Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Business As Usual

Business As Usual

By Tom Wachunas

“There is always a demand for fresh mediocrity. In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.” - Paul Gauguin –

“The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.” -John Stuart Mill –

“We modernists are far too willing to forsake the sublime in favor of celebrating crude dabbling. Know this: history has already given us all the standards we require. We are at our best when we accept that we cannot rise above the Masters. We can only stand beside them.” - June Godwit -

It’s never a good thing when the truly excellent works in a group show are the minority components, or when genuine depth is overshadowed by hodge-podge variety and hollow facades. The last annual juried Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum was ten months ago. Gee, a year goes by so quickly these days. It’s baaack. And just like the early 2010 edition, this month’s annual show of 71 works culled from 320 entries is, for the most part, an anemic affair that makes me wish I had been in the jurors’ room when they deliberated. I guess it’s all just another exercise in what-if hindsight that makes jurors such easy targets. How quickly we remember.

A considerable amount of space has been given here, once again, to rather bland photographic works, both straight and digitally affected (or infected). In either case, most of the entries can’t hold a flash bulb to Stephen McNulty’s lush and expansive “Valley of Shangri-La.” Behind the camera, he’s simply in a world-class league all his own.

Among the sculptural mixed media works, “Family Group” and “Interiors” by Clare Murray Adams are truly intriguing. The former is set of four long sticks set upright on the floor, leaning against the gallery wall. Each of these domestic totems is a codified portrait of sorts, wrapped with various fabrics and trinkets. The latter is a collection of fiberous and waxy “rocks” set on a mantle, with opened zippers, revealing “clothed” interiors.

“Woman with Orange Stripe” is a stark and utterly arresting portrait of a Black woman by Marcy A. Axelband. Her riveting eyes seem intensely focused, but are they probing us, or her own condition? The matte surface is like dried earth, thinly scarred and scratched. The broken vertical orange stripe – a metaphor for her suffering, perhaps - balances her stance which oddly seems both tentative and firmly planted.

Speaking of tentative firmness, the largest painting in this show is also the most delightfully unrefined in the traditional sense of stretched canvas and elegant frame. You’ll never see “Girl in Uggs” by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker in any slick ads for fancy footwear, though the artist’s signature, like a designer brand, is nearly as prominent a feature as the ruinously crude shoes. Paint by Parker. Call it postmodernist posh panache, maybe. And typical of some of postmodernism’s more subversive tendencies, this thing is quite ugly in a beautiful sort of way. Still, there’s a lot of chutzpah beneath this unstretched foray into painterly mark-making. Amid all the smudgings, erasings, and coverings-over, the shoes are really incidental to the true subject at hand – the painter’s decision-making process itself.

For sheer, unfettered fun, there’s the hilariously surreal oil painting, “The Ravens Drive Trucks” by Erin T. Mulligan –like an elaborately framed book jacket for a Twilight Zone children’s tale. And equally hilarious is Robert Gallick’s found-objects sculpture “Button-eyed Jack Muzzled and Hog-Tied.” I hope the artist realizes it’s a wonderful homage to Saul Steinberg.

Finally, I never stop looking for good, old- fashioned, unashamedly presented BEAUTY, painted or drawn. I’m certainly not dismissing abstraction and experimentation as such, particularly when such explorations are as engaging as the works here by Isabel Zaldivar, or Sherri Hornbrook. But the specific beauty I’m talking about is the kind found only in highly skilled, sensitive, and evocative representational renderings of natural or objective reality. There are examples of that here, though precious few. “Cranberries” by Jyodi Patel is a luscious, red oil gem of a still life done in the Flemish tradition. The gray-and-white graphite drawings by Carl Alessandro are notably soft and subtle while possessing astonishingly detailed sensuality. And Brian Robinson’s sumptuously colored pastel landscapes are masterful embodiments of light and texture - a pure joy to behold.

So OK, there are some very fine pieces here. But only some. Now, back to the easy targets. The jurors for this exhibition, perhaps over-zealous to present a diverse exhibit, have compiled a collection largely memorable for its spectacular mediocrity. Other than that, it’s a great show.

Photo: “Girl with Orange Stripe,” mixed media by Marcy Axelband, on view in the Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum, through November 14.
121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon/ (330) 833 – 4061

1 comment:

Xavier Jones said...

dispite marcy axelband's obvious artistic skill, I was sad that she chose not to create any new work for this year's show. I have the same feeling about many pieces in the rest of the exhibition. It seems that even as Stark county continues to produce good artists who can create good works, no one is really nurturing their continued creativity. I am continually depressed by artists who repeat the same process over and over, and are never moved to work outside of their zone.