Monday, June 30, 2014

Decisive Moments






Decisive Moments

By Tom Wachunas

   “Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk…”
-Edward Weston

    EXHIBIT: Mark Pitocco: A Sense of Place, photographs of the Huston-Brumbaugh Nature Center at Mount Union, on view at Studio M in the Massillon Museum, THROUGH JULY 20, 121 Lincoln Way East in downtown Massillon, 330-833-4061,  www.massillonmuseum.org


    In his statement for this exhibit, photographer Mark Pitocco included the above quote from one of America’s preeminent masters of 20th century photography. At first blush, I took Weston’s words to mean some sort sardonic rejection of “rules of composition” altogether, and Pitocco’s solidarity with that stance. But after viewing Pitocco’s collection of exceptional digital photographs, and some further digging into Weston’s thinking about the medium, I have a broader appreciation of the big picture, pun intended.
    Interestingly enough, there was this sentence that immediately followed Weston’s statement cited above: “…Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are products of reflection.”  At another point, Weston observed, “To compose a subject well means no more than to see and present it in the strongest manner possible.”  
   But what constitutes “the strongest manner possible?” Is it limited to the photographer’s conscious application of certain formal elements or principles that can enhance a picture’s impact (e.g., make it more “beautiful”) – manipulating its visual syntax?  Or is it also a matter of creative intuition? The artist, at one with his device that scans a panorama, assesses visual information in the viewfinder, identifies compelling content and – moment of truth - releases the shutter.
    The most special photographs from nature are those which demonstrate the photographer’s unique, even uncanny capacity for recognizing what Weston called “the quintessence of a thing” without forcing it, necessarily, into pre-determined formal parameters. Such practices can often generate pictorial clich├ęs, which is decidedly not the case with this show.
    A walk through a forest can present an overwhelming number of optical complexities – indeed, a visual cacophony of changing light, variable hues, textures, and forms both solid and ephemeral. And yet nature itself is quite capable – without too much (if any) formulaic or artificial tweaking on our part - of birthing formal “compositions,” or moments, that both photographer and viewer could find emotionally and/or intellectually engaging.
    Thus, to the extent that the photographer can see and interact with such moments that resonate as unified compositions, nature can often “frame itself” in a strong and inviting manner. And I think this is precisely what Mark Pitocco has successfully revealed with this collection. His pictures are essentially intimate microcosms – isolated yet connected episodes on a reverential, contemplative journey through a forest. These visions are fresh and honest, alive with rich textures and quietly intriguing internal structuring. Call it, then, nature framing itself, made accessible by Pitocco’s discerning eye, and an altogether harmonious convergence of device and discovery.

    PHOTOS, courtesy Mark Pitocco (from top):  Above the Valley; Blue Ice with Branches; Five Stones; Heavy Spring Rain at Pond; Blue Ice at Pond’s Edge     

Monday, June 23, 2014

Howdaydoodat?



Howdaydoodat?

By Tom Wachunas
 

    “Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years.” –Teller


   I still remember the morning when I graduated from being a wavering believer in Santa Claus (around 2nd grade, I think) to the sadly disillusioned child who knew better once and for all. Before going to bed one Christmas Eve, I had written a plaintive letter to the jolly elf (asking for his autograph, among other things), sealed it in an envelope addressed with big crayon letters, and clandestinely taped it to the inside of our chimney in a place he couldn’t possibly miss. And there it still was in the morning, untouched. I had a blue Christmas without him. So much for magic.
    Fast forward some 30 years to an eight-week course I took in learning how to do magic. Most of the curriculum focused on sleight of hand card tricks and making small objects disappear. I was a fairly poor performer at best, and once again I emerged from the experience sure that there really wasn’t any magic in magic. I did however acquire a deeper appreciation of the demanding discipline needed to smoothly manage not only my own hands, but audience perceptions – the art of misdirection - as well.
    These memories kept resurfacing as I watched the Theatre of Magic show unfold on the Players Guild Theatre mainstage. The stars of the evening are Joshua Erichsen, Producing Artistic Director of the Players Guild Theatre, and internationally renowned mentalist Angela Funovits, slated to star in the SYFY Channel competition series, “Wizard Wars,” alongside the legendary Penn and Teller, and scheduled to premiere on August 19.
    Erichsen’s illusions are of a more intimate scale than say, David Copperfield’s vanishing of the Statue of Liberty, though no less convincing, including one wherein he apparently amputates his forearm in an act of what he calls “bloodless surgery.” And there is the occasional sense of “standard fare” about the show, as in his Houdini-esque escape from a straightjacket while suspended upside down on a burning rope. Yet the spectacle’s hold-your-breath tension is still thrilling to experience.
    Erichsen’s impressivel “bag of tricks” is also woven with plenty of humor and sight gags. At one hilarious juncture, he takes on the role of the student of magic, learning to execute an illusion by listening to step-by-step instructions dictated by the virtual assistant web app, Siri. As she tells him how to fold a bandana, a perplexed-looking Erichsen has apparently heard banana. Undaunted, he proceeds with fruit in hand and…Well, you’ll just have to come and see for yourself.
    It’s interesting to note that Angela Funovits is also a medical doctor. So it’s not so surprising to hear her tell the audience that as a mentalist, she regards her feats as a kind of scientific probing, dismissing the notion of “psychic” or cosmic powers at work. In any event, her stage-side manner, as it were, is amiable, fetching and magnetic as she sets up the parameters of her brain-confounding experiments with audience volunteers, often prefacing her instructions with, “This may sound strange, but…” Strange indeed, and call it what you will – mindreading, fortunetelling, old fashioned sorcery - the outcomes are invariably astonishing.   
    So while I may have attended the show as a cynic, looking for chinks in the armor of staged illusion and so-called psychic phenomena, I left delightedly spellbound and otherwise duly mystified. Theatre of magic, to be sure. Lavish legerdemain, perfected prestidigitation, oh what a wondrous web we weave when first we practice…   Where else can we go to have our trusted senses of reality so wildly manipulated and challenged… and genuinely enjoy it? There’s the magic.

   THEATRE OF MAGIC, at Canton Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N, with performances Friday June 27 at 8:00 pm and Saturday June 28 at 2:00 and 8:00 pm. Tickets for this Mainstage show are $20 for adults and $15 for those 17 and younger. Tickets for may be purchased online 24 hours a day at www.playersguildtheatre.com  or in person at the Players Guild Box Office, located in the Great Court of the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave N. Tickets may also be purchased by phone: 330-453-7617.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Monochromed Invitations






Monochromed Invitations

By Tom Wachunas
 

    “The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” –Robert Frank

     “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” –Ansel Adams


    EXHIBIT: Fragile Waters: Photographs by Ansel Adams, Ernest H. Brooks II and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, at Massillon Museum THROUGH SEPTEMBER 14, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon http://www.massillonmuseum.org/fragilewaters  330-833-4061


    So the first thing you must do when entering the exhibit – surely one of, if not the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen at this museum -  is read. Don’t like reading stuff at an art show, you say? Kindly get over yourself, and be open to the possibility of listening to what the words are telling you. You’ll fare much better in hearing the 117 black and white pictures. And, wonder of wonders, how they do speak.
    In the curator’s statement posted at the entrance to the exhibit, Jeanne Falk Adams asks us to consider just what it is that makes the photographs by her father-in-law, the late Ansel Adams, so compelling. At one point she  quotes the late photographer, curator and historian, John Szarkowski. He  saw Ansel Adams as a champion in the Romantic tradition who effectively caused viewers to sense the great spaces of wilderness as he did -  a “metaphor for freedom and heroic aspirations.”
    Also located at the entrance to the exhibit is a tiny, ghostly photograph by Ansel Adams, Diamond Cascade, from Yosemite National Park and made in 1920 when Adams was just 18 years old. Posted with the photograph is the text of a letter he wrote to his father – a revelatory, passionately written document wherein the young artist explains the thinking behind his composition. “…I am more than ever convinced,” Adams wrote, “that the only possible way to interpret the scenes hereabout is through an impressionistic vision…Even in portraying the character and spirit of a little cascade one must rely solely upon line and tone…”
   Even at this early stage, he was seeing abstractly. In many ways the letter is an invaluable guide – an aesthetic template - for appreciating not only Adams’ works, but those of Ernest H. Brooks II and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly as well. What unites all three artists, beyond their unassailable technical mastery and clear love for the subjects they encountered, is something a bit more challenging to articulate. Yes, their images are compositionally resplendent  marvels of light, form and textures both serene and dramatic. And to translate such visually compelling moments from nature into black and white, like so many symphonies of lush tonality, is itself a stunning achievement.
    More significant, though, is an ineffable spirit, an intuitive perceiving on the part of the artists, which invariably determines the difference between truly great photographs such as theirs and ordinary, numbing snap-shots of pretty scenes. It’s the difference between “taking a picture” to be imprisoned in the frame as a static objet d’art, and making a picture to speak and to inspire outside itself. I think the motivation for making such pictures is far more than producing an imitation, however skilled, of what is directly seen. It is as well a form of empathy with the beholder who might similarly long to forever savor and protect the beheld – a heroic aspiration.
   In that sense this exhibit is much larger than the sum of its magnificent parts. More than a powerful homage to precious, live-giving and life-sustaining water, and more than a beautiful art collection, it’s an invitation to shared stewardship. Two people in every picture? Certainly. Then again, we’re all in this together.  

    PHOTOS, from top: Winged Wall by Ernest H. Brooks II; Otter Cliffs, Dawn by Dorothy Kerper Monnelly; Salt Hay, First Light by Dorothy Kerper Monnelly; Winged Angel by Ernest H. Brooks II; Snake River by Ansel Adams

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Enchanted Tableaux






Enchanted Tableaux

By Tom Wachunas 

    “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”  -Mae West

    “The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in” –W.H. Auden

    EXHIBIT: A Long Time Ago: The Fairytales of Mandy Altimus Pond, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH JUNE 28. Gallery hours Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.


    The 54 marvelous photographs by Mandy Altimus Pond that comprise this exhibit are the culmination of more than two years’ work of interpreting three classic tales by The Brothers Grimm: Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty (the Grimm story being a variant of the original French tale by Charles Perrault). As photographs, each of the exquisitely framed full color images, while depicting significant episodes within the flow of their respective narratives, is nonetheless a thoughtfully constructed, discrete entity in itself – a crisply detailed, intimate and lyrically expressive gem of theatricality. Collectively, however, these are no mere imitations of Disneyesque animated folk stories.
    That said, there is a compelling cinematic scope to Pond’s meticulous compositions, as if they could be film stills. In fact, she enlisted the help of some 140 volunteers to be everything from characters in the stories to all the adjunct personnel you’d expect in the making of an epic film, such as technical assistants, prop-makers, costumers and makeup artists.
   What would prompt an artist to take on a project as time-consuming and labor-intensive as this grandly scaled game of ‘let’s pretend’? For starters, there is of course the universal, persistent appeal of fairytales. After all, who doesn’t love allegories – realistic or fantastical - of demons defeated, triumphant true love and heroically staking our claims to perpetual happiness? The magical power of fairytales is in their employment of metaphor to vanquish the Sturm und Drang of living in this world.
    And here’s where I think it vital you take the time to read the stories (available as print-outs to borrow for your gallery viewing, as well as in a beautiful softcover book available for purchase) that accompany the photo ensembles. As Pond’s images represent a nuanced, personal recreation of these tales, her reworking of some familiar elements is, in varying degrees, both cosmetic and conceptual, though never fatuous. Inspired by her images, three authors – Jason Daniel Myers, Margy Vogt, and Andrew Kozma - have provided highly engaging, “alternative” narratives, all rendered in savory, sumptuous prose.
   A few examples. In Myers’ Snow and Aysel, Snow White’s mother, Aysel, never recovers from the loss of her beloved husband, the White King. Myers writes, “…but for Aysel, there was no spring morning at the end of the long winter mourning.” She isolates herself in a tower and glides through her castle “…silently, slowly, like a grey glacial ghost.” She progressively abandons her daughter and becomes an Ice Queen who will give chilling new meaning to ‘eat your heart out.’ In Lullaby, Mr. Kozma’s version of “Sleeping Beauty,” the witch is an embittered woman, a ‘steampunk’ sorceress possessed by a “…terrible, unforgiving affection” for the beautiful girl she brought into the world – a magical gift to the barren parents for which she received no thanks. The obsessed woman’s elaborate plot of revenge comes to an end at the hands of the rescuing prince (“entrepreneur”) thus: “And when the entrepreneur’s sword slips through the crack in the armor the woman made so obvious, it is not that which kills her, but her love-full heart bursting in her chest like a berry in a bird’s beak.”  Juicy stuff, to be sure.
    Included in Pond’s written acknowledgements for this exhibit, there is a disarming revelation as to her efforts in bringing it to fruition. She speaks frankly: “During this project, I experienced big life changes. For a while, I stopped believing in fairytales and stopped planning for the final photoshoot. But with the help and support of my loving family, I forced myself to pick up the pieces and move forward. I realized this project represents my belief in happily-ever-afters, dreams coming true, and never giving up hope…”  Shades of Cinderella?
    I am mindful of a scene in Margy Vogt’s story here, My Melancholy Cinderella Memory, wherein the bitterly disappointed Cinderella, after watching her cruel sisters whisked off to the ball, takes a walk in the woods to seek solace. “From the solitude of a rounded rock in the river, Cinderella let the water bubble her troubles downstream. The breeze through the trees soothed her soul…”
   If Pond’s earnest artistry isn’t a courageous surrender to an honest labor of real love, I don’t know what is. And in this world so jaded by aimless cynicism and tangible tragedy, art such as this reminds us that love and hope remain potent and necessary forces. The power of metaphor. If the shoe fits…

    PHOTOS, courtesy Mandy Altimus Pond, from top: Eat The Weakness That Binds You; Hearing Cries of Help; Fleeing The Castle; Maleficent’s Triumph; Awake Happily Ever After     

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Arresting Sensuality in Clay





Arresting Sensuality in Clay

By Tom Wachunas
 

    “Let us honor clay, the impressionable and responsive art media;…the most direct and colorful sculptural voice and the most exciting.”  -Waylande Gregory 

    EXHIBIT: Waylande Gegory: Art Deco Ceramics And The Atomic Impulse, at Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North THROUGH JULY 20 www.cantonart.org

   Considering the prolific, diverse output and unarguable importance of American ceramist Waylande Gregory (1905-1971), one surprising aspect of this exhibit of more than sixty of his works (in ceramics, glass and painting) is that it marks his first retrospective. This major project was organized by the University of Richmond Museums, Virginia, and curated by Thomas C. Folk, Ph.D., a ceramics scholar. I recommend picking up a copy of the current CMA magazine while you’re in the museum, and reading the excellent cover story. I also include here links to two comprehensive articles on Gregory’s life and work by Mr. Folk: 



    After the devastation of World War I, Art Deco signaled not an outright departure from Art Nouveau’s highly ornate, stylized naturalism, but rather a distilling or refinement of those characteristics. Along with that refinement, and against the backdrop of the burgeoning Jazz Age, Art Deco as pure design was in many ways an exuberant manifestation of Modernism’s eclecticism in an age of ever- expanding industrial and technological advances. As a style, it was as much a playful cultural attitude about speed, power and experimentation as it was an elegant formal aesthetic.
     And there are attitudes aplenty in this exhibit, widening our appreciation of Art Deco’s place in the context of Modernism. Waylande Gregory’s oeuvre is a titillating amalgam of stylistic elements, and certainly not restricted to Deco’s more common architectural associations with zig-zag symmetries and sleek geometries.
    That said, beyond the impressive collection of superbly crafted, shimmering plates and vessels, there are many ceramic sculptures here – human and animal -  invested with a marvelous fluidity of line and lyrical spirit, harkening at times to Romantic expressivity and even a Neoclassical sensibility. Two exquisite figural examples are Nautch Dancer and Salome. Both of these glazed earthenware gems, made when Gregory was the primary sculptor at Cowan Pottery in Rocky River, Ohio (1928-1932), exude palpable sensuality.
    Sensuality of a rawer, more plump and visceral sort is at work in four terra cotta sculptures that were part of a group of eight “Electrons” (four male, four female) that originally surrounded Gregory’s ambitious Fountain of the Atom, made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. These are relatively heroic in size, and clearly point to Gregory’s daring and ingenuity. As written in the CMA magazine essay, Gregory “…was the first modern ceramist to create large-scale ceramic sculptures. Similar to the technique developed by the ancient Etruscans, he fired is monumental sculptures only once…”  
    CMA Curator Lynnda Arrasmith and Assistant Curator Kathy Fleeher have accomplished a remarkable task in mounting the sprawling variety of works in this show. They seem to radiate from the central placement of this atomic grouping – a spatial nucleus, so to speak -  consisting of Male Electron with Green Hair, Male Electron with Fins, Female Electron with Bolt of Lightning and Female Electron with Bubbles.
    What I find most fascinating about these colorful public renderings is Gregory’s decision to fashion them as primeval sprites and nymphs caught up in an acrobatic (if not vaguely erotic, in an innocent kind of way) dance – what he called “elemental little savages of boundless electrical energy…”  It’s a delightfully unexpected scenario of ancient spirits celebrating the dawn of an exciting (and scary) new era for humanity. Indecorous Deco? Not really. Artistically arresting? Absolutely.
    So let me close this on a somewhat relevant tangent. If such unabashedly naked figures as Gregory’s “Electrons” were so visible in a newly-commissioned public artwork of today – say, right here in Canton - I imagine they might prompt all manner of turned heads, raised eyebrows, tongue clucking and blushing. Interestingly enough, I’m reminded that I haven’t heard a peep of late about ArtsinStark’s commissioning of 11 public sculptures celebrating the birthplace of professional football. I wonder: How many candidates are out there with Waylande Gregory’s boldness of vision, his sense of playfulness, history and formal elegance?
    Would it push the boundaries of “good taste” too much to see a life-size terra cotta (or marble or bronze for that matter) figure - sans uniform, pads or helmet -  faithfully rendered in the High Classical style of sinewy Greek male statuary, holding aloft a football while shaking his posterior in an end-zone (as it were) victory dance?  Elemental savage indeed.


    PHOTOS (from top): Salome, ca. 1929, glazed earthenware, private collection; Girl with Olive, 1932, glazed stoneware, estate of Yolande Gregory; group of four “Electrons”, from Fountain of the Atom; Mermaid Vase, circa 1944, glazed earthenware with luster decoration, collection of Giovanni Robertis