Friday, November 30, 2012

A Sojourn Most Sublime

A Sojourn Most Sublime

By Tom Wachunas

    “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” – Dorothea Lange –

    “A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.” – Ansel Adams –

    Exhibit: Panasia – Photographs by Stephen McNulty / Cyrus Gallery, 2645 Cleveland Ave. NW, Canton, Ohio (330)452-9787 /    

    Two of the above links are to past commentaries about the work of photographer Stephen McNulty. I’ve provided them for those as yet unfamiliar with his art, as well as to remind the already initiated that I was passionately supportive of his vision and skills. And now, after seeing his current show at Cyrus (which will likely remain on view for a few more weeks), I’m happy to report that my passion remains not only undiminished, but greatly augmented.

    I know I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I think it bears repeating here. I’m still profoundly astonished by those who consider photography as somehow a lesser or “easy” form of artistic expression (and there are those unfortunates still among us) when compared to, say, masterful painting of the Representational sort. It seems to me that such an assessment may in large part be fueled by the ubiquitous presence of photography in our culture – the staggering volume of photographic imagery that assaults us daily. From that perspective, we can understandably become jaded and complacent, filtering out everything from our attention but  what we actually choose to really see and discern as aesthetically interesting, of a relevant documentary nature, or both.  And even then, as Sturgeon’s Amended Law once stipulated, 90% of everything is crap.

    More to the point, I have no doubt that the aesthetic character of McNulty’s imagery is quite simply unassailable. The sheer scope and caliber of his art can in large part be fairly placed alongside that of the most distinguished practitioners of the form both past and present.

    Like any master painter of visible realities, McNulty possesses an unerring and disciplined eye for elegant formal composition, an uncanny color sensibility, and an inspired appreciation of varying textures and atmosphere. He doesn’t merely “take pictures” but instead seems to discover and embrace them, intuitively recognizing how and when to best frame the elements of a thoroughly compelling pictorial experience for the viewer. And he does so without ever making his photographs come off as contrived or artificial.

    This collection is a wondrous record of McNulty’s four-month journey in 2011 to far-flung locales that include Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, Thailand and Cambodia, and Polynesia. Subject matters are richly varied – portraits, landscapes, interiors, architectural settings. All are imbued with a deep and ineffable sense of history and soul. Even his smaller, black and white portraits manage to exude a kind of lyrical warmth and serene timelessness.

    Each photograph is accompanied by a narrative – brief but eloquent, and just revelatory enough as to what makes McNulty so responsive to his subjects. He’s surely a Romantic and an impassioned preservationist at heart. While his photographs are potent translations of his awe and reverence for what he encountered, I dare say they inspire the same in us. Breathtaking and breath giving.

    PHOTOS: (from top) Girl at Chinese Festival / Boy and Ruins / Bamboo Ascending


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bricolage and Brio

Bricolage and Brio

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBITION: About Face, featuring artists Sharon Dulabaum and Laurie Fife Harbert, at The Little Art Gallery, THROUGH DECEMBER 2. Located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton.  (330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312

    In the lexicon of art categorization, the work of Laurie Fife Harbert is a good example of the “outsider”  aesthetic. Formally untrained in the traditional sense, she has nonetheless unquestioningly surrendered to the proverbial Muse, as she points out in her statement for this show. She also lets us know that many of her works embody “inside jokes” or narratives. “The inspiration for a piece,” she writes, “often known to me and only a few others, is often subtly alluded to in the titles of my work, like a spy speaking in a code known only to a select few, secretly offered up in plain sight.” Hmmm. Sounds suspiciously like the modus operandi of numerous postmodern artists.

   Actually, I’m not sure the allusions in her titles are all that subtle, as their connections to what we in fact see are often fairly obvious. Cocoa the Kid, for example, like many of her pieces, is an anthropomorphic rendering of found objects, this one using a Hershey’s Cocoa can for the abdomen. And Angel Amphora is just that – a small, graceful jar that looks like an angel ornament you might see in a curio cabinet. From that perspective, these pieces are all a perfectly appropriate fit for the Little Art Gallery’s built-in glass display cases.

    Harbert’s brand of bricolage (assemblage of found or collected materials on hand) is elegantly ornamental and well crafted, even if infused with a sometimes overly-precious domesticity. This is certainly not to say that her decorations are totally without depth.

     Among the more engaging objects, both in title and content, is Xander has No Father. It’s also one of Harbert’s smallest pieces and, unfortunately, woefully ill-placed at the bottom of the case. Still, for those limber enough to hunker down for a better view, the work exudes a whimsical if not surreal intrigue (not unlike a few others in this collection) reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages from the mid-twentieth century. Even though Harbert doesn’t regularly employ Cornell’s shadow box format, his own thoughts on the matter seem nonetheless relevant to the overall character of Harbert’s work: “Shadow boxes become poetic theaters or settings wherein are metamorphosed the element of a childhood pastime.”

    The title of this show - Face to Face -  is no doubt largely derived from the paintings by Sharon Dulabaum. Her collection here of 24 works is a somewhat uneven gathering of portraits (animal and human) that would have been well-served by some judicious editing. Dulabaum is a multi-faceted painter – a polystylist – who has truly mastered some pictorial formats and languages while seeming to greatly struggle with others.

     In some ways it’s hard to believe that the same artist who gives us the wondrously gorgeous oils, Beth and Angel (a cat lounging in mesmerizing rays of light), can also offer such unresolved experiments as her colored pencil and watercolor portraits, Youth, and Young Girl. In works like these two, her passion for visual textures, saturated, rich color, and layered mark-making is clear. But these elements don’t so much meld seamlessly as they collide and clutter, making the picture plane a bit too soupy and unfocused. Such spontaneous, visual affectations are relatively more successful in her watercolor and pencil portrait, Margarita Girl.

    There’s also a delightful spirit of spontaneity at work in her uncomplicated oil painting, Snow Buddies – a bird’s-eye-view of two dogs on long leashes, walking in the snow. Quiet yet lively, like her best works in this collection, and for that matter like many of Harbert’s assemblages, it’s a charming and earnest homage to simple pleasures and moments.

    PHOTOS: (Top) Margarita Girl by Sharon Dulabaum / Presto the Sad Clown by Laurie Fife Harbert


Monday, November 12, 2012



By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBITION: Mechanic/Organic: The Meeting of Danny Saathoff and Annette Yoho Feltes, at Translations Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH DECEMBER 1. Viewing hours are Noon to 9 pm Wednesdays, Noon to 5 pm Thursdays- Saturdays. 

    “…There is something very special in being able to sublimate your unconscious, and something very painful in the access to it. But there is no escape from it, and no escape from access once it is given to you, once you are favored with it, whether you want it or not…”  - artist Louise Bourgeois -

    Both of the artists here, working in mixed media assemblage and/or sculpture, use their raw materials to achieve similarly intriguing cognitive as well as emotional resonances. The formal appearances of their works, however, are quite divergent.

    Meticulously combining found metal hardware and aged wood, the elegant pieces by Danny Saathoff are physically precise constructions embedded with clock-like mechanics.  Several of his kinetic assemblages are interactive, instructing viewers to activate their moving parts by winding a wheel or pulling on a cable. There’s a delightfully whimsical energy and the patina of a bygone era about them, suggestive of antique games or toys.

     Weights shift, gears rotate, chains crawl, forms flutter or roll – sometimes against drawn/painted landscape imagery.  Extrapolating “meaning” from these works is a matter of how much real time you’re willing to spend looking at the interconnected parts and letting them draw you inward to their temporal spirit. Indeed, the overarching sensibility is an allegorical one - a reflection on the subtleties of slow change in the passage of time. You could perhaps call them symbolic 3D diagrams of balanced dichotomies – nature and industry, chaos and order, predictability and randomness, movement and stillness.

    Though clearly not as overtly kinetic as Saathoff’s, the new works here by Annette Yoho Feltes nonetheless seem to address ‘movement’ of a kind – in this case, flux within the human psyche and its concomitant emotional conditions.  In varying combinations of stone, clay, wood, metal and found materials, her forms are at once familiar and ambiguous, accessible and obtuse, friendly and threatening, and often imbued with surreal  humor. These are visceral and, I would guess, intensely self-reflective symbols of psychological and/or spiritual states – highly tactile celebrations of certainty as well as declarations of doubt.  

    It’s the complementary nature of these two bodies of work that makes this aptly titled show so deeply satisfying -  Saathoff’s refined, intricate pictorial machines situated  with Feltes’ free-form sensuality. Yet both artists’ intuitive methodologies transcend the solid physicality of their materials to impart uniquely ephemeral and poetic visions.

    PHOTOS: Top, Mechanical Migration – Butterflies, By Danny Saathoff; Emerging by Annette Yoho Feltes     

Thursday, November 8, 2012

An Inspired Mahler 2nd from Canton Symphony

An Inspired Mahler 2nd from the Canton Symphony

By Tom Wachunas

    Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.2 (Resurrection): Christine Brandes (soprano), Lucille Beer (contralto), combined choruses, Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 11/4/2012

    “…It struck me like a thunder bolt and everything stood clear and vivid before my soul. The creator waits for this lightning flash; this is his ‘holy annunciation’.” –Gustav Mahler-

    Looking back on the several years I’ve been reviewing performances by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), I don’t recall a concert (other than an opera) with just a single  work on the program. The November 4 concert featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection), a stand-alone work if ever there was one. In his introductory comments, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann reverently reminded a very packed Umstattd Hall that the evening was dedicated to the memory of Rachel Renkert (1938-2007) - a beloved, seminal visionary in forming the CSO into the vibrant organization it is today. The Mahler was her favorite symphonic work.

    Zimmermann also asked that we hear the work as a total unit and to withhold our applause after the long first movement, which was followed by an intermission. Obliging Zimmermann’s request was difficult.  For the orchestra had just successfully delivered the electrifying and otherwise soul-rattling drama of Mahler’s outrage at the inevitability of death. The performance was one of those classically cathartic encounters that could cause one to approach total strangers, shake them unapologetically by the shoulders, and gush, “Do you believe what we just heard!?” And that was only the beginning.

    What followed the intermission continued to be a wondrously compelling rendition of Mahler’s intense probing of humanity’s most perplexing existential questions. The flawless, gently muted plucking of strings was utterly mesmerizing in the achingly graceful remembrance of life’s fleeting joys symbolized in the Andante movement. Then, in the Scherzo, the mood became subtly wicked as the orchestra played a bizarre waltz, effectively conveying frustration with the meaningless drudgeries of everyday life. With deeply lustrous, haunting tones, guest soloist Lucille Beer delivered a return to godly faith in the fourth movement contralto song, Urlicht (Primal Light).

    Soaring, crystalline soprano voicings by fellow guest soloist Christine Brandes made the choral finale of the fifth movement – Mahler’s ultimate embrace of hope and resurrection – all the more radiant. The movement’s hushed beginning swelled into a magnificently  sonorous declaration powered by the combined forces of five local choruses, numbering around 200 voices: Canton Symphony Chorus, Malone University Chorale, University of Mount Union Concert Choir, Walsh University Chamber Choir, and Wooster Chorus. Ye angels in the heavens, be jealous.

    Particularly remarkable throughout the evening was that ineffable unity of orchestral focus and purpose. You simply know it when you hear and indeed see it. This is a monumental work, sprawling in emotional and ideological scope, replete with sumptuous crescendos and deafening orchestral blasts. They seemingly erupt from nothing and recede just as quickly into solemn, mystical whispers. All of the players appeared to be rapturously caught up in this sublimely embroidered aural tapestry.    

    In the end, I was left marveling at what could rightfully be called Mahler’s Promethean accomplishment. How could a mere mortal create a fiery symphonic phenomenon such as this? Likewise, CSO seems to have transcended itself, rising to spectacular new heights by triumphantly rekindling Mahler’s impassioned vision of eternal life.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Reaping a Grizzly Harvest

Reaping a Grizzly Harvest

By Tom Wachunas

    Unless you’ve been holed-up in a cave somewhere for the last 30 years or so, the systematic disintegration of the nuclear American Family (and to a large extent the deconstruction of The American Dream) should come as no surprise. Like the weather these days, everyone talks about it, but no one seems to be really doing anything about it beyond symptom relief.

     Is there a FEMA equivalent that can provide a permanent, viable remedy? Are the disasters of “climate change” merely meteorological in nature, or is the true perfect storm of our age our utter spiritual poverty?  Religion too often offers impotent platitudes, and even our most revered art and artists can do little more than reflect upon the tragic dilemmas of our time. Seeing this kind of content presented in the context of live theatre is often tantamount to helplessly watching a house – and its occupants -  on fire.

    One of the most revered (if not arguably problematic) artists in the world of postmodernist theatre is playwright Sam Shepard. His 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child is a classically macabre tale of a Midwestern farm family horribly fractured by the “secret”  implied in the play’s title.  Along with a remarkably impressive cast comprised of both students and accomplished stage veterans, director Brian Newberg has brought the story to compelling life in the current production by the Kent State University at Stark Theatre Department.

    Consistent with the overall complexion of this play, Jim Viront plays the grizzled, cantankerous patriarch, Dodge, with chillingly surreal urgency. Perpetually fidgeting with his blanket, he’s a cowering couch potato gone rotten, popping pills and sneaking  gulps from his hidden whiskey pint. A tired and failed farmer, between his awful fits of smokers’ hacking, he spews complaints and observations with a creepy, exaggerated drawl as if to shut out the incessant chatter from his delusional, motor-mouthed wife, Halie.

    To that role, Jacki Dietz brings an equally bizarre edginess. Locked in her world of idolizing Ansel, a son who died long ago under suspicious circumstances, she lives precariously between guilt and denial of the oedipal secret buried behind the house. Maybe as a superficial plea for redemption, she lined her bedroom walls with crucifixes, yet she makes no secret of her philandering ways (more fuel for her husband’s meandering rants) with the local minister, Father Dewis. Played by John-Michael Roberts, he appears only briefly, though effectively leaving the impression that true atonement is neither on his nor this family’s to-do list. So much for spiritual catharsis.

   The dark past has exacted an enormous toll from son Tilden. In that role, David Sponhour delivers an agonizingly poignant portrait of the mental and emotional damage that has seemingly dis-connected him from everyone but the carcass buried out back.  It’s a gruesome fertilizer, perhaps, that’s made the neglected land bear the produce he presents to his parents with robotic solemnity.

   Another son, Bradley, was the victim of a chainsaw accident that left him an amputee. He’s an inveterate bully who brutally shaves his father’s head at one point – a grand symbol of emasculation.  Chris McDaniel is generally scary in the role, though at times his facial contortions come off more like a pouting child trying too hard to look the part. Still, one of the play’s more darkly satisfying moments comes when he’s forced to crawl, eerily slug-like, out of the house to retrieve his prosthetic leg. The only thing missing in the scene is the slime trail.

    After a six-year absence from the family farm, grandson Vince returns with girlfriend Shelley in tow. But no one – not even his father, Tilden -  seems to recognize or remember him.  As Vince, Anthony Antoniades is something of a breath of fresh air even as he genuinely struggles to reconcile the murky past with the equally murky present. In her role of Shelley, vivacious Sarah Peters walks a fascinating line between rejection and acceptance, between mortification and optimism. It’s her youthful persistence that ultimately forces a terrible confession.

    If there’s something resembling healing light or hope here, it might be in the suggestion that Vince is a dutiful son come to take over the farm – the proverbial prodigal reclaiming his inheritance, however corrupted it may be. Yet in so doing, there’s no promise that his labors will yield anything but bitter fruits.

    Buried Child by Sam Shepard, Kent State University at Stark Theatre, 6000 Frank Ave. NW, North Canton. Shows November 9 and 10 at 8:00 p.m., November 11 at 2:30 p.m.  Tickets $10 adults, $7 students and senior citizens . To order, call (330) 244 – 3348 or visit

 PHOTOS, top to bottom: Jim Viront as Dodge; David Sponhour as Tilden; Jacki Dietz (center) as Halie