Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Accessing Ambiguities

Accessing Ambiguities
By Tom Wachunas

“What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach…It is about the hurt of not being able to express yourself properly, to express your intimate relations, your unconscious, to trust the world enough to express yourself directly in it…Some questions are too painful to answer. Some questions we are unwilling to ask. And some are impossible to answer.”
- Artist Louise Bourgeois, from a 1988 interview with philosopher and critic Donald Kuspit –

“Joy and Departure” is the intriguing name of the current exhibit at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, featuring paintings by Joe Martino and sculptures by Annette Yoho Feltes. If I read the statement that accompanies the list of works correctly, the thematic premise of the show is that both artists’ works here were intended to be seen together as somehow complementary in their departures from familiar reality so as to evoke unexpected joy and fascination on our part. In the process of putting the show together they have to some extent, in a few of their pieces, cross-fertilized each other’s work.

I can certainly see how “joy” might be one outcome of seeing Joe Martino’s pieces - as in the joy of encountering enthralling new visual structures in the context of scientific exploration. This isn’t surprising when considering that Martino is a retired teacher of chemistry and marine biology.

His mixed media abstractions are elaborate, heavily tactile, shimmering gatherings of forms - both geometric and irregular - that float in and on undulating fields of variable color, ranging from dark and earthbound to stunningly electric. Some of the forms look scraped on to, or out of, the surface, making for some delightfully ambiguous figure-ground passages. Other forms appear poured or spilled on to the surface in organic configurations that are often set off with elegant, thin contour lines of raised paint, as if mapping a topography.

These are complex and meticulous works, alternately suggestive of explosive astronomical events, astral clouds, and microbial minutiae. Telescopic and microscopic. With its often metallic iridescence, Martino’s nebulous geometry can be preciously decorative. But I don’t mean ‘decorative’ in any pejorative sense. Rather, his pictures are vibrant, intuitive celebrations of spectacles both familiar and wondrously mysterious.

And it is mystery, more than overt “joy,” that abounds in the sculptures by Annette Yoho Feltes. With various combinations of terra cotta, porcelain, rope, wire, and wood (among other materials), she makes objects that are (even at their most whimsical) invariably visceral and arresting. Feltes’ aesthetic is firmly rooted in solidarity with that of art world luminaries Louise Bourgeois, Magdalena Abakanowitcz, and Eva Hess. Feltes calls them her “saints.”

I can see why. Without being too blatantly derivative, what Feltes shares with those 20th century mentors of mixed media sculptures and installation art is a well-honed ability to let the juxtaposition of her chosen physical materials be intensely expressive of spirit and psyche. Particularly in her three freestanding works (“The Necessary Sacrifice,” “Fruitful,” and “A Mother of Two”), there’s a raw, even primal emotionality at work. These metaphorical constructions have the look of ritual objects, like ancient shamans’ ceremonial charms, that speak of vexing enigmas or pain. But there’s also an abiding sense of anticipation and promise, of impending arrivals, of conversations incomplete, literally hanging in the balance. Suspended thoughts. Her strange, bulbous forms might be carcasses or entombed nightmares. Then again, eggs, cocoons, or ripe fruit. Fertility and birth, harvest, mortality. Sublimated fears and anxieties, or channeled dreams?

In accessing and trusting their own experience of living, conscious and unconscious, contemporary artists will often leave us challenging ‘statements’ that stop in mid-sentence, as it were. Ambiguities and dichotomies in flux. Much of the “art experience” in this postmodernist era is in fact more dependent than ever upon us, the viewers, to resolve or at least sustain the dialogue. Annette Yoho Feltes’ ‘voice’ is a young but burgeoning and uniquely important one in our local arts milieu, and one that merits our continuing attentions.

“Joy and Departure” will be on view through January 14 at The Little Art Gallery, located inside the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. (330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312

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