Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Roads Less Taken

Roads Less Taken

By Tom Wachunas

Since writing about leaving the Canton Artists League (CAL) a while back, I’ve noticed a distinct chill in the air when I encounter some CAL members. Our exchanges are still cordial, but in a noticeably restrained way. Additionally I’ve had several conversations, and read a commentary or two along the way, that have at their heart- either directly spoken or clearly implied - a sense of righteous defensiveness over what some (not sure exactly how many) consider to be my (and others’) unfair, unbalanced, insensitive, or overly critical assessments of CAL.

Such exchanges have essentially questioned the validity or usefulness of what I (and others) have had to say (and the standards applied) to not just CAL, but other areas of local artistic activity, including my (and others’) dim view of what passes as “public art” in this town. I hear a lot of generalizations like, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Some – maybe many - have even said that they really don’t or shouldn’t care what “others” think about their art anyway, taking great pride in the pure sincerity of their creative efforts.

I respectfully submit that if artists don’t care what “others” think of their work, then showing that work to others is an empty if not absurd exercise. What artists wouldn’t want their work to elicit some sort of positive response and encouragement, or communicate something meaningful (perhaps even life-changing) to a viewer, or generate a sale? Any such outcome would be the result of the viewer’s opinion. And lest we forget, artistic pride is most valuable when it is wounded enough to instill humility and thence growth. Otherwise it can be merely a vehicle for the persistence of mediocrity, or at best, competence.

On a recent television show I heard David Foster, the internationally acclaimed music producer, composer, arranger and pianist, speaking about quality in art. He said, “Good is the enemy of great.” If our artistic Muse is worth the time and effort we give to dressing and displaying her, then we should at least seriously consider the challenge implicit in Foster’s observation. And while it’s certainly unreasonable to think all of our local artists could consistently produce truly great works of art (a reasonable standard of measure being any good art history book), their rigorous aspiring to do so could surely make for some increasingly electrifying exhibitions.

Having said all that, I saw two exhibits recently, both off the normally advertised beaten path of local venues. Not so electrifying is a modestly-sized CAL group show at Malone University’s Johnson Center (McFadden Gallery, lower level). But the show does have its remarkable moments of alternately charming, startlingly dramatic, and otherwise visually engaging content. In the charming (and impeccably crafted) column there is, among others, Michelle Mulligan’s small oil, “Tired of Winter,” wherein two cats are perched atop a planter shelf, basking in the gentle sunlight. One of the cats looks toward us with a marvelously rendered gaze of what might be disgust at being indoors. For high drama there’s Dr. Fredlee Votaw’s “Leave None To Tell The Story.” It’s a visceral and somber oil portrait that calls up the horrors of life in places where unspeakable crimes against children are commonplace. And Carol Mendenhall’s acrylic “Coral Reef” is a beautifully accomplished manipulation of colors and dense textures that powerfully describe a lush marine world.

Another work by Mendenhall is also on view directly across the street (Cleveland Avenue) at Cyrus Custom Framing and Art Gallery. It’s a large and stunning mixed media abstraction called “Grab the Gold Ring,” and is a treasure indeed. In fact, just about everything currently at Cyrus is golden in one way or another, including a mini-retrospective of 19 pieces by the inimitable magical surrealist, Erin Mulligan.

A very recent addition to the walls here are six works by Martin Bertman, each one a jewel in its own right. While it’s always been apparent that a number of historical influences are threaded throughout the Bertman ouvre, none is overwhelming to the point of mere imitation. Like no other local painter I know, he has managed to deftly internalize those influences and reorganize them into a fluid, enthralling visual vocabulary. His is a sublimely deep and poetic language, and one greatly imbued with potent mystique. Great work.

But that’s just my opinion.

The CAL show will be up until August 4, at Malone University’s Johnson Center, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Monday-Friday 9a.m. to 5p.m.

Current works at Cyrus Custom Framing & Art Gallery will be on view through most of the Summer, 2645 Cleveland Avenue NW, Monday – Friday 10ish – 6p.m., Saturday 11a.m. – 3p.m. (330) 452- 9787 www.cyruscustom.com

Photo: “Esther and the Bringing of Haman,” acrylic by Martin Bertman.

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