Monday, December 30, 2013

Taking the coal out of the fire?

Taking the coal out of the fire?

By Tom Wachunas

     “A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.” –Albert Camus

    “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”

    -Anais Nin

    Though I didn’t mention him in my review posted here on December 11, one of the artists who deservedly earned an Honorable Mention in the Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum (still on view through January 5) is William (Bill) Bogdan. His piece, a large black and white woodcut print called Apis 8 – The Beekeeper 5/16, is the first image pictured above. The work is another solid example of Bogdan’s somewhat surreal, stark yet mystical iconography. Here’s a link to a past review of a group show that included his woodcut print called Shadows, also pictured here (below Apis 8):  And it’s Shadows that I re-visit here, if only in an indirect way.

    During the opening reception for the aforementioned Stark County show on November 2, Bill surprised me with a 60-page booklet comprised of approximately 12 email letters he had written to a friend – David Girves - from his high school days, titled Understanding “Shadows”: A Field Guide,” and subtitled What I was thinking when I made the picture – the Girves-Bogdan Letters 2013. Bogdan’s motivation was, as he put it in his prologue, to “…explain to Dave the mindset of an artist; that is, how I view the world” by meticulously examining the symbols and process behind Shadows.

    Here I must point out that the vast majority of you, my readers, are now -  and very possibly will forever be - at a great disadvantage in fully appreciating Bill’s remarkable document. My copy is one of just four that he printed. The others were for Mr. Girves, of course, and one each for Lynda Tuttle, of Lynda Tuttle’s Art Center, and Craig Joseph, curator of Translations Art Gallery. Both Tuttle and Joseph have shown Bogdan’s work in the past.

   There is certainly enough substance in Bill’s document – something of a mini-autobiography (some of it heartrending), really -  to recommend it as an artful work in itself. His transparent, spontaneous writing style, free from arcane artspeak, is so disarmingly honest that he questions the efficacy of his own labors to explain, in words, the significance of his visual symbols. Toward the end, on page 48, he writes, “And this, Dave, concludes my little reading of my art – despite my reservations in imparting my meaning, thus blocking any meaning the viewer may bring to the piece.”

    “…little reading…”? Bill’s humility notwithstanding, what makes his effort to communicate the nature of his art so very important to me, far beyond the specific work he addresses, is the sheer largeness of the philosophical questions it raises. For I believe that all artists, at one time or another (some of us constantly so), wrestle with the tenuous relationship between their creative intent and viewers’ perceptions – their “take-away.”

    Do we expect artists to routinely translate problematic or challenging visual works into another form (the proverbial “artist statement” for example) so as to resolve viewers’ perplexities? Does such an expectation defeat the purpose or mystique of the art, destroy its essence, or render it powerless? Can artists live comfortably with an outcome wherein what is clearly significant to them may remain inaccessible to others? How much information is “enough” to engage the viewer on a cerebral and/or spiritual plane? Making art can be a risky proposition. Ultimately, all artists must contend with the reality of those viewers who either cannot (through no fault of their own) or will not (intellectual atrophy or willful ignorance?) stretch their own powers of imagination and cognition to appreciate a work of art – especially art of Bogdan’s caliber.

    I’m reminded of the questions that vexed theologian C.S. Lewis in his efforts to understand theories of the Eucharist. Is the bread actually the flesh of Christ, the wine his real blood? Lewis wrote that for him, looking too closely at the idea in order to explain it was “… like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal.”

    Still, if an artist feels compelled to employ written or spoken language in interpreting a visual work, I don’t believe we can take it to mean that the work in question is necessarily incompetent or unsuccessful on its own terms. Nor do I believe that in so doing with Shadows, Bill Bogdan is summarily “blocking any meaning the viewer may bring to the piece.” He is not offering us a dead coal, as it were. Rather, in identifying his specific symbols and process, he draws us further into the glow of his passion.

    For me, Bill’s “field guide” is an eminently generous and courageous act.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013



    …He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake / He knows if you’ve been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake…

    The photo above is of this year’s edition (acrylic painting) of my annual Christmas image. After these introductory comments, the rest of this post, in its entirety, is not my writing. That’s a first. But I found this blog post by Father Dwight Longenecker so important, intelligent and true that I offer it to you as a gift. Though I am not a practicing Catholic, I am nonetheless a Christian, and Longenecker’s words are humbling, inspiring and encouraging. In his original post there are other links to pertinent materials supporting his observations, so here’s the link to his blog with the post below:   Before you embark upon the following message, I add these words from Jesus: But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32)  Merry Christmas!

    Can You be Good Without God?  By Father Dwight Longenecker

    Atheists like to tell us that they can be “good without God.”

    What they rarely do is define what they mean by “good”. If they mean they can have good manners, do volunteer work, give to worthy causes to make the world a better place, then of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can be sophisticated people of good taste with fine connections in the world and a place at high table, of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can be noble souls who endure suffering in a dignified silence, weep at moments of tragic romance, gasp with delight at the finest art and the beauties of nature, of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can love family and friends and country and be loyal and kind and gentle and feel the sweep of fine feelings within their heart, of course they can be “good without God.” Can they feel themselves to be good and have high self- esteem and deem themselves upright and worthy individuals? Then they can indeed by “good without God.”
    All of these things are possible without God. In fact there is more to it than that. Catholics have always believed that man, according to natural reason alone can understand what is good and evil, and that he can also know by general revelation that there is a God. In other words, not only can man be “good without God” in this sense, but he can also know the difference between good and evil and make good choices over evil choices.
    Humans might be able to live (and) pursue a noble and tasteful and even an altruistic life without God, but why should they? What’s the point? Without God the only point of human goodness must be utilitarian. There must be some purpose to it. So the atheist who wishes to be good must point to the consequences: “I will be good because I will thereby enjoy higher self- esteem and be more contented and happy in this life.” or “I will be good because if we were all good the world would be a happier, safer and more peaceful place to live.” or “I will be good because my being good will be the best way for my family and friends and I want them to be happier and more peaceful too because I love them.” All this is fine as far as it goes, but unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough.
    Any moral stance that is based only on utilitarian principles must therefore be relativistic. If one is good because there is a “good” or desirable outcome, then when the desirability of the outcome changes what is good must change. If one’s concept of “goodness” is based on some sort of useful end result, then when the desired end result changes what is good changes, and there is nothing that can undo this change.
    Here is an example: Let us say that a good atheist determines that to be good one should not kill another human being intentionally. One should certainly not kill another human being intentionally for one’s own benefit. The atheist takes this humane position because it brings about whatever desirable end he determines (either consciously or unconsciously). What if, however, the atheist’s elderly mother suffers from dementia and the family can no longer afford to keep her? How would he decide whether to end her life or not? Because his ethic is determined by utilitarian principles he may change his code of conduct and decide to euthanize her. There is no reason why he should, but there is also no good reason why he shouldn’t. There was no greater underlying principle to his ethical choice than some form of utilitarianism. As an atheist he has no grounds on which to say there is some innate, eternal worth to a particular human person. Why would there necessarily be any innate worth to a particular human person except (by the Catholic reckoning) that person was a unique creation of God–an eternal soul created in the image and likeness of God?
    Either the human person is an animal who can be put to sleep in the interests of the greater good, or he is an eternal soul created by God who cannot be intentionally killed for any reason. This difficulty will echo into every ethical position of the “good atheist” for the atheist’s goodness can never be more than an ornate form of utilitarianism. Whatever goodness the atheist upholds he can only uphold for a practical, utilitarian reason and therefore when the practical reason changes it makes sense for the ethical position to change. This is why atheists down the ages have so happily committed themselves to genocide. As good human beings they were not in favor of killing millions of people, but because the greater good demanded it for utilitarian purposes–there was no great loss. This is the end point of ideologies–thought systems that aim to do good but end up doing great evil.
    I therefore welcome the goodness of all atheists. I’m glad they want to have high values, make good moral decisions and lead the good life for all, and I agree that they can be good in all these practical and laudable ways.  What they seem to miss however, is that their lives of good deeds are not actually what Christianity is all about anyway. In fact, if they had even a Sunday School level of understanding of Christianity they would realize that it’s not about “being good” anyway, but about “becoming good.”
    See, Christianity is far more radical than simply setting up a set of rules to obey. Christianity is concerned not so much with being good and behaving ourselves and staying out of trouble and being good citizens and tasteful, polite, well- educated good “all rounders”. Instead Christianity is about being transformed by a supernatural power into beings who are virtual gods and goddesses.
   The Eastern fathers talk about something called “theosis”–a process by which an ordinary person is transformed by a supernatural goodness into goodness itself. They are not just “good people” they are people who have been merged into all that is good. They have ingested goodness if you like. They have become one with goodness. They have been made radiant with goodness like a candle flame is one with light.
    Atheists may go about being nice good and noble people all they like. Christians are trying to do something far greater than that, and the process of doing this–compared to merely being good–is like climbing Mt Everest is to a walk in the park. Christians are seeking to become the very stars of heaven. Compared to this simply “being good” is like switching on a flashlight. Christians are attempting to become radiant eternal beings–sons and daughters of the most high God–infused by eternal light to become all that they were created to be.
    To do this requires a lifetime of prayer, sacrifice, discipline and courage. The lives of the saints reveal a strange and supernatural journey–one in which there are no directions, vast confusion, darkness, alienation, suffering and for each their own agony in the garden. To do this requires a lifetime of obedience, submission to a greater and more mysterious will and a bewildering psychic launch into worlds unknown. Obeying the moral law and “being good” for them was only the first baby steps of the journey. “Being good” for them was simply what learning their scales might be to a great concert pianist.
    This greatness–incredibly–is the destiny of all who call themselves Christians. Do Christians fail in this great enterprise? Of course we do. Most of us do. Many of us fail magnificently and tragically, but that doesn’t stop us trying. Can we accomplish this “divinization” simply by being good and nice people? That is not only a heresy, but a banality.
    I fully accept that non- believers may find this post to be so unusual as to be insane. I expect a very good number of people who call themselves Christians will find it odd. That’s fine, but I am simply expressing the historic Catholic faith.
    If anyone doesn’t like it I suppose they could just go ahead and try to be good.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Formed in Faith: One God, Many Voices

Formed in Faith: One God, Many Voices

By Tom Wachunas 

    “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  -Hebrews 11:1

    EXHIBIT: Sacred Voices, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 2, 2014, 1001 Market Avenue North. (330) 453-7666

    Long before acquiring any substantial understanding of Christian theology (grade school Catechism notwithstanding), my love for God was largely informed by my boyhood passion for looking at pictures of religious Renaissance and Baroque-era art. I remember being gently scolded by nuns for laughing at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel rear-view rendering of the Creator of the cosmos. Here was God, after making the sun and stars, seemingly floating away from the viewer, and dressed in a garment so clingy and sheer that you could see his butt, not to mention the bottoms of his bare feet. Oh, those curvaceous cheeks! Why, they must be the size of planets!

    Still, my reaction was not then, nor is it now, a vapid laughter, but rather a giddy reverence. For here was art that presented God as all-powerful, enigmatic and infinite, yet somehow still earthy, familiar and accessible.

    Mixed among his heroic Sistine portraits of Biblical prophets, Michelangelo saw fit to include five Sibyls - prophetic female figures from Greek mythology. One legend surrounding the most prominent and beautiful - the Delphic Sybil, considered by the ancients to be the voice of Apollo - holds that her last prophecy was the birth of Christ. Here was symbolized the idea that Christ/God would make himself known to all eras and cultures in the world. Surely art has historically been a vehicle for that knowledge. And this Michelangelo moment is a powerful example, communicating a profoundly important aspect of humankind’s relationship to the Divine.

    In this context, I’m reminded that the human proclivity for making things that we have come to identify as “art” is in fact a primordial calling, and perhaps a survival reflex. Further, even the most ancient of our created images and objects, regardless of which cultures produced them, commonly embraced the supernatural.  It has always been in our nature to make art that expresses beliefs about presences beyond our physical world.

   Sacred Voices then, organized by guest curator Michele Waalkes as a companion show to The St. John’s Bible, is a genuinely captivating re-affirmation of the ageless potency of religious art.  It features 37 artists from around the world who present their personal connections to God from the perspective of three monotheistic faiths – Christian, Judaic and Islamic.

     While I’m thrilled to tell you that I have a piece in this show, I may or may not post a separate commentary on it in the future. In any event, here’s a link to a recent article in Ohio magazine featuring four of the artists:  Additionally, here’s a link to a Youtube video - a quick tour of the exhibition space - made by Adil Akhtar, one of the artists in the show:

    Not surprisingly, many of these contemplations of faith are stylistically abstract and symbolic in nature. Chris Wurst’s intriguing Forgiving Father III, made from plaster and finished to look like aged, etched bronze, is a twisting, airy form. From some angles it’s vaguely suggestive of a heart entwined with arteries. From other perspectives it harks to the ornate arabesque designs so prevalent in Islamic motifs.

    Those designs often include the sure-handed intricacies of Arabic calligraphy (itself uniquely pictorial in appearance), such as in the striking, dramatic triptych by Faraz Khan, In the Name of God, Beneficent, Merciful. The title is a verse repeated in the Quran (Koran) 114 times, rendered in Arabic here with bold red flourishes on a dark ground.

    There’s drama, too, in Ameena Khan’s crisp acrylic and ink painting, In Defense of Eve. Here, the text in the background is an English translation of Quranic verses about God’s forgiveness of Adam and Eve. As Khan explains in her statement, the work speaks of her concerns about those contemporary Muslim practices that demean and subjugate women. Eve’s extended hand has dropped the weighty apple, releasing her burden of guilt and shame.

    Ascension to Sinai, by Joy Stember, is a stunning example of contemporary Judaica. A copper bowl, plated with gold on the inside, rests atop a platinum tripod fashioned after rams’ horns. This dazzling chalice is both a recalling of Moses’ climb to the presence of God and an elegant symbol of human desire to be filled with Divine spirituality. Our cup runneth over indeed.

    Without a doubt the most arresting work here, if only for its physical enormity (125” x 155”), is Second Adam, an oil painting on wood with gold and silver leaf, by Bruce Herman. This homage to Renaissance altar pieces and religious frescoes is utterly astonishing in its facile handling of visual textures, letting the surface exude a classical aura. Read Herman’s concise statement and you’ll come to savor how well his ingenious compression of Biblical time serves the painting’s message of a new beginning for the human race.   

    Speaking of reading messages, I highly recommend that you read all the statements that accompany the artworks, keeping in mind that the show is clearly not designed to be a heavy platform for doctrinal pedantry. For the most part, the statements are simply personal and often disarming revelations of heart and mind.

     The aforementioned works are but a very small representation of a show that is otherwise a deeply probing spiritual event – a remarkable gathering of worshipful artistic voicings - as well as a completely enthralling visual experience.

     With God as the subject matter, could we expect anything less?

    PHOTOS (from top): Second Adam by Bruce Herman / Ascension to Sinai by Joy Stember / In Defense of Eve by Ameena Kahn / In the Name of God, Beneficent, Merciful by Faraz Khan

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Illuminated Truth, Ineffable Grace

Illuminated Truth, Ineffable Grace

By Tom Wachunas


    “…a ploughboy with the Bible would know more of God than the most learned ecclesiastic who ignored it.”  -William Tyndale

EXHIBITION: Illuminating the Word: The St. John’s Bible, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, THROUGH MARCH 2, 2014. Viewing hours and ticket information at 330-453-7666, or visit

    In the 22 years I’ve been viewing exhibits at the Canton Museum of Art, none has been so personally significant and completely edifying as this one. Here is the world-premiere of a work that is a wholly – indeed holy - breathtaking aesthetic experience, transcendent like no other in its visual and conceptual scope.

    The St. John’s Bible is a work of timeless monumentality, and the stunning result of an arduous process initiated in 1995 by the community of St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The first words were scribed on Ash Wednesday, 2000, the last “Amen” on May 9, 2011.

    Handwritten and illuminated, i.e. illustrated, using medieval materials and methods, this is the first Bible  - the complete New Revised Standard Version in seven 15 ¾” by 23 ½” volumes of 1,127 pages that include more than 160 artworks -  commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years. The elegant, very readable calligraphy was executed on vellum (calfskin) with hand-cut feather quills and ancient, hand-ground inks. The brilliantly colored page illuminations incorporate 24-karat gold leaf, silver leaf and platinum accents.

    Here in Canton is the first touring exhibit of 34 displays, showing 68 original manuscript pages, and 32 illuminations, from all seven volumes. A team of 23 professional artists and scribes, working in a scriptorium in Wales, created the actual pages under the artistic direction of renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson, Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.

    Don’t be put off by the unusually dim lighting. While it certainly brings an aura of hushed solemnity to the event, the material components of the work require it, lest they become discolored under prolonged exposure to normal lighting conditions. Your eyes will quickly adjust and, just as quickly, be drawn toward another sort of light, spiritual and physical – the altogether extraordinary, alluring radiance of the pages.

    A particularly arresting element here is the stylistic nature of the illuminations. This isn’t traditional religious scenery. It is rather an intensely thoughtful probing of multiculturalism through contemporary imagery, even to the point of embracing modern humanity’s strides in science and technology. Collectively, they present an ecumenical joining of Eastern and Western iconography. Yet these compelling montages are all consistent with Divine perspective and purpose as revealed in the Bible.

    From Genesis, seven vertical strips represent each day of Creation. In day three, signifying the division of land from water and the appearance of vegetation, there are satellite photos of the Ganges River Delta. The creation of humankind on day six is rendered with images from Australian and African aboriginal rock paintings.

    The spectacular abstract treatment of the Psalms frontispiece features superimposed digital voice prints, i.e. electronic images, of sung chants. These include men’s Gregorian Chant at St. John’s Abbey, Jewish men’s chorus recitations of Psalms, and a Native American sacred song, among others.

    The interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision in Valley of the Dry Bones is a sobering and stark modern junkyard. Piles of eyeglasses recall the Holocaust, shattered windows are the ruins of terrorism, and trashed autos point to environmental corruption. Still, overarching this dark debris are interlocking rainbows at the top of the page – vibrant symbols of hope.

   In the Genealogy of Christ illumination from the Gospel of Matthew, we see a tree of life, functioning as both a family tree and a menorah. Interwoven are the double helix forms of DNA and ancestral names in English, Hebrew and Arabic. At the base of the menorah is a mandala shape – common in Eastern traditions – symbolizing God’s continual presence.

    And from the book of Acts, To the Ends of the Earth marks the first time a picture of earth, as seen from space, has ever appeared in a handwritten Bible.

    For some viewers, the exhibit will doubtless be a desirable and rewarding destination, eliciting rightful gratitude for the power of art to re-affirm their grasp of the immutable, eternal Truth that is God. This has certainly been the case for me, and I can fully appreciate Donald Jackson’s words in describing the beginnings of this glorious journey, born out of a boyhood dream, “…The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page, is the closest I have ever come to God…”

    It is my fervent hope that for many other viewers, The Saint John’s Bible may well signal the beginning of their own earnest journey toward the same experience. Just as God’s Word is to and for all humanity - past, present and future - this magnificent achievement is an inspired facilitator, and truly art for the ages.

    It is both a noble service to, and blessing on, all who view it.

    PHOTOS, from top: 1.Donald Jackson, Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37: 1-14 NRSV Translation), 2005 - Scribe: Susan Leiper - Vellum, with ink, paint and gold, Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 2. Donald Jackson, To the Ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8 NRSV Translation), with contributions from Andrew Jamieson and Sally Mae Joseph, 2002 - Scribe: Sally Mae Joseph / Vellum, with ink, paint and gold / Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 3.  Donald Jackson with contributions from Chris Tomlin, 2003 / Scribe:  Donald Jackson / Genesis frontispiece: Creation (Genesis1:1–2:3 NRSV Translation), Vellum, with ink, paint and gold/ Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 4. Donald Jackson, Genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-17 NRSV Translation), 2002, Scribe: Donald Jackson / Vellum, with ink, paint and gold / Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Drawing a Bead on Stark's Artistic Diversity

Drawing a Bead on Stark’s Artistic Diversity

By Tom Wachunas

“I am interested in ideas, not merely in visual products.”

–Marcel Duchamp

    Exhibit: Stark County Artists Exhibition 2013, at Massillon Museum, THROUGH JANUARY 5, 2014, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon,  (330- 833 – 4061)

    Once again, a large and locally important juried exhibit. Once again, I wonder about the jurors’ award designations (Best in Show, Second Place, Third Place, five Honorable Mentions). There are indeed some curious choices in the mix.

    But there’s nothing surprising about that - it’s the nature of the beast. As it is, this year’s Stark County Artists Exhibition is in general a notably solid one and certainly more exhilarating than usual in its remarkable eclecticism of media and styles. I suspect it was a particularly daunting endeavor for the jurors to choose 79 works by 60 artists (including my grateful self) from a total of 211 entries submitted by 82 artists.

     While Mark Pitocco’s digital photograph, Discarded Memory, East Liverpool, Oh, garnered an Honorable Mention, this image of a white gown hanging in a store window is a bland and otherwise far less compelling composition than his Two Mothers, Newberry, Michigan, 7.5.2013.

    Compelling, too (though no thumbs-up from the jurors here), is the black and white photograph by Michael W. Barath, titled Self Portrait with Boo, which gets my vote for best photo in the show. It’s a genuinely engaging (and more beguiling than sentimental) tribute to the bond between man and dog – a wondrous portrait of intricate shape-changing.

    In the realm of drawing, among the more exquisite entries are Heather Farthing’s Break (Honorable Mention), a haunting, mystical charcoal contemplation of intertwined, biomorphic shapes and textures executed on wood; Amy V. Lindenberger’s fantastical Transformation/Liberation in colored pencil; and a brilliant (in color and design) composition in oil pastel of leafy shadows on a sunlit outdoor wall by Diane Belfiglio, Digression into Detail III.

    This year there’s a generous scattering of distinctly heady works. Let’s for the moment regard them as challenging if not bold experiments. The remainder of this commentary addresses only some of those.

    One, Higharekie by Erin Meyer, was awarded Best in Show (?!). It’s a mixed media installation featuring a large contour drawing of a bunk bed, made from black tape stuck to the wall, spilling down on to the gallery floor. A curled-up cat sleeps up on the bottom bed. Above is Meyer’s excellent self- portrait in oil, topped by a silver plastic child’s crown. Queen of the broken picture plane, dreaming of childhood days? And speaking of childhood’s broken picture planes, Meyer’s large abstract oil diptych, A Table with a Split, is likewise unconventional and playful.

    Playfulness is very much in the character of the video loop by Matt Kurtz. Several household appliances perform on real musical instruments. A hilarious robotic band. A similar spirit prevails in Kurtz’s Rhythm Drawing, wherein a snare drum protrudes from the wall. The swirling graphite drawing on the drumhead cleverly echoes the textures of the found piece of wood -  the drumstick, so to speak -  that rests on top.

    A particularly strong abstract entry is Jerry Domokur’s black and white (though very rich in tonal variety) digital piece, Quandary. High-tech, to be sure, the work is nonetheless a hypnotic and immersive sprawl of radiating shapes, simultaneously mechanical and organic in nature, bringing to mind a prismatic mandala.

     Also fascinating in the abstract genre are the wildly muscular paintings by Maggie Duff (Business as Usual) and the ironically titled Safe For Now by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker. While Duff’s oil impasto musings are overtly structured and seem somewhat contrived, Parker’s jarring acrylic canvas is more about what’s hidden than apparent, like a painterly game of hide and seek. So what’s with those brutish swaths of orange and green? Call it the intuitive, rough-edged calligraphy of pure abandon.

    Finally, there’s Garden Buckets, a canvas and steel sculptural installation by Priscilla Roggenkamp and Keith McMahon. To anyone within earshot of my snide comments on opening night upon hearing that the work was awarded Third Place (?!), I humbly wish to amend my initial assessment. I seem to remember saying something like, “R. Mutt called. He wants his readymades back.” (I should talk, considering the objects included in my own work). My second visit to the museum widened my perspective.

    While there is a Duchampian character about these six, person-sized canvas bags suspended in air, something persistently striking – and yes, odd -  about their ambiguous and enigmatic nature lingers in my mind. Are these found objects, or invented to suggest a utilitarian purpose, as the title indicates? Harvest implements? Debris containers? Their shapes seem vaguely anthropomorphic, even feminine. Farm laborers’ uniforms from an alien world?

    In any event, these “bold experiments” imbue the exhibit with an elevated and invigorating conceptual dimensionality. Without them, the show would be merely safe. So here’s to art on the edge.

    PHOTOS (from top): Garden Buckets by Priscilla Roggenkamp and Keith McMahon; Higharekie by Erin Meyer; Rhythm Drawing by Matt Kurtz; Safe For Now by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker     

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Auroral Substances

Auroral Substances

By Tom Wachunas

    “…All great paintings are sculptures – there’s so much of the actualness about it that a great painting forces you into a visual, physical movement of yourself. That’s what determines the way you experience a painting kinetically. You move closer, you sight down it, you tilt your head, you step back, you feel as though you are in it. That being in it is just as important as looking from a distance.”  - painter Kenneth Noland

    “My visual world, though rarely depictive of any specific subject matter, is usually grounded in dynamic, primordial natural forms, especially elements of the human body. The microcosm that is the curvature of an arm may end up evoking the macrocosm of a sweeping imaginary landscape. My paintings often call to mind the rich colors and textures of the earth.”  - painter  Annette Poitau

   EXHIBIT: Annette Poitau, abstract oil paintings, at Journey Art Gallery, 431 4th Street NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH JANUARY 4, 2014. Gallery hours are Tues. and Thurs. Noon to 6 p.m., Wed., Fri., & Sat. Noon to 9 p.m., Sun. 1 to 5 p.m. until after the holidays.

    From a distance, the oil paintings by Annette Poitau have something of a family resemblance to the very large abstract Color Field “stain” paintings of Helen Frankenthaler or the “Veil” series of Morris Louis, among others. But come closer to Poitau’s more intimately-scaled surfaces (and yes, do “…sight down it,… tilt your head, …step back…”) and you’ll be engaged with a different visual dynamic altogether.

   Whereas the aforementioned abstractionists intended their translucent layers of pigment be “at one with” the canvas as opposed to sitting on top, Poitau’s undulating, intensely saturated hues become physical topographies that seem to emerge from subtle, liquid underlayments. These brilliant visions are a hypnotic merging of the material with the ethereal. To some, they might suggest at once spectacular earthen formations and atmospheric phenomena.

    In her statement quoted above, Poitau refers to this suggestive quality in her work as evocative of landscape. Keep in mind, though, that “evoking” is a concept wholly separate from “imitating” in the representational sense. And herein is a capacity unique to this particular kind of nonobjective abstraction: The power to conjure essences, or ineffable energies, freed from identifiable subjects.

   If I understand Poitau’s methodology correctly, briefly described on her web site at, she allows the varying viscosities in her layers of paint to interact in ways that produce the sensation of motion in shifting planes or “clouds” of color. Call it a controlled abandon, or a surrender to the properties of paint to do what it will naturally do. Remarkable, minute details can surface, as in the upward movement of feathery green rivulets in the lower portion of her painting titled Vague.

   Overt brushwork is a minimal presence in the flowing, spontaneous feel of these paintings. There is occasional evidence of intentional action (or “drawing”) by Poitau’s hand. But it’s neither an overly fussy disruption of the visual gestalt, nor an unnecessary afterthought. The three ghostly, greenish horizontal trails through the surface in one of the untitled paintings (hanging in the classroom area of the gallery), for example, are but a gentle intrusion. Such gestural moments are a poetic reminder, perhaps, that the auroral glow of these works is indeed of human origin.

    Regardless of the objective realities we might discern these works as somehow describing, I think the primary subject matter here is paint itself. The strength and appeal of this exhibit is in Poitau’s apparent gift for investing something so inherently inanimate – paint – with such astonishing vitality.

    PHOTOS, courtesy Su Nimon at Journey Art Gallery (from top): Vague, oil on canvas, 34”x60”; Untitled, oil on board, 50”x27”; Untitled, oil on canvas, 36”x48”      

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Making Ives Palatable, Grieg Rhapsodic, Elgar Triumphant

Canton Symphony Orchestra: Making Ives Palatable, Grieg Rhapsodic, Elgar Triumphant

By Tom Wachunas

    The November 24 Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Masterworks series concert at Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall was billed as “Friends and Family.” While that designation was largely relevant to the second- half performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – 14 short musical portraits of the composer’s friends – it was also no doubt a nod to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, traditionally a time of lavish family gatherings. Hence, the evening began with Charles Ives’ Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day, the final movement of his 1913 Holidays Symphony (alternately called A New England Holiday Symphony).

    This work could hardly be called a warm, festive mood-setter. In fact, it’s downright listener-unfriendly unless you’ve acquired some appreciation of Ives’ aesthetic explorations in polytonality, polyrhythms and other departures from traditional symphonic form. Toward that end, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann prefaced his unusually lengthy introduction of the work by saying that he considered Charles Ives to be “…the most authentic American composer there is.” He then proceeded to regale the audience with an astute, often humorous analysis, leading the orchestra through exemplary snippets to illustrate his points. Call it an invitation for listeners to identify a path through the piece’s aural challenges. It is indeed a daunting collision of fragmented traditional church and Thanksgiving hymns, often simultaneously rendered in conflicting keys and meters.

    The orchestra was consistently crisp, fervent and otherwise true to Ives’ celebration of cacophonous Americana. And thankfully, in the middle section there emerges a surprisingly elegant (and by Ivesian standards, conservative) passage that suggests a graceful albeit tenuous procession into clear light. An added surprise was the previously unpublicized contribution of Canton Symphony Chorus members, present in the audience, who stood to sing a charming hymn fragment in counterpoint to the orchestra. Ultimately it was a moment that resonated into the final moments of the work, imbuing it with more tenderness than tension.

    What followed surely must rank as one of, if not the most enthralling performances by a CSO guest soloist in recent years. German Pianist Alexander Schimpf, whose increasing rise to international acclaim includes winning First Prize at the 2011 Cleveland International Piano Competition, didn’t merely play with, but rather seemed to breathe in unison with the CSO. In an inspired exposition of Grieg’s magnificent Piano Concerto in a minor, orchestra and piano were equal partners in a compelling conversation, matching each other perfectly in tonal resonance and emotive power.

    There was neither superfluous bravado nor frivolous ornamentation in Schimpf’s playing, whether in his utterly breathtaking cadenza at the end of the first movement or in the mellifluous, dream-like second movement. Instead, he invested every note, chord or arpeggio with a sincerity of dramatic purpose and authentic poeticism, all the way through the rhapsodic theme developments of the majestic finale.

     In his encore performance of Grieg’s Notturno (Nocturne), from Opus 54 of Lyric Pieces, Schimpf further mesmerized the adoring audience with his lyrical touch and insightful phrasings. The sheer magic imparted by this pianist left me wondering if, after intermission, Elgar’s Enigma Variations would feel somewhat anticlimactic.

    In retrospect, it was a foolish concern. This is after all the Canton Symphony Orchestra. And Elgar’s score is an electrifying mix of orchestral textures, tempi and moods, all of which being delivered here with infectious vigor. I think it only right to say the CSO yet again surpassed its own standards of excellence.

    PHOTO: Pianist Alexander Schimpf

Friday, November 22, 2013

Unpacking The Nativity

Unpacking The Nativity

By Tom Wachunas

    “We consider Christmas as the encounter, the great encounter, the historical encounter, the decisive encounter, between God and mankind. He who has faith knows this truly; let him rejoice.”  - Pope Paul VI

    EXHIBIT: Nativity, at Translations Art Gallery, THROUGH NOVEMBER 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wednesday- Saturday Noon to 5 PM (closed Thanksgiving).

    I am deeply grateful to Translations curator Craig Joseph for his invitation to be one of the 15 participating artists in this remarkably eclectic interpretation of the birth of Jesus. Those of you who know me can appreciate how it’s a subject solidly within my creative wheelhouse. So in this case I will depart from a self-imposed rule to not speak of my work when commenting on group shows that include it, and tell you something about my piece. But first, I offer some words about those works here that resonate most with my Christmas sensibilities.

    Fredlee Votaw’s ambitious installation, Nativity, is a lovingly constructed  assemblage of sculptures and artifacts that clearly allude to Scriptural nativity accounts. Some of the wooden forms are literal, others symbolic. Together, their woody yet refined rawness exudes an ancient, reverential quietude.

   A similar aura emanates from a much smaller and more abstracted wall piece by Kevin Anderson, also titled Nativity.  Here, though, the precisely-cut walnut pieces, representing the Holy Family and other attendees on the scene, have a distinctly contemporary feel, right down (or up, actually) to the lighted arrow sign that hovers above the “stable.” Something like a theater marquee, the sign bears the word “KING,” lest we forget whom we behold. Anderson further emphasizes the fact by rendering the baby Jesus as a white cylinder in contrast to all the other rectangular forms.

   Twelve earthy, organic ceramic forms set on a table comprise Laura Donnelly’s Wise Men Still Seek… These forms, with ornate patterns pressed into the clay, are anthropomorphized vessels, each named for a spiritual gift. The work is a poignant reminder that to celebrate the Nativity is to celebrate the author of all life. As He bestowed on us gifts such as Joy, Nurturing and Generosity, among others, we would be wise in seeking to do the same for each other.

   The tiny, arresting oil painting by Erin Mulligan, Blood and Water, is a fetal portrait, and beautiful in a visceral way. For all of its pragmatic detailing, the piece is nonetheless a precious icon of sorts, bringing to mind a passage from 1 John, verses 5 - 6: “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ.”

   There’s also a visceral pragmatism about the piece by Li Hertzi, titled Did Mary know that her… But along with its somewhat jarring blend of wispy illuminated glass “flames” that glow amid pieces of what appear to be real bone, the work is invested with a haunting, lyrical mystique. The assemblage protrudes from a wooden stool seat, inscribed with the words, “Beautiful flesh and blood cradled his magnificent light.”

    For sheer conceptual scope – the whole Truth -  the fused glass assemblage by David McDowell is particularly compelling. He rightly reminds us in his extensive written statement (well worth the time to read carefully) that the Nativity is but one chapter, albeit a vital one, in an unbroken and unbreakable continuum of necessary Biblical events. They culminate in the gripping visions laid out in the book of Revelation. To unbelievers, those visions are horrifying, mystifying, threatening. Isn’t Jesus, Lord of all creation, supposed to be the merciful Saviour, Peacemaker, loving Redeemer? But he’s also the perfect promise- keeper and Judge. Sobering stuff indeed. 

    So then, on to my mixed media wall piece, titled Who for the joy set before him. Like David McDowell, I wanted to widen the scope of my offering by embracing the larger Scriptural picture. I don’t believe we can fully realize the impact of the Nativity until and unless we see the whole purpose of God incarnate. I present him here as a lamb (in a stone manger), bound for sacrifice. “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  - John 1:29

    As for the specific architectural look of the piece – its suggestion of a stone interior - here are some observations that might shed some light, so to speak, on your understanding of the Biblical account.

    Was Jesus born in a simple wooden stable, a barn, or a cave, as traditional Western-world depictions would have us imagine? The Nativity account in Luke 2 mentions only that the baby was laid in a manger – a feeding trough for flock animals – because there were no available accommodations at the “inn.”

    In Greek (the language of the Gospels), the word we have generally translated as “inn” is kataluma, and appears in only one other context in the New Testament (Luke 22:11 and parallel passage in Mark 14:14), in reference to preparations for the Passover meal that was Jesus’ “last supper.” Luke’s account of those preparations makes very clear that this kataluma was a furnished upstairs guest room in a house.

    Hence it is reasonable to think that Joseph and Mary had traveled to Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem for the census, and that the upstairs guest chamber was already filled with other, likely elder members of Joseph’s extended family.

    Additionally, it is interesting to note that in the ancient world, stone houses typically included accommodations for a few animals (including a built-in stone manger) that were kept indoors on the ground level at night.

    The title of this work remembers the reason for Jesus’ coming, planned from the beginning of all creation, taken from Hebrews 12:2 – “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

    PHOTOS (from top): Nativity by Fredlee Votaw; Nativity by Kevin Anderson; Blood and Water by Erin Mulligan; fused glass assemblage by David McDowell; Who for the joy set before him, by Tom Wachunas

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Exquisite Flux

Exquisite Flux

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Recent Paintings by Danielle Mysliwiec, Main Hall Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, THROUGH NOVEMBER 30 / Gallery Hours Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to noon 

    A major element of Minimalist art that remains unsatisfying to me is its overt disconnect from emotional resonance - its formal attempt to subvert associative narrative. If it’s fair to say that the idea behind “less is more” is somehow Minimalism’s rallying cry (as I believe it is), the answer to “more what?” is elusive. More beautiful, more meaningful, more “true” than…?

    OK, so I’ll get off my high-handed venting in short enough order. Still, I think it important to point out that there is a kind of Minimalism at work in these recent (2013) paintings by Danielle Mysliwiec but not, thankfully, in any off-putting way. Yes, these are highly distilled, abstract configurations of simple geometric shapes, rendered with a restricted palette, several of them on monochromatic fields of silver leaf. Even the gallery space itself exudes austerity, with just eight small (13” x 9”) paintings thinly dispersed across its white expanse.

    But this diminutive manifestation of ‘less-is-more’ is nonetheless alluring and visceral in its intimacy. At once sculptural and pictorial, these works are fascinating miniature portals to possible metaphors or allegories. A literary analogy seems appropriate here. Mysliwiec’s abstractions are clearly too finessed to be called wildly expressionistic. They’re not like, say, a sprawling epic adventure novel with lots of colorful characters. Instead, their refined structures suggest the lyrical brevity of sonnets, or even haiku. Painted poems.        

     In some of the pieces, such as After and Vigil, Mysliwiec explores the tenuous relationship between the human activity of creating and maintaining precise structures or systems, and the ephemeral intrusions of accident and/or unexpected change that can counteract their orderliness. Whenever she employs the silvery grounds, the pieces acquire a ghostly, oscillating presence. Their reflective surfaces appear to physically shift (or breathe?) relative to the viewer’s movement and position in space – perhaps an homage to the changeability of life itself.

   The shapes (forms in relief, actually) are comprised of painstakingly applied paint extrusions in repeated patterns. It’s an organized impasto so minute in scale and stringy in character that they have all the look of woven textile swatches. Mysliwiec’s technique is essentially that of a baker, using a piping bag and tip to apply frosting. Knowing that helps to bring some added conceptual dimensionality and mystical charm to these works. The meticulous weaving effect of the paint is a loving nod to the discipline of fine traditional crafts.

    In that context, to some extent, “domestic woman’s work” comes to mind. Call it icing on a hardy cake – a sweetness of remarkable substance.

    PHOTOS (from top), courtesy : Aguayo (oil on wood panel); After (acrylic, metal leaf, tape on wood panel); Mild Winter (oil, metal leaf on wood panel); Ships Passing (oil, metal leaf on wood panel); Vigil (oil on wood panel)  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Canton Symphony Goes For Baroque

Canton Symphony Goes For Baroque

By Tom Wachunas 

     If not performed in a properly balanced fashion, Baroque-era music is often a more cerebral encounter than an emotionally alluring one to the listener. Musicians can get so caught up in delivering the music’s characteristically frothy ornamentation (which does allow for some exciting virtuosity on the part of soloists) that their technical prowess overshadows its intended “spiritual” affect, which can range from dramatic urgency and melancholy to reverential majesty and unfettered joy.

    Fortunately, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) avoided that shortcoming during its all-Baroque concert on November 3 in Umstattd Performing Arts Hall. Not surprisingly, in performing the nine works on the program (four by Handel, and one each by J.S. Bach, Jeremiah Clarke, Arcangelo Corelli, Johann Pachelbel and Antonio Vivaldi), the orchestra was technically faultless. Most important and inspiring, though, was the pure expressivity of textures and moods conveyed by the musicians.

   Genuine emoting was abundantly present in the four vocal pieces that featured guest artist Erin Cooper Gay, who is both a professional French Horn player and a remarkable soprano. Her singing is well endowed with a seductively warm, lyric quality. In fact, Gay was at one point the CSO principal horn for eight years, and I can’t help but think that the aural character of that instrument has somehow magically fused with her voice.

   She clearly captivated the audience with her characterization of mournful solemnity in Lascia ch’oi pianga (Let me weep), the most famous aria from Handel’s opera, Rinaldo. But the versatile Gay also offered a delightfully lighthearted side in her portrait of a frenetic caffeine addict sipping coffee in J.S. Bach’s whimsical Cantata No. 211, aka The Coffee Cantata. Introducing the work, a very good-humored Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann regaled the audience with a schmaltzy short monologue on coffee, the “devil’s brew,” as he at one point quaffed heartily from a mug of beer.  

     Gay’s performance of the Vivaldi tone painting, In Furore Iustissimae Irae (In the Fury of the Most Just Wrath), was utterly breathtaking. The work is a propulsive expression of God’s anger at human malfeasance, an impassioned promise of repentance, and an otherwise electrifying showpiece for coloratura virtuosity. Gay embraced its melodic leaps and churning chromatic descents with astonishing vigor.  

    In Let the Bright Seraphim, an aria from Handel’s oratorio, Samson, Gay was ebullience personified. The rich timbre of her voice was wholly stunning in her intricate harmonies with Scott Johnston, CSO principal trumpet, who had dazzled us earlier in the program with Jeremiah Clarke’s famous The Prince of Denmark’s March.

    Along with a mesmerizing rendition of Pachelbel’s iconic Canon in D Major, and a fittingly majestic reading of Handel’s Watermusic, this program in its entirety rekindled my appreciation of Baroque music. Additionally, the concert was a tantalizing demonstration of CSO’s bilingual capacity, so to speak. These players are eminently fluent in the musical languages of mind and heart.    

    PHOTOS: (top) Soprano Erin Cooper Gay; CSO principal trumpeter Scott Johnston