Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In Praise of the Divine Duvet

In Praise of the Divine Duvet

By Tom Wachunas

Aegolius marveled at the beautiful jeweled garment displayed in one of the museum’s glass showcases. After he read the plaque that explained its history, he was puzzled. “It only says that it illustrates the Legend of the Mishamu,” he said to Nyctea. “But what then is the Legend?”
Nyctea stepped closer to the display, searching it carefully, her eyes glistening with delight. Then she giggled and said, “Well right you are. Maybe I should tell the curator the story too! The Mishamu were an ancient migratory people, ashamed of their plain appearance. They believed they could win favor with The Creator, and stand once again in his presence, if only they could clothe themselves in robes like the one he made for Lucifer. It was a magnificent robe, as large as the earth, and made of precious stones. When Lucifer was cast down to earth, his robe shattered into millions of tiny pieces. The Mishamu spent all their days wandering, looking for pieces to make their robes.”

- from “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit –

Some of you might recall my mention of Carole Pollard’s work in my August 28 post, “Anima Humana,” which was about a group show at Summit Art Space in Akron called “My Spirit Rises.” Therein I fairly raved about two of Pollard’s quilts – “Awakening” and her triptych, “Melville’s Angel (I, II, III).” Fortunately for Canton viewers who missed the Akron show, those works plus eight other of her quilts are now on display through November 4 at Stark State College, in the second floor gallery of the Student Center.

Maybe a new word needs to be coined for this show, to circumvent tired clichés like ‘stunning,’ ‘breathtaking,’ or ‘astonishing.’ Let’s for now just call it Pollardian. The bar she has set in the realm of quilting (or fiber arts, if you prefer) is a lofty one indeed.

While there are some pieces here that are relatively rudimentary in structure and design, even the simplest (‘earlier’ works, perhaps) are exciting in their own right – particularly for their color. But the quilts that break the picture plane, as it were, with their astoundingly complex print and dye patterns, as well as delightfully eccentric rhythms of stitch and patch work, are certainly the most compelling. In that area, “Things Fall Apart” is a good (and humorous) example for starters, with its deliberately frayed edges and tangles of loose thread that punctuate its interior intricacies. Speaking of punctuation, when you look at “Chi,” don’t miss the tiny yellow and light blue triangles right in the center of the black-and-white Yin-Yang motif. They bring the rainbow periphery of the quilt into a vibrant counterpoint, like going from a whisper to a shout.

And once again I was drawn to “Awakening.” Not that I’m lazy or at a loss for words, but I think I got it right in my first assessment of the work when I saw it in Akron. So I’ll quote myself: “The thread work alone… is a journey unto itself. A road map to infinity? Combined with myriad colors and intertwined patterns upon intricate patterns, it’s an explosive celebration, perhaps, of celebration itself.” Additionally, the contour of the piece suggests a butterfly, or maybe a symmetrical universe unfolding in all its sumptuous textures and minute visual configurations.

There is about these Pollardian miracles of fiber a distinct spirituality – a visual and tactile magic at once archetypal and very contemporary. They conjure things both deeply personal and downright cosmic. Micro- and macroscopic. They might even be the raiment of angels.

Photo, courtesy Stark State College: “Awakening,” quilt by Carole Pollard, on view through November 4 at Stark State College Student Center. RECEPTION FOR THE ARTIST in Room 204 on WEDNESDAY, Sept. 29, 5 to 7 p.m. Gallery viewing hours 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday – Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, and 8 a.m. to noon Saturday

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Fantastic Fource

A Fantastic Fource

By Tom Wachunas

At least two significant developments have transpired for the Linden String Quartet since being last season’s quartet in residence at the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO). First, the ensemble (violinists Sarah McElravy and Catherine Cosbey, violist Eric Wong, and cellist Felix Umansky) - all former CSO members - is now the graduate quartet in residence at Yale University under the Tokyo String Quartet. In introducing the Linden String Quartet at this season’s first installment of the Aultman Primetime Series of midday chamber music concerts at Cable Hall on September 23, CSO President and CEO Stephen Wogaman noted that the move would be a loss for Canton audiences, but certainly an important and well-deserved appointment for the quartet.

The second development is of a more ephemeral nature, but every bit as important to any quartet, and something that evades easy defining. Call it an evolution of aural presence. This is not to say that such was in any way a weakness in their performances of the last season. Their sound was and is eminently rich. But this concert showcased an even broader palette of emotional color, along with a ramped-up unity and precision of blended tonalities that transcends mere technical command of the material – something at which they’re already proven masters.

In both program selections – String Quartet No.2 by William Walton, and Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 (“American”)- the quartet performed with a fluid energy and confidence, elucidating the material as if had been written just for them. Additionally, both selections were delightful vehicles for the quartet’s tight, nuanced intonations and spot-on phrasing.

In his introductory comments about the Walton piece (written 1945-47), violist Eric Wong observed that the work (unlike the popular “American” by Dvorak) is not commonly heard in live concert settings. After hearing it here, it’s difficult to imagine why. While critics in Walton’s day bemoaned the work’s lack of any notable innovations, it is nonetheless imbued with an interestingly compact structure as well as genuine emotionality, which the quartet communicated with hypnotic authority. And particularly in the second and fourth movements, the quartet delivered Walton’s rhythmic vitality – intricate, fast, and frolicsome – with astonishing brio. Such passages were a piquant counterpoint to the work’s undercurrent of haunting melancholy, often gorgeously voiced by the viola.

On the other hand, the many jaunty passages in the Dvorak work are all about optimism, contentment, and bucolic serenity. Some conjure birdsong, others the pleasant rhythms of trains crossing the Iowa landscapes that drew Dvorak’s attention when he wrote the work in 1893. At no other point in the concert was the quartet more voluptuous in sound (the violin and cello work was nothing short of magnificent), or warmly deep in spirit, than in the second (Lento) movement. It is a quieting, mournful song of longing, and certainly among the most memorable slow movements ever composed. Performing it effectively requires a reverential sensibility and mature artistry, both of which were in abundance here. Bravo, bravo.

If, in their future endeavors, the youthful Linden String Quartet sustains this kind of aural magic and technical virtuosity, seamlessly melded with real passion, I can’t see how it will be all that long a wait before the classical music world at large will hear what we in Canton have been celebrating all along.

Photo courtesy Linden String Quartet home page at www.lindenquartet.com

Canton Symphony Orchestra presents Aultman Primetime Series (Thursdays at 1p.m.), and PNC Casual Friday Series (Fridays at 7p.m.) of informal chamber music concerts at Cable Recital Hall, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton. For schedule and ticket information, visit www.cantonsymphony.org or phone (330) 452-2094, Mon. – Fri. 10a.m. to 2p.m.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Choppy Waters

Choppy Waters

By Tom Wachunas

“Watercolour could have been used more by the modernists. It is so direct, and when the white paper convention is accepted, so powerful, even brutal, that it would seem an ideal medium.” - David Milne –

“Make the best of an emergency.” - John Singer Sargent –

“Why are so many of them driven to mimic what is already unutterably beautiful? Let them paint the unseen with their wet colors. Then their precious medium will have arrived!” - June Godwit –

Once upon a time, I thought that going to a watercolor show was a bad, boring idea. All those sacharrin landscapes, bouquets, and still-lifes looked like so many liquid love letters from Hallmark Greetings. I simply had no interest in the gutless purview of starry-eyed Sunday painters, well-intentioned hobbyists, or sincere retirees dabbling in the tricks and special effects that amateur watercolorists learn along the way in their “training.” So OK, maybe I was an ignorant snob, entrenched in what 19th century philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer called “condemnation prior to investigation.”

The current show of 77 paintings in the main gallery at the Canton Museum of Art – The 33d Annual Exhibition of the Ohio Watercolor Society – offers some evidence that watercolor can be a seriously substantial medium, and certainly not limited to predictable, formulaic and “liquidy” representational imagery. Having said that, I offer one caveat: there are still too many works here of the sort that fueled my youthful disdain for the medium in the first place. And to be fair, it’s worth noting that we need to take “watercolor” in this case to mean “water media,” because many pieces, indicated by the quality of surface and paint densities, clearly employ gouache, acrylic (or, at the very least, acrylic-based mixers and finishes), and maybe even common latex house paints.

Additionally, as I’ve mentioned many times in the past, I have no complaints about representational art as a genre, provided it ventures beyond the clichéd themes and tired approaches that seem to plague so many watercolor exhibitions – this one included. In short, this is an uneven show at best, both as a showcase for representational art, and abstraction.

In the former category, “St. Bernadette” – a boat scene - by Neil David Mack is stunning for both its precision and its subdued light, like a velvety fog. On the other hand, the gorgeous light in “Waiting to Board ‘Goodtime’” by Lois Salmon Toole is bright and golden as it illuminates the couple seated on a bench that seems to float in isolation on an infinite plaza of cobblestones. Serene and surreal. On a much more loose and heady note, there’s George Kocar’s “Behind the Curtain: Pablo Looks at Judith.” The cartoony, pseudo-Cubist styling (hence the Pablo in the title?) is remarkably refreshing, and the “story” being told is a rendition, perhaps, of Biblical Judith beheading Holofernes, while a crazed-looking Pablo spies on the proceedings.

Interestingly enough, abstract works are in very short supply here, and the most effective of those happen to be the most compelling works of the entire show. “Bright Beginnings” by Mel Grunau is indeed the beginning of something intriguing coming together, or maybe rising from within the picture plane, with its barely defined forms, undulating muted colors, and gestural scratches. “Unfinished Life” by Rosie Huart is considerably more emotionally sobering – even jarring- in its muscular simplicity of composition drenched in black and grays. Yet it’s that severity of palette that effectively invites quiet focus on the elegiac text collaged into the surface. A severe palette (though the red is electrifying) and density of textured surface is also at work in Carol Mendenhall’s “Cells of Imagination.” It too is a strong and simple composition, its forms elegantly balanced amid the energetic paint handling.

One ironic aspect of all the art works to see currently at the Canton Museum of Art is that this watercolor show, the ‘flagship’ show in the main gallery is, piece-for-piece, unsatisfying when compared to the smaller gallery shows by Dr. Fredlee Votaw and Mark Chepp (both reviewed here in recent posts). So while there are certainly fewer works to encounter in those side galleries, a visit to the museum before October 31 might well remind you that less can indeed be more.

Photo: “Cells of Imagination,” watercolor by Carol Mendenhall, on view in the 33’d Annual Exhibition of the Ohio Watercolor Society, through October 31 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, Ohio. For Museum hours and other info, call (330) 453 – 7666 or visit www.cantonart.org

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Radio Redemption

Radio Redemption

By Tom Wachunas

There’s a lot of talk these days about the impending demise of newspapers – you know, those things with words and pictures printed on machine-finished wood pulp. It seems that digital technology via the Internet is increasingly sounding the death knell of such bulky delivery systems for ideas and information. To an arguably comparable degree, radio as we’ve known it could be similarly doomed.

And so it is that, on the face of it, there’s something gently anachronistic about the subject of a new play by New Philadelphia playwright and actor Rod Lang, called “Air Check.” Part comedy, part drama, the production is directed by Phillip L. Robb, and was premiered by the Richard Moore Theatre Company on September 17 at Theatre 8:15 in Green. Most of the ‘action’ unfolds at the console in Studio A at WPOW (“We put the POW in Power”) AM Radio, and centers around veteran talk-show host Mike Barker (“The Barker” to his fans) and his night time call-in show, “Talk to Me.” In a stunt to boost flagging ratings, station owner Jack Peterson strong-arms Barker into having dinner (which Barker is to deliver) at the house of the winner of a call-in contest. When the reluctant talk-show host, whose faith in himself and his program is at a ten-year low, meets the winner, life-changing things happen for both of them.

Whenever Phillip L. Robb is directing, it’s largely a foregone conclusion that his cast members will be top-notch, and he’ll be at the top of his game in eliciting from them remarkably nuanced authenticity. Here, no one disappoints.

As The Barker, Rod Lang has the perfect radio voice – sonorous, warm, and authoritative. Lang is masterful at progressively turning that warmth into cold sarcasm toward his callers (and colleagues), and that authority into sardonic insults. His character has grown weary of his routine, and apathetic to the “community bulletin board” direction of his show. He’s just as masterful in portraying his character’s catharsis as a result of meeting the contest winner, one Ralph Pinkney.

That character is played with startling credibility by Verne Davis. In an ironic turn of events, we learn that Pinkney was once king of the talk-show mountain years ago (known to his fans then as Pinky Reese) at the same station before his alcoholic fall from grace and subsequent disappearance into obscurity and sober poverty. But he never stopped listening to and loving the station. Owning neither a television nor a computer, WPOW is his only real link to the world, the only voice that calls him out of his past. In his encounter with the jaded Barker, he imparts some timely and very poignant advice. Davis’s portrayal of contrition and nervous timidity is artful and riveting, as is his own transformation in the story.

Elsewhere in the cast, Denise Robb is a comedic marvel in playing the hilarious Trixy Walters, who hosts her own health and wellness show. Soaring high on sugar, she lavishes bubbly platitudes about self-esteem and the good life on her listeners as she gorges herself on mega-doses of junk food. Meanwhile, Jim Long, playing the ever-present and dependable sound engineer, silently mimics her conversation with sassy relish. Later he goes head-to-head with Barker in a convincing display of frustration and anger that gives way to a re-cemented friendship. And speaking of displays of anger, Robert Fockler, playing the station owner, turns in a genuinely commanding picture of an utterly furious boss when he learns that Barker co-hosted a show with Pinkney.

As stage writing goes, there’s just a hint of the Ghost of Literature Past at work here. I’m reminded of the transformation of Scrooge. And really, who could tire of stories that speak of compassion in how we view and treat each other – of how we are called to truly hear each other? By the end of this thoroughly engaging story, The Barker begins to purr, and his listeners are the richer for it.

“Air Check” at Theatre 8:15, 4740 Massillon Road in Green. Shows at 8:15p.m. on September 18, 24, and 25; also 2:30 p.m. on September 19 and 25. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students and senior citizens, available by calling (330) 896-0339, or at the door prior to performance.

Photo: front row, left-to-right: Verne Davis and Rod Lang; back row, left-to-right, Jim Long, Robert Fockler, Denise Robb

Friday, September 17, 2010



By Tom Wachunas

Nyctea was nestled against the trunk of her favorite Oak. She was studying something she held carefully in her cupped hands, close to her face. Aegolius approached quietly and sat down next to her.
“What have you got there?” he asked.
“I’m not exactly certain,” she replied slowly, “but it’s so very interesting.” She opened her hands wider for him to see.
He glanced down and said, “What’s so interesting about some seeds and twigs?”
“You look too fast,” she scolded. “Look slowly!”
“Oh very well,” Aegolius huffed. After a while his eyes grew wider. “Oh my,” he whispered. Then, “Oh my my!”

- from “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit -

The current exhibit at Gallery at Main Hall, on the Kent State University at Stark campus, is called “Freshly Hatched” and features works by five Master of Fine Arts graduate students. To the casual passerby, some of their small pieces might seem inconsequential, or overwhelmed by the relatively vast white surrounds of the gallery walls. But don’t be deceived by the apparent lack of physical mass. Big ideas – intriguing ideas - can come in small packages. Just how big and intriguing is of course a relative matter, so I’ll proceed in ascending order as to what I feel to be those most engaging.

Each of the two graphite and acrylic ‘portraits’ by Nicole Calderon – “Momscape” and “Dadscape” - is a simplistic juxtaposition of two heads (on blank white ground) seen from the back. On the left is a fairly ordinary drawing of the ‘real’ head, and on the right the same shape is filled in with a colored rendering suggestive of foliage and floral elements. Maybe it’s a tribute to what’s on Mom and Dad’s minds. Contemplating their garden?

Tabitha Ott makes tiny objects – jewelry of sorts - of clear cast resin. They appear to contain miniature worlds of rich, shiny blue specks and dots interspersed with passages of aluminum and silver that sometimes have the look of miniscule digital circuitry, as in “Undulating Bracelet”. It’s unfortunate that these simply-shaped baubles have to be encased on their pedestal, because they beg to be held close to the eyes, so as to savor their subtle complexities.

The untitled jewelry pieces by Nikki Coupee, on the other hand, are larger and mounted directly on the wall. Inspired by antique jewelry for royalty, Coupee fabricates her precious stones to look like the real thing, sometimes suggesting the “jewelry for the masses” of old, she tells us in her statement, by incorporating traditional enamel work and steel. Bordering on gaudy theatricality, these are impeccably crafted objects, and convincing in how they conjure the look of period pieces.

Annie Stimson’s “Ova” is a haunting and delicate horizontal row of 20 glass pipets attached to the gallery wall at eye level, each filled with tiny fresh water pearls. The work is so transparent that it seems to progressively solidify right before your eyes as you get closer. Then you notice that from the bottom tip of each pipet a thread hangs straight down to the floor, where all 20 strands rest, piled into a gossamer-like tangle. The combination of materials, along with the work’s verticality and horizontality, brings a fascinating tension into play, both visual and conceptual. Is life (implied by the ‘eggs’ in the pipets?) merely an inexorable downward progression into chaos, or the manageable (and fragile) hope of rising from it?

The same cool precision of presentation that characterizes Stimson’s work here – like mounted laboratory specimens – is also evident in the pieces by Lesley Sickle: “Small Collection 1-6” and “Contaminated Forms 1-5.” These very small sculptures are comprised of color drawings from photographs of diseased human cells, silk- screened on to strips of drafting vellum. The pieces are transparent and in “Small Collection 1-6,” rest on clear plexiglass “shelves.” Even the shadows cast on the wall are somewhat translucent, enhancing the intricacy of the organic forms that look like deformed Mobius strips, or corroded double-helix configurations. Stimson’s works are quite successful in translating the ideas she articulates in her statement about diseased cells further degraded by the toxic interventions of modern medicine that our society increasingly embraces. The eerie beauty of their amorphous, superficial colors belies a deeper, uglier reality.

These are elegant metaphors for the corruptibility of our physical nature, certainly, and perhaps even, to some degree, our spirituality. It’s a large idea, presented in a manner both clinical and intimate, born out of an appreciation of microscopic phenomena.

Photo: “Small Collection 1-66” by Leslie Sickle, on view in “Freshly Hatched” through September 30, Gallery At Main Hall, on the campus of Kent State University Stark, 6000 Frank Ave. NW, North Canton, Ohio. Gallery hours: Mon. – Fri. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. to Noon.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Software Euphoria by the Numbers

Software Euphoria by the Numbers

By Tom Wachunas

Sometimes I wonder if there were any class-action suits brought against the Palmer Paint Company for false advertising in 1951. That’s the year when the company unleashed on the world its Craft Master paint-by-number kits, their box tops emblazoned with “Every man a Rembrandt!” I can just about imagine some infuriated wannabes wondering why their promised ‘masterpieces’ looked so much like, well,…paint-by-number.

Over the past several years I’ve noticed increasing numbers of art students cranking out the modern equivalent of paint-by-number compositions – pictures obviously generated through various photoshop and digital effects programs. My concern is that maybe too many studio painting curricula are abandoning the disciplines of careful, real-time observation of physical reality and developing muscle-memory for the hands, in favor of the wow factor delivered by quick-fix software. Still, and more important, the issue brings up deeper considerations about the very nature of the creative act, and the efficacy of artists’ decision-making processes as related to the tools at their disposal.

So it’s fascinating to weigh these considerations in light of the eight large portraits by Mark Chepp, currently on view at the Canton Museum of Art, in his exhibit called “Post Digital Figuration.” Yes, the wow factor is most definitely in the room. And yes, Chepp’s no Rembrandt. But who says he has to be? Even though his employment of computer software is intrinsic to the look of his canvases, there is abundant evidence here of intelligent and imaginative choices, a discerning eye, and highly skilled brush work on Chepp’s part.

In his posted artist’s statement, he tells us that his paintings grow out of “a high-to-low-tech trajectory.” Photo images are digitally broken down, progressively transformed into numbered fragments that are assigned colors by the software program, traced by the artist on to the painting surface (with an added rectilinear grid), which he then paints in. What he describes is a formula, to be sure, and he is very clear that his aesthetic is driven by process.

Such audacious interfacing with technology (Chepp calls the computer his “collaborator”) might stir the ire of traditionalists who question the creative integrity of the process, perhaps viewing it as ‘cheating’ of a kind. But the products of Chepp’s employment of technology are, in the end, arresting, indeed euphoric visual experiences. Both the end and the means are conjoined into a symbiotic entity. His electrifying pictures are grounded in relationships between regular geometric structures and wonderfully eccentric patterns, and the sumptuous physicality of the paint he so meticulously applies.

There is in most of the paintings an intriguing tension between industrial slickness of surface and visceral texture. “Emanate” is a wild celebration of controlled impasto abandon – a tactile oil paint tapestry - and “Emerge” is a tour-de-force of shiny technicolor chaos morphing into more defined organic shapes. While there’s no really emotional resonance to these faces in mid-melt, a human hand is nonetheless very much at work.

Ultimately these pieces bring to mind the overarching question of who or what is the actual art-making agent. Is artistic creativity to be evaluated solely on the basis of ‘classical’ working procedures and methods? The history of painting is rich with practices driven by all kinds of formulas, procedures, devices, and ‘tricks’ – all derived from the constant evolution of human ingenuity. Lest we forget, digital technology is a human invention intended to serve and enhance the experience of being human.

And so it is that in viewing Chepp’s creative decision to embrace the marvels of software, we are in effect invited to witness an eminently solid friendship.

Photo: “Dissolve,” (courtesy Canton Museum of Art) acrylic on canvas, by Mark Chepp, on view in his exhibit, “Post Digital Figuration,” through October 31 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, Ohio. For Museum hours and other info, call (330) 453 – 7666 or visit www.cantonart.org

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dream Whisperer

Dream Whisperer

By Tom Wachunas

If there’s such a thing as having the ability to artistically formalize the metaphysics of memory and dreams, Dr. Fredlee Votaw has it. Like some of the titles of Votaw’s works, my scribbled notes on his show of 25 mixed media pieces at The Canton Museum of Art, called “Restless Dreams”, seem like the beginnings of prose poems: inklings of faint certainties; distant, old melodies or memories perceived through vapors of the crowded present. The images here live on the cusp of revelation, the ethereal edge of familiarity, many of them imbued with a sepia patina of old wood, faded linen, tarnished metal.

Aside from Votaw’s astonishing precision as a draftsman, and his uncanny feel for lusciously tactile surfaces (which is all certainly compelling enough), the wonder of these pieces is in their power to evoke. This is to say that in as much as these works represent what Votaw calls a visual diary – something intrinsically personal to him – they’re not so private or obtuse that they can’t evoke connections and associations every bit as personal to us, the viewers. And the essence of those connections and associations is centered in lovingly recollected people, places, and moments, whether joyous and tender, bittersweet, or melancholic.

One of the more intriguing and recurring (and enigmatic) motifs in Votaw’s assemblages are metallic passages he creates with what must be very painstakingly laid-in clusters of tiny nails, as in “Thinking About the Holocaust.” In the top half of the work is a large face - pale, hairless, haunted and haunting, with eyes that seem to peer into and beyond history itself. Beneath the face there is a wreath of sorts, made of intertwined pairs of human hands – some in prayer, some limp, some partially open in pain or supplication. Those tiny nails form a frame, or an aura around the wreath. So many of them! Like a procession gathered ‘round the cruel magnet of human tragedy.

Votaw’s graphite drawings here are utterly stunning in their meticulous, mesmerizing detail and subtle textures, as in “Wedding Ring Quilt Dreams,” or “She Dreamed of the Butterfly Her Soldier Boy Caught for Her.” Yet they aren’t cold and calculated exercises in photorealism. Rather, they seem to have real breath - simply, even magically appearing out of white mists.

The quality of the markings in these and so many other works in this show is such that you get the sense Votaw has not so much ‘drawn’ as somehow coaxed and whispered them on to his surfaces. They’re the kind of whispers that are the soundtracks of dreams, transformed into physical imprints of memories – never too loud or too deep, but always gently steady and quietly urgent.

Photo: “When We Gazed Up at the Night Sky, I Saw the Wonder of the Stars, While She Saw Only the Blackness In-between,” mixed media assemblage by Dr. Fredlee Votaw, on view in his exhibit, “Restless Dreams,” through October 31 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, Ohio. For Museum hours and other info, call (330) 453 – 7666 or visit www.cantonart.org

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

(Recon)Figuring the Fifties

(Recon)Figuring the Fifties

By Tom Wachunas

“It must have been a very magical time, the fifties,” Aegolius said, his voice cracking, a tear streaking his face. “People seemed so happy.”
Nyctea was taken aback by his weepy display. Gathering her thoughts, she looked deep into his eyes for a long time before answering. “But you were too young then, my love. How could you know?”
“Well, there are the magazines I saw at the museum, and those movies, and television and…”
His voice trailed off as Nyctea touched his shoulder gently and said, “Many people were unhappy and troubled, and they…”
Aegolius interrupted, “Who? What did they do?”
“They made the sixties,” she replied.

- from “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit –

According to some, the 1950s in America was the best of times – a period of confidence and optimism, of vigorous renewal after the bloodbath of World War II. A time when societal roles and expectations were solidified. When men were breadwinners and women proud of it. When houses were built and bought and filled with babies. And stuff. Lots of stuff. Television was becoming an increasingly ubiquitous funhouse mirror. Therein we saw pristine likenesses of ourselves – a collective Narcissus with Pepsodent-Bright smile living happily amid our stuff in a stupor of conformity. Meanwhile, McCarthyism poisoned our hearts with atomic angst and Cold War paranoia. We built bomb shelters and blacklists. Yet through it all The Duke swaggered, Disney dazzled, Ol’ Blue eyes crooned, Marilyn seduced, and Elvis began his sultry swivel into pop immortality. But lest we forget the real hipsters, remember how Pollock splattered, Ginsberg howled, Dean rebelled just because, and Kerouac hit the American road to the beat of his band of very different drummers. The tides of change were swelling inexorably, and the undertow of discontent amid consumerist complacency was getting stronger.

Is it any wonder that the sixties hit us like a sunami, immersing us once and for all in a catastrophic sludge of divisive sociopolitical and moral pluralisms? And is it any wonder that a thinking child of the eighties might on one hand be attracted to the superfluous accoutrements of fifties promise and stability, and on the other be suspicious of its rubber-stamped charm?

Ashley Barlow was born in the eighties, and sometime during her childhood a fascination with the fifties blossomed. Her one-woman show at Anderson Creative, “ON THE ROCKS: Re-imagining the 50s,” is a thematic installation immediately striking in its physical sparseness. There’s a lot of air here, leaving considerable room to negotiate mental connections. For all the text Barlow provides (via vintage game flash cards incorporated with her mixed media collages), the words and phrases are more cryptic than overtly informative, effectively challenging viewers to fill in the conceptual blanks. Her keen interest in the distinctive iconography and industrial/ consumer designs of the 1950s would seem to run much deeper than merely re-packaging their cosmetic appeal.

The authentic kitchen setting at the front end of the gallery effectively lays out the menu, as it were, for the entire show. Mint green dinnerware against faux red marbleized oval tabletop, and Philco refrigerator with its rounded corners, are reminders that overly-intense color contrasts and sharp edges just won’t do in the idyllic 50s. But check out the curtained window and the scene collaged on to the panes. In the ‘foreground’ is a well-dressed woman gazing into a space (time?) far past us, seemingly unaware of the free-falling figure in the sky – a distressed businessman tethered to a severed rope. Who in this scenario is really ignorant of, or guilty of something, or perhaps at a major crossroads? As the title says, “Indeed, I Haven’t the Slightest Idea.”

In the posted large- print interview with the artist, Barlow explains her youthful love of the 50s with references to “the crispness of that world,” and the “dependable” look of the pin-up girls. “It was a sexy decade without all the sex in your face,” she tells us. “It left something to be imagined.” And therein is perhaps the soul of this exhibit – the imagining, the tension between the apparent and implied, the said and unsaid, the façade and the things underneath that an entire decade so anxiously repressed and homogenized.

So there’s great irony here. Particularly with her mixed media collages on canvas, Barlow seems to be (arguably) not so much appreciating as questioning her original school-girl attraction to a distant time – its esthetics, its values - wondering now just how crisp and dependable the 50s really were. In “Upgrade Now,” a man wearing a white jacket is apparently ‘demonstrating’ a naked pin-up girl, tummy-down on a beach towel or sheet, to an enthralled group of nattily dressed women. Upgrade to what – aspiring to be the ideal woman? And in “To Be Quite Truthful, I Don’t Know Myself,” a disheveled (hung over?) man leans on his bathroom sink, peering at the floating hallucination of a Vegas showgirl. Haunted by another fantasy, or regretting last night’s debauchery?

Interestingly enough, after seeing this show, I can’t get Eddie Haskell out of my head. He’s the weasly, two-faced wise guy from “Leave it to Beaver,” the wildly popular sitcom that premiered on CBS in 1957. Hindsight being the better part of social wisdom, I appreciate him now more than I did then. Then, he earned our disdain, with his toady politeness. While he was the closest thing to a sycophant that television of the day could cheerfully portray, now I can see his hypocrisy as a necessary companion to the greater hypocrisies of his time. He was such an easy target for our ridicule because he diverted attention from our own shortcomings and insecurities, even as we touted the squeaky-clean values and smoothed edges of idealized suburbia.

If it isn’t already apparent to you by now, I think Barlow’s art brings much to our ideological table to chew on. Fifties nostalgia aside, I’m left wondering, when it comes to our ideals and ethics and social behaviors, if we’re really any better off now than we were then, with our formulas for clean and proper living, our plans for hopeful futures. More important, will we get it right in the decade(s) to come? To be quite truthful, I don’t know myself, Mrs. Cleaver. Like the stark, empty backgrounds in several of Barlow’s canvases, both the past and future remain fill-in-the-blank propositions.

Photo: “To Be Quite Truthful, I Don’t Know Myself,” mixed media collage by Ashley Barlow, on view in her exhibit. “ON THE ROCKS: Re-Imagining the 50s” at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio – through September 25. Gallery hours Tuesday – Saturday 12:00 – 5:00.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Full Disclothiers

Full Disclothiers

By Tom Wachunas

Burlesque, in its classic sense, was any form of theatrical or literary parody that treated trivial, inconsequential events or behaviors as profound, serious drama. By the time Vaudeville came around, a night at “The Burlesque” meant rowdy audiences howling at slapstick comedy skits interspersed with striptease acts. Low-brow entertainment at its cheekiest, but nonetheless brow-raising. By the 1980s, stripping as entertainment was no longer the strict purview of female performers, as the Chippendales male dance revues became a world-wide club phenomenon.

The Full Monty, originally a 1997 British film which then premiered as a Broadway comedy hit in 2001, opens at The Players Guild Theatre in Canton on September 10. The musical could be called, to a limited extent, a burlesque with male strippers. But these “dancers” aren’t of the chiseled, lithe Chippendales variety. These are six unemployed Buffalo steelworkers with troubled lives, and who are, alternately, too fat, too skinny, too bald, too old, too dorky, or too shy. And so on another level, if you’re among those who worship flawless, glowing skin and the iconic superficialities of “beautiful” physiques, you might regard this production as something of a grotesque.

But if there’s any real ugliness here, it’s surely in the characters’ dire circumstances, personal and collective, and how not just their livelihoods, but their dignity and self-esteem have been terribly damaged. The central character, Jerry Lukowski, played here with genuine warmth by Michael Laymon, is desperate to find enough money to maintain child support payments to his ex-wife, else he’ll lose shared custody of his beloved son. Inspired by the popularity of a Chippendales act at the local night club, he masterminds a plan to form a male stripper troupe with five other equally desperate companions, all victims of the steel plant closing. The plan is to do one show only and share a hefty paycheck. Only very late in the action do they determine that just cavorting about in their shiny red G-strings won’t sell out the show. So they promise ticket-buyers “the full Monty” (a peculiar British slang for “the whole ball of wax,” as we learn in the program notes from director Jonathan Tisevich).

Speaking of director Tisevich, he’s done something remarkable in terms of casting not only Laymon, but also his five compatriots: Don Jones as Harold, Brian Sharfenberg as Malcolm, Daryl Robinson as ‘Horse,’ Dave Lapp as Dave, and Greg Rininger as Ethan. All are eminently delightful as actors, comedic and otherwise. One particularly electric scene/song – “Big Ass Rock” - transpires when Jerry and Dave stop Malcolm from committing suicide. Sharfenberg’s portrayal of the timid Malcolm here, and later in his solo “You Walk With Me,” is a perfect mix of awkward self-consciousness and heartrending sincerity. Lapp and Jones deliver one of the evening’s more poignant moments in their duet, “You Rule My World,” as does Laymon with a love song to his sleeping son, Nathan (played by Jacob Spina), in “Breeze off the River.” Throughout the evening, Rininger is gut-splittingly funny in his unsuccessful attempts to perfect running UP a wall. And in his portrayal of the character Noah ‘Horse’ Simmons, auditioning for a spot in the stripper line with “Big Black Man,” Daryl Robinson is a riveting, comical whirlwind of goofy kitsch moves.

Strictly speaking, not one of these performers is a virtuoso singer. Each in his own way sings David Yazbek’s lyrics, both mischievous and tender, in a clipped, Randy Newman-ish fashion, even to the point where some moments are slightly off-key. Yet despite such shortfalls in technical finesse, it is precisely this kind of disarmingly raw, workman-like delivery that makes these characters so completely credible and endearing. Blue-collar chic, to be sure. We’ve all probably known folks like these, and in our current real-life season of national economic distress, their performances here drip with authentic urgency, even as raucous hilarity runs throughout.

In that regard, Melissa Brobeck, playing Harold’s wife Vicki, has an electrifying singing voice to go along with her uncanny and well-honed comedic sensibility. Kudos, too, to Teresa Houston for her schmoozy-boozy rendering of Jeanette, the troupe’s matronly and sardonic piano accompanist. Additionally, the seven-piece orchestra led by Steve Parsons provides as professional and sonorous a reading of a Broadway score as you’ll ever hear in these parts.

Some prudes and purists might balk at such ‘adult’ theatrics, or question the efficacy of its frickin’ language. But the lewdness and irreverence in this case aren’t tacked-on or superfluous sensationalism. What resonates most vigorously here is the story of love and commitment that binds and heals amid gritty turmoil. As Tisevich reminds us with the Latin motto in his program notes, “Aude aliquid dignum!” Dare something worthy!

So in the end, do they really do the Full Monty? Gee, let me string you along a bit further. The climax, triumphal and flashy, is dazzling.

Players Guild Theatre of Canton presents The Full Monty, opening Friday September 10 and running through September 26. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $22 for adults, $17 for those 17 and younger. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office or by calling (330) 453 – 7617, and are also available online 24 hours a day at www.playersguildtheatre.com

Photo courtesy Players Guild Theatre