Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Curious Cartography

Curious Cartography
By Tom Wachunas

    “Maps codify the miracle of existence.” – Nicholas Crane, from Mercator: The Man Who Mapped The Planet” - 

    EXHIBITION: Terra Imaginara: Mapping the Fantastic, recent work by Scott Alan Evans, Studio M at The Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, THROUGH MARCH 10  (330) 833 – 4061

    Déjà vu all over again. For a moment, this solo exhibit by Mogadore artist Scott Alan Evans took me back to my 1968 high school days and a live book report I presented to my English Literature class. At the time, none of my classmates had heard of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The 1937 novel was the subject of my report, and a book that ignited my life-long love affair with fantasy literature. 

    I presented my report dressed in a borrowed royal blue graduation gown along with a wizard’s hat fashioned from gold-colored poster board rolled into a cone and inscribed with runes copied from one of Tolkien’s illustrations. The piece de resistance of my report included using what was normally the classroom’s roll-down map of the world, but in this case revealing my very large watercolor copy of Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth, secretly attached before class time. My special effects netted me an ‘A’ and, come to think of it, I view the whole experience as my first foray into performance art. But I digress.

   One of Evans’ digital works here is a faithful replication of a map from The Hobbit, with some spiffy silver leaf enhancements, and accompanied by the artist’s written homage to Tolkien’s inspiring influence on this body of work.

    In media and content – visual and ideological - this is indeed an eclectic collection of 16 pieces that “map” places somewhere between the faintly familiar and the purely strange. Some are so simplistic and raw that you’d think this was an exhibit of children’s projects. Others are decidedly more refined – even playfully slick – such as the digital works Moon and Cloud Atlas. They have the “official” patina of legitimate, scientific documents of extraterrestrial territories and phenomena.

    On the surface, while most of the compositions here denote physical locales, I think a strong case can be made for viewing the show as a collective cartography of processed ideas. These are works perhaps more conceptual in nature than purely image-driven. And from the perspective of technically accomplished pictures per se, the show is an uneven mix of hits and misses.

    I agree with the assessment offered by my colleague in critique, Judi Krew (whose observations I’ve greatly missed lately), in her blog entry from February 1 at   Evans’ most visually compelling works include the mixed media The Great Bear – a marvelously tactile work that harkens to prehistoric rituals of defining the observed cosmos – and the acrylic painting The Painted Isle.
   The latter is composed of organically-shaped splotches of heavily accumulated paint adhered to an all-white ground, itself thick with brush strokes. Still, it’s a visual idea that I think begged for more subtlety and development, as in letting the image become a kind of map of painterly process. If it can be said that ideas can actually tell an artist how they “want” to be presented, maybe the collaged islands in this painting, rather than simply sitting on top of, want to appear as emerging from and/or disappearing into the white ground.
    That said, Judi Krew’s take on the piece is nonetheless appropriately poetic when she writes, “…these layers of paint are like civilizations that have occupied the same lands over centuries and left their marks, their monuments and their memories and upon which we keep building, living, and dying.” 

    Déjà vu all over again. Thanks, Judi. Write on.

    PHOTOS (from top): Archipelago, The Painted Isle, The Great Bear    

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Ravishing Anniversary Concert from the Canton Symphony

A Ravishing Anniversary Performance from the Canton Symphony
By Tom Wachunas

     On February 16, 1938, the newly formed Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), conducted by Richard W. Oppenheim, gave its first-ever concert at the Canton City Auditorium before a sold-out crowd of 3,300 listeners.  Seventy-five years to the day after that rousing debut, the CSO re-created the same program in Umstattd Hall with a clearly impassioned Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann at the podium, conducting an equally inspired orchestra.

    The program consisted of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony No. 94, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave. So while this was a concert of very familiar works which have endured as international audience favorites, there was nothing “old hat” or phlegmatic about Zimmermann’s reading of the material. As always, he effectively ignited this orchestra’s riveting unity of purpose and youthful capacity for investing the familiar with startlingly fresh aural fire. What was old became new again, wholly meriting repeated jubilant ovations from an enthralled audience.

    Much of the CSO’s signature charisma is rooted in the astonishing string section, which on this occasion was as warmly sonorous, technically impeccable and powerfully emotive as I’ve ever heard, beginning with the Beethoven. It is no small feat to make the dramatic tensions and spirit of triumphal heroism of Egmont a palpable, heartfelt reality. And that is precisely what the orchestra achieved here with an edge-of-your-seat intensity.

    Though certainly less stormy in nature (and indeed lightweight by comparison), Haydn's Symphony No. 94 is nonetheless sweetly engaging in its overall lyricism and vigorous effervescence – qualities which the orchestra rendered with jaunty confidence. As for the so-called surprises in the work, I think that (excepting for those listeners who may have never before encountered the piece) the sudden fortissimo chord with accompanying drum whack in the lilting second movement, and the unexpectedly loud timpani roll in the spritely final movement, retain their appeal in much the same way a classic joke does. You know the punch line and when it’s coming, yet it still brings a smile every time.

    For the second half of the evening, everything that makes this musical body a true cultural treasure was in glorious form. From the precisely balanced aural dynamics of all sections working together and depth of color and texture, to the many flawless passages from soloists, the entire orchestra brought breathtaking thrust to the complex musicality of the exotic Scheherazade and the relentless, thundering panache of Marche Slave.

    Throughout Scheherazade, Concertmaster Lauren Roth poured an unforgettable and otherwise larger-than-life dimensionality into her soaring violin cadenzas. The intense sensuality of her bowing brought to mind a sorceress wielding her magic wand to entrance us with intriguing tales of love and adventure. Her playing often exuded a mournful urgency, at times beautifully echoed in the solo passages from principal cellist Erica Snowden. Roth’s inspiring virtuosity is a vital asset to this orchestra, already rich with unassailable artistry. 

    According to a recent article in The Repository, Canton’s daily newspaper, at one point during the original 1938 concert, the vice-chairman of the Canton Symphony Association said to the audience, “We have sown musical seeds in Canton. Now it is up to us to keep the soil fertile and cultivated.” Seventy-five years later, it is eminently clear that Canton has reaped a sumptuous, bountiful harvest.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Some Assembly Required

Some Assembly Required
By Tom Wachunas

    “…a work of art is the product of strange activities in the human mind.”
-        Clive Bell -

    EXHIBITION: Assembled Contemplations: Site-specific Installations, featuring work by Sarah Burris, Corwin Levi, Lorri Ott and Erica Raby, THROUGH FEBRUARY 28, Gallery at Main Hall, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Gallery hours are 11:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10:00 a.m. to Noon Saturday

    In the context of “alternative art,” the term installation art emerged during the 1970s to describe unconventional, interdisciplinary works. Additionally, such non-traditional marriages of materials and processes can be fairly sprawling affairs intended to encompass entire gallery spaces, often incorporating multisensory encounters for the viewer. Moreover, the term typically refers to content wherein deeply conceptual concerns trump purely formal ones.

    By these criteria the exhibit, curated by Erica Raby, is a bit sparse, though certainly not without its intellectually compelling moments.

    All That Glitters and Pearls, by Sarah Burris, is a visually striking wall piece comprised of small, colored yarn pom-poms clustered together to suggest flower patches wherein glitter-winged butterflies rest and strings of pearls are embedded. Via sweeping arcs of roping between the patches, the piece joins two gallery walls where they meet in a corner. More decorative than mysterious or inaccessible, the work exudes a domestic preciousness.

    In a raw, totemic sort of way, Lorri Ott’s untitled wall piece seems decorative and floral too, reminiscent of the vertical configurations of Foxglove blossoms. Her ‘flowers’ are made from clear plastic drinking cups that obviously once held variously colored paints.  At the risk of sounding like an overbearing stickler for precise nomenclature, this isn’t really an installation work per se so much as it is simply a mixed media sculpture. If there’s a viable thematic connection to the other works in the show (not that there has to be), it might be in the realm of recycled consumer trash, an element very present in Erica Raby’s piece.

    Of the four pieces in the show, Raby’s Oh, little trees comes closest to the idea (as communicated in the show’s title) of site-specific installation in the purest sense. Which is to say that such works are in some way tangibly and/or conceptually connected to the particular place where we encounter them. In this case, the visual scope of the work is unified by the inclusion of string lines that connect the floor elements to a wall. It’s an interesting complement to the directional roping that Burris employed in her work situated on the opposite side of the gallery. Further enhancing the diverse components of Raby’s installation are the web-like graphite drawings executed directly on the gallery’s white pedestals (strewn with dead twigs “planted” upright in metal bottle caps) and continuing on to the nearby wall where the strings converge.

    The floor is littered with dozens of plastic bottle caps and lids placed atop drab colored paper shapes that might symbolize pollutant spillages. Several yellow plastic light bulb cages (the kind you’d see at construction or industrial sites), containing mysterious wads of something, are hanging from the ceiling. It’s a quietly ominous work, evoking associations with distressed natural environments.

    And speaking of mysterious somethings, there’s the intriguing Instants from the Void, by Corwin Levi, who evidently works under the alternate name of Radio Sebastian. Strewn about the floor is a collection of paperbound poetry volumes. Suspended from the ceiling above are a dozen airy spheroids, each made from what appears to be a continuous, very thin strip of paper coiled in on itself. There’s a wondrously meticulous if not obsessive quality about all the tiny colored texts – presumably poetry -  printed on those paper strips.

    Levi left a note, inviting viewers to leave a poem at the site. Maybe it’s a matter of sighting or citing the ethos of literature present on the floor, or encased in those hovering paper spheres like so many thought clouds ready to rain down cogent verses. Assemble your thoughts. Construct your own possibility.

    PHOTOS (from top): Oh, little trees by Erica Raby; Instants from the Void by Corwin Levi (Radio Sebastian); All That Glitters and Pearls by Sarah Burris; untitled by Lorri Ott    

Friday, February 8, 2013

Invoking a Culture

Invoking a Culture
By Tom Wachunas

        “…art deepens my person, indeed it is the color of my emotional exuberance.”  -Martin Bertman-

    EXHIBITION: Kings, Prophets, Angels and Poets: Judaism Through the Lens of Martin “Mich’l” Bertman / at TRANSLATIONS ART, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / THROUGH FEBRUARY 23 / Viewing hours are Wednesdays from Noon to 9p.m., Thursdays – Saturdays Noon to 5p.m.   

    I can certainly relate to the daunting task undertaken by Translations director Craig Joseph in selecting works for this show, having engaged the same process for Martin Bertman’s exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art late in 2011. Martin – Mich’l being his Hebrew name – died in July, 2012. Along with Bertman’s widow, Marilena, Joseph recently sifted through the hundreds of paintings stored, stacked and otherwise squirreled away throughout the Bertman home.

    The resulting show is a marvelous look at Bertman’s remarkable journey through many stylistic phases as a painter. If you’ve yet to encounter the man or his work, make it a point to read the three texts hanging from the ceiling (my own presented here in a slightly expanded version), which include beautifully articulated personal thoughts from Rochelle Haas and Nancy Stewart Matin. They impart a moving overview of the richness and depth of Bertman’s impact on all who were fortunate enough to know him.    
    In varying degrees, Bertman’s oeuvre recapitulates many of the ideas put forth by the most challenging Post-Impressionist European painters of the late 19th century – ideas which in turn constituted the thrust of early 20th century Modernism. There was Cezanne’s radical flattening of the picture plane and simultaneity of perspectives, which was a seminal influence on Cubism. Van Gogh’s psychically charged color was the rallying cry of the Fauves and Expressionists, as was Gauguin’s exoticism.

    But enough of the truncated history lesson. While he did, on more than one occasion, acknowledge to me his solidarity with these and other aesthetic developments, he was no mere imitator of historic styles in any superficially academic sense. He instead synthesized and hybridized them into a uniquely captivating pictorial dialect. His was a personal visual syntax, if you will, which described and identified both physical and spiritual realities.

    The dominant spirit in this particular gathering of works is a deeply Hebraic one, and emblematic of an artist wholly connected to Judaism’s many faces – philosophical, religious, and secular. He clearly understood the lyrical power of color and organic form to invoke either ecstasy or suffering, to excite or subdue, to suggest the soulful or the mundane.

     Bertman’s technique as a painter – a maker of marks on a flat surface –  was not one of sleek, refined illusionism in the classical sense, but rather a more visceral sort of immediacy born of a pure, gestural spontaneity. As the paintings here so effectively demonstrate -  ranging from the vibrant fluidity of Burning Bush, the hauntingly surreal symbols in Purim, and the electrifying drama of Angel with Sarah and Hagar, for example, to the raw honesty of Gas Chamber and Unidentified Men, he drew directly from the numinous mysticism of the Torah itself as well as the compelling resonance of the Jewish culture, both tortured and tender. 

    I continue to think of him ever immersed in a wondrously palpable yet ephemeral moment, as if chasing and securing the essence of a vision lest it slip from his impassioned grasp.

    PHOTOS: (from top) Angel with Sarah and Hagar; Burning Bush; Gas Chamber; Unidentified Men