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.

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