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.