Saturday, April 30, 2011

Symphony On Canvas

Symphony On Canvas

By Tom Wachunas

Synesthesia is a sensory phenomenon wherein the stimulation of one sense can trigger the awakening of another. I can’t tell you, for example, how many times the odor of a roasting turkey has made me able to clearly see every tiny detail of the Thanksgiving table my mother set during my childhood, right down to the antique floral design of her finest china, the lacy embroidery of linen napkins and table cloth, the finely embossed golden rims of the crystal glasses. Similarly, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the phenomenon more immediately and acutely than when I first walked through the current exhibit in the Massillon Museum’s main gallery.

Long before I read the wall placard addressing the theme of the show, called “Color in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railroad,” the 30 vibrant, luscious acrylic and mixed media paintings by Joseph Holston elicited an instantaneous, astonishing sensation of hearing monumentally symphonic music. So it was particularly gratifying to read that Holston composed this chronicle of slavery from bondage to freedom in the form of four distinct movements, as in a symphony: Unknown World, Living in Bondage – Life on the Plantation, Journey of Escape, and Color in Freedom. To appreciate Holston’s artistic logic and dramatic impact of the paintings’ ordered sequence, on entering the gallery, begin your journey in the nearby right corner.

As a painter, Holston’s strengths are many and formidable, starting with the streamlined fluidity in how he has rendered (as in drawn) his figures. Nothing seems wasted in his expressive brushwork. Whether working in wide, sweeping flourishes, or in smaller clusters of energized strokes, all of it projects an intense, purposeful urgency – progressively more so as the paintings enter the later phases of the third, and then throughout the fourth movement of the sequence. Eschewing any identifying features in his figures’ faces (or, for that matter, other superficial details of dress or anatomy), Holston has focused on their animated postures, their varied and subtle attitudes of movement, and their interlocking forms. Combined with the deliciously liberal, physical presence of the paint itself, and the sheer largeness of picture plane composition, these figures of slaves, even at their most anguished and tortured, inhabit the paintings like heroic spirits, as if they were sculptures carved from the ethereal stuff of pathos, dignity, and ultimately pure exuberance.

It’s Holston as colorist, though, who wields an uncanny ability to conjure palpable musicality. And he does so by employing the effects of the most rudimentary of color dynamics – breathtaking contrasts of cool and hot, and complementary hues in elegant balance. In “Dawn of Despair,” from the Living in Bondage movement, three huddled figures occupy well more than half of the picture, hunched over in a monochromatic mass of deep blues and grays, their black hands like so many dead weights, unable to lift themselves into the amorphous arc of fiery orange above them. In the first two sequences of this symphony of canvases, Holston’s dominant, dark monotones evoke the sounds of eerily foreboding, tumultuous strings and rumbling timpani. But always there’s a smaller, warm glowing, like the soundings of distant brass and winds, signaling a hope, a promise, a destination. In the third movement, those warm accents become more hot, expansive, and insistent, as in the poignant procession under and toward the blazing sun of “After Harriet.” Then, in the triumphant fourth, the once murky, weighted figures are softer and infused with airy, vibrant life. The long, treacherous night has ended. Their earthbound oppression has given way to the explosive ebullience of lighter, brighter colors - indeed songs - of unshackled joy.

This exhibition of works by a single artist surely ranks as the most electrifying to grace the walls of the Massillon Museum in recent memory. Holston’s vision is an unforgettably passionate and reverential one. And in chronicling the human drama of one of history’s most important and compelling passages, he has managed to awaken and inspire all our senses.

Photo, courtesy “Dawn of Despair,” by Joseph Holston. On view at the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon. Viewing hours are Tuesday – Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Information at or call (330) 833 – 4061.

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