Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two-Faced Us, Articulated

Two-Faced Us, Articulated
By Tom Wachunas

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” - Romans 7:18-20 –

History has bequeathed us myriad philosophies and commentaries on ‘The Problem of Evil’. That would include examinations of exactly what humanity’s first sin was. Many have made the case that our dismissal from Eden was the consequence of disobedience. Just as many have cited pride. And let’s not forget lust – essentially the desire to possess, at any cost, what we don’t have. Or how about greed – the blinding compulsion to possess more than we need just because we think we can? And so it goes.

History also illuminates our capacity to sense, define, and categorize what is both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ about us. Virtues and vices. Right and wrong. We’re instinctively (spiritually) called to obligatory behaviors, ethical codes of conduct. While we certainly seem to agree in theory that love is preferable to hate, all behavioral evidence indicates the dual-nature of humanity as in a war between spirit and flesh, an incessant struggle between our higher and lower natures. It’s not just in the academic (sociological/military/ political) chronologies of cultures or civilizations where we encounter such evidence, but certainly in our art history as well. Recognizing and expressing the numinous (divine) aspects of our existence – the strivings toward the theosis of humanity – has been a recurring, at times even dominant theme in artmaking across many cultures, Western and otherwise.

The new exhibit at Anderson Creative, called “Of Vice & Virtue: The Moral Universe of Marcy Axelband”, is neither a declaration of the artist’s perfected arrival at oneness with God, nor a preachy, new definition of morality. Axelband’s canvases are thoughtful, often gripping metaphors, in the form of portraits, for the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues. And it’s true that when I saw ‘moral’ and ‘universe’ in the same phrase, my internal GPS (God Positioning System) kicked in and to some degree filtered the material’s appearance, both visually (outward) and conceptually (inward). So while there might be something vaguely, arguably ‘religious’ afoot here, the work clearly exudes an overarching spirituality. Intriguingly so.

Let’s start with outward appearances. Axelband’s painterly language is that of a self-described “outsider” – an artist not formally trained in traditional studio practices. This is not to say her imagery is in any way unduly eccentric, crude or ‘ugly’. By classical standards her figurations are somewhat simplistic and awkward. But this lack of ‘naturalistic’ refinement (not to be confused with lack of drawing ability) gives her portraits a compelling, raw immediacy. Often, in their tactile surfaces alive with raised ripples of underpainting, flurries of scratches, and shapes reformed and repainted, they look as if they’ve recently emerged from a struggle, victorious and confident if not a little battle-weary. Adding to the paintings’ visceral physicality are the frames – thin metal strips attached with highly visible masonry nails – as if to literally nail down the ephemeral content. The scarred earthiness of the faces is a dramatic counterpoint to the electrifying, saturated colors that make up many of the backgrounds, or the simplified forms of the figures’ clothing. Distinctly vivid, yet never gratuitously lurid, Axelband’s esthetic is a contemplative melding of form and function, and one that serves the subject at hand very well: the human yearning to peacefully balance conflicting ethical/moral dichotomies.

Now for the inward. Each painting is accompanied by the artist’s musings on a vice or virtue. Her writing is charmingly sensitive, fluid, concise, and disarmingly frank. Particularly interesting are the beginnings of the definitions of various vices, all cut from the same fabric, as it were, of laziness. For example: Lust is “Too lazy to love.” Gluttony is “Too lazy to consider others’needs.” Wrath (Anger) is “Too lazy to consider the consequences of vengeful acts.”

And so it is all the more fascinating that one of only two overtly abstract works here is about selflessness. “Generosity” is an edge-to-edge field comprised of hundreds (thousands?) of loosely drawn, empty squares. A nearby tray holds tubes of paint and a few brushes, with an invitation for us as viewers to fill in as many of the tiny blanks as we want to with color. Then we are asked to go out into our world and perform a generous act equivalent to the number of squares we’ve painted in. An invitation to be not lazy. It’s a delightfully potent form of interactive art.

In enunciating her symbols of human desires and behaviors – beautifully refined in their way - this intensely facile outsider engages us in a dialogue that transcends private meditation. It’s an enthralling dialogue that reveals Axelband’s personal “moral universe” to be neither inaccessible nor all that separate from our own. So paint in some squares. We’re all in this together.

Photo, courtesy Craig Joseph: “Meekness” by Marcy Axelband, on view THROUGH JULY 30 at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Noon to 5 p.m Wednesday - Saturday www.andersoncreativestudio.com

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