Monday, May 12, 2014

A Compelling Perspective on Local Contemporary Art

A Compelling Perspective on Local Contemporary Art

By Tom Wachunas

    “…It is incumbent on artists to anticipate as much as possible how their work will be received and positioned. But, after a certain point, it is not in their control to do so.”  -Hal Foster 

   EXHIBIT: 72nd Annual May Show, at The Little Art Gallery (LAG), located in the North Canton Public Library THROUGH MAY 31, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, 330.499.4712  Ext. 312

    In a recent email, an artist friend shared his dismay at not being included in this long-established annual juried show. He took it as a rejection of him – his invested self. His thoughts prompted a mental note to myself to write a post about the whole idea of being rejected from juried shows and what it might signify exactly. Meanwhile, I add here that I was gratified to have a piece accepted for this exhibition, which garnered an Honorable Mention in the mixed media category.
    As artist/blogger Judi Krew pointed out in her recent comments on this exhibit (see ), “…some long-time established talents are missing in action.”  Until a few years ago, there was a consistent presence of repeat performers who for years seemed to have “cornered the market” of local juried shows. But an air of decorative sameness had settled in. Beyond the traditional representational art (floral/landscape, still-life and portraiture genres) so dominant in these parts, even overtly modernist works seemed often to have become increasingly mimetic and formulaic to the point of vapidity.   
   So I think it refreshing that the sheer diversity of artistic practices and philosophies characterizing the postmodern era is becoming more apparent. As lesser-known artists and modes of expression emerge, exhibits such as the LAG May Show and the annual Stark County Artists Exhibit at Massillon Museum have become notably broader in their iconographic and ideological content. Artistically speaking, Stark County’s once lethargic stroll into the 21st century is picking up speed.
    The jurors’ (Della Clason Sperling, Ph.D., and Heather Hayden) statements for this show are unusually revelatory in terms of the serious thinking they applied to the task at hand. I highly recommend you read them when you view the exhibit. This is one group show that doesn’t move me to complain much at all about their prize picks. Collectively, they’re an extraordinary group of technically excellent pieces that range from traditional styles and subject matters to more challenging conceptualizations.
    Murli Marayan’s well-named Harmony (Second Place, Oil category) is practically symphonic in its rhythmic interplay of light, color dynamics, textures and patterns depicting women working in a rice paddy. A serene, spiritual vision.
    Indeed, spirituality is a recurring element in several works. Among those, Theater of the Mind by John B. Alexander (First Place, Acrylic) is painted on the back side of a clear acrylic panel attached to a clothes hanger. A figure posed in yogic meditation faces a gray brick wall. Transparent resin oozes down from the top of the panel - a drip-dried enigma, a mystery washed with clarity. Thinking about the unyielding substance of… nothing? We may never know. Red alert…the show has been cancelled.
    There is at once a sobering, funereal gravitas and maybe just a hint of hope about Dr. Fredlee Votaw’s God Please Exist (First Place, Mixed Media). His shadow box format is well suited to the coffin-like feel of his figures masked in gauze on the left side. One is a sleeping (or dead?) adult, the other a baby. Buried or emerging? Nestled on the right is a rectangular, wood-slatted form/vessel covered with tiny strips of paper reading “God, please exist!” Are these the chanted supplications of myriad souls hoping to enter eternal bliss? Or is this a sarcophagus, a reliquary for the desperate and lost?
    Votaw’s work is placed next to a lovely, haunting oil painting by Lisa Jackson Wood, called Innocence. The painting is executed on an arched wood panel, suggesting perhaps a church window. A little girl reaches for the wing of an angel hovering above her, casting its shadow across her dress and the face of her doll on the ground. The group of locusts at her feet is static for the moment, like impending trouble held at bay by a holy protector.  The proximity of these two pieces allows them to play off each other in fascinating ways. It’s just one example among many here of LAG curator Elizabeth Blakemore’s sharp attention to both visual logic and thematic content, creating a cohesive viewing experience throughout the gallery.
    Finally, Best in Show honors went to Dan Chrzanowski for his graphite work, 13 ½ x 14 1/2 With String. This is a tour de force convergence of stunning technique and ideation. It’s art about art; drawing about drawing; a sort of conceptual selfie; a picture of a piece of wrinkled white paper on a piece of flat dark paper…on flat white paper. Rendered in pencil, it has all the look of a fine lithograph. Imagine that. Illusion on illusion.
    In some ways the work is complementary to the aforementioned John B. Alexander piece. To the extent we can imagine lifting a raised corner on Chrzanowski’s crinkled paper to reveal something –to look behind the wall as it were - we are indeed drawn into a theater of the mind. I’m reminded of Pliny the Elder’s famous story of a contest between two Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that birds attempted to eat them. Parrhasius responded with a painting of a curtain so convincing that Zeuxis attempted to push the drapery aside to see the painting behind it.
    This is to say that while I think the Best in Show entry here has roots in the Classical view of art as a perfect reflection of natural/physical reality (and in that sense “entertaining” in the noblest sense of the word), it’s also an exquisitely subtle, challenging meditation – a metaphor, actually - on how we define, process and evaluate art today.

    PHOTOS (from top): Harmony by Murli Narayan; Theater of the Mind by John B. Alexander; God Please Exist by Dr. Fredlee Votaw; 13 ½ x 14 ½ With String by Dan Chrzanowski   

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