A Magnificent Response to Living
By Tom Wachunas
“If painting wasn’t a kind of joyous experience, I wouldn’t be doing it. When you are painting, nothing else counts…” –Joseph O’Sickey
“This above all: to thine own self be true…” –William Shakespeare
EXHIBIT: Joseph O’Sickey: Unifying Art, Life and Love, Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH JULY 21, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, 330-453-7666
In the twenty years I’ve been writing about shows at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), I don’t recall a retrospective exhibit more comprehensive, more thoughtfully presented, or more visually exuberant than this one. Curated by Christine Fowler Shearer, CMA Development Director, the nearly 160 paintings and drawings here represent joie de vivre made exquisitely palpable.
On May 15, O’Sickey, unarguably among the most important artists to ever live and work in Ohio, received the prestigious Ohio Governor’s Award for the Arts in the individual artist category. It is an honor long overdue, and beautifully evidenced by this show of works spanning seven decades.
A suggestion to you would-be viewers: give and you will receive. Which is to say, to the extent you allow yourself ample time in the galleries (this show warrants far more than casual hunt-and-peck, over-the-shoulder glancing), to that extent you’ll be drawn into Joseph O’Sickey’s profoundly invigorating vision and be the richer for it. This exhibit is a breathtaking testament to a lifetime of impassioned seeing.
You may want to start by picking up a copy (at the museum) of the premiere issue of @Canton Museum. It’s a new magazine that the CMA will be publishing three times a year. In this issue you’ll find informative excerpts from Shearer’s excellent biographical essay on O’Sickey – now in his 94th year - taken from the gorgeous full color exhibition book, which also features an astute formal analysis of O’Sickey’s oeuvre by Stephen Litt.
The most significant unifying ingredient throughout all of O’Sickey’s work is the uncompromising discipline of drawing/sketching from life. He is passionately committed to the conscious act of looking. That act prompts his seemingly instinctual response of transcribing his observations via his uncanny sureness of hand, an ease of gesture, a sense of essence.
Regardless of subject matter, the visual thrust of both his sketches and finished paintings is representational in nature. While the art world was caught up in the thrall of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s, O’Sickey opted to draw and paint sensory reality and has remained ever true to what he loves most about the visible world.
That said, for as much we can identify these images as being of a person, animal, place, or thing, they are also highly engaging records of perceived relationships between visual components in “nature,” translated on to the picture plane. Two-dimensional configuration in its purest sense. Lines, shapes, textures, and colors are distinct and separate elements that can resonate in harmonious balance, independent of cognitive content. We can see and appreciate their relationships…abstractly. And yet they work toward a gestalt of sorts – an elegantly resolved, unified representation of the familiar.
So these are indeed familiar, even “traditional” realities, but far from ordinary or labored imitations of the obvious. Nowhere is the merging of visceral, abstract mark-making and mesmerizing homage to the recognizable more vibrant and compelling than in O’Sickey’s very large oil canvases, particularly the garden paintings. Call them his Giverny.
Yes, there are influences – Monet, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, among others. But as a beneficiary of their legacy, O’Sickey has invested his inheritance with an optimism and unfettered joy uniquely his own.
Sumptuous visions such as Table and Flowers on Lawn, Golden Garden, or the monumental triptych, August Hollyhocks, are at once tightly structured and filled with illuminated air. The syncopation of varying brush stroke rhythms with lavish crescendos of saturated colors evokes an intense musicality.
As if dancing. Joseph O’Sickey has partnered with his Muse in a loving embrace of perception. Being thus led, he leads us. A mutual partnering. For viewers, to see is to join the dance.
PHOTOS (from top): Blue Hill – October Rainment; Maine Porch; Table and Flowers on Lawn