Friday, July 8, 2011

The Low Spark of High-Heeled Guerrillas

The Low Spark of High-Heeled Guerrillas
By Tom Wachunas

“…and the thing that disturbs you is only the sound of the low spark of high-heeled boys.”
- lyrics by Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi -

Since its beginnings several years ago, the Acme Artists space in downtown Canton has rarely failed to stir up my memories – both fond and loathsome - of the New York City ‘alternative art’ scene of the 1980s. Back then I ran with a noisy, mischievous crowd of unevenly talented wannabes and couldabeens who were mad as hell and weren’t gonna take it anymore.

We were mad at the exclusive Uptown and SoHo galleries that called the shots and garnered the critics’ attentions, not to mention astronomical art prices. We were the disgusted, the disgruntled, the disenfranchised (and jealous). We became an underground avant garde. We were the ‘art guerrillas’ who commandeered abandoned storefronts and warehouses to mount impromptu exhibitions - ‘art attacks’ - that farted in the general direction of those blue-chip art profiteers and aficionados who touted the likes of Julian Schnabel’s awful broken china paintings. We were iconoclasts at heart and none too pure or simple.

Much of the art generated by this anarchy (my own included) was deliberately incomprehensible if not outright hideous, even by the strange ‘standards’ of the then newly-blossoming school of “Bad Painting”. So it’s not out of any sense of unqualified pride that I share these memories. I tell you this not because I think Acme Artists represents an exact duplication of those days’ attitudes or practices. Rather, it’s that Acme seems to embody a similarly bold, broad spirit of hit-‘em-and-run experimentation and planned unpredictability. Like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. If what’s there tastes too crunchy, bitter, or stale, wait a few days and come back. The place is an ever- revolving/evolving emporium of works by some of Canton’s ‘edgier’ artists.

Case in point: the current show (which may or may not be intact by the time you read this) called “Buffy’s Rules”. Buffy, of course, is Holly Buffy Atkinson, and she’s organized works by 13 other artists for this collective interpretation of her “rules”. Rules for what? While there are some specifics - like kindness to animals, approved sports, social behavior, and fashion – the overall thematic content spans a wide, somewhat ambiguous spectrum. For example, part of the exhibit is comprised of decidedly risqué works displayed behind a heavy red velvet curtain. ‘Adult’ content, to be sure. I’m not sure if Atkinson’s greeting cards there, featuring vintage photos of partially nude women in suggestive situations, are meant to be a celebratory show of tolerance for ‘alternative’ life styles, or simply an arbitrary symbol of artistic freedom masquerading as kinky sensationalism? Or both?

There is a substantial number of remarkable individual works here by well-known known local artists who have been consistently present in past Acme exhibits. One painter here is new to me, though – Joe Cortese, who has several works on display. A few of them, particularly behind the curtain, are dreadfully meandering, semi-abstract affairs of questionable intent and quality. Some of his paintings in the main part of the gallery are relatively more resolved, and indicate a unique, intriguing visual language that might still be in its infancy – a melding of sharply defined, ornate, graffiti-like geometries clustered and floating in slightly blurred fields of patterns. Decorative, yes, but in color and surface, visceral and brooding.

In some ways the paintings are problematic, but they do show considerable promise. And they nonetheless seem right at home in this space, bringing to mind, once again, that over-used e-word: edgy. I’m as guilty as anyone in resorting to the term too often, realizing full well that it’s become a generic catchall, a euphemism for ‘challenging’ or ‘outside the box’. Worse, it’s too often used to somehow legitimize and praise unremarkable work of no consequence, as in utter garbage. But that’s not the case here.

When I think of ‘edgy’ these days, it generally connotes ‘uneasy’ or ‘precipitous’. As in walking along an unfamiliar, even threatening path. Uncomfortable. Acme Artists has never been about exclusively safe, vapidly pretty, or easy art. In all its variety, much of it certainly palatable, there is in this show some typically challenging and difficult work to digest. Art can be that way sometimes. And that, I would think, is one of Buffy’s Rules.

“Buffy’s Rules” at Acme Artists until it’s not, 332 Fourth Street NW, downtown Canton. (330) 452 – 2263

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