Thursday, June 3, 2010

Remembrance of Things Present

Remembrance of Things Present

By Tom Wachunas

And now, back to Dexter Sandap. Or, more precisely, E.F. Hebner. Who, you say? How quickly they forget, I say. If you’re of a mind to explore, go back into the archive here to my post on July 26, 2009 (“Abstractitudes”), and also March 15 (“Dexter Sandap’s Big Harvest”) of this year.

To be sure, Hebner isn’t a world famous artist, and certainly not known or shown here in Canton. Nonetheless it was he who, more than any other individual, most significantly affected my path as an artist. He didn’t train me in any specific medium, style, or technique. But on his watch during my graduate studies in Expanded Arts at The Ohio State University, he prodded and encouraged me to find and nurture something profoundly more lasting and precious: looking. I mean looking with complete and undivided attention to a thing or a situation. Looking with the whole body, mind, and heart. True looking fosters true seeing, and in turn allows an artist to effectively “frame” it – not literally, but conceptually. And isn’t that the essence of what artists do, regardless of medium?

Telling you precisely what and how I learned from Hebner is much like trying to remember the exact time, and what I said, when I uttered my first complete sentence. I can’t. It’s a memory and an ability far too ingrained to separate from my being now. All I know – and need to know - is that I’ve been speaking in sentences ever since. Hebner’s methodology was as unpredictable and mysterious as it was entertaining, and he certainly wasn’t an art teacher in any orthodox sense. In the context of education, I continue to think of him as a psychoesthetics engineer.

I share this with you as I greatly anticipate the memorial gathering for him that will transpire in Columbus on June 19. I feel honored and humbled to have been asked to say a few words about him in the presence of his family, past students, friends, and colleagues, some of whom I haven’t seen in more than 25 years. Much of my anticipation has been fueled by re-savoring two very small paintings (shown here) he gave to me many years ago. They remind me of how, over time, I came to be ensnared by the magic of his painterly visions. For all of the intense time and energy Hebner devoted to not just his own but also his students’ explorations of temporal (“performance”) art forms, I really believe he was a painter at heart.

In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains his unusual vocabulary to Alice this way:
“ ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”

Hebner was a master of pictorial mischief. I like to think of his abstract paintings as the visual equivalent to what Lewis Caroll called “portmanteaux,” or James Joyce’s “frankenwords” – new terms made by combining two or more old ones. Hebner’s frankenforms, as it were, are hybrids - a recombinant mother tongue invented to describe, simultaneously, the faintly familiar and the singularly strange. Generally, his paintings eschew detailed or logical representations of things in favor of more intriguing, suggestive, often playful optical situations.

I’m not sure when he adopted his signature formal practice of acrylic on masonite panels. I do recall that his work during the 1970s and into the 1980s was characterized by a seemingly minimalist technique of crisp, hard edges, and a fairly controlled, reductivist palette. Even the surfaces had a mechanical precision about them, right down to their very uniform texture (produced, I think, via fine-knap mini-rollers). Yet despite their almost rubber-stamp industrial appearance, the images were imbued with subtle lyricism, demonstrating an uncanny design instinct for engaging asymmetrical balance, and marvelous spatial ambiguities.

Hebner never abandoned those particular esthetic sensibilities. In fact he began sharpening them with increasing intensity and even humor sometime (I’m guessing) in the late 1980’s or early 1990s, when he transitioned from quiet palette and formulaic surfaces into more unabashedly painterly explorations (see the July 26, 2009 post here). There is a substantially rich, visceral energy in this body of work, and a distinctly joyous immersion in tactile surfaces alive with luminous, saturated color. These are works that speak of visions at once enigmatic and accessible – a beguiling topology of meditation itself. The portmanteaux of painted elegance.

Photo: 2 untitled acrylic on masonite paintings by E. F. Hebner, circa early 1980s.
Top: 7” x 7”, Bottom: 10” x 10”

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