Wednesday, June 27, 2012

And Then Again...

And Then Again…
By Tom Wachunas

    As long as I have your attention, I respectfully request some homework from you. Since it’s apparent you don’t mind messing around with reading blogs too much, before you go any further with this entry, please scroll down the page to the Archives section on the right side of this page and click into the 2011 posts, find the December 15 entry titled “Liquid Urban Light,” and read it. As always, thanks.

    Ted Lawson easily ranks among this region’s most accomplished and compelling watercolorists. Period. And if you missed his show which was on view at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) from December 2011 to March 2012, do yourself a great service by seeing his current show at North Canton’s Little Art Gallery, which will be up until July 14. Period. There, I’m done saying what needs to be said about Ted Lawson. I believe I’ve more than adequately met my quota of Lawson lauds (which are richly deserved).

   Nahhh, not exactly. See, I was greatly conflicted about commenting at all on this current showing only because it comes so closely on the heels of the CMA show. Something told me that Mr. Lawson would have no really new breakthroughs or big changes in his work that would warrant any substantially fresh comments beyond the December post you just kindly reviewed. Turns out I was right, but only to a limited extent. Without getting into the dicey business of discussing the pros and cons of over-exposure, I do think artists on the local exhibition circuit need to be judicious in how often they make a habit of showing what amounts to be essentially the same stuff.

     HOWEVER, at first glance, that only seems to be the case with this latest Lawson offering.  What makes this beautifully mounted collection of 22 works something other than just a reprise of recently familiar work, and very worth visiting, is its mini-retrospective scope, presenting works dating from 2007 and up through five pieces from this year. It’s a delightfully revelatory reminder that Lawson’s prolific output has strongly embraced considerably more subjects and stylistic variations than his recurring, signature Manhattan cityscapes (which largely comprised his CMA exhibit) would indicate. In a sense, what was ‘old’ has a new resonance here, and still holds up as significantly fresh.

    Part of this renewed impact comes in noticing how Lawson can imbue his representational scenery with a purely abstract sensibility, in varying degrees. And I think much of that sensibility, in turn, rises from his consistently effective employment of all- white areas and shapes. He uses the white not only for climactic moments of wonderfully effulgent light, but also for establishing a wholly exciting rhythmic element that makes his pictures dance.

     In his 2012 painting, “Showtime III,” it’s not the puddled hot colors of Broadway traffic and neon that make the city on a rainy night so spectacular. It’s rather the mesmerizing lambency, the bold lustre of white. Lawson continues to be wickedly playful. Period.

    Photos: Top: “Showtime III” (2012) / Middle: “Waiting” (2009) / “Mykonos” (2007)



Sunday, June 24, 2012

Been There, Scene That

 Been There, Scene That
By Tom Wachunas

    “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.”  - Robert Rauschenberg –

    Exhibition: “Daily Journal” – new work by Steve Ehret and Ron Copeland at Acme Artists, 332 Fourth Street NW, downtown Canton –  Viewing times…unpredictable, but next best bet will be First Friday viewing on July 6.

    In many ways, the current exhibit by Steve Ehret and Ron Copeland at Acme Artists is a throwback to the good old days of 2009 and the “Stark Naked Salon” group show (which included Ehret and Copeland among others) at the Massillon Museum. The Acme installation, in concept and visual style, is essentially a repeat performance, despite the fact that the individual pieces are all new. Additionally, my thoughts on the Massillon show (archived here on August 28, 2009) can in large part apply here.

    BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Not unlike those garish TV ads with the ear-piercing, deranged-sounding voice-overs for local car and furniture dealers, here is a loud, free-wheeling declaration of…what, exactly? The wild quirkiness of the individual pieces, or a general perspective that vacillates between goofy, sometimes arcane fantasies, and realities of a more unsettling nature?

    Steve Ehret wields a mean paint brush and cup-o’-joe (coffee being listed as one of his painting materials). His mixed media images are bright, otherworldly scenes of anthropomorphic creatures and caricatured humanoids (alternately silly, endearing and goulish) cavorting through translucent and fluid backdrops (backdrips?), some more vaguely defined than others. The saturation and intensity of color in his meticulously rendered figures gives them a lurid, comic book dimensionality. Decidedly more stark is the gallery wall given over to a collection of Ehret’s explosive black ink drawings that read like the ramblings of an agitated sketchbook diarist.

    Ron Copeland once again offers his somewhat frenetic assemblages and collages of photos mashed together with painted figures and disjointed poster lettering. They still have a streetwise, grimy appearance – a visceral, scuffed-up homage to (or swan song for?) Cubist pictorial space, 60s Pop-inspired image appropriation, and the textures of decay. All told, you could call it Urban Salvage Expressionism.

    The works of Ehret and Copeland are good examples of a particular trend of content and methodology  I’ve seen emerging with increasing popularity over the past several years on our local art scene. It can often include a down-and-dirty offhandedness in execution and presentation along with, in varying degrees, dark, impish, or surreal subject matter.  With more than a few other practitioners, they offer perhaps not so much an evolving or involving personal aesthetic per se, but rather a shared group-think that’s been forging a brand. Fun and entertaining? As far as that goes, absolutely. Edifying? Arguable.

    In keeping with Rauschenberg’s observation quoted at the top of this commentary, I’m reminded that like much of the consumerist era we inhabit, this kind of art is often more superficially tantalizing than intrinsically transformative. Yet it’s ironically relevant enough in how it seems to favor cosmetic fluff and theatrical bluster over genuinely engaging substance.

    Still, as you sort through this raucous melange of an installation, and even as most of the works tend to take flight at low altitude, some pieces do manage to really soar.  

    Photos thanks to artists’ Facebook pages: Top two works by Steve Ehret, bottom two works by Ron Copeland.


Monday, June 18, 2012

One Hand Clapping: The Recent Art of Patricia Zinsmeister Parker

One Hand Clapping: The Recent Art of Patricia Zinsmeister Parker
By Tom Wachunas

Exhibition: “Painting In The Dark” at Kent State University Downtown Art Gallery, 141 East Main St., Kent, Ohio / June 20 – July 14, 2012 / Opening Reception Thursday, June 21, 5 – 7 pm

    Just when you think you might have a firm handle on Patricia Zinsmeister Parker’s aesthetic, it slips from your grasp and evades easy categorization with almost maddening regularity. While she once described her painting approach as “bipolar,” I never regarded the reference as the trembling confession of a soul tormented by anything pathological. Call it an admission by an artist ever trusting of her Muse – a Muse not confined by a single idea or style for very long.

    This would no doubt be the same faithful Muse who, many years ago, convinced Parker to distrust working with her favored, traditionally trained right hand and choose to traverse more volatile, unpredictable pictorial territory. This leftist decision, as it were, was a watershed moment, and one in harmony with Parker’s solidarity with the 1970s arrival of what became known in art world circles as the ‘New York School of Bad Painting’. The irony was intentional and the reasoning behind it, according to its early adherents, went something like this: Really ‘good’ painting eschewed conventionally accurate figuration while indulging in highly expressive, often lurid color, visceral paint application, and subject matter that could be alternately funny, mysterious and fantastical, irreverent, or disturbing. And all of it was driven by the painters’ gleeful surrender to pure intuition.

    Sound familiar? In retrospect, this was not a wholly new movement at all, but rather a reshuffling of ideas originally put forth by, among others, European Surrealists and Expressionists from the 1920s-30s, and the pioneering American Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s. But enough with the thumbnail history lesson.

     Suffice to say that is in this heady context of Modernist painterly flux that Parker’s work developed. But it is a context that should not be viewed as a cleanly delineated niche she occupies so much as it is an entire ideological milieu which she continues to explore with singularly earnest muscularity. Think of it as the difference between being comfortably anchored on a picturesque lake and shooting the rapids of a wildly winding river.

    So what are we to make of Parker’s challenging new expedition into “Painting in the Dark”? In many ways this new suite is very much in keeping with the esoteric nature of her entire ouvre. She has always been an adventurer, with her canvases being an often startling travelogue of where the river has taken her. Here is arresting evidence of a journey that began by embracing a decidedly more dreary palette than she had employed in many of her past travels into unabashedly bold color and frenetic configurations.

    In citing a motivation, or initial influence in generating these paintings, Parker acknowledges the impact of Ad Reinhardt’s highly reductivist, severely dark paintings and prints executed late in his life. Her images, however, are not so utterly unforgiving in their blackness.  On the other hand, this is not to say that their deftly painted surfaces, awash in brooding hues and eerily floating forms, give up their secrets easily.

    Her canvases are comprised of simple grid-like structures, or stripes, or amorphous elongations that seem at once predetermined and spontaneous, often exuding a spirit of primordial mystery. Her forms have subtle auras that appear to simultaneously float atop, and emerge from within, fields of dark colors. But this darkness is neither lifeless nor without promise. Parker’s colors undulate with delightfully subtle variations in value, saturation, and intensity. And there’s often a tangible, ghostly magic in her restrained integration of finely powdered glitter with the pigments.

    So now back to Parker’s Muse for a moment. In this group of paintings, I envision her at first donning the guise of one of her dark-souled sisters - the Sirens -  luring Parker into murky waters. But this wily and whimsical Muse was always, after all, bright of heart, and late in the journey began singing a different, louder song, beckoning Parker back to more vibrant topographies. Hence, the inclusion of several works here with color so irresistibly electric that they seem to be exploding from the inside. Such chromatic drama is clearly the result of an evolution of sorts -  a process of fully releasing the colors that were subtly lurking underneath even the darkest paintings all along. It is an evolution that brings an intriguing sense of closure to the suite.    

    To the extent that the excited hues and simple structure in these later paintings reverberate, alternately and to varying degrees, with the echoes of Josef Albers, Piet Mondrian, Hans Hoffman, or Mark Rothko, one could make a reasonable case for viewing this body of work as the artist’s personalized recapitulation of historic Modernist “pure painting” concerns, and the search for the unadulterated “art experience.” Call it the pursuit of essences.   

    As such, Parker’s new works bring to mind how Zen masters challenged or boggled their followers with koans – those apparently paradoxical statements or questions intended to aid in acquiring enlightenment. Applying one classic koan to this discourse, then, what is the sound of one hand clapping? In Parker’s case, that’s an easy one. It’s the sound of her other hand intrepidly paddling ‘round the next bend in the river.

    Photos: (Top) “Dot Com” mixed media 36”x36” / “Stealing Thunder” mixed media 42”x42”

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Marriage Made in Earth

A Marriage Made In Earth
By Tom Wachunas

    “Clay. It’s rain, dead leaves, dust, all my dead ancestors. Stones that have been ground into sand. Mud. The whole cycle of life and death.”  - Martine Vermeulean –

    “You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it’s an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.”  - John Updike –

    It’s taken me a long time to nurture anything approaching genuine reverence for ceramics (aka stoneware or pottery). My own experience as a practicing ceramist lasted just two quarters during my college years. Then, my mastery of “throwing” pots (i.e., forming clay vessels on a potter’s wheel) was limited to disgustedly dashing many if not most of my finished wares against the unforgiving concrete floor of the student ceramics studio. The few clumsy – make that ugly - pieces that survived my sophomore tantrums ended up as a “gift” to my parents, which they quickly and understandably packed away permanently.

    Out of sight, but not out of mind. For, despite my fledgling failures with the medium, a seed of appreciation for the unique challenges of the potter’s craft did survive. Gradually, and with a modest bit of research and intentional observation, I’ve come to have real respect and even affection for those masterfully thrown vessels that transcend the ordinary.

    More than 20 truly extraordinary vessels are currently on view at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) until July 22 in the show, “Journey in Clay: The Colemans.” CMA Curator Lynnda Arrasmith has been fascinated by the married couples she’s met who work together as ceramic artists, and this is the inaugural exhibit in a series that will spotlight such couples. Tom and Elaine Coleman, husband and wife from Nevada, have been working together for more than 35 years. Tom’s special expertise is in throwing large porcelain pieces, while Elaine’s is in carving and glazing, with an acute mastery of celadon glazes.

    In general, many of the tapered bottles and circular platters here share the same physical form. But the artists have imbued their respective forms with a distinct surface identity and individualized aesthetic. Comparatively speaking in this context, and at the risk of oversimplifying or stereotyping the elegant uniqueness of these vessels, I do think his look like a he made them, while hers look like a she made them.

     Tom’s matt glazes are like abstract paintings with undulating colors and visual textures that lend his forms a quiet yet muscular volatility. Quieter still, but equally stunning, Elaine’s celadon gems glow with a stately, sleek linearity, delicately incised with marvelous, fluid drawings of birds or leaves.  The subtle but vibrant complementary relationship between the his and hers – the beautifully articulated point-counterpoint of individual approaches –  makes this show richly unified.

    I’m also reminded of the appeal, indeed the potency of clay itself to conjure deeply poetic, archetypal connections to the planet. Rebirthing clay - that viscous, timeless reliquary of all things earthen -  into vessels as beautiful as these is very much an act of practical magic.

    Photos: Top two: “Raised Lines Platter” and “Loose Bottle” by Tom Coleman / Bottom two: “Iris and Leaf Platter” and “Parrots and Leaf Bottle” by Elaine Coleman. All works are thrown porcelain. On view through July 22 at the Canton Museum of Art.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Birthday Greetings Backatchya

Birthday Greetings Backatchya
By Tom Wachunas

    Imagine my unsurprise at finding a considerably large batch of Facebook birthday messages parading through my email over the last few days. If it’s not already apparent to those of you reading this, I rarely engage Facebook but for occasional responses to event invitations or a very few personal comments. I’ve often been tempted to post a scathing critique of Facebook in general, full of heady remarks about its ludicrous, trivial, insulting, needlessly cluttered, silly, dumb, junky-looking, time-wasting, ridiculous, infuriating… Yikes, I digress.

    Seriously, to those of you who noticed and took the time to send me a greeting, may God bless you all. I mean it. And please don’t take it personally that I didn’t use Facebook to let you know my appreciation. ARTWACH (and good old- fashioned email) is as close to “social media” as I’ll ever fully utilize. I LIKE it that way.

     So speaking of birthdays, this one’s found me to be in a particularly introverted mood (no surprise there), as well as in career inventory-taking mode. Hey, it’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to. Or laugh or complain or share or…praise. As in praise God I’m still here, able and willing to share with you His  gifts to me.

    The bad news is that this is my I’m 61st birthday and I’m just a bit dismayed at how blindingly fast the years march on. Didn’t I just have one of these a few weeks ago in 2011? The good news is that, as some of you readers may appreciate, 61 is the new 59.

    As far as career inventory goes, I’ve been reflecting on what’s transpired between the time I decided to resettle here in early 1992 (after living 14 years in New York City), and this very morning of June 11, 2012. Twenty years. What a long, strange trip it’s been, said the grateful living.

     More precisely, I’ve been remembering the exact moment when I decided to actually live here in Canton. The decision made its entrance on to the debris-strewn stage of my life (a tragicomedy, to be sure) quietly, poised for what promised to be a soliloquy of indefinite length. It was the morning after a March, 1992 ice storm, as I was looking through the picture window of the living room in my oldest brother’s North Canton home. I had been living there since the holidays, struggling all the while with the idea of returning to live in New York (somehow forgetting that I fled there jobless, in debt, divorced, homeless, drunk). The window framed a pristine vision of Ohio winter, with simple ranch style houses nestled on gently sloping lawns covered in a thin veil of snow. The bare trees were perfectly encased in dripped ice, as if each branch wore a sleeve of glass. I walked outside to breathe in the crisp, bracing air. A group of scrawny sparrows, protecting some morsel of food on the ground, chirped madly at a crow the size of a cat. Sparrows and crow circled each other, wary, menacing. As the wind picked up, I was gripped by a sound that overpowered everything including the birds’ battle for survival (which the sparrows won). It was the drone of the wind rushing through the ice-laden branches, causing a cacophony of clicking noises as the branches flapped together. A gathering of witnesses, as it were, hands etched into the soft gray sky. It sounded like…yes, that was it: applause. Adieu New York. Greetings Canton. The show goes on.

    And on. While it’s true that a few of the awful demons that had plagued me in New York pursued me here (like so many menacing crows), it is only the grace of God that has made me victorious over them. The Facebook birthday greetings remind me that I am deeply humbled and grateful to have been born again in every sense of the word, ever blessed to continue savoring and serving this community of artful colleagues and remarkably creative friends.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Maiden Makeovers

Maiden Makeovers
By Tom Wachunas

    “…I attempt to breathe new life into the fairy tales, myths and literary classics of my youth…My thought was to simplify each into a single narrative portrait of the protagonist with ornaments gathered from her journey…”  - excerpted from Rich Pellegrino’s artist statement for “Resuscitatorum” -

    For his recent body of work now on view at Translations Art Gallery, Rhode Island painter/illustrator Rich Pellegrino set about revisiting some European fairy tales, Shakespeare, and the Bible to produce his acrylic gouache portraits of iconic female characters. Hence the show’s title is “Resuscitatorum” –  Latin for refresh or reinvigorate.

     Ironically enough, what Pellegrino brings to his subjects isn’t all that ‘refreshing’ or ‘reinvigorating’ in terms of injecting them with any really enlivening or surprising truths.  It’s not like these legendary figures haven’t been re-examined or re-invented before. But his readings do offer a raw, ruminative immediacy through his arresting, painterly energy - one that is considerably less pristine than (though every bit as intensely colorful as) the renderings we traditionally encounter in Disney-style animations. These are decidedly “edgy” paintings.

    Their edginess can be seen as conceptual, as in how the artist interprets his characters’ meanings. Are these images just quirkily styled recapitulations of dusty old stories, or still relevant metaphors for real-world life? For those who want to re-familiarize themselves with the original narratives (when’s the last time you read Hamlet or The Tempest, for example?), typed synopses are posted next to each painting. But that’s not the subject of this missive. I’m more drawn to, and simultaneously intrigued and perplexed by, the edginess of their visual aesthetic.

    In that regard, there are two (maybe three, if you consider physical surface quality) contrasted modalities at work in each of these paintings. One is the language of illustrative drawing – the kinds of commercial styles you’d encounter in comic books, graphic novels, or animated movies. Pellegrino’s figures and faces seem for the most part to be based on the same model. Their hands are distinctly bony, their mask-like faces broken down into little wedges or planes of color, their noses curiously prominent in their swollen pinkness. They all appear to be sleeping, in most cases quite contentedly, though one could reasonably interpret the closed eyes as serene death. So it’s an eyes-wide-shut sort of thing, perhaps. Are they meditating on their circumstances, savoring where and what they are in time and place?

    This brings up the second modality being articulated here – the language of abstraction. All of the figures, representational but certainly not naturalistic in a conventional sense, are painted against backgrounds of layered, brushy splotches of saturated color, often with relatively minimal real world “scenery.”  As visual compositions go, the paintings do hold together as a result of Pellegrino’s very sharp engineering of juxtaposed color relationships and distributions into patterns both decisively frenetic and charmingly organized. Another unifying element is the consistently matte, chalky surface he achieves with his medium.

    With rarely a developed illusion of deep space, these are utterly two-dimensional pictorial experiences. The figures don’t quietly emerge from the color fields so much as they boldly co-exist with them. Yet in that sense, for all their central placement in the picture, they tend to play something of an ornamental rather than intrinsically dramatic role. Arguably, it’s in the black and white studies that accompany the paintings where there is a more isolated if not compelling focus on the characters as emotive or “real” entities.

   In the end, there’s a subtle air of irresolution about the paintings – an uncomfortable attention to tension. And that might well be intentional on Pellegrino’s part. These storied women are at once euphoric and dysphoric. And encountering them is not too unlike tasting fruit at once invitingly sweet and terribly pungent.

    “Rususcitatorum” is on view at Translations Art Gallery through June 30, Wednesdays - Saturdays Noon to 5 p.m.  331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton 

   Photos, courtesy Translations Art Gallery: (Top) Sleeping Beauty / The Tempest (Miranda) / Little Red Riding Hood