Monday, December 28, 2009

For Auld Lang Syne?

For Auld Lang Syne?

By Tom Wachunas

After living in New York City for 14 years, I left in November of 1991 on a Greyhound bus bound for Syracuse. It was during rush hour. I was in a hurry to join my brother and his family in time for Thanksgiving. From there it was on to Ohio, and to another brother’s household in North Canton. My Christmas visit with him and his family lasted well over a year before I found my own apartment and a job (the first of many). I’ve been a Canton resident ever since. That’s the sugar-coated, short version of how I got back to my Ohio roots.

The warts-and-all short version reads something like this: I left New York City, a sniveling, homeless drunk with only a gifted, one-way bus ticket to my name, running from the debt and the damaged or destroyed relationships (including my first marriage of 10 years) I left in my wake. I continued to live foolishly, dangerously, and drunk for the better part of the next 8 years. It is ONLY by the grace of God, my surrender to Jesus Christ, the Lord of my life, and my commitment to fellowship with many others who have successfully wrestled the same demons, that I have savored the undeserved gift of uninterrupted sobriety since 1999.

When I began this blog nearly one year ago I vowed to myself that it would not be a rambling on-line diary - a platform for communicating my most personal dreams and confessions. In that regard, I am certainly aware that in offering my views on the arts and artists, I bring to the table varying degrees of confessional content, but only to the extent that such content serves, hopefully, to clarify or justify my opinions.

So why share such intimate information now? It points to my motivation in writing this blog in the first place. And this is, after all, the time of year when we traditionally dedicate some energy to reflection, projection, and resolution.

It was always my hope with this blog to establish a meaningful and useful forum for informed awareness and intelligent discussion, as well as a vehicle for my own constantly evolving passion for writing about the arts. Through all the above-mentioned years of struggle and turmoil, that passion never left me (a miracle in itself), and I have consistently sought outlets for it. Journalism has been a reasonably dependable anchor in keeping me moored to the arts community at large. For this I am ever grateful. It is a community comprised of individuals who are in many ways among the most courageous and passionate people I know. And I think ‘courageous’ is particularly apropos here, given that Canton, Ohio is a particularly daunting “market” in which to ply a fine arts trade, including writing about it.

In this context it is my fervent resolution with this blog to continue observing, encouraging, and analyzing just what it is we do as artists, why it’s important, and to let the citizens of greater Canton (and beyond) know about it. That resolution comes with an abiding and increasingly urgent hope. It’s lonely here in cyberspace. I hope that you, the readers, avail yourselves of the opportunity to insert your comments and suggestions here on a regular basis, and to tell your friends to do the same. Along those lines (you can file this one under shameless self-promotion on my part), I also encourage you to let our local newspaper, The Repository, know that its readership would be very well-served by the long-overdue addition to its staff of a local arts critic-at-large.

Our best days are still ahead. Meanwhile, it remains my pleasure to serve you. Happy New Year. Write on.

Photo: “Claude Monet Reading a Newspaper,” by Auguste Renoir

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Expectations: Great and Shattered

Expectations: Great and Shattered

By Tom Wachunas

Good news and bad news. First, the good news: the long-awaited installation of Tommy Morgan’s latest public artwork in downtown Canton, “Shattered Expressions,” is complete. Now for the bad news: the long-awaited installation of Tommy Morgan’s latest public artwork in downtown Canton, “Shattered Expressions,” is complete.

At this juncture I respectfully refer you, good reader, to two past posts (in the Archive box here) for some background on my thinking about not just this particular work, but public art in general. The posts are: August 15, titled “Desperately Seeking Connections, Part 2…,” and October 20, titled “The Power of Public Art…” It is with those considerations in mind that I offer the following.

The artist has explained his work this way: “I am trying to capture the essential human expressions of joy, rage, and sorrow. As human beings we cannot have one of these emotions without having all the others.” Huh? On the surface, this idea seems to be sufficiently ambiguous and arguable enough, certainly, to justify any number of esthetic solutions to the problem of giving it clear form. So I’m not really surprised that Morgan opted to treat all three emotions/faces with a stylized equality, manifested by his “decorative” surfaces of curving fragments in muted, even sickly colors. The overall effect actually undermines – in fact shatters - their three-dimensionality. This is an artwork in the throes of an identity crisis, and surely not a pretty one. Are these paintings that want to be sculptures, or sculptures that would prefer being paintings? I firmly believe that, putting aside formal and esthetic opinions of this work per se, Morgan’s idea was simply not appropriate to a public art installation. And while this $35,000, 40’x10’ disappointment cannot technically be considered an abuse of public tax dollars, it is nonetheless taxing to behold.

Beyond the many challenging questions (both subjective and objective) about what constitutes edifying or “good” fine art, though, it seems to me there are other more pressing issues here that need to be addressed, and the sooner the better. Issues that have been flapping in the wind for far too long without resolution.

I still wonder (OK, whine about…) who, if anyone, in the Canton Development Partnership, ArtsinStark, or the Architectural Review Board at the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, has formulated any consistent operational philosophy and methodology as to the raison d’etre behind installing public artworks in the first place. Robb Hankins, ArtsinStark CEO, stated recently, “In the future, we hope to get formal public arts ordinances passed by the city and county governments here, so that we could have both a full time public arts administrator on staff, and a formal public art process.” In view of all the hype about the “explosion” of public art in Canton’s arts district over the past few YEARS, perhaps the current powers that be need to be reminded that the future has been here for a long while. In the meantime, without the just-described overseeing in place, plans are evidently still afoot to go ahead with future installations by a few other, already selected local artists.

My concern is certainly not that local artists are incapable of producing the kind of public art that would suit one of ArtsinStark’s stated goals of attracting larger audiences and garnering prestigious attention to Canton’s arts scene. Rather, my fear is that unless a process of public art installation methods and practices is formally in place, Canton will become increasingly mired in an insouciant, self-congratulatory hodge-podge of public artworks that are more embarrassing than enticing.

Photo: courtesy ArtsinStark

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's A Delectable Life

It’s A Delectable Life

By Tom Wachunas

To the very general extent that a work of art is a record of the artist’s technical and/or esthetic decisions over a period of time, one could fairly call any artwork autobiographical in nature. At a deeper level of autobiography, some mediums- like painting, for example- are particularly appropriate for “illustrating” the more ephemeral elements of a life, as in particular events, significant ideas, or memories. One medium that doesn’t immediately come to mind for such purposes is ceramics.

At the risk of underestimating the general viewing public’s familiarity with the depth and range of ceramic arts these days, I still sense that too many people over-associate clay with quaintly decorative, traditionally functional crafts. Not that there’s anything bad or wrong with decoration and functionality. What I’m talking about here is a medium fully transcending its traditional definitions and associations and moving into purer visual pleasure for its own sake, while telling a story at the same time. As a concept, this in itself is certainly nothing new. When looking at the work of Cincinnati ceramic artist Terri Kern, however, it surely and delightfully seems that way.

The current show of Kern’s new work at the Canton Museum of Art is called ‘45’. It’s named for the number of pieces on view as well as Kern’s number of years on this planet, though much of her work possesses a distinctly otherworldly or fantastical quality. In a parallel universe they could well be the pantry wares you’d find in the homes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits. But these very real objects are signposts of a kind – commemorative markers, as Kern tells us in her statement, of her personal history. Wheel-thrown as well as slab-built and carved, her vessels and panels translate that history into an electrifying visual language that is as endearingly whimsical as it is deeply poetic.

Kern masterfully employs an ornamentation technique of clay carving called ‘sgraffito,’ wherein a top layer of pigment, or ‘slip,’ is scratched to reveal an underlying layer. The technique, along with multiple layerings of underglazes, has yielded astonishing results here in terms of both exquisitely delicate line quality, and colors so luminous and deep that they seem to breathe right before your eyes.

Some works appear to be celebrations of simpler times and memories, as in her free-standing triptych, “The Carrot Thief,” a gleeful depiction of caped rabbits and gravity-defying carrots. It is her hand painted ceramic wall panels, though, that speak of more poignant matters, perhaps. With titles like “Possibilities,” “Out of Darkness,” and “Waiting,” among many others, these are imbued with a profound sense of serenity, if not gentle melancholy. The background in “Shades of Morning,” with its floating leaves and stars amid spiraling swirls, is subtly reminiscent, though in a much more amiable way, of van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

One panel –“At Last”- is particularly stunning not just for its vibrant palette and figuration, but also in how it conveys what could be considered the spiritual essence of all these works. We see a tent-like banner of sorts, stretched between trees. One of the tree trunks is a human spinal column - a direct reference to a line in the beautiful poetry we read on the banner, written by Richard Hague:

At last she listens:
Pioneering the territory of herself,
she builds a lean-to of words
against the trunk of her spine,
camps for a season
near her own heart like a spring,
studies its upwellings and eddies.
Healing, her strength coming back,
she risks the ridges of dreams,
halloing in the dark.

As viewers we may not be privy to every emotional nuance, or the intended, specific “meaning” that these objects have for the artist. Some appear to be literal, others allegorical. I’m not sure it matters a great deal. A little mystery – indeed artistic magic - rendered here with eminent skill, goes a long way toward carving out our own connections.

So linger and look. These works are a sincere and compelling invitation to become immersed in the warm glow of a life delineated with enthralling passion.

Photo: “Shades of Morning,” hand painted ceramic panel by Terri Kern, on view at the Canton Museum of Art, through March 7, 2010.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Close Encounters of the Ecstatic Kind

Close Encounters of the Ecstatic Kind

By Tom Wachunas

The Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 12/6/2009

Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (1943)

Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (1935)

Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suites 1 & 2 (1912)

In this third concert of its 2009-10 MasterWorks Series, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) demonstrated, once again with notable panache, what can best be called a de rigueur mastery of wildly varied textures and tonalities, all executed with electrifying clarity. Call it a benevolent conspiracy, then, between Umstattd Hall’s great acoustics, the orchestra’s unity of purpose (surely the result of very fine conducting), and the engaging program selection.

The evening began on a solemn, reverential note as Maestro Gerhardt Zimmerman reminded the audience of the recent death of Linda V. Moorhouse, a beloved former executive director and CEO of the orchestra. After his moving and affectionate remembrance, Zimmerman led the orchestra in a dedicatory, stunning performance of Elgar’s Nimrod.

Matthew Brown, CSO assistant conductor, then came to the podium to conduct Copland’s Appalachian Spring. He gave as succinct and bright an account of this iconic American masterpiece as I’ve ever heard. Responding in kind, the orchestra performed as would an eager dance partner, attentive to every nuance of Brown’s buoyant leading. The net result of this happy pairing was unquestionably mesmerizing.

Mesmerizing, too, was violinist and CSO Concertmaster Nathan Olson as he performed the centerpiece of the evening - Prokofiev’s compelling Violin Concerto No. 2, conducted by Zimmerman (who also conducted the final work on the program). Prokofiev set out to achieve what he called a “new simplicity” with this work, and it is fair to say that while embracing a lyricism that echoed Tchaikovsky, modernism was still clearly in tow. Prokofiev’s neo-Romantic melodic themes – soaring and sweet- are punctuated with a considerable number of blindingly fast, sometimes dissonant passages. Olson performed them all with a poetic confidence that was muscular (was that smoke I saw billowing about his fingers?) without being overbearing. His tempo remained in perfect sync with the orchestra along with his gently blended timbre. The closing of the third movement builds from a staccato solo into a tumultuous flurry of eighth notes, ending abruptly, like an exclamation point, sending a wave of vociferous adulation through the audience.

While that performance would seem like a hard act to follow, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites 1&2 fit the bill quite nicely. It is a work amply equipped to showcase the orchestra’s sonorous depth. Both suites, each divided into three parts, are symphonic meditations that contrast lyrical, pastoral beginnings with tumultuous finales, or fiery dances. It is the second suite, though, that captures and focuses those contrasts with particularly breathtaking drama. If sunrise can be said to have a sound, it is surely here in the first section, Lever du jour. Amid shimmering flute solos mingling with reeds and harp, the orchestra, like a master painter, rendered lush, enchanting textures that set an ever-brightening tone for what was to come. The finale – Danse generale – is an ecstatic bachanale, a percussive love dance. The orchestra rose to the celebration with astonishing energy as it delivered rolling crescendo after crescendo, like distant winds gathered into thunderclaps. Such delightful musical paroxysms were clearly thrilling to an already enraptured audience.

Photo: violinist and Concertmaster of the Canton Symphony Orchestra, Nathan Olson – courtesy Canton Symphony Orchestra

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Pax On All Our Houses

A Pax On All Our Houses

By Tom Wachunas

My paraphrasing of Shakespeare replaces “pox” – a disease or plague – with the Latin “pax” – peace. ‘Tis the season when all sorts of other phrases abound in our vocabulary, like “Merry Christmas,” “keep Christ in Christmas,” and “Jesus is the reason for the Season.” And as I – like countless millions the world over – become enthralled (or entrapped) by the glitz and glitter of this annual ritual celebration, I’m also reminded of a Warholism – “I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.”

There is an unmistakable, palpable importunity about this year’s Players Guild Theatre musical production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It’s not that director Jon Tisevich ever doubted the story’s popular appeal. It is, after all, a classic in every sense of the word, and as such it is etched as an unquestioned, even timeless tradition into our cultural embrace of Christmas. Rather, I think, its sense of immediacy rises from the challenge to dust off the story’s seasonal trappings and keep the narrative relevant to today’s audiences. In short, to present meaning that transcends merely great entertainment -which this cast delivers abundantly- and become revelatory, applicable truth in our lives RIGHT NOW.

Much of the emotional power of the story is gloriously enhanced by the score composed by Steve Parsons (who here directs a superb live orchestral ensemble), with lyrics by John Popa. In both melodic and lyrical presence, the music has all the memorable variety and impact of the finest Broadway musical literature. The vocal ensemble work of the cast is performed with impeccable enunciation along with genuine, contagious warmth.

Don Hillenbrand’s Scrooge is a remarkably impassioned and credible portrait that perfectly captures the character’s repressed pain masked as a monumentally acerbic world-view. Even in the scenes when he looks upon the proceedings from a distance, his face is captivating in its various expressions of authentic soul-searching.

Those scenes are all the more powerful due to the riveting performances by Kelley Edington (aided by the wonderful flying effects) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Christopher Gales as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Edington is utterly mesmerizing as she sings the ethereal “Wandering,” and Gales equally so in his alternately muscular and tender, jovial admonishings of the flummoxed Scrooge, who is slow in figuring out the joy that propels his nephew, Fred. In that role, John Scavelli is a delightful picture of irrepressible optimism and willingness to love his uncle.

It is, though, the pivotal scenes of searing pathos that ultimately drive home the story’s urgent message of forgiveness and redemption. Among those, Amanda Medley is compelling and sonorous as she sings the doleful “I Have to Know.” And nowhere are Mark McCarthy as Bob Cratchit, and young Drake Spina as his son, Tim, more heartrending and utterly real than in their singing of “A Child Alone.”

Interestingly enough I kept thinking about Scrooge in Biblical terms. Cocky and self-absorbed, he had become comfortable, justified, and otherwise complacent in feeling that his moral obligations to the less fortunate were sufficiently met by his taxes paid to the government. He had become the equivalent of the Pharisees, whose heartless legalism Jesus found abhorrent.

In his 1843 introduction to the story, Dickens wrote to his readers that he hoped his “Ghostly little book” would “haunt their houses pleasantly…” I wonder if he had any idea of the sheer staying-power of his tale across centuries. And after seeing this masterfully mounted production, I was left with another more serious question: How willing am I to become an embodiment of real hope and relief - here, now, and forever beyond this season - for someone who needs it? I don’t think Dickens would mind if I offer this alteration to his introduction: May it haunt our lives pleasantly…

God bless us, everyone indeed.

Photo (left-to-right): Don Hillenbrand as Ebenezer Scrooge, Drake Spina as Tiny Tim Cratchit, Mark McCarthy as Bob Cratchit in the Players Guild Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Cultural Center for the Arts, through December 20. Tickets: (330) 453 – 7617 or

R. Mutt Redux?

R. Mutt Redux?

By Tom Wachunas

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to…conceive. As in birthing ideas, not babies. Besides, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies. But birthing ideas? Surely. All the time. Good ones? Maybe a few.

The mischievous Frenchman, Marcel Duchamp, fathered many ideas, too. None, though, was more outrageous in its day than the scandalous brainchild he loosed upon the art world in 1917 - his infamous “Fountain,” a common ceramic urinal signed R. Mutt. The popular understanding of Duchamp’s defense of his “work” rests largely on his statement that, to paraphrase, it’s art because the artist said so. This understanding, in and of itself, fails to satisfactorily address the more complicated metaphysical and esthetic issues raised when presenting “found objects” as art – issues that Duchamp did in fact address, though somewhat obliquely on many occasions, throughout his lifetime. Still, long after the arrival of Duchamp’s “readymades,” a considerable number of artists seem to be continually inspired to justify their work – no matter how insipid- on the basis of the sacrosanct “I said so” argument.

I’ve always harbored a suspicion that Duchamp opened his Pandora’s Box with the sole intention of letting other artists, and/or critics and philosophers, identify and tame (or re-capture) the myriad wild spirits he unleashed. He didn’t make his way into the history books so much as laugh his way there. Maybe, just maybe, that was his true art – to keep the rest of us, lest we take ourselves and our art too seriously, guessing and humble.

The current show at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), called “Something from Nothing: Contemporary Recycled Sculpture from America’s Rustbelt,” is comprised of work by 13 artists who work with a variety of raw materials, including found “junk.” The exhibit was curated by Canton’s own Pat Buckohr, who made such a public splash with all those downtown animals – goofy sidewalk sentinels made from recycled metal rings.

Interestingly enough, those works possess a careless, throw-away quality and are perhaps best considered as anomalies when compared to other more artistically elegant and substantive works I’ve seen by him. Indeed, M.J.Albacete, CMA executive director, told me recently that he and Buckohr have regularly discussed the contemporary art scene in Canton. Albacete noted, “He (Buckohr) is an exceptionally talented artist whose roots are embedded in the historic traditions. So, when we decided to do a cutting-edge exhibition of creativity based on recycled materials, Pat was our first and only choice. He took to the project with enthusiasm, and his selection of artists covers a wide swath across Midwest USA. His selections are stupendous, making this the most impressive show of its type ever to grace the galleries of the CMA. Knowing Pat’s capabilities as an artist and a curator, I’d like to see him receive a major commission for a downtown sculpture much as he really deserves…say $20,000 or $25,000?” That, friends, is what can easily be called a glowing and well-earned endorsement.

Interesting, too, are Buckohr’s motives for organizing this show. In his statement he cites a “lack of academic acceptance” for his beloved medium of recycled materials, and, if I read him correctly, academia’s perception that recycled materials are somehow antithetical to edifying art. Such a blanket assessment is, it seems to me, a tad ironic and overstated, and perhaps the subject of a separate discussion. Certainly, if not for academia, we wouldn’t be acknowledging Duchamp’s influence on contemporary found-object art in this context (as Buckohr does in his statement) at all.

Putting aside such precipitate musings, it’s time to lighten up. Whatever anxieties Mr. Buckohr may have had in pursuing this endeavor, he can put to rest. Even the most rigorous academic traditionalists would be hard-pressed to call this show anything other than a resounding success - a grand affirmation that art made from recycled junk need not be junky.

The work that greets viewers entering the main gallery is literally a soaring example of just how beautiful “junk art” can be. “Reestimate” is a startlingly realistic eagle by Paula J.Jensen. Made from scrap steel with piercing copper eyes, the majestic bird is poised in flight above us as it negotiates a precarious landing on the too- thin tip of a writhing branch. Breathtaking.

This show occupies a varied landscape of conceptual approaches from playful to profound, and a considerably broad terrain between the two. Daniel Horne’s “King and Queen” presents the life-size royal couple of welded scrap steel as whimsical, kinetic skeletons who invite viewers to gently push various parts of their anatomies and enjoy their moving parts. Kyle Fokken’s mixed media “Uptet (Babylon Gunship)” and its more “modern” counterpart, “Ship of Fools,” are both solidly constructed, fascinating war machines in miniature. “Uptet” looks like a creature from a science fiction story, and would be a downright hilarious apparition were it not for its clearly deadly function. Nonetheless, both works are riveting in every sense of the word.

Joseph Carl Close possesses an utterly unique artistic vision that ranks him among Canton’s – indeed this region’s - most exciting artists. And most mysterious. Here, his monumental (approximately 11’ tall) “Tower” exudes a kind of lonely, even dark heroism. Who, or what are the “figures” that seem poised on the brink of either joining or disintegrating? It’s a masterpiece of intricately layered textures and images all entwined in an uncanny duality of serenity and looming threat – a guardian, perhaps, of vaguely familiar histories, or memories just out of reach.

One arguable legacy of Duchamp has been the perception of the art milieu as a democracy of ideas, which in turn can fuel esthetic anarchy – an “anything can be art,” and “anyone can be an artist” sensibility. If we regard art as a melding of intent and context, then perhaps this statement by Duchamp can at least define some, albeit vague, parameters: “Art may be bad, good, or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way as a bad emotion is still an emotion.”

Be assured that the art in this exhibition is neither indifferent nor bad. In fact, for sheer craftsmanship, delights for the eyes, and engaging conceptual content, it’s marvelously entertaining. Why? Well (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)…because I said so.

Photo: “Tower,” by Joseph Carl Close, 2009, wood, steel, glass, oil. On view in “Something from Nothing: Contemporary Recycled Sculpture from America’s Rustbelt,” through March 7, 2010, at the Canton Museum of Art.