Thursday, May 26, 2011

Redressing Naked Realities

Redressing Naked Realities
By Tom Wachunas

“It is what is painted between the outlines that makes the difference between merely competent painting and meaningful art.” - Philip Pearlstein –

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” - Genesis 3:7 –

At the tender age of seven I was taught by a nun, as all Catholic children were back then, to “examine my conscience” every Friday afternoon in preparation for Saturday’s visit to the confessional. With eyes closed, our heads sunk into the pillow of our folded arms on our desk tops, the dutiful Dominican would recite an inventory of sins we were to consider. One of those sins mystified me then, and for several years thereafter: “Have you had impure thoughts this week?” Of course the exact definition of such thoughts was always couched in the vaguest and cutely poetic of terms. Heaven forbid that a seven year-old boy should dwell too long on an art book picture of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” or Manet’s “Olympia”. It wasn’t until about sixth grade that a priest first asked me to really elaborate after I had muttered, “I had impure thoughts three times this week.”

This was at least as unnerving for the priest as it was for me. I doubt he’d ever heard one so young (or anyone else for that matter) describe Rubens’ “Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus” in such vivid detail. Never mind that it was all a bold-faced lie (in the hallowed darkness of the confessional!) to cover up the real source of my impure thoughts – discovering my older brother’s stash of Playboy magazines. By now I’m fairly sure you’re thinking I’ve revealed far more personal information than you want to know. It’s nonetheless interesting that my memory of such confessional encounters had remained long hidden beneath a cerebral fig leaf of sorts, until I recently dwelled on the paintings by Shirley Aley Campbell currently on view in “A Celebration of Women in the Arts: Director’s Choice II” at the Canton Museum of Art.

While there is a controlled if not hesitant delicacy to Campbell’s elegant abstracted ink drawings, particularly in her six smaller linear works under the title “Ode to Piero”, her oil works on canvas are a completely different, heavier matter. Not that these nudes drove me to the abyss of prurient longings and abject prayers for forgiveness, even if there is something distinctly abysmal about Campbell’s palette. Her undraped figures from life do share a kinship with the unflinching postmodern realism of Lucian Freud (though with a less eviscerated look), and Philip Pearlstein’s non-traditional perspectives and vantage points, though clearly without his enlivening color dynamics. The unabashedly candid world in which Campbell’s nudes pose and interact can be a dark and brooding one, though certainly sensual and voluptuous, even Rubenesque in an off-kilter way. The dim settings and somber tonalities might well be expressions of what Campbell tells us in her statement: “Anxieties persist in my paintings and I am suspended between the order I see and an apprehension that everything must, and does move.”

In “The Kiss”, two lip-locked, naked women embrace each other in a wide easy chair. Their surrounds, ironically enough, are a murky and stifling interior. Are we looking at a momentary sexual pleasure, a clandestine act, or the celebration of a lifestyle? And are we as viewers simply voyeurs, comfortable or otherwise? Anxieties and apprehension indeed. A similar sensibility – an ambiguous drama - seems to be at work in “Man-Woman” numbers 1 and 2. In the first, a robust man on his knees clutches at a standing older woman clad only in a wide-brimmed hat. She looks worried, ambivalent - both resistant and on the verge of surrender. Both figures are painted as if illuminated by an unseen, devilish red fire aglow in a dark, dense void. In number 2, they’re horizontal, though not fully engaged, so to speak.

With the emergence of 20th century mainstream modernism, classical perfection and “beauty” in painting the human figure was thenceforth considered an impotent banality. In turn, the postmodern resurgence of figurative Realism, where Campbell’s work finds itself ensconced, brought with it an energized attention to image as painted surface. And in that, Campbell is a seriously fine painter. Aside from the unsettling social, emotional, or moral territories her pictures might suggest or imply, I get the sense that as a keen observer of forms, she looks at every square inch of her models with an almost clinical intensity. Her painted anatomies seethe with mesmerizing passages of small, studied brush strokes. Not impasto surfaces, but quietly sumptuous just the same.

Viewing them from that perspective is a pleasure of which I remain…unrepentant.

Photo: “Violini de Roma” acrylic, charcoal and pencil, by Shirley Aley Campbell, on view at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 through July 24.

Monday, May 23, 2011

In Pursuit of Possibilities

In Pursuit of Possibilities
By Tom Wachunas

While Nyctea looked at the painting with that all too familiar far-away look in her eyes, Aegolius could no longer contain his silence. Or his rage.
“How can you approve of this, this…atrocity?” he moaned. “What could you possibly be thinking? How can you call this thing good?! It’s awful, just awful. What’s good about it?”
Nyctea looked at him, then back at the painting. She took a long, slow breath, and said, “Sometimes you just know that you know that you know. It’s that simple. That complex.”
- From “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit –

I can well remember the contentious dialogues generated in my circle of New York City artist friends by the 1978 “Bad Painting” exhibition at The New Museum of Contemporary Art. Some were resentful, even a bit jealous, while others were simply offended. No doubt we were just a microcosm of common art world reactions. I also remember that after the initial furor had settled down, virtuous hindsight prompted some cooler heads to posit the notion that the show really wasn’t at all that new or revolutionary so much as it was a formalized revealing of what had been underfoot for years.

Nonetheless, the exhibition, curated by Marcia Tucker, was to some degree a watershed moment in postmodern art developments. She described “Bad Painting” in the press release as “…an ironic title for ‘good painting’, which is characterized by deformations of the figure, a mixture of art-historical and non-art resources, and fantastic and irreverent content. In its disregard for accurate representation and rejection of conventional attitudes about art, ‘bad’ painting is at once funny and moving, and often scandalous in its scorn for the standards of good taste.”

Read the artist’s statement that accompanies the paintings by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker now showing in the Canton Museum of Art’s “A Celebration of Women: Director’s Choice II.” She makes it clear that the “Bad Painting” show resonated greatly with the changing vocabulary that was already present at that time in her own work. It was a freer, more raw vocabulary that was evolving from her interest in right-brain/left-brain workings (connections and dis-connections), along with intentionally making images with her untrained, left hand – a deliberate eschewing of academic, traditional working methods and perceptions. Parker understood the essence of ‘bad’ painting to be “…a profound search to find one’s own unique means of expression in a world of infinite possibilities.”

Then, read the excellent essay written by Canton Museum of Art executive director M.J. Albacete for the beautiful color brochure that Parker has so generously provided here. Therein he writes that Parker’s work is best appreciated when absorbed in larger doses, as opposed to viewing just a single work. Only then can we begin to make sense of the life-long flow of aesthetic mazes that Parker continues to negotiate with ever-increasing, compelling verve. “Viewing one painting in isolation can be a puzzlement,” Albacete observes. True enough. “But in taking in five, or ten, or twenty altogether, a pattern emerges, the maze transforms into a labyrinth, and we can at last find our way to the center of her artistic core.” Truer still.

For many years that core has shown itself to be consistently bold, challenging, and at times even maddeningly cryptic, though always fresh, in abandoning the more predictable niceties of expressionistic painting. I think she’s well advanced beyond what might have been once a merely polemical aesthetic based on speaking modern art “vocabulary” fluently, into a newer, more intuitive, and exciting articulation of subtler dialects.

The big surprise in her group of paintings here, which does include a few of her more “trademark” visceral abstract explorations of scruffily drawn/thickly painted figurations, is a series of ten large (9’ x 6’), unstretched acrylic canvases, collectively called “Hommage Les Peintres Femmes (Homage to the Women Painters)”. These amazing pictures have a refined, architectural presence, and exude a serenely somber urgency. Ghostly and heroic, some incorporate a logo-like spiral form, reminiscent of ancient symbols of universal forces. Each panel is dedicated to a significant woman artist. Perhaps these haunting configurations are Parker’s personal tone poems - a symbolic witness to, and identification with, the essence of endless stepping out into a cosmic labyrinth of creativity.

Maybe one way to savor the pictorial possibilities that Parker offers us here is to in turn entertain another possibility for ourselves as viewers. Look, and don't let your right brain know what the left is looking at. It’s that simple. That complex. That marvelous.

Photo: “Eva” by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker. On view in “Director’s Choice II: A Celebration of Women in the Arts” at the Canton Museum of Art, through July 24, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue N, Canton.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Radiance Redux

Radiance Redux

By Tom Wachunas

Those of you who missed Diane Belfiglio’s show of oil pastels, “Transitions,” at the Butler Institute of American Art (February 13 through April 3), will hopefully be pleased to know that the exhibit, less five or six pieces, is currently on view in Studio M at the Massillon Museum. And if what follows here seems familiar, it’s because it’s an edited (considerably so) version of a post (my catalogue essay from the Butler show) from February. This spectacular exhibit rates a recap, if for no other reason than that it’s about time we jump into long awaited Spring.

It was not just an illusionistic light that I observed when I first encountered the work of Diane Belfiglio in 1998, but real sunlight that seemed to magically emanate from the picture plane itself. It was a pleasantly haunting light, faintly suggestive of Edward Hopper’s work without the loneliness, or the great Impressionists, such as Monet, sans impasto. How was this possible with such flatly applied acrylic paint? The artist had clearly mastered illuminated color and its subtle interactions with precisely rendered, hard-edge architectural forms and their shadows.

In the years following, Belfiglio continued to explore the aesthetic marriage of sunlight and architecture- the joining of the ephemeral to the physical – with consistently enthralling results. While maintaining a disciplined eye for tight structuring of well-defined shapes with intriguing perspectives, she would become ever more adept at imbuing her images with real warmth and optimism. For all of their crisp faithfulness to the recognizable world, her images never succumbed to the often cold and numbing flamboyance of Photorealism, even though the camera remains an invaluable tool in framing her imagery.

Since venturing into the medium of oil pastels in 2008 with her Jamestown Geometry series, Belfiglio has honed her vision still further. The point-counterpoint play between solid, detailed volumes and shadows (equally solid in appearance) that characterized her architectural paintings was still very much present. While the imagery remained representational, a more refined sort of ‘abstraction’ was emerging in the sense that her compositions were becoming more distilled. These were intriguing articulations of light-drenched patterns, as in Jamestown Geometry IV, exuding a soft, lyrical quality. That softness and lyricism is in large part intrinsic to the pastel medium, which lends itself well to laying in subtle color areas by overlapping short, mincing strokes. Additionally, her exacting technique brought a refreshing, visually textured surface interest to her images.

The artist continued to combine and streamline these elements through her Potomac Pattern series, as in her elegant Potomac Patterns I. Physical architecture was still a focus in the following Mount Vernon Memories series, as we see in the sure-handed simplicity of Mount Vernon Memories III. But a shift in focus – a reversal, really – was taking shape. By 2010, eschewing hard-edged architectural motifs, the predominant formal content of her images had fully evolved into up-front floral themes, with a gently reminiscent nod to Georgia O’Keefe’s stylized abstractions of lush blooms. So the more recent works we see here are a graceful maturing of Belfiglio’s overall aesthetic concerns.

Indeed, the pure, mesmerizing synthesis of form and light has been the heart of this artist’s creative pursuits all along. In a statement from her exhibit at Canton’s McKinley Museum in 2001, she had written, “I was educated in a professional art world that has been characterized by its shock value, biting social commentary, and ‘in-your-face’ commercial images. In contrast to that world in which I was raised, I am simply endeavoring to create in my art a respite for weary souls.” Ten years later, that statement still speaks of her consistent vision and aesthetic standards, and resonates deeply in this splintered culture so often drawn to ugly sensationalism and collective angst.

Belfiglio’s floral drawings – with their astonishingly luminous colors and wondrous detail – are elegant constructions of serene jubilance. And to this body of work the artist has brought an increased compositional elegance. In several of the drawings, such as Sunlight on Scarlet and Daffodil Diagonals III, she employs a diagonal thrust to great effect, investing them with a sense of quiet drama. You could regard them as you would concerto orchestrations. Think of the luscious blooms as joyous solos, soaring above, but in exquisite harmony with, the richly supportive shadows.

The underlying spirit of bon homie in these drawings is a compelling and unabashedly beautiful witnessing of light, at once fleeting and imperishable, amid our postmodernist milieu of noisy, dark pluralism. As such, they are persistent, radiant acts of courage.

Photo, courtesy Diane Belfiglio: “Transfixed by Tulips III,” oil pastel. On view through June 26 in Studio M at the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon. Museum hours are Tuesday – Saturday 9:30a.m to 5p.m., Sunday 2 – 5p.m. It’s a good idea to call ahead, (330) 833 – 4061, and confirm your visiting time, as sometimes administrative meetings are scheduled for the gallery space.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Much Ado at Malone, part 2: Tactile Dialogue and Rarefied Earth

Much Ado at Malone, part 2: Tactile Dialogue and Rarefied Earth
By Tom Wachunas

What I’ve always enjoyed about Clare Adams’ fabrications (assemblages of painted or dyed fabric, found objects, often in tandem with encaustic) was their capacity to make me feel as if eavesdropping on an elegant soliloquy about her private life – intriguingly layered glances at her physical and spiritual worlds. Her current works in the McFadden Gallery at the Malone University Johnson Center make up one half of a collaborative project with fabric artist Rebecca Cross, who has worked extensively with dyed silks.

So the soliloquy has become a full dialogue. Adams established the parameters of this collaboration in November, 2009, by making a 15” x 15’’ piece and sending it to Cross, who in turn responded my making a same-size work and sending it on to Adams. And so it went on monthly, for one year, each artist making a work prompted and inspired by the other’s, in this show called “A Visual Correspondence,” on view through most of August.

The result is a delightful collection of 24 pieces that you could call, on one level, conceptual patches of a virtual quilt. Each ‘patch,’ though, functions as a finished fiber or mixed media visual meditation in itself. Some are more pictorial than others in the sense of being loosely composed of various symbols, shapes, and markings – snippets of recognizable reality, particularly in the works by Adams. Others have a more ephemeral presence – not abstract “scenes” so much as they’re gossamer-like, sumptuous constructions of colored textures. What adds a notably fascinating aspect to the collection is the subtle formal progression that takes place from one piece to the next. View them in order, as you would read the pages of a story, and savor how a compositional, material, and/ or color element in one becomes a presence in the next.

In the nearby Fountain Gallery is “Landscape Revisited,” seven sleek images by Scott Zaher. For several years I’ve watched many artists venture into the realm of photoshop and related digital tools to generate their pictures. Too many times the resulting work has a gratuitous, gee-whiz-look-at-my-new-toy glitz. All smoke and mirrors, no real magic.

Zaher calls his pieces “images re-interpreted digitally from conventional/traditional painting techniques.” But they have a vision both truly hypnotic and, and for all their intimate scale, considerably expansive. While all the pictures have a uniformly satin patina, the lush, soft color fields, sometimes gently intersected by the wispiest of lines, nonetheless have a painterly quality.

These aren’t realistic/naturalistic landscapes. Rather, they’re empyreal essences, purified suggestions. A line of trees, or tall grass, is a ghostly brush stroke of translucent green, for example. The perimeters of the images are where several planes of color seem to converge just slightly out of register and become a floating blur of thin, overlapping edges. In these “zones” are glimpses of other underlying colors – relatively tiny specks of warm intensity – that bring a beautifully understated, almost shimmering depth. Now, THAT’s magic.

Photo: “Landscape_4.5.11” by Scott Zaher, on view through September 13 in the Fountain Gallery at Malone University Johnson Center for Worship and the Fine Arts, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton. Gallery hours are 9-5 Monday through Friday.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Much Ado at Malone, part 1: Welcome To Huggett World

Much Ado at Malone, part 1: Welcome To Huggett World
By Tom Wachunas

Judi Krew’s blog post on May 13 is a rightful and welcome praise of the work by R.M. Huggett currently hanging at Malone University’s Johnson Center. She speaks of his impeccable craft, his humor, and his color sensibility, which I agree is deceivingly simple at first blush, but in actuality quite astonishing in its subtle depth. She also mentions Huggett’s relative newness on the local exhibition scene, and predicts that he’ll be someone to watch more closely as time goes on. Again, I agree. So I encourage you to go to and read her take on the work. It’s good to see him getting thoughtful attention.

Since first commenting on his painting in the Annual May Show at The Little Art Gallery (see my post from May 4, as well as on his work in “Blind Date” at Anderson Creative, posted May 11), Huggett’s work has become increasingly visible as we move into summer, and it continues to call me - with all the toothy (and toothless) glee of his painted kids - to impart just a few more thoughts.

When I referred to Huggett’s work recently as “goofy” and “Nouveau Kitsch,” I certainly did not mean to pigeonhole it as too derivative, low-brow, or commonplace. The work is indeed remarkably sophisticated, and highly successful in accomplishing the artist’s stated intent (posted with his 50 works on display) to make painted surfaces look like printed ones. In that sense, they’re a refreshingly different way to appreciate a “painterly” esthetic. To build the pristine, soft- matte finishes we see here via accumulated layers of brushed-on acrylic inks mixed with gesso, is in itself a masterful achievement. Even the heavy black contour lines of these “cartoons,” for all their stylized precision, nonetheless have a disarming, jittery individuality that gives these uncluttered compositions a quirky life all their own.

It’s a life – a world, really – that is, while surreal at times, always unapologetically comedic. There’s no attempt at fancy three-dimensional illusionism here – just flat-out, matter-of-fact fun. It’s a world where (as indicated by both pictures and their titles) McDonald’s has become Mallard D’s; Lester C. McKracken IV is the 47th Fez-ident of our United States; Newton’s 7th Law of Physics declares that “any bubble blown up in slow motion will also explode in slow motion”; Cheddar cheese masquerades as Swiss cheese; aliens from outer space have been here along; and a bowl of mashed potatoes has as much iconic resonance as a Warhol soup can.

It’s a simple world, meticulously created with a whimsical logic true to itself, and where innocent absurdities frolic. A world where, if only for the time it takes to view it, we can seriously indulge a hearty laugh.

Photo: “Overachiever II,” by R.M. Huggett, on view at Malone University Johnson Center for Worship and the Fine Arts, in the main level hallway marked VISUAL ARTS DEPT, through August, 2600 Cleveland Ave. NW, Canton. Viewing hours are Monday – Friday 9a.m. to 5p.m.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thank You Very Mutts, Acme Artists

Thank You Very Mutts, Acme Artists
By Tom Wachunas

“He believes in you only in so far as he knows you; the possibility that you are greater than you seem is disturbing, for friendship is founded on mutuality.” – Henry Miller –

“Guys and Dogs” is the loose theme behind the gathering of eight artists’ work at Acme Artists in downtown Canton. I say ‘loose’ because not all the art is about or by guys, or for that matter dogs. In any event, it’s a delightfully eclectic collection of works with a fair amount of overtly canine content.

Erin Mulligan is in fine form with her four tiny pencil drawings of scraggly mutts, one of them with duck feet. In good company with those is the pleasantly strange “Dog,” a mixed media/ceramic sculpture by Annette Feltes. Like a few of her other objects here, it has the air of a primitive talisman or icon, though certainly more whimsical than darkly mysterious.

Nearby are two small oil panels by Tiffany March, each a scene at historic McSorley’s Old Ale House in Manhattan. One of them depicts the tavern from the outside, dogs flanking the entrance like sentries at rest. Both paintings are done in a liquidy sepia tonality, and suggest damaged, old-timey photographs. There’s a similar vintage quality in the two paintings by Ron Copeland – like black and white movie posters with a slight nod to Roy Lichtenstein’s pop iconography. And the two small oils by Marti Jones Dixon are studies in elegant spontaneity. “Queen Mum” features Her Majesty taking her beloved Corgis for a walk, while in “Doggy Style,” a bespectacled café patron scowls as his Pomeranean sits pertly atop his table.

Also included in the show is a display of Holly “Buffy” Atkinson’s unique and arresting greeting cards, as well as a very fine collection of ceramic vessels by Bill Shearow. His ovoid bottles taper into long, thin necks that flare out at the top into graceful openings. The raku glazing is stunning, with a crackled effect not on top of, but embedded within, the smooth matte finish. One of the bottles, “Titus,” features a charming rendering of a Labrador’s (?) head worked into the crackling.

The Henry Miller quote at the beginning of this post is hand-written on the wall below a portrait of an old man and his small dog, called “Raindogs at Home,” by Dylan Atkinson. The quote points in a poetic way to the dominant sensibility behind his several oil paintings here on one of the gallery’s main walls, as well as to the works by Joseph Close on the opposite wall: dogs and the homeless, presented either together or separately.

“Raindogs” is a recurring term in Atkinson’s titles, and taken from a 1985 Tom Waits album that was part of a trilogy of recordings addressing what he had called “the urban dispossessed.” Atkinson’s technique is particularly well suited in capturing the somber essence of a marginalized population and its raw, lonely life, as in “Loyalty of a Raindog,” showing a man curled up, sleeping on a sidewalk, his vigilant dog keeping watch. The paintings are largely monotoned and loosely drawn, with the paint applied very thinly. You might think they’re at the early stages of underpainting, or works in progress. And in a way they are. What makes these images so oddly, hauntingly resonant is their sense of simultaneously materializing before our eyes and yet fading away. Street ghosts.

It’s a different but equally expressive esthetic at work in Joseph Close’s pieces. There’s color, but it’s usually very brooding and earthy. Similar too is the spirit of street-weary, urban stress, right down to the found wood frames, old furniture fragments, and metal bric-a-brac that he so often uses as painting surfaces and/or adornments. “Earthly Possessions” is eerily jubilant - even regal - in its presentation of a man, dog in lap, seated upon a makeshift throne. More desperate and forlorn is “Ghost Dog Odin,” a sad-eyed, haggard canine that seems to rise from the mists of a sign reading, “Will Wurk 4 Food .com.”

See these works soon, paws and reflect (forgive the corny pun) before the show ends, though when that may be at Acme Artists is often an indeterminate thing. I get the sense that exhibits here don’t always have formal closing dates so much as they simply evolve, quietly or otherwise, into the next show. It’s one of the qualities that make this space so refreshingly…other.

Photo: “Earthly Possessions” by Joseph Close, courtesy On View at Acme Artists, 332 Fourth Street NW, downtown Canton. Viewing hours Tuesday – Thursday 11 to 5, call ahead to confirm Saturday and other hours, (330) 452 – 2263.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Striking Matches: Writing Images, Seeing Words

Striking Matches: Writing Images, Seeing Words

By Tom Wachunas

Sometime in high school I saw a picture of Rene Magritte’s 1929 oil painting, “The Treachery (Perfidy) of Images.” Beneath a realistic rendering of a pipe (for smoking) are the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” - translated from French, “This is not a pipe.” And of course, one of several points that Magritte made (all challenging our trust of labels and language) was that the painting is no more a pipe than the Mona Lisa is a woman.

Seeing and thinking about the painting was something of an epiphany, as it increased my sensitivity to the tentative, delicate relationship between images and the words we assign to, or associate with them. In my case, that sensitivity has taken on a protracted life of its own – writing about visual art. Not only describing, but ascribing meaning to pictures with words. And the reverse has often been true, too – making images in response to written words. Looking back, I’ve often thought Magritte’s painting could just as well have been called “The Treachery of Words.” It would have been just as meaningful. It all comes down to the fascinating, mysterious, even confounding thing we call the creative process – how one expression of symbols gives rise to our response via another form of expression.

It’s the subtle symbiosis between the written word and visual forms that is the heart of the current exhibit at Anderson Creative, called “Blind Date.” The show is a “resurrection” of last year’s bold “Blind Date: The Romance of Word and Image.” So, think of symbiosis here as romance – as in a mutual wooing of sorts, a call and response between parties who, in this case, never met until the opening of the show. Fifteen writers and 15 visual artists anonymously exchanged works, each writer getting a visual work, each artist a written work. Then each participant responded with a new piece.

And there’s another kind of wooing going on here, too. That would be, in case you missed last year’s edition, the renewed invitation to consider the “gallery experience” in a more expansive, perhaps challenging light. It’s an invitation to carve out the time needed to “read” the fine visual art as well as “see” the equally fine literature. Here, one feeds the other in a deeply imaginative, poetic way, without succumbing too much to mere illustration of the obvious.

Speaking of poetic, along with narratives of varying lengths, the considerable number of poems here are particularly fascinating with their matched art. Paul Digby wrote the originating text (poem) called “Dualities” that accompanies the acrylic painting by R.M. Hugget, titled after the poem’s last line, “We Forget and Move On.” The poem’s lyrical symbolism around an owl and mouse in a barn becomes a slick, graffiti-like cartoon in Huggett’s sure hands, with one toothy figure asking another, “Did I tell ya the one about the mouse, the barn, and the owl?” His companion responds, “My shirt needs a haircut.” And we move on.

Van Misheff’s “Style” is a poem in response to Judi Krew’s watercolor, “S.T.Y.L.E. (Say They, You R Limited 2 1 Expression).” The painting suggests a stained glass window depicting a naked, shackled woman, clutching paint brushes in one hand, her face covered with a wire cage. A prisoner in/of the luminous color? Misheff’s upbeat poem picks up on the rhythmic pulsing of Krew’s color planes, and reads like a jazz rap with a touch of free-form 1950s hip.

Gennae Falconer wrote her moving “Let Me Have Another Day” in response to Kyle Begue’s stunning, viciously energetic mixed media painting on glass called “Otis Redding” (the beloved soul singer who died in 1967 when his plane crashed in a Wisconsin lake). The collaboration is one of the show’s more viscerally haunting moments.

Haunting too is the originating text by Judi Christy, “Empty Nest.” The somber narrative describes, in beautifully measured sentences, the parting of ways between mother and daughter. Anne Welder’s responsive oil painting effectively translates the spirit of the text with a no-nonsense, earthy immediacy.

A similar appropriateness of spirit is at work in the match between painter Ines Kramer and poet Tim Belden. In many ways it reflects the overarching, ephemeral chemistry of creative collaboration and interpretation that fuels this show. Kramer’s painting, “Sedan,” is a smooth, surreal cityscape of gently skewed perspectives. Traveling through a dream. Belden’s responsive poem, “Street Meditations,” is itself a journey: “…The Desk is a Sedan / I watch headlights on streets / follow arrows pointing in all / directions, cueing me to drive / right or left on bearings in this / dance we do…”

Like any blind dates seeking mutually satisfying connections, the diverse pairings in this “Blind Date” have indeed resulted in many delightful, compelling dances, so to speak. While it’s taken out of context here, I’m nonetheless drawn to a line in Jessica Bennett’s achingly eloquent poem in the show, “Yearn,” reminding me that here are artists and writers who have thoughtfully surrendered to “…a purposeful, quenching muse.”

Photo, courtesy Anderson Creative: “Sedan,” mixed media by Ines Kramer. On view in “Blind Date” at Anderson Creative THROUGH MAY 28, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery Hours 12 noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Scriptly Speaking

Scriptly Speaking

By Tom Wachunas

For this, the fifth annual From Script To You New Works Festival presented by the North Canton Playhouse in its intimate McManaway Studio theater, producing artistic director Jeremy Lewis and his team received 246 script submissions (short, one-act plays) from around the country. Six very well crafted entries were selected to make either their Ohio or world premieres. Collectively, the content of this year’s festival is conceptually brighter than in the past. There’s less stormy, existential angst afoot. This is not to say that its many comedic moments aren’t generously balanced with thoughtful, engaging drama.

If there’s a relatively ‘lightweight’ entry in the group, it’s certainly the first play – “Perfect Strangers,” written by Peter Snoad from Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and directed here by Moriah Ophardt. While resting after his mountain climb, Robert meets a chatty woman named Betsy who’s been spying on him. She reveals a grave, cathartic secret about herself which has imbued her life with an urgent mission, and she invites Robert, her “perfect stranger,” to participate in it. Tawny Burkhardt is infectiously charming as the nosy, insistent Betsy, while Chris Sailing, as Robert, is cautious (understandably so, given Betsy’s disarmingly invasive demeanor), yet still a bit too emotionally stiff and pre-occupied. Maybe he’s put off by what he thinks is Betsy’s hubris. But he seems to have a cathartic enough moment of his own in the last seconds of this feel-good thirteen minutes.

“Clown Therapy,” written by Nina Mansfield of Greenwich, Connecticut, and directed by Cassey Martin, starts funny and ends funnier still. Maggie and Frank, married, are in session with a marriage counselor. They’re careful to point out that their last name isn’t Bozo, but something like Boh-show. David Burkhardt, playing Frank, arrives for the session in full clown regalia, belying the fact that, according to sultry Maggie’s weepy complaint, he’s simply not at all the clown she married. Meanwhile, Christina Trompower, playing the therapist, treats this farcical romp with clinical but sincere objectivity. Stacey Essex is hilarious as the passionately ditzy Maggie who’s mortified to find that Frank’s red nose is fake, and Burkhardt is equally memorable – a wounded, defensive Bozo - in his exasperated wishes for her to know the real him.

Jeremy Lewis directed the evening’s longest (35 minutes) and surely most riveting entry – “Museum Piece,” written by William Fowkes from New York City. The three-man-monologue is a gem of clever drama interwoven with biting comedy. Each delivers his take on visiting the Museum of Modern Art with increasing intensity until they literally and heatedly cross words and paths while gazing at a confounding contemporary installation. Zach Blake is utterly convincing as a pathologically panicky, agoraphobic student type, fretting over his every thought and move. So too, the masterful Nate Ross is gripping in his character that seethes with confrontational, brooding indignation, both righteous and misplaced. And Michael Burkhardt (he’s real- life father to previously mentioned cast members David, and husband to Tawny) is unforgettably if not oddly endearing in his frenetic portrait of insecure, effete intellectualism.

Cassey Martin directed the comically twisted “Smoke Screen” by Jamaica, New York playwright Esta Fischer. Stacey Essex returns as Laura, girlfriend to Jeff, played by Paul Weston. In celebrating their six-month anniversary of quitting smoking together, they quickly come to sparring through a tight and laugh-filled scenario of second guessing each other’s motives. Even more absurd, though with its own share of authentic social commentary, is “Breeders,” written by Kevin Aremento from Long Island, New York, and directed by Moriah Ophardt. She also deliciously/viciously nails her role as a puppy on a smoke break in front of a pet store, while confronting Flora, an anti-puppy- mill activist, played with high-energy sincerity by Krystian Bender.

In the final work, Jeremy Lewis directed, and plays the role of Greg, along with co-director Cassey Martin in the role of Hailey, in “Three Hour Difference,” by Mike Poblete from New York City. It’s an intriguing, fast-paced look at a long distance relationship. He’s in New York, she in Los Angeles, each speaking to an unseen ‘other’ as they test the waters of separation while questioning their future. Lewis is sharp in his easy delivery of nervousness posing as witty confidence, in subtle counterpoint to Martin’s tender wrestling with her conflicts.

While the 12-minute story leaves the final status of the couple unresolved, it is nonetheless a poignant close to a marvelously satisfying evening of inventive theatre.

Photo, courtesy Alyssa Pearson and Jeremy Lewis: Jeremy Lewis and Cassey Martin in “Three Hour Difference,” one of six short plays in the From Script To You New Works Festival, at the North Canton Playhouse McManaway Studio theater, 525 7th Street NE (Hoover High School), North Canton. THROUGH MAY 14. Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, also 8 p.m Thursday May 12, and 2:30 matinee on Mothers Day, May 8. Seating limited. Tickets (330) 494 – 1613, General Admission $10, students 2 for 1 with valid ID.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Deja vu, S'il Vous Plait?

Déjà vu, S’il Vous Plait?

By Tom Wachunas

“Competitions are for horses, not artists.” – Bela Bartok –

“Art is the increasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding.” – Marc Chagall –

“So let’s leave it alone ‘cause we can’t see eye to eye. There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy. There’s only you and me and we just disagree.”
- lyrics by Dave Mason, 1977 –

Once upon a time, in 1863, some four thousand artists raised a mighty stink about being rejected by the prestigious Paris Salon. To quell the scandal (one does not raise the ire of that many artists without serious repercussions), French Emperor Napolean III stepped in and spearheaded an alternative show that has since been known as the “Salon des Refuses.” Take that, you snooty intellectual types. Still, I’m sure that many Salon diehards dismissed the exhibit under their haughty breaths as “The Losers Show.” But it did bring to the fore such artists as Edouard Manet, who would consequently come to be regarded as the progenitor of Impressionism.

This is not to say that what we see in juried art shows these days, including the 69th Annual May Show at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, is determined strictly by pompous or conservative academics, though some certainly are, no matter where they’re mounted. Nor am I suggesting that somewhere in the mix of works not chosen for the May Show are a few artists whose work might someday rock the art world with mind- boggling originality. In fact we’ll never know what we’re missing, unless…Where’s Napolean III when we really need him? (Note to self: find someone to stir up the also-rans?)

Seriously, though, on one level it’s hard to find substantial fault with the overall look of this show, and for that we can once again thank curator Elizabeth Blakemore for making the best out of what the jurors (Gail Rule-Hoffman and Sr. Rosaria Perna, both from Ursuline College) selected. Befitting the sharply polished look of the space, the show is a real stunner, that is if you’re biased toward representational art, be it faithfully naturalistic or with more expressive leanings. In the vein of Old Masters technique, Frank Dale’s “Sarah,” and Kristine Wyler’s “Through the Mist” are both absolutely breathtaking. And Deborah Woloschuk’s still life, “Vintage Iridescence,” is a dazzling feast of luminous textures. There are numerous other representational paintings, collages, and drawings – landscapes, still lifes, portraits - in varying degrees of skill and originality. What they share collectively in this context is a pristine preciousness that gives the show the aura of a haute design boutique. Safe, tried-and-true, and always pretty.

This is all fine and good as far as it goes. But as in too many local juried shows of the past, I miss the stuff I’ve occasionally seen fly just below our provincial radar. To be sure, there are some works in this show that do, very effectively, probe subtler things than visible reality. Just not enough of them. Whether or not this is a matter of jurors’ bias, or lack of depth in total entries for the show is, unless you poll the curator and jurors, an unknowable variable.

Pure abstraction, for example, is woefully under-represented. In that genre, Christopher J. Triner’s oil painting, “Shaken Not Stirred,” with its clustered, energetic impasto daubs atop a ghostly underpainted structure, is certainly among the most compelling works here. Likewise, “Landscape Revisited,” a digital print by Scott Zaher, while structurally derivative of Richard Diebenkorn’s iconic “Ocean Park” abstractions from the 1970s, is intriguing in how it evokes such a large velvety atmosphere on such a small picture plane. Elsewhere, Dr. Fredlee Votaw’s impeccably crafted mixed media “Thinking About the Holocaust” gives new and dramatic meaning to the notion of haunting juxtapositions. Similarly, if there’s such a thing as lyrical minimalism, Robert Gallik’s small sculpture of caged stones on a tray of sand, “River Piece #5,” fills the bill quite beautifully.

The inclusion of Richard M. Huggett’s crisp acrylic “HaveYou Been Eating Tacos?” is curiously jarring in this context. Maybe the jurors saw it as a happy medium between accessible and edgy. As it is, this goofy, Nouveau Kitsch cartoon has a Warholian slickness about it. It’s an irreverent though gentle slap to this show’s prim and proper face, and as such, oddly refreshing.

Photo: Detail of “Thinking About the Holocaust,” mixed media by Dr. Fredlee Votaw. On view in the 69th Annual May Show at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, through May 31. (330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312

Monday, May 2, 2011

From Across The Pond, Fury and Finesse

From Across The Pond, Fury and Finesse

By Tom Wachunas

A first time visitor to Umstattd Hall might have thought that this season-closing concert on April 30 by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was an intentional addendum to the pomp and circumstance of the Royal Wedding that had transpired in London the day before (even though, of course, the program was determined far in advance of the wedding’s announcement). But more on that a bit later. The theme of the concert was “The Splendor of England,” featuring works, all of them splendid to be sure, by Handel, Elgar, Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Even the first work on the program – Handel’s brief but electrifying coronation anthem, “Zadok the Priest” – was certainly in keeping with all things royal, and thunderously so.

After the orchestra’s lush, quietly measured introduction, the combined choirs of the Canton Symphony Chorus, Kent State University Chorus, and Canton’s delightfully gifted VOCI, exploded with such a sharply pronounced, sonorous entrance that I noticed many wide-eyed audience members appearing to physically bounce upward in their seats. From there, orchestra and choirs embarked on an inspired and unified declaration of sheer jubilance, as if to say, “now that we have your attention.”

A resonant euphoria still seemed present in the air as Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann addressed the audience before the program’s second work, Edward Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings.” After stating his fond admiration for the beauty of British string music, with impish aplomb he related how some individuals had shared with him their perplexity over the timing of this concert, coming as it did right after the royal nuptials. Leaving the question to dangle unanswered, he abruptly turned his back to the audience to begin conducting. And just before the laughter subsided, he faced us again with a quick afterthought, saying, “It’s because I’m Facebook friends with the Queen.” Then, not losing a beat as it were, it was on to the Elgar.

It’s fair to point out that dedicated followers of the CSO have come to expect, as ‘de rigueur,’ eminently balanced, crisp, and emotionally engaging performances. In short, to deliver great works with great sensitivity. And once again, that is precisely what these remarkable musicians accomplished with Elgar’s iconic work. Interestingly enough, he composed it as a gift for his wife, Alice, on the occasion of their third wedding anniversary. Here, particularly in the achingly soulful Larghetto movement, with its richly tender and delicate textures, the orchestra was the embodiment of intense lyricism.

That lyrical intensity was all the more magnified and visceral in the remaining two works on the program. Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes were combined by the composer as a single work from his 1945 opera, Peter Grimes, the tragic tale of an outcast fisherman searching for redemption. In this astonishing performance, the orchestra wove a virtual tapestry of moods and textures of the sea, beginning with the tranquility of ‘Dawn’ and ‘Sunday Morning’ in the first two movements, followed by the eerie, atmospheric ‘Moonlight,’ and climaxing with the relentlessly startling, furious ‘Storm.’ Throughout, the orchestra’s full array of instruments came into play with powerful imagination and virtuosity.

Finally, as if to answer the emotionality of all that tumultuous orchestral roaring, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace)” brought another kind of fury and angst to our already stunned attention. This was Williams’ searing plea for peace in the looming shadow of World War II. The combined choirs returned, singing with a gripping fervor and urgency. So too the guest artists, soprano Emily Albrink and baritone Brian Keith Johnson. Their impeccable artistry brought to the fore, with deeply moving clarity, the work’s bittersweet prayerfulness, eventually rising to a thunderous, hopeful song of ‘Glory to God’ at the end, which faded into Albrink’s sweetly plaintive, quiet and lingering “dona nobis pacem.” For all of its quietude, this finale was a resounding Amen to a very memorable CSO season.