Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tripping the Turpentine Fantastic

Tripping the Turpentine Fantastic

By Tom Wachunas

I’ve used the image accompanying this post before. I’m using it again. Get over it. It’s an oil painting called “Leitzel” by Frank Dale, our region’s master teacher of the Flemish method. Unfortunately I am not able to see the show at the Gallery at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, “Legacy: The Master and His Students – The Life and Work of Frank Dale,” which ends on June 30. But I have seen and written about his work in the past, including my post of August 21, 2009, about his breathtaking one-man show at the Canton Museum of Art. Additionally, I’ve commented in the past, sometimes extensively, on a number of his students who are also in this show, including Pam Larocco, Michelle Mulligan, Erin Mulligan, Debra Thompson, and Kris Wyler – remarkable artists all.

Here, then, I am simply tying up some loose ends of my abiding appreciation of Dale and his painting method. It is one, of course, that he didn’t invent outright, but rather researched vigorously, adapted and personalized to one extent or another, I’m sure, and then went one important step further: passed it on. So ‘Legacy’ is a great word to put into the title of his latest show. For without his generous teacher’s heart (along with a handful of like-minded others, wherever they may be) and desire to preserve a technique for which he is clearly passionate, this kind of painting may all but disappear from our midst. And that would be a great loss.

I have been aware for a long time that there are innumerable “contemporary” artists and educators who dismiss this re-kindling of Old Masters methodology as an irrelevant curiosity, or a meaningless anomaly in this overly-democratic era of unfettered, in-your-face expression. I submit to you that such an attitude indicates a laziness of the soul, a tragic reluctance to recognize and savor the disciplines needed to make compelling images in a traditional manner. To make truly beautiful, timeless things. To make poetry. To make magic.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a studied and deep connection to many kinds of painting, both representational and abstract, new and old. The great Expressionists of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, speak to me just as much as Leonardo or the Van Eyck brothers. But I fear that our love affair with wild modernity has ventured into murky waters as we drift farther away from the lessons and visions of the past. We have increasingly become enamored of the notion that anyone can be called an artist (and celebrated as such) not because they’ve rigorously learned, practiced, and mastered a skill, but simply because they made something “unique.”

Consider for a moment these ingredients that Dale listed in his statement as necessary to his “system” of painting: Amber, Copal, Mastic, Venetian Turpentine, Canadian Balsam. The words roll off the tongue like an alchemist’s inventory. These are some of the raw materials that contribute to magical, glassy surfaces, and colors that seem to go on forever, simmering and glowing deep beneath the shine - literally inside the painting, not just resting on top. And let’s not forget impeccable draftsmanship and the demands of careful observation.

I like to think of Frank Dale as a composer as well as a conductor. I know for a fact that in the world of symphonic music there is great concern as to building new, younger audiences for the masters – Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and a magnificent host of others. Hope rests, for better or worse, in our arts education programs, which in many regions are non-existent, in others a shambles. Similarly, lingering questions come to mind in the world of visual arts. It’s one thing for Dale to pass his baton, as it were, to new teachers.

The bigger question is whether or not new students - who have been taught to savor history - will be there to receive, treasure, and continue to pass on an invaluable legacy.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

It's a shame you aren't able to actually see the show, Tom. It's a wonderful grouping of the various maturities of Frank's students and a real testimony to his passion for teaching and his love of painting.