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

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