Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wellsprings of a Soul

Wellsprings of a Soul

By Tom Wachunas

“Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction.” – Paul Gauguin –

“The best, most compelling Abstract or Nonrepresentational paintings are nothing more, or less, than masterfully decorated Reality.” – June Godwit –

“Abstract literally means to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract…” – Richard Diebenkorn –

“Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.” – Jackson Pollock –

In his highly informative and warmly written Repository article (Monday, March 28) about the current exhibit of paintings by David Grant Roth, who died in 1995, at Second April Galerie, Gary Brown begins by calling Roth’s art “almost lyrical.” It made me wonder what ‘completely lyrical’ art might look like in comparison. Later in the piece we are told that the works “…weren’t abstracts, really. Roth called them ‘non-representational’…” It all made me think of how we – artists, academicians, and viewers alike - often struggle, perhaps fruitlessly, with fine-tuning our descriptors in modern art. You say tomato and I say…

Seriously, though, Brown’s article is a fond homage to the man’s very full and accomplished life, with remembrances from his widow, Bonnie Barton, and daughter, Repository columnist Diana Boggia. Both will be present at the gallery for a special celebration of Roth’s life and work on Thursday, March 31, from 6 to 9 p.m., and the work will remain on view through April. If you’re of a mind to cruise the web (, your homework assignment is to read Brown’s article, then come downtown to see the exhibit.

And what a show this is! Billed here as more than 20 “larger than life” (another one of those pesky, sufficiently vague modernist descriptors) canvases in oil, they are indeed appropriately large enough to not merely grab our attention, but fully surround and embrace it as well. And yes, with all due respect to Mr. Brown, as much as any ‘Color Field’ abstracts as I’ve ever seen (marginally reminiscent of some by Paul Jenkins, Morris Louis, or Helen Frankenthaler, among others), they are utterly, unabashedly, positively lyrical. Lyrical in the same way that sunlight coming through a window, and focused through multiple hanging crystals, will break up into prisms that dance on a white wall. Or lyrical in the same way that a rippled puddle or pond reflects a spectacular sunset sky dotted with big clouds.

Call them metaphysical eye poems. Or maybe fountains of contemplative breath. As Jack the Dripper observed about his own work in one of the quotes that head this post, these paintings are ethereal explorations of continuous, undulating motion – no beginning, no end. But unlike the dense, visceral physicality that characterizes so many Abstract Expressionist works from Pollock’s era (and beyond), there is no evidence here of labored brushwork, no impasto urgency, no angst-riddled surfaces. The quietly luminous paint - pooled, blended, gently stained – seems to have been simply willed into place.

Larger than life? Well-meaning hyperbole, perhaps. More to the point, as all truly beautiful paintings can do, these works enlarge our lives.

Photo, courtesy Second April Galerie, : “Once Released, Forever Free,” oil, by David Grant Roth, on view through April, 324 Cleveland Avenue. NW, downtown Canton. (330) 451 - 0924

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Sublime Balance of Power

A Sublime Balance of Power

By Tom Wachunas

One element that contributes greatly to a satisfying evening in Umstattd Hall with the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is the ‘performance prelude’ that transpires one hour prior to each concert of the Masterworks Series. These delightful presentations/demonstrations offer the audience some in-depth commentary on the program selections beyond what is in the program notes. Eric Benjamin, music director and conductor of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic, and conductor of the CSO Youth Symphony, provided that service for the March 26 CSO performance of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 in C Major, and Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.

Most of Benjamin’s eminently accessible and thoughtful presentation centered on the Sibelius, noting that it is a relatively rare work in concert settings, and one that can pose a challenge to first-time listeners. “Not knowing what comes next is one of the delights of a concert like this one,” he said, adding that while the work is a significant departure from late Romantic-era symphonic structuring, it is nonetheless “full of wonderful surprises” for those willing to be “in the moment.” When Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann came to the podium he elaborated further, with characteristic warmth and humor, on the third movement’s many “wandering” themes that, more enticing than perplexing, ultimately congeal and move toward a finale that is a sparkling gem of brevity and clarity.

Indeed, clarity of sound, and unity of purpose, were abundantly evident in this performance of a work that Benjamin called distinctly “exterior” (as in pastoral, perhaps), and what Zimmermann praised as “…youthful, joyful, exuberant.” From the jubilant, dance-like energy of the first movement, through the lilting and pensive waltzing of the second, it was as if Zimmermann’s clear love for this work had translated itself magically into the orchestral playing of it, right down to the palpably bright textures and accents from French horns (thank you, principal Meghan Guegold), oboe, and flutes. Equally bright was the stunning third movement, driven by the lush plucking of strings so effectively modulated that at times the sound dwindled to a mesmerizing, pulsed whisper.

No such whispering is to be heard in the Brahms concerto, though there is ample lyricism and tenderness woven into its tumultuous, at times urgent drama. And as unity of purpose and sound were perfectly realized in the performance of the Sibelius symphony, that same spirit prevailed here, too. Astonishingly so, thanks to the enthralling virtuosity of guest pianist Norman Krieger.

In his program notes for this famous work, Kenneth C. Viant astutely observed, “Throughout, great demands are placed on the soloist; however, the bravura passages are always expressions of powerful emotions rather than simply being vehicles for technical display.” I couldn’t agree more, and Krieger demonstrated as much with masterful control, along with a remarkably finessed sense of blending with the orchestra. At his most sonorous, he was crisp and thunderous, yet always balanced. And at his most delicate, as in the achingly solemn and prayer-like second movement, he was utterly hypnotic. This was one of those performances that concerto lovers long for – when soloist and orchestra transcend merely playing together to breathe the music in unison.

Were I living in a parallel universe ruled by Olympian gods, it would seem to me that one of them came here just to perform this work. Krieger is certainly a keyboard force to be reckoned with, and I dare say that his monumental performance here will be remembered as among the very finest ever to grace Umstattd Hall.

Photo, courtesy, pianist Norman Krieger

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Grace, Guts, and Giggles

Grace, Guts, and Giggles

By Tom Wachunas

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Canton Artists League (CAL) show with as much depth of esthetic scope and craftsmanship as the their Spring Show now hanging in the Canton Museum of Art. Methinks they’re serious this time. A considerably substantial number of the 80-plus works here are of consistently high, mature quality. And though there are certainly some pieces comparatively less refined and developed -CAL will probably always be an egalitarian collective in that regard - the show as a whole is a strong and engaging representation of the League’s bountiful talents. And while it’s disappointingly light on sculpture, it appears that almost no pictorial medium, genre or style is unexplored.

Even the more capricious works possess a confident ‘je ne sais quoi.’ Nancy Michel’s acrylic collages - “Man Kabob” and “Cake Walk” – are well-constructed and humorous takes on meat –on- a- stick and sexy desserts, respectively. And Nancy Stewart Matin’s playful watercolor collage, “Grazing Pteramingos,” is a delightfully loose and lustrous abstraction of morphed pink birds amid wildly colored foliage.

Some pieces have that uncanny capacity to literally beckon a viewer from far across the gallery, due to starkly defined and very effective figure-ground configurations, as in Judi Longacre’s watercolor “La Vie En Rose,” and “Orchids,” an egg tempera painting by Jose Vasquez Jr., with its big lush petals that fly off the all- black ground. In the landscapes/seascapes by Nick Lanzalotta and Jim Grand (both paint with disarming simplicity and directness), it’s the bright, contrasting light sharply focused on their natural forms that draws our attention. More subtle, but absolutely compelling in this vein, is the achingly sweet portrait, “There are Moments with My Daughter that Stay Forever Young,” an exquisite oil painting by Dr. Fredlee Votaw. It’s a haunting, even fragile vision that looks transported from the white mists of a dream.

Also haunting are some of the abstract and semi-abstract works that don’t call or shout from a distance so much as they sneak up quietly to draw you into their secrets. Gail Wetherell-Sack’s acrylic collage, “Compelling Path,” is just that - full of secrets of the kind lurking in an enchanted autumnal forest. Carol Klein Schmidt offers two intriguing mixed media visions –“Reclamation” and “Retreat” – that seethe with suggestions of mysteries both earthy and atmospheric. Somewhat along the same path is Isabel Zaldivar’s ink painting, “Layers of the Past,” a powerfully dense and luminous field of what might be shattered and molten rock faces. And Kristine Wyler’s oil, “The Persistence of Red,” is a tour-de-force of marvelously painted magnetic ambiguity. Is it fabric folds or a phenomenon of violent weather? An abstracted live volcano, a cosmic event? No matter. Stunning.

Stunning too is Cynthia Capestrain’s oil “Masquerade in Venice,” executed in the tradition of the Flemish masters – a festive and meticulous celebration of architectural and figurative detail. There’s a similar kind of Old World charm in Pam LaRocco’s oil, “Misty Morning,” and, though less glassy in surface treatment, Nan Rearick’s meditative and serene “A Gray Day.”

Surely the most arresting if not volatile (and unsettled?) painting here is the untitled acrylic abstraction by Amanda Morena. I wonder if her visceral esthetic might be better served by the intrinsic liveliness and lustre of oil paint. That said, this work is unabashedly raw and gestural, with its flurries of scraped, scribbled, and scuffled forms and linear elements simultaneously coming together and disintegrating. I’m reminded of the 1950s Abstract Expressionists and the inspiration they took from the “automatic writing” of the Surrealists.

The piece is all about unfettered energy, and a bold willingness to experiment. It’s a refreshing exclamation point to this show – a show that CAL should be rightfully proud of as it struts its lively stuff into Spring.

Photo, courtesy , “The Persistence of Red,” oil by Kristine Wyler, on view in the Canton Artists League Spring Show at the Canton Museum of Art, through April 24. For viewing hours, call (330) 453 – 7666 or visit

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Negotiated Unsettlement?

Negotiated Unsettlement?

By Tom Wachunas

Sandwiched somewhere between the wry political cynicism, and the conversational frivolity in Lee Blessing’s powerful 1986 play, “A Walk in the Woods,” is a hefty slice of deadly-serious philosophizing about real trust and human authenticity. It’s a complicated, volatile chemistry, to be sure, and director Philip L. Robb has engaged it with exceptionally brilliant results in the current production of the play at the Kathleen Howland Theatre in downtown Canton.

The story, set in the 1980s, transpires over nearly a year in a mountaintop forest near Geneva, Switzerland. Here, on a bench surrounded by trees, Andrey Botvinnik, a career Soviet diplomat, meets with his younger American counterpart, John Honeyman, as they take breaks from their endless arms reduction talks. The Russian, a self-proclaimed realist, is jaded by too many years of fruitless gamesmanship and political ritual. Is it merely sarcasm when he proposes that peace talks won’t be productive unless they’re conducted at the bottom of a missile silo? He insists that these breaks be a time for intentionally frivolous, trivial conversation (he suggests talking about Country music and Mickey Mouse, among other things) to foster friendship. The incredulous (and distrustful) American, himself an admitted idealist, bristles at the thought of wasting time on superficial friendship in the face of impending Armageddon, and in turn insists on the formality of the urgent U.S. agenda to save the world. At one point Andrey dismisses such a stance with one of his many sardonic retorts, “Formality is simply anger with its hair combed.” Underlying this mutual intractability is an almost insouciant sense of Andrey viewing himself as the sincere and wise mentor of his less-experienced “student” negotiator. He seems to champion the paradoxical notion that only “meaningless conversation” can lead to meaningful relationships. But with each successive meeting in the forest, some deeper, more subtle motivations are revealed, and some facades become intriguingly less opaque.

So OK, the play might not have the topical urgency it did when it first appeared. Hindsight makes it seem all the more sentimental, maybe even absurd. After all, not long after its premiere, the Soviet Union as we once knew it collapsed, and planet earth has yet to become a lifeless ball of radioactive sludge. Then again, unless you’ve been holed up in a bomb shelter somewhere, these days it’s increasingly, painfully apparent that nuclear technology isn’t the only option we have for killing each other on an international scale. In today’s context of global political flux, the play still reads as a thoroughly alive and substantive commentary on our struggle with conflicts both private and public.

Here, that aliveness is an electrifying thing to behold, given riveting form by Rod Lang as Andrey, and David Sponhour as John. Presented with impeccable Russian accent, Lang’s portrait of the affable Soviet diplomat is as endearingly funny as it is earthy and sobering. Ever ready to deflect the American’s entrenchment in gravitas, he says at one point, “When two men are dying of cancer, what do they talk about? Cancer? No, it would be in bad taste.” And nowhere is his delivery more profound and rattling than when he reluctantly surrenders to the challenge to “get serious” and unleashes what amounts to a searing diatribe on Soviet and American behavior in the world, offering one of the play’s more profound observations, “History is geography over time.” It’s a tough role to counterpoint, but Sponhour holds his own very well indeed, delivering a similarly energetic and edgy picture of the stiff, priggish and proper American optimist. In a particularly animated moment late in the play, he’s been visibly diminished by both diplomatic failure and a run-in with a multi-lingual Swiss cop for littering. To an amused and sympathetic Andrey, he recounts the confrontation wherein he desperately flashed his I.D. (pleading, “I’m a diplomat, an American diplomat!”) before a crowd of mystified Swiss citizens. The moment, like many throughout the evening, is both convincingly poignant and utterly hilarious.

In the end, did they ever reach a diplomatic agreement of any consequence, or become real friends? Well, as a matter of fact they…nahh, you’ll just have to come and find out for yourself.

Photo: David Sponhour and Rod Lang (seated), in Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods” shows at 8:00p.m. March 19, 25, and 26 at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located downstairs at Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue N, downtown Canton. Tickets are $10.00, and $5.00 for seniors, students with school I.D. card, or anyone presenting a public library card. Call (330) 451 -0924 or log on to

Monday, March 14, 2011

Friendly Strange

Friendly Strange

By Tom Wachunas

The final offering in this season’s afternoon Aultman PrimeTime chamber series by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) on March 10 in Cable Recital Hall was a marvelously colorful and textured program that featured the accomplished, Canton-based Appassionata Piano Duo of Maira Liliestedt and Janelle Phinney. As their collaborative name suggests, their playing (on two separate pianos) throughout the three works on the program was certainly passionate - a warm and deft joining of palpable grace with flawless, often fiery technique.

Their performance of Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major” was a bubbly start to the program. With a seamless flow of back-and-forth, call-and-response phrases and themes, the pianists effectively conveyed the spirit of brilliant gallantry that underlies the work’s many quick-paced, intricate, ornate, and technically demanding passages.

Shifting to the 20th century, the duo’s performance of three excerpts from Samuel Barber’s “Souvenirs”(1951) was no less effective. Barber originally wrote of the work that he wanted to conjure lounge music, circa 1914 New York City, in the “…epoch of the first tangos…with affectionate, amused tenderness.” In that, Liliestedt and Phinney were thoroughly captivating with their grasp of the work’s melding of poignancy and intimate humor, right down to the gently awkward (and intentional) wrong notes in the ‘Waltz’ segment. And you could almost see the sultry haze of cigarette smoke billowing in the air of Palm Court in the Plaza Hotel as they played the haunting, exotic ‘Hesitation Tango,’ with its occasionally jarring moments of quirky dissonance.

In a way, the work was a fitting mood-setter for the similarly quirky and exotic “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” (1937) by Bela Bartok. Here, Appassionata was joined by CSO members John Curtis (timpani and percussion), and principal percussionist Matthew Beck. CSO President and CEO Stephen Wogaman enthusiastically introduced the work with a beaming smile, as if presenting a long-lost foriegn friend, noting that he hadn’t heard the work performed in 30 years, and it’s appearance on concert programs was a “…rare, rare, thing.”

This might not be due to its bizarre harmonies, strange melodies, and asymmetrical structures (after all, this is Bartok) so much as it is a notoriously difficult piece to perform. Many musicologists have pointed, some with dismay, to its relentlessly “convoluted counterpoint,” interspersed as it is with explosive, even frightening bursts of seemingly warring instruments (including timpani, bass drum, snare, gong, cymbals, and numerous piercing punctuations by xylophone). Indeed, the piano writing alone was designed to treat the instrument not as a vehicle for melodic lyricism, but as a fully percussive element.

But here, the intrepid ensemble successfully met the occasion of precise delivery with a riveting, lucid finesse that was alternately muscular and delicate. Sometimes murky and dark, sometimes shimmering, with moments that bring to mind mysterious Balinese gamelan or other foreign music, the three-movement work ends on a distinctly more “accessible” note, growing from a joyfully frenzied folk dance. And judging from the numerous murmurs and looks of surprised approval from the audience, I think the concert went far in making Bartok more friendly.

Photo: “Necrophiliac Spring Flowering from a Piano,” oil by Salvador Dali, 1933

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reconcilable Differences

Reconcilable Differences

By Tom Wachunas

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” - Elie Wiesel –

Among the posts archived in this site are occasional reflections on the notion of artists’ statements accompanying their exhibited works. Somewhere in there I mentioned a time when I was hostile toward the practice of writing down (for display purposes) the meaning of my (or any other artist’s) visual work. Looking back at my youth, this attitude was fueled by a flimsy, even arrogant reasoning that went something like this: If you need to exhibit words explaining what your art is all about, then you’re a failure as an artist and perhaps you should find another line of work. Like becoming a writer, or a critic. But that’s another story. Or is it?

Let’s get honest. Very much of what we think we know and appreciate about the content and meaning of art (whether in museums, history books, or other contemporary venues) is inextricably entwined with the surrounding written observations and commentaries by historians, philosophers, collectors, curators, and yes, pesky critics. So why exclude the artists themselves from writing about their art? Granted, some – maybe many - artists consider the practice some sort of game or performance, deliberately offering drivel, obtuse or arcane, posing as profundity. But just as many, I’m sure, welcome the writing about their work as an opportunity to open a window on their process. Call it an act of generosity – an invitation to more fully embrace the work at hand. The practice is by no means a requirement for making an exhibition successful. But when presented with genuine sincerity, artists’ words can make “the art experience” all the more enriching for the viewer.

Such is the case, I think, with the current show by Michelle DeBellis, called “Two-Faced,” at Anderson Creative. A Malone University student, and Anderson Creative intern, DeBellis offers eight pieces in this, her first solo exhibit. While two of the works are painterly (with collage elements) in form, as in “The Return Home,” neither of them indicates a particularly remarkable aptitude for imaginative paint handling. They are, however, consistent with the extemporaneous look of her mixed media assemblages, which convey a sense of fragile tentativeness and impermanence. Her combinations of disparate textures and found objects – you might call them spontaneous constructions – are well suited to illustrating or symbolizing the thoughts she presents in her attendant texts. Those texts, in turn, are not so much philosophizing about her working methods or esthetics as they are disarming, faith-driven confessions about coming to grips with “splits,” struggles, and dichotomies in her relationships with the world. Underlying all of them is a poignant longing to reconcile how she sees herself, how it connects to surrendering to God’s vision for her life, and what she sees as others’ expectations of her.

The resultant art is visceral, somewhat uncomfortable in its slap-dash appearance, and surely not “beautiful” by classical standards. Yet for all of this, there is present here a heartfelt if not raw authenticity that’s hard to ignore. This is, in the end, an artful fusion of enduring human spirit with the vagaries of physical reality. And in keeping with art’s mysterious power to reveal to us the essence of a person, that’s a beautiful thing.

Photo: “Two-Faced” mixed media assemblage by Michelle DeBellis, on view at Anderson Creative through April 9, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Saturday Noon to 5 p.m.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Superb Chronicle of a Pioneering Year

A Superb Chronicle of a Pioneering Year

By Tom Wachunas

Say what you will about the utilitarian values of archived texts and images on the internet. For my money, nothing will ever satisfy quite like the visual, tactile, and even olfactory delights of holding a real, new book. All the better if it has pictures.

In anticipation of the immanent release of the very affordable, first Annual Catalog of the 2010 exhibitions at Anderson Creative (published by Anderson Creative, hardbound $39.95), I reserved a space on my bookshelf, and in the process did a quick inventory of my small but treasured collection of such catalogs. Among my favorites is “Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers,” from an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) in 1986-87. The book still has the power to re-kindle all the fiery enthrallment I felt when I first saw that major exhibition. And isn’t it the effective recapitulation of the original exhibit’s essence that makes the best exhibition catalogs so rewarding?

Granted, the Van Gogh catalog is a hefty, 320-page tome from a world-class institution, and Anderson’s is certainly, with 79 pages, modest by comparison. But it is no less elaborate and successful in encapsulating all the adventuresome spirit of engaging, provocative originality that marked the gallery’s remarkable exhibitions of last year. In his foreword to the catalog, ArtsinStark CEO Robb Hankins calls the Anderson gallery an “…amazing locale – the edgy urban space we’ve all been waiting for.”

‘Adventuresome’ spirit’? Yes, and surely pioneering. In the still burgeoning Canton Arts District, Anderson Creative has built an eminently unique venue, founded on the consistently passionate and innovative efforts of owner Kevin Anderson and curator Craig Joseph. After reading the introductory letters from each of them in the opening pages, you could call this volume, on one level, a lovingly composed ‘thank you’ to the artists, viewers, and patrons who have supported their vision. It is a vision to mount exhibits that are, as Joseph tells us, “community-based, highly collaborative, wildly conceptual, and highly immersive and experiential for the audience.”

As for this beautifully constructed catalog, “immersive and experiential” are indeed the operative terms. The artwork photos were taken by Anderson Creative, except where noted, and all are clear, crisp, and true. Jessica Bennett, who designed last year’s exciting “Stark Arthology,” has once again brought her substantial talents to the fore here (in same-size format), and designed a visually stunning and refreshing month-by-month journey through the year’s shows. For those who missed seeing one or more of them, the catalog is nonetheless a scintillating, vicarious journey, each page a vibrant record of the original event.

Printed on the back cover is this quote, “Art is a reminder of things we are inclined to neglect.” Don’t neglect this one, as in many ways it’s an artwork in its own right. And like the marvelous shows it documents, it has a pulse.

The Anderson Creative Annual Catalog is due to arrive at the gallery (331 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio, 44702) later this week, with other outlets yet to be confirmed as of this writing. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Saturday Noon to 5 p.m.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Remembering When

Remembering When

By Tom Wachunas

His name was David, but everyone in my childhood neighborhood of Alliance, Ohio, including his parents, called him Buster. He was a few years younger than I, and something of an anomaly when compared to the rest of my playmates. He was frail, pale, and relatively introverted, but uncannily advanced for his years - the local brainiac who was an easy target for teasing and exclusion, the proverbial last kid picked for team sports. Maybe it was for want of a softer, gentler playtime connection to the rest of us (backyard war games being just too exhausting), or maybe he was simply lonely, but he chose to teach me how to play chess when I was about 10 years old and I was – never being very adept at anything involving airborne balls - eager to oblige. I well remember many hot summer days when the chaotic running about of loud, unruly children invaded our concentration, often resulting in the premature - and somewhat prophetic - end of our more heady games. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that the reasons for Buster’s seemingly incessant visits to the hospital became sadly all too clear. He died, far too young, from leukemia. And so it is that this memory made its way into my most recent artwork – a memorial, really – called “Game Interrupted.”

I tell you this neither out of self-aggrandizement nor because I want to talk in any more detail about my art piece (something I very rarely do in these missives), which is included in the current exhibit, called “When We Were Young,” at Anderson Creative. It’s because I feel sincerely honored and grateful to be included among the other 19 artists here (including 4 from other Ohio cities and three from out-of-state) who, I’m fairly certain, have similarly, symbolically traveled back to another time and place in their lives, and returned to offer toy-inspired works that are as thoughtful as they are visually delightful to behold. The show is a refreshing blast of warm, artful air guaranteed to bring wistful smiles along with some belly-laughs. Call it toyful remembrance.

Billi Kribbs’ “Lego Chest of Drawers” is just that – a brightly colored wooden chest, itself looking like an over-sized Lego furniture piece. Its open drawers and magically blinking top are sprinkled with silicone casts (that feel just like the Gummi candies kids love so much) of Lego blocks. Go ahead, you’re welcome to play with them; or some of the Lincoln Logs that have been immortalized in stoneware clay by Eric Rausch. The largest of his four configurations, “Lincoln Tile,” is generously dripped with sumptuous, multi-colored glaze. Dripping, too, is Joe Martino’s inventively gooey “Play Doh Phantasm,” an abstract portrait of a melting figure “painted” in acrylic and real Play Doh. The mixed media, three-part collage set by Gail Wetherell-Sack, called “Follow Me,” is inventive, too. Rusted metal never had so much appeal as it does in this playful homage to old-timey pull toys.

To be sure, some works here have a comparatively edgy, mysterious air about them, though always visually intriguing. In his “You Won’t Ever Be This Pretty,” Scot Philips gives us a somewhat jaded vision of a benday- dotted Barbie, that icon of spindly blonde plasticity, painted on weathered barn wood. Beth Nash’s take on the Chutes and Ladders game, called “Snakes and Ladders,” is distinctly mystical and intricate. And the three minimalist, crisp digital art prints on polystyrene by Jay Oldaker are stunningly designed, subtly lyrical nods to Atari.

Among the most arresting entries here is a fluid and expressive acrylic and pastel image by Sally Lytle called “Manifest Fantisy,” inspired by the stick horses many of us must have “ridden” at some point in childhood. Dressed in Western garb and grasping his trusty stick steed, a boy looks off into an unseen landscape, his long blue shadow that of a real cowboy on a real horse. It’s a marvelously poetic picture that speaks enchantingly, as does this show, of simple childhood pursuits and artifacts, re-filtered through the eyes and hands of the grown-ups who recall them.

Viewers are encouraged to bring to the gallery new or gently used toys to be donated to the YWCA and Community Christmas. Your donations entitle you to 10% discount on gallery purchases, not limited to this show.

Photo: “Manifest Fantisy” by Sally Lytle, courtesy Anderson Creative. On view in “When We Were Young,” through March 26 at 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery Hours are Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dangled Conversations

Dangled Conversations

By Tom Wachunas

The expression on Nyctea’s face was precious. Aegolius thought she’d been hypnotized. For a long while he studied the tilt of her head, the strange angle of her body as it leaned in toward the painting they were looking at, as if she teetered on the edge of a cliff. He nervously stepped closer to her and asked, “Are you…?”
“Shhh,” she whispered, gently pushing him away.
“But I just…”
“SHHH,” she hissed louder, waving him off. “I’m trying to listen!”

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

Yes, we speak of things that matter,
with words that must be said,
“Can analysis be worthwhile?”
“Is the theatre really dead?”

- from “The Dangling Conversation” by Paul Simon -

After many years of looking at abstract paintings (including a few in making them), with equal time spent looking at people looking at abstract paintings, the only thing I can say with any certainty is that the experience can be a confounding one. Or a con-finding one. But just as often it can be a fully satisfying encounter with pure…seeing. As in, “Yes, I see what you’re saying,” or, “Now I see your point.” And that kind of ‘seeing’ gets to the essence of listening.

I think it’s possible, then, to hear a painting. In fact the vocabulary we employ in describing our embrace of a work of art necessarily alludes to senses other than sight. “That Diebenkorn painting really speaks to me,” we might say. Or conversely, “That Pollock is just a bunch of gibberish.” Any painting, regardless of genre, can be thus heard, but here the focus is on abstraction.

Now, the language of abstract painting is essentially no different from that of objective or naturalistic subject matter, though certainly what we ‘hear’ in those respective languages will vary. Nevertheless, from a purely formal perspective, it’s always about the decisions and choices the artist makes as to types, degrees, and frequencies of configurations – marks, gestures, shapes, colors etc. - in concert with the artist’s particular method of handling paint. One useful way, among others, in viewing abstract subject matter, whether wholly nonobjective or partially representational (abstract-ed), is to consider it as joining the artist’s conversation with his or her own pure intuition. Some call it Muse. We all have it – intuition - the capacity to instantaneously know a thing without conscious or labored reasoning. So in that sense the value or meaning we assign to an abstract work (or any work, for that matter) is contingent upon how or if the work connects to our own intuition, successfully generating the ephemeral yet very real experience of having been “spoken to.”

Here’s an invitation, then, to join the 18 exquisitely framed conversations in acrylic, as it were, initiated by painter Carol Mendenhall, currently on view in Studio M at The Massillon Museum. While some of the paintings incorporate ghostly snippets of representational imagery, it seems to me that the most apparent force at work in Mendenhall’s esthetic is her search to identify and refine pictorial structures that rise from abstract, painterly spontaneity. That spontaneity has led her to revel in sumptuous, tactile surfaces alive with colors that are variously earthy, amorphous, translucent, and brightly saturated.

In her statement for the show, Mendenhall has written, “…Some pictures seem to declare for themselves a direction during the process; as the artist, my job is to nudge it in the direction it seeks.” So there you have it, that listening thing. Letting the picture tell you where it’s going. In some cases her nudging appears to be too forced and over-thought, as in “Connected by Courage,” or “Imagery Emerging,” the results being either too visually chaotic, or so enamored of special effects that the pictorial content is diluted and unremarkable – decoration without depth.

But the majority of works here are in varying degrees scintillating, successful resolutions of the challenges that Mendenhall has set for herself. Some are bold and disarmingly simple, like the highly textured “War,” with its startling, fiery red-orange central “flag” stenciled with black words – Too Much, Too Many, Too Long. And “Predator” is a loosely painted big-fish-eats-little-fish image that looks like it emerged from a geological dig. Several others are mesmerizing in the way they suggest timeless, monolithic visions from exotic settings. “Arch of Sulieman,” for example, with its checkerboard patterning, seems to simultaneously come forward from, and disintegrate into a stunning deep purple ground. A haunting shrine to transient architecture?

In a similar though more understated vein is “Sanctuary.” In the past I’ve seen too many paintings ruined by the gratuitous use of metallic acrylics – all glitz and no guts. But here the effect is soothing and meditative, the surface rich in quiet color interactions and intricate markings – a calligraphy of golden serenity. And…wait. Shhh. I can hear Mendenhall’s Muse.

Photo: “Avian Sanctuary,” acrylic by Carol Mendenhall, on view in her show, “A Personal Journey,” in Studio M at the Massillon Museum, through April 3, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon. (330) 833 – 4061. Call ahead to confirm that Studio M is available for viewing.