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

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