Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pitching Pitchy Siren Songs

Pitching Pitchy Siren Songs

By Tom Wachunas

I’ve always had a soft spot in this often curmudgeonly heart-o-mine for artists who know full well their ability to push people’s buttons. To stir up the pot of our predispositions about what’s beautiful, inspiring, or empowering. To intentionally walk along precarious esthetic edges while brandishing arguments and attitudes guaranteed to trigger lively if not heated discourse. Whether you call it courage or insouciant self-indulgence on their part, such artists will continue to make works we love to hate, hate to love, or long to like. Somewhere in this mix there’s painter Megan Mars.

Since first encountering her work around five years ago, I’ve watched her, with admittedly marginal interest, solidify her niche in our local arts community to the point of brand-name recognition. All along the way, I’ve wondered how or if she could successfully expand that niche, or maybe even transcend it altogether. And by that I don’t mean increasing the degree of her exposure or viewer base, but rather deepening the ideological and technical content of her paintings per se.

Based on the works currently exhibited in her salon-style show called “She’s a Monster” at Thirteenth Floor Gallery in Massillon, Mars appears to be still safely ensconced in her comfort zone, perhaps content that if it ain’t busted, don’t fix it – at least not overly much. Her signature iconography is for the most part intact (and of its kind, compelling enough) – buxom, often robustly beautiful women presented as alluring or scary embodiments of feminine power and self-assuredness, along with a healthy dose of woundedness and vulnerability. They’re theatrical in the sense that one puts on an elaborately decorated persona and lives it out in a strange fantasy world. Some of these women of Mars, so to speak, look like naughty vixens from planet Bizarro, others like Medusa’s extended family. Still others exude a raw sort of elegance. Most of the pictures don’t come off as portraits of real people who breathe or speak warmly into our lives, but rather as codified symbols of roles, situations, identities, or desires. But even at their most gothic or grotesque, there are some signs, in varying degrees, of genuinely palpable emotions lurking beneath the trappings of kinky eroticism and murky pallor of death common to many of the images.

I think there’s true Romanticism in Mars’ work. But it’s more latent than fully blossomed. This has as much to do with her choices as a painter as with her pictorial content. At this point, she seems to be replicating a tight formula for presenting an ‘everywoman’ sensuality and immediacy, but without the sensuality and immediacy of paint itself. To be fair, she has developed an increasingly refined fluidity in the touch of her brush. Yet I’m fairly certain her sensationalistic imagery could take on all the more visceral impact – and emotional resonance - if she were to loosen up and let paint be paint. Why not employ the tactile physicality of painted surface as metaphorical ‘soul’ of the work? Experimenting with a more daring, varied palette wouldn’t hurt, either.

In viewing Mars’ work these past several years, here’s a cautionary note, offered out of my abiding respect for her clear ability in drawing and her authentic passion for making art. The process of artistic maturing has everything to do with listening intently to what an idea is saying - of letting the idea tell how it wants to be manifest, instead of habitually forcing it into a predetermined schematization. It’s highly plausible, given the sense of implied personal narrative in these works, that the ideas driving them are better suited to be, for example, illustrations in what could be an electrifying graphic novel. In any event, and for any artist, it’s also worth remembering that some ideas simply don’t wear paint all that easily, or well.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens, daughters of a sea god, were beautiful women who, with their seductive singing, lured sailors to fatally veer off course. Here’s hoping that as her artistic journey progresses, Megan Mars doesn’t let the song she’s been hearing thus far lead her, as a painter, any closer to dangerously shallow waters.

Photo, courtesy “Octavia” by Megan Mars, on view through May 19 in “She’s a Monster,” at Thirteenth Floor Gallery, 28 Charles Ave. SE, downtown Massillon. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Saturday, 12 noon to 6 p.m.


BZTAT said...

There are artists whose intent is to challenge the boundaries of intellectual and cultural discourse. Their audience tends to be an exclusive and elitist crowd. 

If an artist does not fit into that crowd, is their work any less valid?

Must every artist who exhibits artwork in the "local arts community" in Stark County, OH be subjected to the literary critique of one who holds them to standards of New York's Museum of Modern Art?

What is the point of such paternalistic criticism as this? Although eloquently written, the words here seem misplaced, coming off as more of a commentary about the writer than the artist. 

Although I consider the "curmudgeonly" writer here a dear friend, I feel the need to challenge this very public effort to tell an artist what should have been said in a private professor to student discussion. 

Ah-- but she has not requested that arrangement, has she? Even so, that does not justify a public skewering.

Sometimes artists paint just to paint. Yes, we can all improve our techniques and our conceptual awarenesses. But such eloquent and curmudgeonly put downs in public do not necessarily serve that end. 

In such a small community as this is, such intellectualized art criticism can be more hurtful than helpful.

But if the author persists, keep in mind that blogging is it's own art form. Applying old style journalistic essay form to it is, in itself, "habitually forcing it into a predetermined schematization."  Writing in blog format is different than writing for art journals, and the writer's ignorance of that is very apparent. 

 Here’s hoping that as his literary journey progresses, Tom Wachunas doesn’t let the song he’s been hearing thus far lead him, as a writer, any closer to dangerously shallow waters.

Tom Wachunas said...

To BZTAT: If I thought the work wasn't "valid" I would never devote such time to it. I consistently hold ALL the art I comment on to "standards" true to my sensibilities, which like anyone else's, are a conditioned aggregate of experience, education, sense of history, and intuition. You imply that since we are such a small community,local artists should somehow be treated differently or with kid gloves. Throughout the 1990s, all I heard was that artists around here weren't being taken seriously enough, not supported, not given enough opportunity to be seen and heard. Let's be careful what we wish wish for. If artists are serious enough to place their work in the arena of public scrutiny (whether in Massillon or Manhattan), then I assume (which can be a dangerous thing, I know) they're at least mature enough to realize that there are serious viewers out there who will devote serious time to looking and thinking. You're axe grinding here doesn't seem all that different from the "public skewering" you perceive me to be practicing. So be it. But I do think you have not read very carefully or thoroughly what I had to say about Mars' work. I stand by my assessment, and consider it fair and balanced. And by the way, whether writing in art journals (been there, done that) or in a blog, I've never recognized any intrinsic or by definition 'necessary' need to adopt a different style approach, or content. Write on, and thanks for your comment.

BZTAT said...

Excellent points Tom, particularly your reflection about local artists desiring the same recognition that artists receive in larger cities with more known art centers.

Indeed, my criticism was harsh. I do apologize. I simply wanted to point out that art criticism in and of itself is a slippery slope.

I think that we tend to look at art through narrow lenses sometimes, expecting every artist to explore their medium and their visual philosophy in ways that can be analyzed in academic and scholarly ways. If the art does not hold up against our "conditioned aggregate of experience, education, sense of history, and intuition", then it must somehow be inferior.

Yet there are many directions an artist can go, and playing for the critics is not at all a wise idea. Nonetheless, we incorporate that critic into our psyche, which, I would posit, limits us from exploring the full range of our creativity.

I have heard it time and time again how artists have shut down areas they might have explored creatively because someone they considered an authority told them, or implied, that it was unworthy.

I posted this question on my Facebook page today: Which artist has had more impact on the cultural dialogue - Banksy or Dr. Seuss? I got some interesting answers.

Many a critic would say that Dr. Seuss does not meet the "Fine Art" standards. Yet his artistry has inspired generations, and will continue to do so for many more.

The only axe I have to grind is that criticism is limiting, and can be hurtful, and thus, its personal impact must be considered from time to time. I just felt the need to add another perspective today.

I hope that you will write on, and that Megan will keep painting, and that both of you will explore your creativity to it's fullest potential. :)