Sunday, August 15, 2010
By Tom Wachunas
Recently I was reminded of one of my most cherished memories of art studies at The Ohio State University, which transpired shortly after the invention of dirt. They are of the late, great Hoyt Sherman, who not only tolerated but nourished my efforts at making paintings. He didn’t teach me anything about how to paint as such, but rather something more profoundly lasting: how to SEE painting. At some point in the process he said something that became then – and still is now– a mantra of sorts: Painting is first and foremost drawing, and all drawing is configuration in space. I can’t begin to unpack here all the depth and applications contained in that observation, but I assure you that it gets at the heart of how I look at ALL the arts. Regardless of the forms and styles they employ – even temporal and audio forms – all artists are engaged in making decisions about how to draw, i.e., how to configure their chosen elements in space, two-dimensional and otherwise.
Marge May draws with cloth. Specifically, most of the 31 pieces in her exhibit - called “Marge’s Images” at Lynda Tuttle’s Art Center in downtown Canton – are portraits composed largely from pieces of authentic African-styled fabrics that she sometimes enhances with her own dye and paint treatments. These are intricate visual jewels that elevate the craft of cut-and-paste to a magnificent level of artful enchantment… patchwork portraits executed with all the decidedly precise finesse that a master draftsman would ‘draw’ upon in composing a solid picture in any medium.
Marge May understands faces. Not just their anatomy, but their ephemeral underpinnings, the physiognomy of essential human spirit. With one exception (a delightful likeness of gallery proprietor Tuttle), all the portraits are renderings of Black people (most of them anonymous), and usually presented so as to recapitulate their historically rich ethnicity through the colors, textures, and patterns of African culture. And invariably, the eyes of the faces that May constructs are indeed the proverbial windows of souls. This is not easy to achieve with her chosen medium.
The works I’ve seen by other artists making portraits in similar manner are very often just innocently decorative collages and related pleasantries we associate with folk art. May’s works certainly are decorative enough, with their spectacular variety of print patterns that seem to magically interlock. Yet each portrait is, in its own right and despite its smaller-than-life scale, inhabited by a muscular spirit more urgently compelling than simply charming. These faces don’t invite merely casual scrutiny. They command our undivided attention. As in the portrait, interestingly enough, called “You Have My Attention.” The face of the man is marvelously faceted in a sculptural sort of way, his eyes locked with ours in a steady, intense gaze. His hands have broken the picture plane and come between us as if to define a boundary, perhaps. Is he ready to impart a truth about himself, or fend off our inquiries about him? To give or take?
“Serenity,” like so many of the portraits here, presents a similar sense of engaging questions behind the gaze and posture, along with exquisitely rhythmic compositional structure. A mother looks intently past us, through us, far into a place where her sleeping child has yet to arrive. Her hair is electrified, on end, alert. Her hand, resting on her baby’s torso, is both a cradling comfort and a strong, ready shield.
What I find regrettable about this groundbreaking show (the first-ever solo exhibit in Stark County by a Black artist) is that I didn’t visit it sooner, and more than once. It’s up for only a few more weeks (through August 30), and viewing times are limited (see schedule and contact info at the end here). Fear not, though. Lynda Tuttle is willing to open up the gallery beyond her posted schedule if need be. And she’s a delightfully generous hostess with her time in that she’ll regale you with fascinating stories about many of the works.
Vulnerability, dignity, integrity, anxiety, desire, hope, pain, confidence, fear, joy – all woven together here like so many threads in the fabric of humanity. These riveting expressions, drawn so passionately from dazzling fibers, are not, in the end, unique to nameless individuals isolated in disconnected rooms, households, cities, or even nations, or the histories contained therein. Surely on one level, it seems to me, they symbolize the many-colored mantle that humans have donned, for better or worse, as a condition of being alive. And so it is that beyond their breathtaking, complex beauty of ethnic specificity, these transcendent visages speak to and about us all.
Photo, courtesy Lynda Tuttle’s Art Center, “Serenity,” mixed media, by Marge May, on view in “Marge’s Images” / 209 6th Street NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are WEDNESDAY 9a.m. to 5p.m., THURSDAY and FRIDAY 12noon to 5p.m., OR BY APPOINTMENT. Call (330) 452 – 8211. Email lt@LyndaTuttle.com