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:

1 comment:

Tom Wachunas said...
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