Saturday, September 19, 2009

A League of Our Own

A League of Our Own

By Tom Wachunas

Dear Canton Artists League,

As I approach my third year as a member of the Canton Artists League (CAL), I feel compelled to communicate some things for our members’ consideration, and for that matter, anyone else who might be interested. To one degree or another, some of you may be taken aback by my opinions and observations, and I add only that these are offered in a spirit of honesty and genuine concern.

It’s clear to me that CAL is a combined fellowship of accomplished masters in their respective mediums, apprentices- in-progress, and dedicated novices, which would include hobbyists and “casual practitioners.” This is to be expected in a group such as this, with its generalized “mission” – a democratic embrace of art-makers at varying levels of development and passion. As I understand it, CAL’s over-arching intention is to encourage and inspire its members to not only nurture their artistic passion, but to “further their creativity” through various workshops and exhibition opportunities.

My concerns are in the area of what CAL demonstrates to both the art-viewing public at large, as well as to the local community of serious practicing artists who seem content to remain unaffiliated with it. In particular, I’ve been wondering about exactly what the League has projected to these communities with its flurry of group shows in the last 6-8 months or so, and its ever-growing hunger for exposure as it searches for more shows in more venues.

Of all our most recent exhibitions, the largest of course was the CAL Spring Show at the Canton Museum of Art. Some of you may recall my blog review of the show. Therein I observed that it was a good thing for student and novice artists to rub elbows with those who are decidedly more accomplished and mature in their adopted visual languages. I meant it strictly from the perspective of demonstrating to greater Canton that there’s a remarkable amount of joyous creative energy in this community. But by now, that’s old news (and has been for years, actually), and creative energy in itself is not synonymous with noteworthy art or art shows. Thus, I didn’t mean to imply that the Spring Show was a hotbed of stellar talent. It surely wasn’t. The League was quite fortunate to have the opportunity to present itself in such a prestigious context, and it seemed to me that maybe half of the works in that show were merely competent at best, and not museum-caliber material by a long shot.

The problems at the heart of the Spring Show were the same problems at the heart of all the CAL shows (I was in a few myself) over the past several years. Based on the overall content of our shows, the message we have consistently sent (and I agree with what I have heard from several dozen non-member artists, as well as curators and astute art viewers over the years) is that we are often too watercolor-heavy, and otherwise entrenched in the traditional niceties of representational art, though certainly there are a few interesting pure abstractionists and experimenters on our roster. And this is certainly not to say there’s something inherently wrong with watercolors or representational art, or that we must beat the pavement to fill our ranks with an avant- garde element -though we shouldn’t necessarily dismiss that possibility as untenable or ludicrous. Still, CAL shows have become increasingly predictable in how they exude a lethargic, generic regionalism. And with as many shows as we seem interested in lining up, I fear we will become too familiar too often (or have we crossed that line already?) to the viewing public. And familiarity here doesn’t so much breed contempt as it generates sheer boredom.

What is our primary purpose when we mount an exhibit? To invite the public to see our self-congratulatory indulgence in mounting lots of shows, of uneven quality, all over the place? Or are our shows strictly for us, to see how our work stacks up against that of our fellow CAL members? Do we want to consider a curatorial element, as in juried shows in the truest sense? Do we fear that such an element would foster unwanted competition, or internal divisiveness? For now, I think that for better or worse, it’s a foregone conclusion that as long as we carry on with business as usual, CAL group shows will continue to be mixed-bag affairs that have little impact beyond the confines of our membership. And if that works for the membership, so be it.

Yet, when I really get down to some serious daydreaming, I envision CAL as a local cultural lightning rod. I see a permanent facility- a home base- that presents a rotating exhibit of its members’ work, with knowledgeable and accomplished guest curators overseeing the installations. I envision a concerted effort to find grants, endowments, and/or filthy rich art lovers able and willing to get such a project off the ground.

Maybe this isn’t a sustainable vision at this or any juncture. Or maybe Canton isn’t ready just yet. Still, it would be thrilling to see us called up from the Minors to play in the Majors.

Photo: “Man Writing a Letter,” oil, by Gabriel Metsu, 1660

1 comment:

mamulligan said...

Tom, I respect your sincere desire to "raise the bar" and agree that the time apears to be right for such a goal. With the arts in Stark clipping along, it seems like a fitting thing that CAL be as much a part of it as it possibly can. I too have witnessed a reluctance among fellow artists to become involved. That's a sad commentary on a group that,in my opinion,could very likely be at the center of the local art movement. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Michelle Mulligan