Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Relishing A Regional Legacy, Part 1 of...

Relishing A Regional Legacy, Part 1 of…?

By Tom Wachunas 

    “With watercolour, you can’t cover up the marks. There’s the story of the construction of the picture, and then the picture might tell another story as well.” – David Hockney –

    “Where oils lumber…watercolours prance.”  - Doug Mays –

    “Watercolor is the first and the last thing an artist does.”  - Willem de Kooning-

EXHIBITION: The Cleveland School: Watercolor and Clay, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 10, 2013, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio (330) 453 – 7666

    This breathtaking exhibition surely rates more than one post. Consider this one, then, as a general introduction, with installments to follow over the next few weeks.

    Sometime during my adolescence I acquired the mistaken notion that painting in watercolor was strictly a training exercise, or a medium one graduated from in the pursuit of loftier, more “relevant” painting media. Watercolors were for amateur dabblers, I thought.

   My youthful arrogance was promptly extinguished after the crash-and-burn disaster of my first serious collegiate attempt at a watercolor landscape. I fared no better with several following efforts, though I eventually managed to produce a few remarkably mediocre pictures. That experience - coupled with a deeper study of watercolors by such artists as Albrecht Durer, J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer, Charles Burchfield and John Marin (among many others) – was humbling. Thus were planted the seeds of real respect for accomplished watercolorists.

    When I returned to live in Stark County in early 1992, it seemed to me that an unusually large number of painters on the local gallery scene (pitifully sparse as it was at that time) were watercolorists. Only after several months did I learn that the mysterious ‘OWS’ that accompanied many of the signatures on their works stood for Ohio Watercolor Society, founded in 1978.  During the ensuing years, the apparent passion for and practice of watercolor painting in these parts has not significantly waned, even to the extent that at one point I viewed Stark County – indeed Canton -  as some sort of watercolor Mecca. Further supporting my perception was the realization that along with contemporary ceramics, the primary focus of the Canton Museum of Art’s (CMA) impressive permanent collection is American watercolors from the 19th and 20th centuries.

    As this new CMA exhibit makes clear, watercolor painting is an intrinsic part of our region’s aesthetic DNA.  Fully embracing this fact necessarily begins with examining the emergence of the Cleveland School. The term is not a reference to a single academic structure or campus per se. It is rather a general description of a very diverse, expanding sphere of artists – many of them historically significant - who both gravitated toward and emanated from Cleveland’s influential art institutions, working from the late 19th century and forward into the 1960s, throughout a region that ultimately spanned hundreds of miles.

    This commanding show, comprised of exquisite works from the CMA permanent collection as well as from regional museums and significant private collections, merits close attention. To better inform your viewing experience, I highly recommend reading the excellent catalogue essay by William H. Robinson of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which can be found on the CMA website (posted above) or in CMA’s Vignette, a free publication available at the museum. Consider the essay, like the exhibit, as a journey into an important legacy.

    PHOTO: Cleveland, watercolor by Moses Pearl, courtesy of Rachel Davis



Monday, December 17, 2012

Dreaming of a Sense-full Christmas

Dreaming of a Sense-full Christmas

By Tom Wachunas 

    Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

   “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  -Genesis 4:9 –

    Until at least after Christmas Day I will be fasting. Fasting from writing about new local art doings; from mining the meaning or impact of this or that exhibit; from my often too-obsessive pursuit of the role of art critic. Such use of my time just now, in light of the recent mind-numbing horror that unfolded in Connecticut, feels simply too unimportant and selfish. Instead I have been praying.

    I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that I feel prompted to share with you what you’re about to read, coming as it does on the heels of my preceding post. But it’s an irony hopefully more timely, nourishing, and palatable than it is bitter.

    Speaking of irony, I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard the word ‘senseless’ paired with the killings that transpired on December 14. I do understand how an act of this awful magnitude – criminal, insane, or both - can confound our ability to effectively translate our hurt, grief and anger into “mere words.”

     But here’s where I think the terrible irony of our descriptive vocabulary comes into play. To the extent that this fallen world chooses to continually remain outside God’s plan to gather it eternally to Himself through the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to that extent such acts as the one that took place in Connecticut aren’t really ‘senseless’ at all. For as simplistic if not cold as this may sound to some of you, I think such events are the understandable and yes, tragically sensible, cumulative outcomes (or perhaps monstrous ripple effects, if you will, like a tsunami after an earthquake) of separation from Christ.

   I am certainly NOT saying that the victims of this or any other human atrocity are being necessarily judged as ungodly and forever damned, or that they are merely the hapless recipients of sufferings arbitrarily inflicted by a cruel and menacing God. In his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:19-22), Paul perceived all of creation to be in a state of urgent expectation “for the sons of God to be revealed.” He went on to describe the created universe “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” I believe that Paul’s “present time” was a foreshadowing of our present time as well.

    It is indeed a time of desperate seeking to understand the why of human cruelty and suffering, the why of unleashed moral depravity and sheer evil. It is a time when our best thinking, in and of itself and unaided by God, can produce no true hope. It is a time when I, along with many others, pray constantly for our world to be born anew, with and into Christ. It is a time to stop shaking clenched fists at a God mistakenly perceived to be absent from us.

    May we all then, in the name of Jesus, with open hands and hearts, humbly receive His love and peace that surpasses our knowledge and understanding.

    Photo: This year’s edition of my Christmas card. 





Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Enthralling Substance of Divine Purpose

The Enthralling Substance of Divine Purpose

By Tom Wachunas

    “When we understand God’s purpose, we will not become small-minded and cynical. Jesus prayed nothing less for us than absolute oneness with Himself, just as He was one with the Father. Some of us are far from this oneness; yet God will not leave us alone until we are one with Him – because Jesus prayed, ‘…that they all may be one…’ ”  - Oswald Chambers -  

    EXHIBITION: Pursuit: God’s Chase After Humankind, paintings by Sharon Charmley, with complementary work by Tim Carmany, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH DECEMBER 29 / 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / Gallery hours are Noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

    This time it’s personal. Rarely have I encountered a painting exhibition so splendidly harmonious with my world view (and certainly not one of my invention) as this one is. For here is an artist who has, in this treacherous era of moral relativism, the inspired temerity to speak a profound truth too often forgotten or tragically denied: God’s unwavering desire, in and through the person of Jesus Christ, to gather humanity to himself.

    Charmley doesn’t render God’s “chase” in the literal or historic sense that we routinely encounter in traditional Western culture iconography. Her paintings are instead wholly (holy?) engaging, often gripping narratives set in modern contexts, populated by ordinary-looking citizens of the contemporary world.

    These are not your garden-variety Bible illustrations, so to speak. Adam and Eve – white male, black female – are the epitome of self-possessed youthfulness. The Holy Spirit is presented at the baptism of Jesus not as the proverbial dove, but as a cloud from which emerges a wise-looking old woman who becomes progressively younger as she comes closer to her son. Bald-headed Jesus (a working-class hero, to be sure) - fasting and sorely tempted in the desert -  struggles, weeps, then surrenders to his mission. An adulteress is portrayed as a male abortion clinic doctor facing one of the Pharisee accusers - a woman arrogantly waving a Bible – while off to the side Jesus stoops to write with chalk on the concrete, “A SIN IS A SIN.”

   Charmley’s brush is a highly facile and expressive one, imbuing her style of  realism with visceral immediacy. Given the elevated character of her subject matter, call it a refined urgency.  

    The reverse spray paintings on glass by Tim Carmany are a fitting accompaniment to this compelling suite of paintings. Each of Carmany’s window panes bears Biblical verses relevant to Charmley’s painted episode, along with the image of a Celtic knot. Text and knot appear to float, casting a shadow on the wall behind – surely a metaphor for both the spirit and palpable substance of Scripture. The inclusion of the mystical knots is a brilliant allusion to the eternal God who has no beginning and no end – the Alpha and Omega from Revelation 1:8.

    The powerful appeal of Charmley’s work is further enhanced by her insightful writings contained in the printed brochure provided to viewers – a spiritual guided tour of the exhibit. Therein the artist generously shares her thoughts on the Biblical events she has depicted. For example, in addressing her painting of Adam and Eve clothed in the animal skins supplied by God, she muses, “…It is easy for me to forget that the Lord had to kill something that was created, in holy goodness, in order to make clothing for the humans. This is a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice.”

    Charmley’s questions and interpretations are neither radical rewritings of Scripture nor arbitrary redefinitions – as if the Bible needs any “updating.” While her commentaries are intensely and refreshingly personal, they certainly don’t signal doubt, but rather an accessible, passionate arguing from certainty.

    In as much as this show is a declaration of her faith, I see it also as an eloquent invitation for all of us to embrace the immutable Truth it imparts. More than just skillfully executed scenes, this work constitutes a marvelous visual epistle.

     Now more than ever it is a message for our time, meant for those - by the grace of our triune God -  with the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Merry Christmas.

    Photos (from top): Trinity / 40 Days: Wrestling, Grieving, Letting Go / Whoever Is Without Sin

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Finesse and Fury from the Canton Symphony

Finesse and Fury from the Canton Symphony

By Tom Wachunas

    It is always something of a letdown when Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann doesn’t preface a program selection at a Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert with his special brand of wit, sardonic or otherwise. Ever the engaging raconteur, he didn’t disappoint on the occasion of the December 2 performance at Umstattd Hall.

    One of the unique elements in this concert, billed as Audience Choice, was that the three program selections were chosen from a list voted upon by loyal CSO subscribers. The list consisted of three overtures, three piano concertos, and three symphonies which Zimmermann offered for consideration at the end of last season. The winning  selection for the first work on the program was Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie).

    In his introduction, Zimmermann told a story as riotously spirited as the overture itself. He recounted how a certain Texas orchestra routinely started all of its concerts with the U.S. National Anthem. Like the Rossini overture, it begins with a military snare drum roll. But on the single occasion when the anthem was dropped from the program, the orchestra instead launched immediately into the Rossini overture. At the sound of the familiar drum roll, the audience dutifully and promptly stood at attention, ready to sing. At the sound of the second drum roll (the Rossini overture begins with three of them), the audience just as promptly sat down, clearly perplexed.

     The raucous laughter elicited by Zimmermann’s storytelling was the perfect overture, as it were, to the overture. Zimmermann’s reading of Rossini’s rambunctious, spritely energy was in turn thoroughly enlivening, and the orchestra responded in kind with captivating vivacity.

    The atmosphere for the remainder of the evening shifted progressively into a  more searing emotional climate, beginning with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. Right from the opening moments of the turbulent first movement, guest soloist Sara Davis Buechner was clearly caught up in the work’s dramatic thrall. As if animated by the spirit of Mozart himself, she seemed to speak the music, breathing fresh new life into its many contrasts of mood - alternately child-like, majestic and stormy, yet always genuinely piquant.

     Mozart’s tight control of form and melody in this work is such that the soloist has nowhere to hide. There are no overstated decorations, no allowances for gratuitous pyrotechnics except, perhaps, in the first movement cadenza. Mozart left none for this concerto. So here, Buechner’s own cadenza was a brilliant convergence of astonishing technical prowess with riveting emotional thrust, reminiscent of Beethoven at his most impassioned. And throughout the entire work, the interplay between orchestra and pianist was superbly attuned to the work’s utterly sublime clarity of texture.

    Once again, Zimmermann addressed the audience, expressing his surprise at the subscribers’ majority vote to hear the evening’s final selection, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor. While he considered the evening’s first two choices “…rather predictable,” he was flummoxed by this choice, adding, “I had thought you would have selected Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.”

    Flummoxed or not, Zimmermann poured himself into this performance as surely as Rachmaninoff poured a plethora of musical ideas into this quintessentially Russian symphony. Dazzlingly dramatic, the work is both a collision and a melding of delicacy and sweetness with relentless bombast. The orchestra rose to the event with a stunning display of razor-sharp clarity, tender lyricism, and startlingly explosive power.

    While this was certainly not a go-gently-into-the-night finale, it was nonetheless an eminently memorable and gratifying one.

    Photo: Concert Pianist Sara Davis Buechner