Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tangible Transience

Tangible Transience

By Tom Wachunas 

    “…I like these pieces to have their own mystery, an unknown quality that makes them familiar, perhaps, not recognized. Whether seen as individuals or part of a group, a system, I think of these pieces as part of a larger environment.”  - Beth Lindenberger –

    “…My central theme considers science as a neutral or neutralizing structure; a kind of blank metaphor which allows me to let things be in the work…”  - Jack McWhorter -


    EXHIBITION: Gathering Signals, work by Jack McWhorter and Beth Lindenberger, at The Little Art Gallery, 185 N. Main St., North Canton. (330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312, THROUGH SEPTEMBER 23.

    Throughout at least the past several years, a typical format for mounting two-person shows at The Little Art Gallery has been to join an artist who works in two dimensions with one who is a 3D “craft” artist, usually in either jewelry or ceramics. In such shows, while there has often been a sincere curatorial attempt to present works in disparate media as somehow thematically connected or unified, actually seeing such connections can just as often be a perceptual stretch for the viewer.

    But in this particularly tantalizing exhibit, curator Elizabeth Blakemore has clearly articulated an appreciation of the similar conceptual and thematic elements that inform the works of the two artists she has paired: painter Jack McWhorter and ceramic sculptor Beth Lindenberger. As Blakemore observes in the gallery brochure for the show, both artists share an intense interest in hybridized and morphed natural or scientific structures as metaphors for seeing the known world in an expanded way. “Gathering signals, rather than specific objects,” she writes, “opens up the potential to re-think how they [the artists] see or know a familiar object in nature and give it another kind of physical presence.”

    The physical look of Beth Lindenberger’s small clay objects is derived from the natural world of pods and seeds. Elegant and precise in their workmanship, they have at once all the authentic presence of laboratory specimens or museum fossils and the subtle intrigue of things exotic, strange or even alien. But don’t take that description to imply cold lifelessness.

     True to her statement for the show, Lindenberger’s objects successfully transcend their specific visual references to “familiar” natural forms by effectively suggesting associations with (and certainly celebrations of)  growth, regeneration, or mutation. In that sense, they can be viewed either as singularly engrossing episodes or, collectively, as chapters in a larger continuum of processes through time – symbols of pure potential in an evolving narrative of change.

    That same sense of transient forms and/or temporal processes is very much alive in the oil paintings on canvas and paper by Jack McWhorter. On a cognitive level, the basic substance of his paintings in this exhibit is fairly consistent with the work presented in his 2010 one-man show at Malone University. For those of you wanting a helpful reminder, here’s the link to that review:  http://artwach.blogspot.com/2010/02/molecularities-and-other-quarknesses.html . This is not to say there haven’t been some striking developments since then.

    Particularly notable in that way are the newer (2012) paintings on paper. Here, McWhorter’s lively palette employs relatively more daring combinations of hues further enhanced by heightened translucency and luminosity. He has become ever more attuned to the nuanced freedom of gestural mark-making and engaging, painterly panache that working on paper can so uniquely support. The vivacious brush work seems to let his configurations – a kind of diagrammatic or even calligraphic allusion to botanic and other natural phenomena -  emerge with fluid playfulness. Call it a lyrical brio. 

    Photos: (top –to-bottom)  "Standing the Cold" and "Shellfish" - oil on paper by Jack McWhorter /  clay piece by Beth Lindenberger

















Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Somewhere Under the Radar: Painting Canton on the Fly

Somewhere Under the Radar: Painting Canton on the Fly

By Tom Wachunas

    Saturday, August 18:  I sent emails to artist Tommy Morgan, ArtsinStark, and Canton City Hall Public Service dept. with some questions. Received same-day response from ArtsinStark.

    Monday, August 20: Sent two more emails to City Hall and left voicemail message with my home phone number. Decided I’m going to let this post take the form of an expanding journal of thoughts while waiting to receive some specifics about the subject -  a new painting by Tommy Morgan now installed in the lobby of Canton City Hall. You might remember him for his Shattered Expressions outdoor installation in downtown Canton, completed in late 2009, and reviewed here: http://artwach.blogspot.com/2009/12/expectations-great-and-shattered_22.html

    This new City Hall painting on canvas is impressive in scale - I’m guessing about 10’ high by 20’ wide, but don’t hold me to that. Since there was no accompanying info or statement posted with the work as of August 17, for now let’s just call it a really big untitled urban skyscape. It’s a surrealistic fantasy depicting four island cities floating in azure air patterned with billowy all-white clouds arranged diagonally and converging at the center. The work is ambitious, to be sure, if not fascinating in the same way an enigmatic dream can stubbornly resist definitive interpretation or “meaning.”

    Located at the center of the panorama is a representation of Canton, somewhat cartoonish in style, perched atop a wedge of dirt apparently excavated whole from the earth. Intricate tangles of roots and tendrils hang from underneath the architecture in midair. Subtly entwined in all this elaborate linearity are several camouflaged words (whether deliberately isolated or forming a coherent sentence is difficult to discern) such as living, organic, city, future, dream, and growth. This configuration is in turn joined via other outstretched tendrils (like umbilical cords?) to three additional island cities, similarly rendered though much smaller and distant. These three other cities appear to be Cleveland (with Lake Erie dripping over the edge) and Akron (with blimp hovering above) to the left of Canton, and Youngstown (?) to the right.

    Tuesday, August 21, 7:00 a.m. - For all of the painting’s grand size and bizarre theatricality, there’s nothing remarkably spectacular about its technique. I wonder if the image might have acquired more power or credibility had it been executed in true tromp l’oeil spirit.

    Beyond that, its pictorial ideation is not so much a singularly original thought as it is a derivative one. But that in itself isn’t too problematic. Intentionally or not, Canton here comes off like an illustration from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Anyone for a trip to Laputa? Swift presented that fictional floating kingdom as a satirical metaphor for ridiculous trends in theoretical science and politics as well as a commentary on tyranny and violence. It’s probably fair to say that Mr. Morgan’s loose appropriation (his cities rest on earthy bases far less adamantine than Laputa) is intended to symbolize something softer, arguably nobler and more relevant to a civic context such as this one. Still, I think the picture’s sheer quirkiness might be clouding its message, itself not altogether clear.

    Is this a vision of Canton as a central hub in Northeast Ohio’s urban milieu, soaring to new, unexplored heights? Or is this showing us Canton as a sister city, connected to and nourished by a regional network of urban cultures with shared histories and resources, artistic and otherwise? Both or neither?

     Other questions abound, largely prompted by what I believe should be a sense of responsibility and accountability in the installation of public artworks. Shouldn’t we expect that such works project a sensible relationship between context and content beyond functioning merely as a platform for individual artistic expression? In this work, is there indeed a specific content intended for the edification of citizens entering or conducting business at City Hall? If so, who authored it -  one or more of our civic leaders, the artist acting autonomously, or all in concert? Was this public work the result of calling for proposals from the artist community at large, or a privately commissioned arrangement? How much was spent, whose money, and who approved it?

     August 21, 10:55 a.m. – By this point I have learned that the painting is not an ArtsinStark-sponsored project, as was the case with other Tommy Morgan works around downtown. Morgan has been  unavailable for comment on his new piece. Additionally, the Public Service arm of City Hall has declined comment.

    For now, my questions, like Morgan’s levitated cities, remain up for grabs.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Praise of Patronage

In Praise of Patronage

By Tom Wachunas

    When considering how, basically from day one, Translations Gallery has been consistently successful in presenting eye-popping art shows of a deeply engaging nature on both formal and conceptual levels, the current exhibit is for the most part a comparatively conservative, quiet, even intimate affair. This is not to say that the raison d’etre for the show is unimportant, or that the pieces on view are not deserving of our attention.

     From the Collection Of: A Celebration of Art Patrons is a gathering of ten local art collectors, each of them presenting three pieces from their personal collections. The patrons represented are: Clare Murray Adams, Tim Belden, Anthony Claris, Alexandra Nicholis Coon, Robb Hankins, Christian and Ashley Harwell, Craig Joseph (Translations curator), Dan Kane, Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, and Scott Trenton.

    I imagine there are many art collectors who view their pursuits largely from an economic vantage point – art as investment, art as estate-builder, art as marketable commodity. And then there are those who might well be the next Guggenheims or Gettys, planning to eventually bequeath their dearly acquired collections to humanity. But neither of those motivations seems to be at the heart of this exhibit.

    Clearly, the primary beneficiary of a collected work of art (be it through outright purchasing or as a gift) is the artist. Beyond financial remuneration there is the reward of being remembered, appreciated and otherwise acknowledged as significant in what he or she creates. The motives and intentions of, and rewards for the collector, on the other hand, can be variables which have been known to thrust the entire notion of collecting into stratospheric realms of absurdity. In 2007, Jeff Koons’ nine foot-high, red stainless steel kitschware Hanging Heart set the all-time record for a still living artist when art dealer Larry Gagosian purchased it at Sotheby auction for $23.4 million. Laughable? Sure, as in laughing all the way to the bank.

    But for this show, let’s forget about such ridiculously elitist extremes. Nor is this a review of the works themselves. In the statements posted with their displayed objects, the collectors tell us more or less plainly enough what prompts them to collect art and why the specific pieces we’re looking at are important to them. Not too surprisingly, it all comes down to their simple, honest declarations of aesthetic taste, and the pleasure taken from adorning their lives with meaningful art. What resonates most consistently throughout is their personal passion, or love, if you will, for a particular kind of content, or art’s ability to elicit emotion as well as edify the intellect. There’s no self-aggrandizement, no pompous promoting of the next Great Artist, no heady pontificating about contributing to or preserving art history per se.

    And yet these collectors, and I’m sure many others like them, are indeed contributing to and preserving what might best be called the ethos of life enhancement through art. It’s a vital continuum of call and response. Art calls us to be engaged, and collectors respond by choosing to enter into its life-affirming embrace. Like a thriving marriage, it’s a mutually rewarding relationship.

    Photos: (Top) – “Bravado” by Beth Nash, from the collection of Craig Joseph; Chinese wood carving from the collection of Tim Belden; “Pink Trouble” by Mark Winter, from the collection of Anthony Claris.

    On view through September 1 at Translations Gallery, 332 Cleveland Avenue NW in downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Saturday, Noon to 5 p.m.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Laughing Matters

Laughing Matters

By Tom Wachunas

    “I know that there are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that.”

     -Tom Lehrer –

    Right out of the gate, you know you’re in for a raucous ride in the current production of Tomfoolery, at Canton’s Kathleen Howland Theater, when at the beginning, cast member Tom Bryant refers to that most sainted of American clubs, the Boy Scouts, as “…those bastards of decency.” He was talking to the audience about the first of the show’s 26 songs, this one called, ironically enough, Be Prepared.

   What follows is an unapologetic tune about dubious Boy Scout behavior, and in effect a thorough lampooning of social hypocrisy and human malfeasance that runs rampant through the remainder of the evening’s songs. Welcome to the skewed, cynical world of famed satirist and songwriter Tom Lehrer, who entertained millions during the 1950s and 60s with his wickedly sardonic views on everything from nuclear war, pollution and racism, to porno and a bevy of other societal foibles and failures.

   Tomfoolery (off-Broadway premiere in 1981) is a revue that features Lehrer’s words and music, adapted for stage by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray, with musical arrangements by Chris Walker and Robert Fisher. Here, director Scott Bernhardt, joined by musical director/pianist Tim Shilling, has assembled a remarkably exuberant and gifted cast of four – Kerry Bush, Tom Bryant, Shane Daniels, and Jeremy Gilpatric – who put on a mightily entertaining show that convincingly brings all the irreverent wit and infectious buffoonery of Leher’s lyrics to life.

    This is a fast-paced show wherein each song is introduced by a cast member. Though the peppery, pun-filled banter in these introductions was authored by Lehrer (with several humorously updated insertions, such as Canton’s Mayor Healy acquiring a nuclear device in the song, Who’s Next), the performers for the most part deliver the material as if they own it, with an easygoing, conversational gusto. The same can generally be said of their singing, particularly in their tight ensemble harmonies.

    Clearly, though, in both acting and singing, the most nuanced performer here is Kerry Bush, who alters her characterizations and tonalities with astonishing flexibility. She can be all smiley and sweet like a young Betty White, a sultry cabaret vamp, or a tight-jawed dominatrix, to name just some of her incarnations here. And nowhere is her performing prowess more riveting than when she puts on a scarily real Irish brogue, along with hilarious facial contortions, and sings the show-stopping dark tale, The Irish Ballad.  

    Other high points? Too many to list, actually. Here, though, are some: a cavalier Tom Bryant portraying an inept hunter in The Hunting Song; Shane Daniels in the murderously (in every sense of the word) funny I Hold Your Hand In Mine; Jeremy Gilpatric expertly enunciating the famously tongue-twisting The Elements and New Math. And speaking of tongue-twisters, musical director Shilling, who provided the masterfully crisp and lively piano accompaniment throughout, is himself a vocal delight as he plays at breakneck speed, and sings in thick Russian accent, Lobachevsky, recalling Danny Kaye in his prime. Surprising, too, is the moment when director Bernhardt takes the stage to sing The Old Dope Peddler, evoking perhaps (and befitting the jarring lyrics) the image of a devilish Captain Kangaroo reminiscing to a group of kids.

    There’s a distinctly old-timey aura around this production, largely due to the musical stylings that give it the feel of nostalgic frat-boy sing-alongs, barbershop quartets, or Gilbert and Sullivan-type romps. Such flavorings might make the proceedings seem somehow innocent and dated. But this only adds to their enduring relevance…and irony. We’re still dealing with the absurdities and atrocities that Lehrer parodied more than half a century ago. While it’s true that the show is certainly not to be regarded as a pulpit for moralizing about our sociopolitical disasters, I think the nature of its satire is far more than merely a prompt to laugh at ourselves.

    You decide. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this thought from Carl Sandburg: “Back of every mistaken venture and defeat is the laughter of wisdom, if you listen.”  

    Tomfoolery at The Kathleen Howland Theatre, 324 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton. Shows are Friday, August 10 and Saturday, August 11 at 8 p.m., and Sunday August 12 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Discount for Seniors and Military. Call (330) 451 – 0924, or visit   www.secondapril.org

    PHOTO: Tomfoolery cast: Kerry Bush, Shane Daniels, Jeremy Gilpatric, and Tom Bryant (standing)



Saturday, August 4, 2012

Niche Niceties

Niche Niceties

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBITION: Isabel Zaldivar, featured artist at Second April Galerie for the month of August, at 324 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. (330) 451 – 0924   www.secondapril.org

    Seeing the ten mixed media paintings by Isabel Zaldivar nestled together in a front corner at Second April Galerie, I am reminded of both what I’ve always admired in her work as well as what I’ve increasingly found to be somewhat problematic. For a considerable number of years, Zaldivar has been among Canton’s most consistently visible and, I think it’s accurate to say, marketable/marketed artists, deservedly accumulating many accolades. And as these works indicate, she remains comfortably settled into a brand of sorts -  a visual hybridization of representational and abstract languages. While many area artists have ventured into such dialects, Zaldivar’s are usually and uniquely recognizable enough.

    Her paintings can often dazzle with their seemingly magical transitions from misty, liquid color atmospherics into mesmerizing, earthy textures - ranging from intriguingly delicate to impressively muscular -  that have a sculpted presence. Yet those gorgeous textures can often be more purely illusory visual effects than they are actually tactile.

     Zaldivar’s most compelling works have always been those wherein representational images are very subtly integrated hints rather than overt afterthoughts. Here, for example, I wonder if the distinct fish forms in Nature of the Sea, while charmingly rendered, were really necessary at all. It’s a recurring question I’ve had with many of her works through the years – this unresolved tension between the obvious and the implied, between the specific and the suggested. On the other hand, no such irresolution spoils her stunning Land Formations (pictured below), a tour-de-force of Zaldivar spectacle.

    This group of paintings also brings to mind questions I’ve had about scale and presentation. For the most part, Zaldivar appears to have been working in “manageable” or “intimate” scales that may or may not be dictated by her particular methodology and materials. While she can certainly handle small picture planes in a big, sweeping way, she presents them so pristinely imprisoned under glass and in state-of-the –art designer frames that their visceral impact is easily squelched (not so, by the way, with her very tiny and gorgeous, Oriental-feeling Canna here), turning them into pretty bourgeois baubles for the living room. And this is certainly not to denigrate anyone’s personal choices as to the art they choose to adorn their homes.

    Still, maybe Zaldivar’s pictures want to be bigger, less formulaic and safe, more risky. Or maybe the artist feels that after all this time if it ain’t busted why fix it. In any event, she has the creative capacity, gifted as she is with remarkable formal dexterity and color sensibility, to transcend the pleasantly precious and venture into more profound realms. It is a capacity not fully realized. Yet.