenty of evidence that our artistic endeavors have taken on global dimensions with an ever- increasing allegiance to insipid content. The apotheosis of free expression for its own sake. This spirit is far from new, as it comes from the “real” world of three dimensions. Marcel Duchamp, with his “readymades” from the early 20th century, opened a Pandora’s Box when he declared that art was whatever the artist declared it to be. This “esthetic” sent our traditional perceptions about art into a radical outward spiral, or a tailspin, depending upon your sensibilities. Andy Warhol’s stylized appropriation, then, of everyday things, people, and events, and their re-presentation as art, wasn’t so much revolutionary as it was essentially just an extension of Duchamp’s ideological anarchy. And I firmly believe that ideology to be at the heart of much of modernist and postmodernist art developments.

It comes as no surprise, then, that cyberspace, like much of today’s art, doesn’t present anything compellingly new so much as it reflects long-standing societal conditions and practices. For some artists (particularly in music), social networking sites have been a launching pad for global notoriety, while others are content simply to use websites to promote and market their work (and themselves) on a local level. In that realm, artists’ websites and related links (where provided) offer us a chance to see what makes them tick, to perhaps compare their stated intent (where provided) with the physical reality of their work.

Beyond occasional articles in The Repository, I learned a few other things about Canton artist Tommy Morgan from the Internet. His home page lists three newspaper quotes, so presumably Morgan must think they’re accurate and otherwise relevant to his work. One from The Repository sparked my attention: “Morgan teaches that art is important for what it doesn’t explain.” Is this profundity or artsy double-speak? It smacks of the kind of insouciant bluster we came to expect from Warhol and continue to encounter in many postmodernist forums.

Don’t get me wrong. Morgan is an extremely talented draftsman and muralist, as strikingly evidenced by previous work on three downtown Canton buildings. And he’s not finished with downtown yet. Coming soon to the corner of Cleveland Avenue NW and Fifth Street is his “Shattered Expressions,” comprised of three 12’ x 12’ relief panels of faces depicting rage, sorrow, and joy. Judging from Morgan’s painted renditions for his proposed mural, the faces are executed in an expressionistic style that makes even the “joyful” face look tortured. Local media buzz, including web information from ArtsinStark, the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Canton Development Partnership, has characterized the work as “raw,” “provocative,” and “controversial.” What’s going on here?

Most successful public art has been traditionally made within parameters that address such things as environmental enhancement and beautification, relevant social and historic connections to the surrounding community, and a general effort to present an edifying community profile to passersby. While Morgan’s past murals seem to fit reasonably well within those parameters, this one promises to be, judging from his own words (quoted here from the Chamber News web page), a cloying departure: “ ‘Shattered Expressions’ is truly art for the sake of art. No trump loi, no story-telling, no tribute. Just raw emotion.” Trump loi? Sheesh. I can’t stand it. I just can’t stand it.

Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with art that claims raw emotion as its sole subject matter. Nothing new there at all. But evidently, other than Tommy Morgan, there are those who think his current vision may be something akin to heroic. Again, from the Chamber News: “Morgan hopes his latest creation will serve Canton for a lifetime, becoming an iconic and timeless downtown Canton landmark.” And in case that’s not enough of “provocative” for you, there’s this caption under the photo of the proposed mural in Canton Development Partnership’s publication: “ ‘Shattered Expressions’ aims to shatter the standards for art in downtown Canton.” Chutzpah in the name of free expression, or just plain arrogance?

Standards for public art in downtown Canton? Since when? Based on what? And established by whom? What are their qualifications and credentials? Morgan’s claim that this work tells no story may be premature. Viewers will provide one for themselves, as they always do when the art they behold doesn’t sufficiently explain itself. That’s essential to the art experience – to find a connection. What if any connections will passersby make with “Shattered Expressions”? What will it tell them of not just themselves, but of Canton and its purveyors of public art? That we are a town of mixed emotions? How illuminating – art that recapitulates the obvious. And will Tommy Morgan indeed leave us an artful legacy to be proud of?

These are serious questions. Serious as an art attack.

Photo: rendition by Tommy Morgan for his “Shattered Expressions” mural, courtesy Canton Development Partnership

Tommy Morgan’s website:

Monday, August 10, 2009

Desperately Seeking Connections, part 1: Andy Warhol is in the building

Desperately Seeking Connections, part 1:
Andy Warhol is in the building
By Tom Wachunas

I was recently perusing a collection of Warholisms and was struck by how neatly, decades after they were uttered, they embody much of the spirit and content of our cultural consciousness today. Here’s one: “I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.” Here’s another: “Isn’t life just a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?” And another: “When I got my first TV set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships.” And for good measure, referring to his own now iconic statement about everyone achieving fame for 15 minutes: “I’m bored with that statement. My new line is, ‘Everybody will be famous IN 15 minutes.’”

Impish, eccentric, maddeningly both transparent and enigmatic, self-aggrandizing with just a dash of megalomania…that was Warhol. And with all due respect to the Pop Art he hurled – with a lot of help - into the canon of art history, a picture of a soup can hanging in a museum may one day ultimately be viewed as nothing more than his last laugh at our expense (I can dream, can’t I?). It’s nearly impossible to know when to take a man seriously when he tells you, as Warhol did without so much as a smirk, that people never die so much as “just go to department stores.” Wherever he is, I suspect he’s engaged in lively banter with Marcel Duchamp as they chuckle over R. Mutt’s urinal. But sorting through Warhol’s legacy of challenging if not absurd pronouncements reveals – it scares me just a little bit to say - a hauntingly prophetic mind.

Blame Warhol – or thank him – for the collective mind-set that has given rise to what we could call Cyberego. In stroking the keypad and mouse, we can, momentarily anyway, stroke our egos. Manipulating a modicum of internet procedures and sites, “ordinary” people can potentially acquire instant regional if not world-wide notoriety for all manner of dubious “accomplishments” and “ideas.” Certainly, though, not everyone creates a blog, or signs on to Face Book or My Space with the intention of getting famous. Most do it simply to “connect.” As the pastor of my church recently and rightly noted, humans are naturally “wired” to seek relationships with each other. Judging from the many millions of people who engage the internet to “communicate,” we seem desperate to gaze and gawk, or chat, tweet, cluck, and click. But it can be a problematic cure for that desperation. Cyberego is such that it allows us to fool as well as be fooled. We can eavesdrop on strangers’ musings both profane and profound, silly and serious, and decide whether we want to “be a friend” or “follower,” or not, and then decide which, if any, face we will release into cyberspace. Impish, eccentric, maddeningly both transparent and enigmatic, self-aggrandizing with just a dash of megalomania…this is us.

I guess where all this is leading is, among other things, to my doubts as to the authenticity and, yes, meaning of an enterprise that seems terribly consumerist and consuming. I fear I’ve been looking too long at this particular thing. Andy said there’d be days like this. Which is all very ironic, seeing as how you have right in front of you ample evidence of my own devoted connection to connecting. Suffice to say that for now just trust me. Part 2 of this entry, whenever I get around to it, will clear things right up. At least I hope so. In fact, I’m desperate.

Photo: “Campbell’s Soup Can,” 1964, by Andy Warhol, 35 ¾” x 24”, silkscreen on canvas