Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Caught in the Throes of Absence, Part II

Caught in the Throes of Absence, Part II

By Tom Wachunas

   “…You look closely and wonder if something is still there, was that a flash of recognition? Did he understand? You visit and you carry on one-sided conversations just in case. It is a gesture of love, like visiting a grave.”  -Michele Waalkes

       EXHIBIT: Tangled Memories, new work by Marcy Axelband and Michele Waalkes, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH MARCH 29. Gallery hours Wed. – Sat. Noon to 5 p.m.

    ‘Translations Art’ indeed. I cannot but marvel at the love, courage and generosity of both these artists who look so deeply at, and write with such unguarded candor and tenderness about their fathers’ mournful dwindling into Alzheimer’s. While Marcy Axelband’s father is still alive at 89, Michele Waalkes’ father was diagnosed with Early-onset Alzheimer’s in his 50s, and passed away in 2000 at the age of 65.
    I’ve always admired Michele Waalkes’ digital photographic pieces for their meditative attributes. A consistent element of her oeuvre has been the use of superimposed images which simultaneously evoke the physical and spiritual, the earthbound and ethereal.
    While there are works in that vein here, Waalkes also works quite effectively in three dimensional mixed media. Tangled Memories, for example, is an amorphous form made of translucent material through which fragments of family photos, transferred on to strips of fabric, are visible. The membranous aspect of this “container” is a stark suggestion of brain matter collapsing in on itself.  
    Heredity is a haunting and sobering declaration of Waalkes’ inherited probability of getting the disease. The ghostly architecture of two railed staircases floats diagonally across the picture plane fused with images of leafy branches and their shadows. Up or down? When and where will life’s ascents end, its descents begin?
    Not surprisingly, some pieces resonate more than others with a distinctly funerary character. But in such compelling black and white interpretations of real loss as The Fading and The Wait , the spirit is one of dignity that transcends morbid tenebrism or lugubrious melodrama.
    In The Fading, rain drops dot the pale gray glass of a strongly defined window pane, the faint image of Waalkes’ father on the outside, out of reach. The Wait recalls a planned meeting between father and daughter at McDonald’s – one that he forgot to attend. The ghostly image of empty restaurant seats is a photo transfer on to maple panel, distressed with sandpaper and further accented with conté crayon. The deep value contrasts and subtle grit of the surface seems to heighten the sense of urgent loneliness.
   Refuge is an elegant, poetic gem of simplicity. An ornate wall lantern appears to hover in its own warm glowing. I was literally drawn to the light that gently illuminates lines of text extracted from the Book of Psalms – scripture that Michele read aloud to her father. People take refuge in the shadow of your wings…You are my strength…You are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble… A serene invocation of holy comforting.       

    To see these artworks, to read Waalkes’ words, is to experience a collective, palpable prayer. A potent soul baring, and soul bearing. 
   PHOTOS, from top: The Fading;  Heredity; Almost; Infinite Loop; The Wait   

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