Monday, August 25, 2014

Welcome To These Hallowed Halls

Welcome To These Hallowed Halls

By Tom Wachunas

    “It has been said that art is a tryst; for in the joy of it, maker and beholder meet.” – Kojiro Tomita

    "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time."  - T.S. Eliot 

    As I will soon begin my seventh year of teaching at Kent State University Stark campus, I’ve been once again considering my gratitude for engaging, this time around, 80 students currently registered to take a course called “Art as a World Phenomenon.” It never gets old, this gratitude. Beyond making art, I regard what I get to do academically with my passion for art in general as a real blessing, and certainly one that has yet to feel like a stale job. It is in fact an extraordinary calling that I continue to answer joyfully.
    This particular course falls more under the rubric of “art appreciation” than outright art history, though there is a strong (and essential) history component. In this setting, it is certainly important to consider a viable definition of art. So for starters, I offer this: Art is the intentional structuring of ideas, and/or the manipulation of physical materials, to create a meaningful response to being alive.
    I think it equally important to clarify “appreciation” in the pedagogical sense. This is not a course in how to “like” art. There are no claims that all works of great art are (or should be) universally “pleasing to the eye,” or that they can be intellectually assessed by a single formula of understanding. (Indeed, depending upon one’s cultural predispositions and subjective tastes, I fully realize that many of the artworks encountered here are neither likeable nor easily decipherable.)
    Still, think of art appreciation as a process, like learning a complicated language such as English. And like our spoken/written language, visual art is not an immutable, fixed entity but rather an ever-evolving method of communication. The vocabulary, grammar and syntax of art can change with sometimes maddening regularity.
   So my role has always been, and continues to be that of eager facilitator, informed encourager, and enthused tour guide. Imagine the art world as a vast network of halls – some magnificently illuminated and ornate, some less elaborate, still others in varying degrees of ruin – or intersecting corridors, where rationality and intuition mix to chronicle the human milieu. Some of these corridors are familiar and easily navigated, others more daunting and mystical. As always, I invite you to consider art appreciation itself as a creative enterprise. To the extent that you are willing to practice really seeing, with mind and heart, you can enter into a symbiotic relationship with the art you behold. While determining the meaning or relevance of either a single artwork or an entire genre can often be a deeply personal matter, it can nonetheless complete the artist’s message and creative process, thus assuring the continued resonance of the work through time.  
   History tells us that this activity, or behavior, if you will, of making and appreciating art is unique to the human spirit, emerging more than 40,000 years ago. In the largest sense, art appreciation is a particularly enthralling tool for grasping the nature and significance of who we are both individually and collectively. Hence, a “world phenomenon” of discovering…us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Vivian Maier's Compelling Fixations

Vivian Maier’s Compelling Fixations

By Tom Wachunas

    “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”  -Diane Arbus

    “When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.” – Weegee

EXHIBIT: Vivian Maier: Photography’s Secret Master, THROUGH DECEMBER, 2014, at the Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton Arts District / gallery hours Wed.-Sat. Noon to 5 p.m. /

    For starters, very special thanks are in order. First to John Maloof, who is primarily responsible for bringing to world attention the life and work – indeed the phenomenon – of photographer Vivian Maier. After his 2007 acquisition in Chicago of boxes containing some 100,000 negatives, he proceeded to embark upon an amazing labor of archiving the images, and ultimately became the dedicated custodian and chief curator of Maier’s oeuvre. In the process he was inspired to become a photographer himself, as well as co-direct, with Charlie Siskel, the acclaimed 2013 documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier.
    Additional deep thanks to Tim Belden, owner of the Saxton Gallery of Photography in downtown Canton. His astute recognizing of the importance of Maier’s astonishing photographic legacy prompted him to mount a stunning, thoughtfully selected exhibit of 30 of her black and white photographs.
    Lastly, I thank you, my readers, in advance, for your time in reading  about Maier’s life and work by clicking on the links provided above. I think that by doing so you will surely better appreciate the circumstances and trajectory of her story.
   The official Vivian Maier web site bio tells us, among many other things, that by all accounts from the people who knew her, Maier was, “… eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride… An unabashed and unapologetic original.” But what all the intriguing details about her life and work ultimately don’t tell us is exactly why a well-travelled nanny who never left her home without her camera – a woman who was a clearly gifted, wildly prolific (and apparently obsessive) photographer - was so secretive about her pictures of the urban street milieu around her. She never showed her pictures to anyone.
    Many of Maier’s images seem born of an insatiable curiosity and empathy. They exude an ineffable aura of living in the now, suggesting a desire to vicariously connect, however briefly, with the citizens she encountered – children, the old, the busy and bored, the scruffy and refined, the poor and marginalized. Call it a passionate, authentic abiding in human evanescence.
    There’s no vapid, manipulated artifice here. The views of urban life in Maier’s images aren’t pre-planned, euphoric or idealized constructions steeped in romantic hyperbole. Nor are they dystopian. They are quite simply an honest surrender to reality as she found it.
   Many of her crisply composed pictures are moments populated by individuals wholly oblivious to her presence - the photographer as gentle stalker or spy. But there is also a substantial presence of straightforward shots of camera-aware people. Their reactions to being photographed were richly varied. These arresting scenarios, such as the first of the five I’ve posted here at the top, sometimes convey a strange awkwardness if not ambiguity, inviting us to wonder about possible narratives. In the photo just below it, the woman in the center, clutching her purse and looking directly at us, might feel uncomfortable, perplexed or even upset by the camera’s intrusion. Has Maier interrupted the amorous attentions of the man with his arm around her shoulder?
    In a New York Times review on January 19, 2012, critic Roberta Smith hailed Vivian Maier as “…a new candidate for the pantheon of great 20th century street photographers” who could be seen as contributing to the history of the genre “…by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction…”  I wholeheartedly agree.
     Did Maier simply think it not all that important to present herself as an artist? Is it completely unreasonable to think that her privacy about her photographs was an uncanny exercise in humility? Or was her compulsion fueled by needs we’ll never know? A mystery, and a compelling mystique.
    Still, as easy as it sounds now to say, I can’t escape the sense that her work was somehow ultimately missional in nature, making us as viewers the grateful recipients of a remarkable blessing.

    PHOTOS, from top, from : untitled, August, 1954, New York City / untitled, no date, New York City / Armenian woman fighting on East 86th Street, September, 1956, New York City/ untitled, 1959, Grenoble, France / November 4, 1955, San Francisco, CA.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Warp and Woof of Meaningful Ornamentation

The Warp and Woof of Meaningful Ornamentation

By Tom Wachunas

    “He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers – all of them master craftsmen and designers.”   (Exodus 35:35)

    EXHIBIT: Attack of the Fiber Artists, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH AUGUST 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / viewing hours Wed.-Sat., Noon to 5 p.m.

    First, here’s an excerpt from the brief history of the Textile Art Alliance, as found on the group’s website at

     The Textile Art Alliance (TAA), an affiliate group of the Cleveland Museum of Art, is an active organization of artists, designers, craftspeople, educators, and collectors with a common interest in the textile and fiber arts. Formed in 1934, TAA’s purpose is to promote the fiber arts through exhibitions, educational programs and purchases to enlarge the textile collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art…”

    Second, there’s the title of this exhibit: “Attack of the Fiber Artists.” Attack? Sounds a bit radical, as if the show were an assault on our aesthetic sensibilities. So while I’m certain the title is meant in good fun, I can assure you there’s nothing malicious, subversive or even mildly revolutionary about the 46 works on view. That said, it is a thoroughly electrifying and eclectic presentation of contemporary works in fiber.
    When I looked at Elizabeth Mather’s Portrait of Mollie – a quietly stunning, tightly textured representation of a woman’s face in shadow - I was intrigued by the description of the medium: “Handwoven Twill, Double-weave Pick-Up with Layer Blending (Cotton and Wool).” Now, “oil on board” or “acrylic on canvas” I can fully appreciate. But “double-weave pick-up” and “layer-blending?” I was all agoogle. I felt prompted to better grasp what I always sensed, even if unfairly, to be the more cloistered aspects of fiber arts methodologies. And after an admittedly perfunctory web search, I still can’t tell you all that much about warp and weft, shaft and shed, basting and bearding.
     Suffice to say that the world of fiber art and artists is just that – a world - replete with its own demanding techniques, tools, and disciplines to be seriously embraced, not to mention daunting vocabulary. I imagined cryptic conversations between fiber artists looking at each others’ works with comments like, “I love how that selvage works on the trapunto,” or, “Your tatting and broderie perse work really well together.”  Yikes.
    In any case, beyond the clear, consistent mastery of pure craft that is in abundance here, there is an equal attention to compelling visual design and engaging ideological content. Many of the works exhibit a spirit of exuberant spectacle and elaborate ornamentation, such as the large (42”x78”) abstract Stormy Night at Blue Lake by Helen Murrell, alive with staccato rhythms of alternating cool and hot colored rectangles, all embedded with myriad patterns of swirling thread; the wildly celebratory and playful Petroglyphs I have Known and Loved by Rosalind Kvet; and Primordial Slime, by Mary Ann Weber, with its layers of textures in relief (beads, feathers and sea shells). The unfettered joy implied by the vibrant rainbow motif in Diane K. Bird’s I’m Losing My Memory, I’m Losing Me actually becomes a tragic irony when you read the incorporated text penciled across the raised bands of color.
    In other works, the tactile physicality and dimensionality of mixed textures is downplayed, evoking more contemplative, even primal moods. The three intimately scaled (each 18”x6”) Snake Pictograms by Jennifer Whitten, featuring intricately varied thread patterns and earthen colors, are somewhat reminiscent of Native American ritual sand paintings. And there’s a distinctly painterly feel to Peggy Cox’s small (18”x12”) abstract Icelandic Journals -  flat overlapping swatches of fabric in muted tones with ghostly snippets of faded writing, suggest perhaps ancient parchments.
    One other thing that my aforementioned web search yielded was a glossary of humorous acronyms reportedly common among quilters and other textile artists. A few examples: FART – Fabric Acquisition Road Trip; PhD – Projects half Done; UFO – Unfinished Object; WHIMM – Works Hidden In My Mind. And my favorite, WOMBAT – Waste Of Money, Batting And Time.
    Relax and enjoy. You won’t find any WOMBATs here.

    PHOTOS (from top): Portrait of Mollie by Elizabeth Mather; Stormy Night on Blue Lake by Helen Murrell; Petroglyphs I Have Known and Loved by Rosalind Kvet; I’m Losing My Mind, I’m Losing Me by Diane K. Bird; Primordial Slime by Mary Ann Weber     

Friday, August 8, 2014

An Important Message From Craig Joseph

An Important Message from Craig Joseph
    As some of you faithful readers may already know, a fascinating project spearheaded by Craig Joseph, curator of Translations Art Gallery, is soon to be realized. With nothing further from me at the moment, I pass on this email communication (received on Thursday, Aug. 7) from him that contains all the pertinent information. PLEASE read and participate as you are able. Many Thanks,
   Tom Wachunas

   Hello, Art Colleagues and Supporters -
   This week, we started our 30-day fundraising project for one of the biggest undertakings the gallery has ever embarked upon: FRANKENSTEIN: THE PUPPET OPERA.
   As you may know, I've been working on this - on and off - for about three years and it is finally coming to fruition.  Probably the most involved, most original collaboration that the gallery has ever done. Involving artists, composers, writers, actors, puppeteers, designers, musicians and singers.  A team of 30+ folks making something from scratch.
   I'd appreciate any support that you can give. We are trying to raise $6000 in the next month, and a donor will match everything given today.
   If you're able to give, please do so early because we get extra traction and attention from Kickstarter if we have a really strong first week. They will start publicizing the project out to folks around the country.
   Here's where you can read all the details and give:

  Thanks so much – Craig

   Craig Joseph, Curator
   Translations Art Gallery
   331 Cleveland Ave NW
    Canton, OH, 44702