Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Finding Treasure in the Trash

 Finding Treasure in the Trash
                                         By Tom Wachunas

    The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”  - Eric Schmidt
    “Censorship is saying: 'I'm the one who says the last sentence. Whatever you say, the conclusion is mine.' But the internet is like a tree that is growing. The people will always have the last word - even if someone has a very weak, quiet voice. Such power will collapse because of a whisper.  - Ai Weiwei
    It's been my policy to view the Internet not as an 'information highway,' but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies.”
- Mike Royko

    While the frenzy over the release of Sony Pictures’ The Interview has not sparked my desire to see the film, it nonetheless reminds me of a much older comedy film title, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. According to media polls and pundits, even those folks who are neither fans of The Interview cast, nor frightened by cyberthreats from so-called Guardians of Peace, have resolved to see the film on “principle alone.”
    The principle? Freedom of speech. It has come to be an ever-broadening justification of human expressivity in general, including all kinds of “entertainment.” Courageous citizens have died to preserve and foster such liberty. Ain’t America grand? This freedom flag we fly so valiantly covers a multitude of blessings - and sins – and is jointly hoisted (foisted?) by peoples the world over. For all of that, I dare say that those citizens who originally articulated our constitutionally assured right to free speech would today be more mortified than gratified by many of its contemporary applications.
    These days, the most accessible and far-traveled vehicle for exercising our rites of free expression is the ubiquitous internet. The world wide web. And what a tangled one it has become. Sony Pictures decided to fight fire with fire in a crowded theater, so to speak. Whether we regard the decision as a purely monetary one or in the altruistic light of standing firm against censorship, it’s interesting and not surprising that the company would circumvent the initial refusal of major cinema chains to present its precious film by making it available (to paying patrons, of course) on the internet, the same instrument that threatened violence against those who would show and watch it. It’s a mad world.
    Cyberspace is a sprawling empire unto itself. This marvel of technology is a virtual mirror, a reflection of all the magnificence and malevolence in our “real” world. Like it or not, for better or worse, most of us have become naturalized citizens of this empire to one degree or another. Listen. Can’t you hear its sassy anthem? Why, it sounds just like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys of Never Land singingI Won’t Shut Up.”
    So be it. We say what we want when we want – no matter how feckless, vapid or vain - if only because we can. In the process, we’ve created a digital landscape that is a confounding, chimerical labyrinth. Much of it is a monumental testament to human mediocrity and depravity. Yet, in as much as we choose to traverse its dark, barren valleys strewn with ideological garbage, with equal frequency we can see illuminated peaks of decency and grace. We have a choice as to the treasures and trash we pour into our lives, even if navigating the internet can be much like dumpster diving. There are gems in the junkyard.
    Here’s one from around A.D. 61: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. (Phillipians 4:8)
    Oh, the delicious irony of it! Finding God’s voice in the cacophonous cloud of our own.
   Choices, choices. It’s a mad world. But must it be?  Happy hunting, and Happy New Year.  

Friday, December 26, 2014

Remembered in Stone

Remembered in Stone

By Tom Wachunas

    “Collectively, Kiderman’s works are indeed imbued with a quiet magic of sorts. Some conjure serenity and ecstasy. Others speak of darker, more vexing things. Stone will do that. It’s nature’s perfect reliquary of time itself, the countenance of history. And the very act of sculpting it can reasonably be seen as a metaphor for revealing and facing the history of…us.”

    Artwach, October 19, 2012                      

    The above link is to my 2012 review of the Alice Kiderman exhibit at Canton Museum of Art. She recently contacted me with an update on her latest work. While an exhibition time and location for these works is yet to be determined, the direction of her work has prompted me to think…
     Memory is a fragile, at times corruptible thing. Without it, the present is a groundless theory, a fleeting idea, the stuff of blind wandering (and wondering) about who we are, where we came from, and where we want to go. Without it, there is nothing to praise or celebrate, nothing to mourn, nothing to love, hate, dream, hope or long for.
    I know of no more potent a cultural memory preservative than art. We remember our most iconic artworks for their capacity to declare and connect us to each other across time. Art is our response to, and ongoing dialogue about our existence and all that it presents to us, be it joy or despair, mystery or discovery, mayhem or magic.
    That said, the most impassioned appreciators of art history that I know have always been other artists. Our memory keepers. I think sculptor Alice Kiderman is such an appreciator as she has undertaken a series of marble works that are inspired by classic masterpieces, including works by da Vinci, Picasso, Modigliani, Dali and Grant Wood, among others. In the past, artists have often sourced works of a previous era or style. Picasso’s versions of works by Manet, Velasquez and Delacroix come to mind, for example.  
    In a similar spirit, Kiderman’s take-offs aren’t meticulous facsimiles or exact duplications of the originals. Rather, she’s found a way to let the stone suggest just enough visual kinship with the original so that we can recall and hopefully savor, or see in a new way, its conceptual or spiritual essence. A particularly intriguing aspect of these pieces is that they transform 2D originals into 3D objects. This in itself recalls how we memorialize ideas or events with stone monuments.  For that matter, she even has plans to interpret musical works by Rachmaninoff and Ravel.
     Whether we regard such manifestations as challenging “updates,” personalized reinterpretations, or playful commentaries, I think it fair to see them in the larger sense as a relevant and poetic homage to (with apologies to Salvador Dali) the persistence of memory.

    PHOTOS, from top (courtesy Alice Kiderman): American Gothic Revisited; I-Scream (after Eduard Munch); Modigliani’s Muse; Fluidity of Time (after Salvador Dali)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Brader Perspectives

Brader Perspectives

By Tom Wachunas

    “The Canton Museum’s goal with this exhibition is to give more depth and understanding to Brader’s importance in capturing a snapshot in time of our local and regional history…His skill at depicting minute details weave together an amazing story of the late 1800s in Northeast Ohio and Pennsylvania – and illuminate Brader’s importance as an artist and chronicler of the time and place…”
    - Max Barton, Executive Director, Canton Museum of Art

    EXHIBIT: The Legacy Of Ferdinand A. Brader: 19th Century Drawings of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Landscape, on view at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) THROUGH MARCH 15, 2015 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton / (330) 453-7666  ALSO SEE >

    Companion Exhibits: at the Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, THROUGH JANUARY 8, 2015 (330) 499-4712 x312 / AND at The McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive NW, Canton, THROUGH DECEMBER 24, (330) 455-7043

    Among my fondest early childhood memories are summer Sunday drives through rural Stark County. I never tired of our casual family ceremony of piling into Dad’s two-tone ’54 Pontiac for no reason other than to venture beyond our small hometown of Alliance and enjoy the country. It never seemed to really matter where or even if we stopped for the always-promised ice cream cone (Minerva? Sebring? Homeworth?). It was the ride that was sweet. We cruised through miles of manicured farmlands dotted by slate-roofed houses with their deep covered porches, stately barns, towering silos and grazing horses, cows, and sheep. It was another world to me. At once mysterious and inviting, simple and…exotic.
    This CMA exhibit of more than 40 large (30”x40” and larger) graphite pencil drawings by Ferdinand A. Brader (1833-1901), guest-curated by eminent Brader scholar Kathleen Wieschaus-Voss, is a potent evocation of that world, even if it is from the late 19th century. Between 1879 and 1896, Brader, an itinerant Swiss folk artist, made more than 600 extraordinarily detailed drawings (in his lifetime output numbering at least 980) that constitute a wholly impressive chronicle of family businesses and farms in various counties of Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio. Viewed as a record of local and regional family livelihoods and heritage, the beautifully mounted exhibit is a veritable gem of historical information.
   Likewise, as folk art, Brader’s drawings of rural residences and properties are meticulously, even lovingly rendered and panoramic in scope. His pencil technique was so exacting and controlled that his pictures often suggest the minute linear textures of embroidered tapestries.
    Evidently, Brader was not an academically trained artist. This might arguably explain the quirky mixed viewpoints apparent in many of the drawings. A consistent vantage point for Brader was clearly aerial in nature. Yet he seems to have broken the formal rules of relative scale and multiple-point linear perspective so that the illusion of spatial accuracy is somewhat skewed. Call it a gentle awkwardness. For example, we might be looking down at a structure while simultaneously seeing its surrounds at eye-level. That said, such inconsistencies, while a bit technically naïve, actually bring a mesmerizing charm to the scenes.
    Brader’s capacity for capturing naturalistic likenesses was nonetheless substantial enough, and no doubt the result of his background as a mold carver for his family bakery in Switzerland. In the manual discipline required to make raised relief decorations for baked goods, I think it reasonable to assume he acquired a sort of muscle memory that effectively played out in his facile repetition of human figures, animals, objects, tree shapes and patterns that generously occupy his drawings.
    Muscle memory. From decorated Swiss pastries and cakes to elaborate, enthralling American landscapes. All of this brings me right back to those countryside excursions of my childhood. And like them, this exhibit is a sweet ride indeed.

    PHOTOS, from top: The Property of Daniel and Sarah Leibelsperger, 1882, exhibition catalog no. 13; The Property of Peter and Nancy Yoder, 1885, exhibition catalog no. 20; The Property of Daniel and Deborah De Turck, 1882, exhibition catalogue no. 12

Friday, December 12, 2014

All Good Things...

All Good Things…

By Tom Wachunas

“…We'll still be collaborating with artists to produce exhibits that are highly conceptual, immersive, and experiential, encouraging viewers to engage with art in new and exciting ways.” –Craig Joseph

    EXHIBIT: All Good Things, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH DECEMBER 27, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wed. – Sat. noon to 5 p.m.  

    I recently encountered (tolerated?) a woman who came to the Canton Museum of Art and gushed how much fun it was to browse the gift shop. I asked if she had seen the Brader exhibit yet, pointing toward the galleries. “Exhibit? Oh, no,” she smiled, peering into the jewelry display, “I just come here a few times a year to look at all this great hand-made stuff.” I’m not making this up. She didn’t purchase anything on this occasion, and said she’d continue “hunting around” downtown in “those cool art galleries.” Art galleries. Hmmm. Long live retail.
    The power of place. So OK, I suppose I’m a stuffy old purist who thinks  an art gallery is for…art. It’s certainly not that I’m uninterested in buying ornamental or decorative craftworks. But more to the point, I enjoy frequenting true art galleries in the more conventional sense - environments specifically designed to let viewers focus on, think about and otherwise really see the featured art, and only the art, without any competing clutter. I savor experiencing a place seriously and consistently dedicated to presenting work that isn’t too much like incidental wall adornments, or an addendum to artsy retail bric-a-brac, or an afterthought.
     As many of you may already know, Translations Gallery is vacating its Cleveland Avenue address to become what curator Craig Joseph calls a “mobile, pop-up entity.” Have art, will travel. You can go to the soon- to- be revamped Translations website at  and read a more complete background  statement about Joseph’s plans.
    The power of place. I have no reason to believe that future collaborations and site-specific projects under the Translations name won’t remain true to Craig Joseph’s compelling vision of presenting “…exhibits that are highly conceptual, immersive, and experiential…”  Still, this gallery morphing represents, in a way, a bittersweet changing of the downtown guard insofar as Translations has been a unique and dependable shibboleth of the optimal gallery experience. Canton’s oft-touted “arts district” was substantially enriched by its Cleveland Avenue presence – a presence I will greatly miss after the current show closes.
    It features 55 artists (myself included) and two writers – all participants in past Translations exhibits. I’ll not be offering comments on any specific works except to say that this is as strong and fine a group show as I’ve ever seen there. I’ve posted photos of just some of the pieces I found most striking.
    Meanwhile, back at the museum gift shop… I suggested to the woman that she include a visit to Translations. “What’s there?” she asked. “Lots of great hand-made stuff,” I said. Happy hunting.

    PHOTOS, from top: Marriage in Silverdale, woodcut print by Bill Bogdan; Awakening, painting by Emily Vigil; St. James Court, painting by Joe Martino; Gray Isn’t So Bad, painting by Marcy Axelband; Veil #1, painting by Jim Boden    

Saturday, December 6, 2014

...And A Little Child Will Lead Them

…And a Little Child Will Lead Them

By Tom Wachunas


- Isaiah 11:1-3; 6

    I knew from about the age of nine years or so that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. This desire was an inspired one, implanted and nourished by many hours of looking at pictures of religious paintings by the great masters. And that of course would include Nativity scenarios. Back then, I wanted to make art that engaged people the way that those images I had seen in encyclopedias and art history books had engaged me.
    I feel compelled to tell you that in retrospect, I realize that the power of those images to hold me in their thrall was not so much from the painters themselves (with all due respect to their superlative artistic skills), but from the subject matter. More precisely, I now know I was being touched, indeed even called by Christ Himself.
       My continuing prayer is that Christmas in our culture cease being just an annual “season” straddled with obligatory outward trappings and clichéd rituals. And so it is that once again I offer my annual Christmas card image (above) not for your consideration as an example of high fine art in the historic tradition of the masters (I was never so gifted), but rather in the spirit of an enthralled child, called to follow and celebrate the Way, the Truth and the Life.
    May all of you reading this ask for and receive the same, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Contemplative and Sardonic War Remembrance from Canton Symphony Orchestra

A Contemplative and Sardonic War Remembrance from Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas
    "The body lies looking down the valley to the harbor, and from behind, an olive tree bends itself over the grave, as though sheltering it from the sun and rain. No more fitting resting place for a poet could be found than this small grove, and it seems as though the gods had jealously snatched him away to enrich this scented island." 
- Frederick Septimus Kelly  

      If America’s entry into World War II was seen by its citizens as not only necessary but also heroic and noble, then perhaps no other orchestral work better embraced such lofty resolve than Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Thus began the program called “Remembrance” by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), with CSO Assistant Conductor Rachel L. Waddell at the podium, on November 23 at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall.
   In 1942, Copland composed his brief but iconic fanfare to boost national morale. Even now the work remains a dramatic call to attention. Beginning with an explosive BANG from the percussion, resonating in the hall like a deafening thunderclap, and through a succession of martial soarings in the brass, I can’t recall a more powerful rendering of the work than what the orchestra delivered here.
   Copland’s Quiet City, the second work on the program, was drawn from the incidental music he wrote for a drama of the same name by Irwin Shaw in 1939. Though war as such was not a pretext for the music, Copland intended his concert suite to communicate the nostalgia and angst of a society deeply conscious of its insecurities. Rhapsodic solos for trumpet and English horn, exquisitely performed here by Scott Johnston and Cynthia Warren, respectively, evoked sensations of gauzy stillness, mystery, nervousness. Broadly spaced atmospheric passages from the sonorous strings built slowly to a climax before coming to a hushed, solemn end.
   The intensely pensive ambience of this work, as well as the next program selection, the first movement of Copland’s Symphony No. 3, was made all the more gripping by large-screen synchronized projections of black and white photographs from World Wars I and II fading in and out above the orchestra. The haunting photomontages were masterfully constructed by Nicholas Bardonnay, a photographer and multimedia artist who joined Westwater Arts Photochoreography in 2009.
    These arresting panoramas of war’s searing devastation were not present during the following piece, Elegy for Strings and Harp: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke. Still, the war time spectre of human sorrow resonated strongly in this short work from 1915 by Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly. Serving in the Royal Navy Division during a Mediterranean campaign in World War I, the 24 year-old Kelly composed his tone poem while in base camp on the occasion of the death of his close friend and ship mate, British poet Rupert Brooke.
    Though it is Kelly’s best known work (from an admittedly slim oeuvre), this achingly poignant response to the loss of a kindred spirit is very rarely performed. And that’s more than a little surprising, considering the profoundly moving, lyrical character of the music. The compositional dynamic is episodic, comprised of a series of gentle, hymn-like crescendos in the strings and lovely, shimmering accents from the harp, all conjuring images of a slow funeral procession against a backdrop of ocean swells, or sunlight dappling the wind-rippled leaves of the olive trees that hover over the poet’s island grave.  
    Without the magnetic effects of projected photographs, there was time to be visually drawn to the conductor’s animated demeanor. Rachel Waddell was palpably caught up in the emotional scope of Kelly’s music, as if pouring herself into the orchestra, which responded with an outpouring of equal passion.
    With the program finale, the tenor of the evening shifted away from the mournful gravitas of the preceding works into a distinctly more rambunctious realm. When Dmitri Shostakovich premiered his Symphony No. 9 in Leningrad in 1945, Russian audiences, and Stalin in particular, were expecting a transcendent victory fanfare, a paean to Soviet greatness in the spirit of Beethoven’s ninth. Instead, the composer offered an irreverent, startlingly compact orchestral essay threaded through with a sardonic spirit. Stalin, Shostakovitch’s nemesis, and many other Russians of that day felt insulted and otherwise mortified.
    Waddell took a somewhat hefty amount of time introducing the work, enthusiastically embracing it as a teaching moment. She led the orchestra through several passages of repetitious, inane triads and arpeggios to demonstrate the composer’s insouciant disregard for heroic or pompous theme development.
    The intent of including the work in this context was certainly not to dismiss or diminish our appreciation of war’s terrible toll, or our memory of those who served. It was, as Waddell explained, simply to lighten our mood a bit and hopefully raise a collective smile by providing some emotional relief. Including brilliant solo passages from the brass, piccolo and bassoon, the entire ensemble crackled as it was clearly victorious in accomplishing just that.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Drip the Paint Fantastic

Drip the Paint Fantastic

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: ACTION & ACCIDENT: Paintings by Cecily Kahn, Main Hall Art Gallery at Kent State University At Stark, 6000 Frank Ave. NW, North Canton, THROUGH NOVEMBER 30 / Gallery hours Mon.-Fri. 11 AM to 5 PM, Sat. 10 AM to Noon

    “What goes on in abstract art is the proclaiming of aesthetic principles... It is in our own time that we have become aware of pure aesthetic considerations. Art never can be imitation.”  -Hans Hoffman

    The above observation by Hans Hoffman is an invitation to consider  motivations and meaning in the 20th century emergence of nonobjective abstract painting. The casual viewer might understandably regard contemporary abstract art as an abandonment of the standards and definitions that had traditionally guided the art of painting. Those standards were at one point largely driven by the presumption that painting should be the skilled representation or even improvement of recognizable reality. This gave rise to centuries of masterful artifice, to be sure, but illusionism just the same, and certainly nothing that photography wouldn’t eventually accomplish.
   Still, much of Modernist abstraction was not so much a forsaking of aesthetic principles as it was the inevitable liberation of the painted picture plane from the formal constraints of imitation. Painting was finally freed to declare a basic truth of itself - pigments on a flat, two-dimensional surface. By the time the Abstract Expressionists arrived during the 1950s, markmaking, which is to say the overall configuration of lines, shapes and colors, had become an intuitive process that was in effect an unashamed surrender to the substance and properties of paint, the physicality of gesture and brushstroke, and an otherwise apparent empathy with chance and accident.
     These painters (as opposed to the reductive Minimalists who undermined the meaning of meaning, as it were, by rejecting emotive or metaphorical content in their works) generated a visual language of essences that transcended the duplication of incidentals from “the real world.” Think of it as evolving a highly expressive visual language comprised of many dialects.
     I think of painter Cecily Kahn, a resident of Manhattan, as eloquently “speaking” a uniquely urban dialect. And while her works gathered for this exhibit indicate a kinship with the Abstract Expressionists, the surface tactility and vibrant palette of her oil paintings (aside from her nine luminously liquid gouache pieces) suggest a  subcategory one might call Abstract Impressionism, as in impressions of urban energy, both visceral and evanescent.
    A dominant characteristic of these paintings is the sense of tension between colors and shapes, as if suspended in moments of flux. Clusters of concentrated activity – repeated linear elements, generous daubs and dots of paint, organic shapes of varying sizes – seem to rise from and/or disappear into fields of color poured on to the surface and allowed to leave intersecting drip trails. Exclamatory patterns emerge from amorphous “background” expanses. Through it all there is a great degree of painterly wit, often evidenced by the interplay of negative and positive shapes and space.  
    These works draw a fascinating bead on the oscillating pulse of a sprawling island city that never sleeps. I see them as suggesting, without literally illustrating, the urban milieu – shifting topographies of mechanical traffic and pedestrian movements, the variable geography and architecture, the nearness to water.  Look long enough and you might even get the sense that Kahn doesn’t just see contrasting rhythms and motion threaded through ever-present structures, but also hears ephemeral harmonies in the cacophony, and savors periods of quiet amid frenetic noise. New York, New York…there’s always melody in the mayhem.

    PHOTOS, from top: untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on linen; Surf, oil on linen

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Soulful Elegance of Sean Qualls

The Soulful Elegance of Sean Qualls

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: A Brief History of Things Seen Only in Shadows – published and unpublished work by illustrator Sean Qualls, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH NOVEMBER 29, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wed. – Sat. noon to 5 p.m.

    Lest you think the title of this exhibit hints at things too cryptic, two good places to start in appreciating its aesthetic scope (the show is something of a retrospective, actually) are the artist’s web site at and Dan Kane’s excellent Repository article from November 6:  
    The world of haute art can be a divisive enough place wherein “illustrators” are still sometimes viewed disparagingly, as if the practice of illustrating is an inferior or insignificant aspiration when compared to “real painting.” I can still remember a college art teacher looking at an ambitious painting by a fellow student who was clearly influenced by Norman Rockwell. With a dismissive wave of his hand, the pompous professor said, “That’s not painting, that’s a magazine cover.” So much for intelligent critique.
    Not that the children’s book illustrations by Brooklyn, New York-based artist Sean Qualls should or could be compared to Rockwellian Americana. But make no mistake, Qualls’ mixed media works (mostly combinations of acrylic, collage and pencil on paper) function quite effectively both as tactile illuminations (so ok, illustrations if you insist) of specific narratives (many of them historical in nature) as well as remarkably striking, stand-alone images.
    While most of them were made to be pages for books about particular individuals such as great jazz artists John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald, others are Qualls’ more personal probings of racial identity. A Brief History of Stepinfetchit, for example, is a potent, earth-toned emblem that asks and answers “what’s in a name?” Indeed, as the adopted moniker of a film actor became synonymous with “lazy negro,” this starkly poetic work transcends stereotypical associations and reveals that Mr. Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry was anything but.
   In the simply configured Mother Theresa, the ideological focal point of compassionate service to the needy is certainly clear enough and charmingly rendered. Yet the most important points of visual impact in the work are the  red brush marks that appear to float on the right side of the large empty background of grayish blues. These painterly marks might seem isolated, perhaps even accidental. But in fact they’re vital, abstract unifying elements, activating the blue field in a way that ties it to the dominant red horizontal wave at the bottom.
    This sort of compositional economy and elegance – an impeccable design sensibility - occurs consistently throughout the exhibit. Pieces such as John at Home and Before John Was a Jazz Giant, with their playful variety of organic and geometric shapes rhythmically harmonized through connecting colors, bring to mind the serenity and balance that the great modernist Henri Matisse achieved with his representations of interior spaces.      
    Finally, there’s the distinctive palette that Qualls employs. For the most part, his hues are tinted to a low intensity, washing his scenarios with a haunting softness, and reminiscent of the moody color shifts you might encounter in films when the story cuts away from present reality to a character’s memory of a past event or distant place. So while many of Qualls’ images are imbued with an ethereal sense of remembrance, they nonetheless possess a palpable immediacy, and a vitality that makes them feel timeless.

    PHOTOS, from top: A Brief History of Stepinfetchit; Mother Theresa; John at Home; Little Cloud Dreaming; Before John Was a Jazz Giant      

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sublime Artistry from Canton Symphony Soloists

Sublime Artistry From Canton Symphony Soloists

By Tom Wachunas 

    What is it about witnessing a live performance of orchestral music that makes it so uniquely…magical? While the advanced technology of digital recordings these days can certainly produce thoroughly engaging aural experiences, there’s still much to recommend the notion that seeing is believing.
   So it is that the eclectic program, conducted by Gerhardt Zimmermann for the November 2 performance by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall, was specifically designed to spotlight various soloists from the ensemble - to let them literally stand and be seen as they soared. And that they did with astonishing technical and interpretive finesse.
    Featured in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in a minor, No. 8, were CSO first violinist Rachel Sandman and principal second violinist Solomon Liang. From the propulsive episodes of the first movement and through to the ebullient finale, their shimmering, warm tonalities were nothing short of hypnotic. The interweaving of their respective turns leading and accompanying, particularly in the plaintive solemnity of the central movement with its high lyrical melody lines, was seamless. Throughout the work, they played with inspired unity of purpose, making all the more  palpable an uncanny sense of completing each other’s lyrical sentences.
    That same sensibility was clearly evident among the soloists for the remainder of the program. CSO Concertmaster Justine Lamb-Budge was joined by principal flutist Katherine DeJongh and harpsichordist Parker Ramsey for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. While the soloists certainly performed with all the virtuosic grace and vigor that Bach invested in the work, the overall presentation here was not without its problematic moments. Beyond the too-slow tempo of the third movement, casting a somewhat sterile pall over the ensemble, there was the more significant challenge of hearing the harpsichord, a major component in this work. At issue was the instrument itself. Its sound was often so diaphanous as to be nearly inaudible in the mix with other instruments. Still, during the monumental (65 bars!) harpsichord cadenza in the first movement, the audience was bedazzled enough. We even seemed to have stopped breathing as we leaned forward to savor Ramsey’s riveting dexterity.
    The marvelous playing by flutist DeJongh, Meghan Guegold (principal French horn), Terry Orcutt (principal oboe) and Todd Jelen (principal bassoon) combined for a tour-de-force of brilliant expressivity in Sinfonia Cocertante For Winds in E-Flat Major, a work credited to Mozart, though historians still speculate as to whether or not it is wholly a Mozart composition. In any case, aside from sheer technical prowess, the operative word here was playing, and with jubilant energy. The quartet was situated in an arc across the middle of the stage, and watching the frolicsome, lucid interplay among the musicians – seeing their nuanced, fluid cueing from one to the other through many intricate arpeggios – was mesmerizing in itself.
    The program concluded on a more modern but equally mesmerizing note with Variaciones Concertantes (1953), a twelve-section work of remarkable vitality by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. The slow, somewhat mournful opening theme was established by harp and cello, forming the foundation for the rich variations that followed. Those were crisply articulated here with emotive intensity by a variety of instruments that act as characters in an unfolding dance. They included animated sprints from the flute; shadowy accents from clarinet, oboe and bassoon; a gripping viola solo; alternately electrifying and serene interludes from the trumpet, trombone and horn; and a stunning melodic whirlwind from the violin. After a strange yet beautiful pairing of harp with double bass in a reprise of the main theme, the full ensemble followed with an invigorating malambo, a competitive gaucho dance that was a recurring element in Ginastera’s compositions.
    The music finally built into a repetition of notes that suggested the joyous thumping of feet amid exhilarating ensemble flourishes. In all, a fitting end to a program that celebrated compelling instrumental artistry.

    PHOTO, left to right: Solomon Liang, Terry Orcutt, Todd Jelen, Meghan Guegold, Gerhardt Zimmermann, Katherine DeJongh, Justine Lamb-Budge, Rachel Sandman

Monday, November 3, 2014

Quo Vadimus?

Quo Vadimus?
By Tom Wachunas

“Postmodernism: The cultural condition marked by the absolute gratification of human desires and the absolute neglect of human needs.”                  ― Peter K. Fallon

    “Amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatans.” – Noam Chomsky

    “Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.” ― Jean Baudrillard

    Leave it to the French to come up with memorably lofty expressions of disapproval. The above quote from social and cultural critic Jean Baudillard is a fine example – “…disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality…the random swirl of empty signals.”  Such elevated language! And who could forget the hilariously messy confrontation between English knights and French soldiers in the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” wherein one irritated Frenchman sneers at his enemies from high atop his castle wall, “I fart in your general direction.” Precious. Stretch the context a bit, and that snooty epithet could arguably describe the mindset of not only many viewers but also makers of contemporary art.
    Speaking of Frenchmen with an attitude, there’s Marcel Duchamp and his 1917 Fountain – a porcelain urinal offered as a work of art. I have often commented on this work as one man’s intentional crossing into utterly new and rocky aesthetic terrain – a harbinger of Modernism’s radical redefining of art.
     Signed “R. Mutt 1917” in black, like so much scrawling on lavatory walls, the work always suggested to me just how pissed off, so to speak, Duchamp  was at the impotence and irrelevance of the sacrosanct idealizations touted by the academic art world.  For that matter, so were many other upstart European artists at that time as well as during the previous 50 or 60 years.
    All of the above is by way of setting up a breach of my self-imposed blogging protocol to tell you something about my piece currently on view in the Stark County Artists Exhibition at Massillon Museum. While it’s called A Brief History of Modern Art, in retrospect the overarching “message” of my 3D drawing would be largely unchanged had I inserted “Postmodernism” in place of “Modern Art.” This is because I regard Postmodernism, an open-ended, catch-all term generally designating contemporary culture after 1970 or so, not as embracing anything “original” (and only superficially “new”), but rather as deconstructing and/or re-assessing the 20th century philosophies and cultural practices (which were in turn largely reactionary in nature) that preceded it. I think of Postmodernism as if it were the complicated, even troubled stepchild that views parent Modernism like an ordinary found object.
    So yes, my piece is derivative, but what art isn’t these days? (I can see right now that another post will be needed to further explain my thoughts on originality.) I incorporated three nearly identical vacuum cleaner undercarriages not necessarily as a snarky code for “modern art sucks,” though I can fully appreciate how such an association could be made, as a few folks have suggested recently. I simply found their convoluted forms to be visually intriguing and otherwise appropriate abstract symbols of the complex ideas embodied in Modernism/Postmodernism.
    Retracing all those intersecting and abutted shapes, volumes and planes with graphite on the middle unit – drawing on top of the pre-existing drawing, as it were – represents a dominant tendency in contemporary art toward recapitulating itself into a kind of Classicism in its own right, like sculpting in marble. Hence the faux stone effect of the unit on the right.
    These words from around 3,000 years ago come to mind: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here before our time…” (Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10)    
    Quo vadimus… where does our art (my own included) go from here? I’ve no idea. But wherever it is, I’m fairly sure it’ll be déjà vu all over again.

    TOP PHOTO: Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

Friday, October 24, 2014

Every Story Tells A Picture

Every Story Tells A Picture

By Tom Wachunas

    “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”  - Ray Bradbury
    “From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend on reading it.” 
-Grouch Marx
    “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” –Stephen King

    EXHIBIT: OUT OF PRINT (An Upcycled Exploration of books and text into configurations of Fine Art), by Pam Neff, at The Little Art Gallery, THROUGH NOVEMBER 9, 185 North Main Street, North Canton,

    How fitting a location for this show – a gallery in a library. Here is a  gathering of 62 pieces by Pam Neff that are comprised of or derived from recycled (you could say recovered and re-covered) books. Their pages have been cut, curled, collaged and otherwise coiffed into images and forms that tantalize in a variety of ways.
    Books being what they are, there is not surprisingly a generous sprinkling of word play at work, particularly by way of puns and double intenders, so to speak. Generally, the titles of Neff’s pieces offer easy enough handles for grasping the content/intent of a piece, or getting the joke as the case may be.
    Some of her treatments are quite literal (some might say cute). Rock Paper Scissors or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are good examples. Likewise the titles of her four elegant 3D vignettes of tiny wooden mannequins attached to open books - their pages fancifully blossoming outward, origami style -  tell the tale: A Real Cliffhanger, Relaxing With a Good Book, In the Middle of a Good Book, A Real Page Turner. This is certainly not to say that such works are visually bland or too simplistic.
    Neff is an inventive designer of TEXTures blended into hybrid, often humorous forms – part sculpture, part picture or collage – that can tickle the brain. Trike is a triptych drawing of a tricycle spanning the covers of three books (one of which with the photo of a boy child and his tricycle) arranged in a triangle on the wall. But if you look at the titles on the outer binding of the books, one is “General Ike.” So then a word game might evolve. General Eisenhower’s tricycle? As in triangle, tricycle, Iketrike. Get the picture?
    Still, our experience of a given artwork need not be restricted by its title.  A work’s title isn’t so much an end-all disambiguation, but rather one (and not the only) plausible pathway to its meaning. The most engaging works here are those that seem to allow, even encourage free-association with the title and materials at hand. In that sense, the invigorating undercurrent of this exhibit is one of unfettered playfulness.
    Additionally, the incorporation of vintage photographs in many of the works delivers a nostalgic dimensionality – a sense of recalling and perhaps even longing for bygone days. I left the gallery prompted to all the more savor the memories of being deeply, personally affected by the people, places and things ARTiculated in books. All kinds of books. Real books, with their heft and tactility and very aroma that have the uncanny capacity to transfix and transform.
    And transport. Neff’s austere floor sculpture, an upright ring of paperbacks titled Out of Circulation, brings to mind the circular gateway to other worlds featured in the 1997-2011 sci-fi television series, “Stargate SG-1.” It’s an apt metaphor for how books, opened and read, might then open us to the possibility of journeying to alternative planes of being. Birds Nest, with its paper cutout bird (itself a somewhat unnecessary visual element) nestled on a bed of shredded paper cut from and into the body of an opened book, is invested with a similar spirit.
    In many ways then, the entire exhibit is indeed an impressive expansion of this metaphor. Books, as physical entities, can generate metaphysical experiences. And isn’t that a hallmark – or bookmark, if you will - of the most satisfying art?

    PHOTOS (from top): Out of Circulation; A Real Cliff Hanger (left) and A Real Page Turner; Birds Nest; Trike

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Strained Credibility

Strained Credibility

By Tom Wachunas

    The contemporary thing in art and literature is the thing which doesn't make enough difference to the people of that generation so that they can accept it or reject it.”  - Gertrude Stein

    “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear…” –lyric by Spephen Stills, 1966, from “For What It’s Worth”

    EXHIBITION: Stark County Artists Exhibition, at Massillon Museum, THROUGH JANUARY 4, 2015 / 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon  (330-833-4061)

    For those of you who have not read the review of this show by artist/blogger Judi Krew, I provide this link:  Like her, I too have a piece in this annual juried exhibit, for which I am deeply grateful as always, and one of these days I might break my self-imposed rule against using ARTWACH to speak of my own work and devote a post to it. The jury’s still out on that one, so to speak.
    Meanwhile, let me also add that there is nothing in Krew’s assessment with which I take issue, and in fact I feel compelled to re-iterate some of her larger points. You will notice the thick black redaction lines through some of her text. I understand that this was done so that her critique wouldn’t be taken as “too mean,” though for the most part I think a reader could fill in the blanks reasonably well enough. I, on the other hand, will let fly my heart and leave it to you to discern the character of its trajectory.
    Jurors of group shows can often be easy targets for second guessing, especially from rejected artists, and it’s usually a fool’s errand to complain or berate their choices too much. But more than any other Stark County show in recent memory, this one practically begs for it.
   So I’ll not overly indulge in subjective dickering about which artists received which awards (Best In Show, Second Place, Third Place and two Honorable Mentions). Besides, there are no surprises here, which is not to say I agree with all of them. In fact, one wouldn’t necessarily need a printed program at all to see how the jurors had tipped their hand before the official awards announcement at the opening reception on October 4. It was simply a matter of probability.  Do the math (which Krew lays out quite sensibly in her comments). Of the 34 artists represented, five artists had all three of their submissions accepted into the show when one piece chosen for the exhibit was ample enough demonstration of their skill and unique vision. Of those five artists, four were awarded something.
    Award winners notwithstanding, the general quality of the artworks throughout the exhibit – whether in content, craft, or both – is wildly inconsistent. Of the 48 pieces on view, I noted about ten pinnacles of mediocrity - an unusually high percentage, it seems to me. Such wholly unremarkable works simply should not have been included, and I shudder to think how many other more deserving works didn’t make it into to this surprisingly sparse showcase.
    All that said, there are more than a few entries that merit praise and attention. In the realm of clay, Laura Donnelly’s stoneware plate, Three Rabbit Day (Second Place), is a fine example of elegant ceramic exactitude. But the raku bowl by Paulette Bartenstein, A Feast of Crows, is considerably more compelling if only for its visceral rendering of the birds and iridescent glazing.
   Amid the photographic entries, Michael Barath’s black and white Phoenix is an especially arresting double exposure. And Judi Krew’s  Mother and Child: Forgotten is a haunting view of an arched chamber aglow with ethereal light, like a softly colored mausoleum fallen into ruin.
    The three paintings by Pamela Glover Wadsworth (one, Buttondown Bravado, awarded Third Place) constitute a prime example of the aforementioned jury overload (and certainly no fault of the artist). While her paintings deftly embrace the influence of several Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s-1960s, I was more drawn to the relatively less derivative acrylic painting by Sherri Hornbrook, Conversation Grid, with its boldly colored spatial ambiguities, and witty interplay of patterns and contemporary glyphs.  
   Overall, this is indeed a STARK display, right down to the almost complete absence of sculpture. To make matters worse for the few sculptures that are present, Kelly Stoddard’s abstract steel Ataxia has been shoved against a wall into a corner like an afterthought;  Lindsay Bryan’s delicately cut and printed paper Waves (Honorable Mention) has been shoddily tacked and taped into the same corner (the work would be much better served by a creative way to suspend it in open space); and the three utterly enchanting clay figurines by Jennifer Avers Benson (one of which, Beech Street Spirit, earned an Honorable Mention) have been grouped together atop a hideous, bulky wooden cabinet. Where’s an appropriately placed pedestal when you need one?
    Interestingly enough, the sheer emptiness of the expansive gallery floor, combined with the generally neutral look and feel of the walls, conjures an eerie impression of an empty ballroom, awaiting the arrival of spectacularly attired guests. Ah well, maybe next year the dance will be more grand.

    PHOTOS, from top: Conversation Grid by Sherri Hornbrook; Waves by Lindsey Bryan; Birch Tree Spirit by Jennifer Avers Benson; A Feast of Crows by Paulette Bartenstein; Mother and Child: Forgotten by Judi Krew