Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Body Eclectic

The Body Eclectic
By Tom Wachunas

The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred, no matter who it is, it is sacred –
- Walt Whitman, from “I Sing the Body Electric” –

“The body is a big sagacity, a polarity with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.”
- Friedric Nietzsche –

“Your body is a flower that life let bloom.” - Ilchi Lee –

Though some artists of the Abstract Expressionist ilk may howl their disagreement, I think one could make a very strong argument that there is no more potent and accessible vehicle for communicating the essence of humanity than the human form itself. The body - whether clothed or unclothed, idealized, symbolized, distorted, or otherwise rendered warts-n-all – appears in the art of all cultures and throughout time since (roughly) 25,000 BCE.

With the current exhibit called “Body Language,” the Canton Museum of Art is once again proving the impressive and surprising depth of its permanent collection. Featured here are works by 47 artists in a wild array of media and aesthetic styles – from the classically sublime to the thoroughly modern (including the downright funky). It’s a veritable sea of human forms, churning with all manner of gestures, postures, physical activities, and physiognomies. The show is every bit as purely “entertaining” as it is conceptually and emotionally gripping.

Speaking of gripping, Red Grooms’ silkscreen, “Mango, Mango” (rhymes with Tango, Tango), is a stunning, Pop-ish gem of composition and electrifying pattern design. The dancers look as if ready to step (or fall) right out of the picture plane. Meanwhile, in “Steppin Out,” a life-size porcelain sculpture by Verne Funk, the two slender Deco dancers in black, white, and gray are ingeniously fused together into a tight embrace.

Among many other personal favorites, here are just a few more: Thomas Hart Benton’s lithograph, “Island Hay,” a haunting and dramatic depiction of rural field workers; Kathe Kollwitz’s equally dramatic etching, “March of the Weavers” – the angry poor seemingly about to rise up into a blank yet oddly crushing sky; the quiet dignity and melancholy conveyed in Rockwell Kent’s lithographs; an eerily beautiful ceramic wall piece called “Lithe Diver” by Beverly Mayeri – a floating male swimmer, stretched out and evenly sliced into many pieces (as in filleting a fish?); the surreal hilarity and intricate workmanship in both Janis Mars Wunderlich’s earthenware sculpture “Puppy Queen,” and Mark Soppeland’s mixed media sculpture, “Concerned With Many Issues”; and the controlled, yet fluid, muscular brushwork in Jerome Witkin’s huge (66”x96”) oil painting, “Lockhart” – a portrait set in a marvelously complex interior space.

On your way into the upper gallery to see this show, be sure to notice the four important works on paper that were recently added to the Museum’s Permanent Collection (now numbering more than 1,600 works). These latest pieces are currently on view in the Museum lobby, but will likely not be up for the duration of “Body Language,” which closes March 4. WHAT FOLLOWS HERE IS REPRINTED FROM THE MUSEUM”S PRESS RELEASE REGARDING THE NEW ACQUISITIONS.

William Sommer, “U.S. Mail” (diptych), 1938, watercolor on paper, 35 7/8” x 20 7/8”, purchased in memory of John Hemming Fry. American Modernist painter, William Sommer (1867-1949), was a leader of The Cleveland School – a group of Cleveland-based artists active through the 1940’s. Sommer was unemployed and near destitute, until his situation improved in the mid 1930’s with commissions from the Works Progress Administration. Sommer began using his modernist style to depict the simple country life he enjoyed in Brandywine, Ohio; a rural community midway between Cleveland and Akron. U.S. Mail is a large composition combining transparent and opaque watercolor techniques -- a masterpiece of the medium, also demonstrating Sommer’s skill at adapting the aesthetic of WPA mural painting to the watercolor medium.

Lowell Tolstedt, “Blue Table with Plate of Cherries”, 2011, colored pencil on paper, 29” x 39”, purchased in memory of Edward A. and Rosa J. Langenbach. What Lowell Tolstedt achieves with colored pencil defies belief. Tolstedt (1939- ), a retired Columbus College of Art & Design professor, is known for his exquisite photo-realistic drawings of everyday objects. Given the association of realistic still life with old masters of the 17th or even mid 19th century, the very characteristics that make a work of art realistic in style and still life in genre are often the same characteristics that keep a work entrenched in tradition. But Tolstedt’s work is thoroughly modern – with the simple subject of placing fruit on a plate, he generates a playful tension with his realistic exploration of shape and texture.

Jim Dine – “Untitled (Hearts)”, 1976, watercolor, 16” x 20”, purchased in memory of the Luntz family. American Pop Artist, Jim Dine, grew up in Cincinnati, attended Ohio University then moved to New York in 1959. Dine’s roots as a painter lie in Abstract Expressionism, reflected in his brushy and gestural finish. Working with Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein, Dine’s work moved from Abstract Expressionist towards Pop Art. In this genre he is an American icon and a great addition to the collection of the Canton Museum of Art.

Hughie Lee-Smith – “Industrial Scene”, 1953, watercolor, 15 ½” x 22 ¼”, purchased in memory of Austin Lynch and Mary K. Lynch. Hughie Lee-Smith is one of the most highly acclaimed African American artists to have begun his career in Cleveland. He painted the crumbling inner cities of Detroit and Cleveland. Lee-Smith struggled against the tide of Abstract Expressionism while adhering to his distinctive style, hauntingly enigmatic and sometimes described as Romantic Realism.

Photos courtesy Canton Museum of Art: Top – “Mango, Mango,” by Red Grooms. Bottom – “Island Hay” by Thomas Hart Benton. On view in “Body Language” THROUGH MARCH 4 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N. in Canton. (330) 453 - 7666

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