Sunday, August 25, 2013

Trails and Thresholds

Trails and Thresholds

By Tom Wachunas

    “The mountains were his master. They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.” –Thomas Wolfe, from Look Homeward, Angel

    “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

    EXHIBIT: Courage: An Attempted Explanation/Understanding, installation by Debra DeGregorio, THROUGH OCTOBER 1, at Malone University Fountain Gallery, located in the Johnson Center, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton

    Among the more intriguing aspects of this highly engaging exhibit by Debra DeGregorio are the disarmingly simple physical materials she uses in delineating what can fairly be called a daunting contemplation - the dichotomy of explaining a thing (or idea) and understanding it. In this case, as the title of the installation tells us, she attempts to explain and understand courage.

     “WELL ThIS IS what hAppeneD TO Me” is a subtitle in block letters adhered to the wall just below a horizontal sprawl of four ‘mountains’ made of painted cloth mâché distributed between six sumi ink drawings on paper. These elements are loosely connected by arcing lines of tiny orange flags on straight pins, a scattering of rounded paper forms painted to suggest blue lakes, and meandering squiggles of wire.

    In her statement for the show, DeGregorio calls her formal arrangements “approachable micro-worlds.” Herein she addresses “…the mammoth and courageous task of living every day in the vast interior and exterior arena of history, memory, emotions, interactions and futures.” Whew. Talk about the rarefied air of mountaintops.

   DeGregorio labels her mountains as an “explanation.” These are fairly literal representations, presented from an aerial perspective, of apparent volume, mass and texture either already traveled and known (as indicated by dotted lines of “footprints,” marker flags and miniscule coils of climbing rope) or, perhaps, yet to be traversed.  

    Her drawings, on the other hand, represent “understanding.” These are  relatively more abstract configurations executed in sumi ink, a highly prized medium originated centuries ago by Japanese masters of ink wash painting. Such masters often rendered landscapes from memory, and their elegant images were intended to prompt reflection on the numinous essence of the subject matter. DeGregorio’s fluid and visceral ink drawings tap into that tradition, exuding a similarly intuitive, meditative air.

    I see the combined visual elements of this installation as representing the gestalt of knowledge (“explanation”) and wisdom (“understanding”). One might embrace the work as a codified map, or a collective symbol of the challenging questions and breakthroughs that dot the landscape of life itself. Or call it the artist’s personal journal of encountered thresholds -  “Well this is what happened to me.”

    At the risk of further assigning too lofty an interpretation of the work at hand, I leave you with this thought: The vagaries of living are such that whether negotiating capricious, wandering trails, or purposefully forging paths to new terrains, all of them require courage if we are to ultimately discern the true meaning of the journey.

    P.S. If you visit the Fountain Gallery to see this installation, and haven’t viewed the Malone Adjunct Faculty exhibit in the McFadden Gallery (reviewed here at ), please note that that show has been apparently extended until Sept. 23.

    PHOTOS: Installation full view and details of Courage: An Attempted Explanation/Understanding by Debra DeGregorio  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lyrical Improvisations

Lyrical Improvisations

By Tom Wachunas

    “Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential. ”

- Vassily Kandinsky

    EXHIBIT: Fractured Structures – Paintings in Oils and Mixed Media by Christopher Triner, at Second April Galerie THROUGH AUGUST 30 / 324 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton /

     I realize that for some, perhaps many, the requirement “to draw well” in the making of an abstract painting (as mentioned in the Kandinsky quotation above) might seem to be counterintuitive if not outright puzzling.  Conventional thinking usually associates the term ‘drawing’ with faithful representations of reality. In that context, to positively acknowledge artists for their drawing abilities is to praise their skill in rendering convincing, objective imitations – as well as idealizations - of the recognizable world.

    Kandinsky was among the first artists in the early years of the 20th century to arrive at a non-objective visual language which we could rightly call “fully abstract.” In so doing, he and his fellow pioneers challenged viewers to embrace an expanded idea of drawing to mean the spontaneous and intuitive configuration (i.e., arrangement or organization) of various elements on the picture plane, thus freeing painting from its centuries-old burden of recapitulating the familiar. Call it mark-making with abandon. But this is certainly not to equate abstraction with abandonment of all traditional design principles which could make abstract paintings compelling or edifying.

    That said, Christopher Triner draws well. The more recent (2013) abstract works here (there are also older pieces on view) are highly intriguing compositions of linear and shape elements that are drawn into as well as floating on top of brushy, amorphous fields of variably saturated color. In particular, three of his oil paintings on canvas – Parapet, Cantilever, and Modern Pilaster – are loosely architectural in nature (as indicated by the titles).

    Back in 2010, I commented in a review of Triner’s work ( ) that his strongest painting evoked a musicality reminiscent of Romantic-era symphonies. And in this show, I still sense a palpable lyricism in the aforementioned paintings, though not so much of the symphonic sort. Interestingly enough, while the title of the exhibit would seem to imply a kind of deconstruction or “fracturing,” I find these newer works more akin to structures (or musical compositions, if you will) in the process of coming together in a spirit of frenetic joy.

    These pieces conjure for me the instrumental improvisations characteristic of Bebop or Free jazz. Get playful. Think of Triner’s defined linear structures as percussive rhythms simultaneously supporting and releasing his gestural shapes and splashes of bright color like so many staccato accents or brassy solo passages. All of the energetic configurations in these paintings (the “drawings”) unfold not so much against the blended, undulating color harmonies in the “background” as they emerge from it, establishing a distinctly optimistic, upbeat mood.

    Here, Kandinsky’s call for poetry in abstract painting is well met.  

    PHOTOS: top -  Modern Pilaster; bottom-  Parapet (left); Cantilever (right)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ardent Totems

Ardent Totems

By Tom Wachunas

    “My ideas are based on goals of healing, educating and problem-solving. I translate these goals into interactive art, where visitors play an active role in the life cycle of the work.” – artist Melissa Daubert, from her web site:

    EXHIBIT: Devoted: New Work by Melissa Daubert, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH AUGUST 31  View works at

    After looking at this exhibit for about 20 minutes on my first fly-by, the initial observation that I scrawled on my note pad was simply ‘this time it’s really personal.’ To the artist, no question. But I needed to remind myself to stay focused on just how remarkably resonant Melissa Daubert’s site-specific (sight-specific?) installation is with my own sensibilities as an artist who loves God deeply.

    This is not to say that the exhibit comprehensively embraces or espouses any specific religion. What the show does evoke is a sense of religiosity – indeed, a compelling spirituality – as implied in the idea of ‘devotion.’ So yes, there are some overtly theological references. Devoted to Krishna: 108 Gopis, for example, is a brightly colored collection of 108 Gopi figurines (“cow-herd” girls) made of painted cow dung.

    In general, though, the exhibit is an immersive, interactive presentation (some of the pieces have moving parts which viewers can activate) of various human proclivities which on one level might seem like mundane routines. But by placing them in the “devoted to…” context, Daubert lets us reconsider the actions and tasks she illustrates – such as caring for a beloved pet, cleaning the house, farming or mowing the lawn, to name only some - as paths toward a more elevated attitude about  “ordinary” societal engagements.   

    Daubert’s forms of people and animals are pared down to an archetypal kind of simplicity. Her raw materials are a modest means to an edifying end. Coconut hair, wood, and wire are assembled with a loving exactitude that conveys a domestic charm and humility while at the same time exuding a primal, ritualistic air.

    Particularly effective in delivering the ethos of devotions acknowledged in this show is Devoted To Our Pets: Bhuda. A lanky cat (with jiggling tail) stands in the center of a circle of bricks on the floor strewn with used insulin needles – 1,717 of them. Dauber explains in her accompanying comments that Budha, her cat of 18 years, was diabetic and needed insulin twice daily. The needles are from 3,434 injections over a span of 4.7 years.

    The piece reminds me that our purest and most rewarding devotions are  expressions of our unflinching loyalties and unconditional love. And as with other pieces in the exhibit, I’m also reminded of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century lay brother who for more than 50 years served as a cook and sandal repairer at a Carmelite monastery in Paris. His book, The Practice of the Presence of God, was published in 1692, and today remains a potent document of devotion’s power to impart joy amid even the most menial labors.

 In the end, Daubert’s intriguing sculptural vignettes are intimate, totemic embodiments – narratives, actually – of servanthood.

    PHOTOS (from top):Devoted To Our Pets: Budha / Devotion Through Posture: Kneeling / Devoted To Clean: The Mopper  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Divertissement Duets

Divertissement Duets

By Tom Wachunas

    “Wit is educated insolence.” –Aristotle

    “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!” –Dr. Seuss

    EXHIBIT: “Match Play”: Huggett Serves, Krew Returns, at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, THROUGH AUGUST 17

    In her statement for this show, Judi Krew explains that she and Rick Huggett have been considering a collaborative exhibit since she first encountered Huggett’s work a few years ago. They wanted to have a “title battle,” as she puts it, or “…a game of visual and verbal volleyball…”

    As painters, each has honed a signature (what one might call ‘trademark’) visual language of painting. While their techniques and methods are distinctly different, the overall sensibility of their respective bodies of work has been one immersed in quirky humor. Formally, their works are representational and show a clear kinship with cartooning, though their “styles” are, again, clearly separate.

    For example, Huggett’s hand- painted shapes and characters (silkscreen ink and gesso on canvas), delineated in jittery black contours - call it a refined awkwardness - and filled in with flat, solid colors against uncomplicated, sometimes empty grounds, have all the smooth surface quality of screen prints, which is a remarkable technical feat in itself. On the other hand, Krew’s acrylic paintings on canvas are, well,…painterly. The visceral presence of a confident, facile brush is consistently evident. And unlike the sparse feel of Huggett’s “scenes,” Krew’s have always been filled out with specific background settings, often elaborately so.

    That said, for this show, in an effort to better “match” Huggett’s aesthetic, Krew intended to distill and otherwise limit certain elements of her normative approach in responding/reacting to the images Huggett selected, or served to her, if you will. In that, she’s been successful in offering relatively pared-down pictorial designs while still retaining the essential character of her style. There are two instances, displayed in the gallery’s glass showcases, wherein the relationship between server and served is reversed. Here, two of Krew’s Hoard Couture dress sculptures (hilarious, hefty consumerist haute) are the inspiration for the found-object sculptures by Huggett.  In any event, the net result (pun intended) of their gamesmanship is a giggly gambol, a rollicking romp, a frisky frolic through visual/verbal histrionics.

     Seen independently of each other, Huggett’s images are appealing in their sleek, childlike simplicity, while Krew’s are more overtly complex and satirical in their witty jabs at adult behavior. Together they complement one another in a way that lets Huggett’s somewhat minimalist purity acquire a more accessible narrative context. Not that it ever needed one in any conventional sense. Still, read Krew’s titles and you’ll sense that she’s completing the tale begun by Huggett. The entertaining heart of this particular collaboration is to be found in the tried and true tradition of storytelling.

    And funny stories at that. But the scenarios presented here aren’t just for kids. It seems to me that these are funny in the same way that vintage Looney Tunes cartoons were, with their subtly subversive, topical undertones, puns and inside jokes, intended as much (if not more) to tease grown-ups’ brains as elicit gleeful laughter from children.

   So go ahead and make a game of it for yourself. See, for example, how many times Huggett’s original New Mexican Cactus Toad makes his appearance as an Illegal Mexican Cactus Toad in Krew’s images. While you’re at it, don’t be afraid to pull back the black curtain that covers much of her …caution, this one might spark some controversy! That work is paired with Huggett’s stark but elegant Another Shocking Image, itself signaling a new direction in his work.

    Who, then, is the winner of this delightfully clever match-up? In this world ever in need of comic relief from the ugly tragedies that assail it, the victor is…us.  

    PHOTOS (from top down): left – Careful what you wish for (Krew), right – Geez, I hope they water their plants with Cheese Whiz (Huggett)

    left – Another Shocking Image (Huggett), right - …caution, this one might spark some controversy (Krew)

    left – The tumbling Trampolini Brothers (Huggett), right- …And their trampy sister, Tumbalina (Krew)

    left – Making Hay (Huggett), right – Hey! Watcha Make’n? (Krew)