Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Picturing Language

Picturing Language

By Tom Wachunas

A few posts ago I shared a recollection, from my college years, of Professor Hoyt Sherman. Here’s another. On more than a few occasions of our discussions about what I thought I was doing with my art, he would seemingly change the subject and tell me that I should pursue a college teaching career because I’d be really good at it. For reasons too many and complicated to share here, I didn’t. At least not right away.

So here I am about to embark upon my fourth year as adjunct faculty in the Fine Arts Dept. at Kent State University Stark. And as the Fall semester quickly approaches, I’m reminded, every time I go to my campus desk to prepare my lecture notes and powerpoint presentation, of how much I truly love this work. It’s a marvelous sensation – this love of one’s work – and it invariably overcomes my self-loathing for having delayed my professional entry into the Hallowed Halls of Academe for 30 years. Mea maxima culpa.

When people ask me what I teach, I have often replied simply, but in all seriousness, “passion.” Passion for observing and seeing. Passion for searching. Passion for the language of art. The course is officially called Art Survey. In my mind, though, it will always be Passion 101. My purpose, then, is a daunting one. But if I can impart to my students even the smallest glowing ember of the fire that burns inside me for ALL the arts, then I’ve earned my paycheck. My best days in the classroom are those when I see at least one pair of eyes widen with a realization, a connection, a challenging question, or a thrilling discovery. Even more, a beautiful mystery fully accepted can be just as enthralling as the one skillfully solved. That’s the power of art.

Speaking of Hallowed Halls, I’ve walked the same corridor to my classroom in the Fine Arts building hundreds of times during the past three years and am only now getting around to talking about the remarkable art there. The north wall of the corridor (just inside the south entrance of the Fine Arts Building, marked 30S) is adorned with six massive panels, painted in oil and cold wax on plaster wall board by Jack McWhorter (Associate Professor of Art at Kent State University Stark)in 2004, each measuring 7’x16’. These aren’t just very big paintings hung on the wall. In large part, they ARE the wall, forming a permanent interior architectural feature of the building. I admit that for my first few weeks on campus back in 2007, the paintings seemed to be an obtuse curiosity, a decorative mystery indeed. After reading the accompanying information about the installation many times (mounted near the drinking fountain on the wall opposite the first panel), seeing the work has become an increasingly mesmerizing experience that I find continually inspiring.

That’s because they remind me of why I’m in the building in the first place: to teach about seeing art. And to do that, I need to use language. Many years ago, impetuous youth being what it is, I used to think that needing and searching for language to ‘explain’ visual art was antithetical to the art experience and thus a little arrogant. The reality is that language is intrinsically connected and necessary to how we extrapolate and communicate (or, translate) the meaning or value of our art.

McWhorter’s work here is called “Stele Forest: A Typographical Fairy Tale.” The panels do in fact bring to mind ancient steles – engraved stone slabs or columns. These are inspired by the alphabets and writing systems of several ancient cultures (Mayan, Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, Greek, and Chinese) and the possibilities they present for organizing pictorial abstractions. I’m not sure exactly what the fairy tale is (is there a hero, a wizard, a damsel, a villain?) beyond an intuition that with this work we are presented with a quest, a search. As pure painting goes, the work is monumentally enthralling. Against earthy grounds that look layered and scraped, each panel is a matrix comprised of intricate calligraphies and pictographs rendered with great confidence and precision, yet never losing the sense that these “letters” are painted with a brush . Within each themed panel there are separate ‘highlighted’ rectangles and corridors of varying dimensions –like rooms within the larger structure. To see the paintings you must walk the length of the narrow hall, all the while gazing up to the frosted skylights, and then going (via stairs or elevator) to the second floor mezzanine hallway to gaze down. This tale can’t be read straight-on at eye level, but from many angles, calling our attentions to things beyond the confines of its painted surface. Seeing art can be challenging that way. So maybe these paintings are a story about making art. A story about the language of looking.

And so it is that every time I pass these impressive monoliths on my way into room 142, I think about what I can say to widen some eyes and open some ears as we speak sincerely about that language. I love this job.

Photo: partial view of “Stele Forest: A Typographical Fairy Tale,” 2004, 6 panels by Jack McWhorter, oil and cold wax on plaster wall board, each panel 7’ x 16’, located in the Fine Arts Building at Kant State University Stark.

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