Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Insidious Misdirections






Insidious Misdirections

By Tom Wachunas 

    “…Against those who insist that an object’s status as forged is irrelevant to its artistic merit, I would hold that when we learn that the kind of achievement an art object involves has been radically misrepresented to us, it is not as though we have learned a new fact about some familiar object of aesthetic attention. To the contrary, insofar as its position as a work of art is concerned, it is no longer the same object.” – Dennis Dutton, from “Artistic Crimes,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, 1979 

    Highly recommended reading: http://www.denisdutton.com/artistic_crimes.htm

    EXHIBIT: Intent To Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., THROUGH OCTOBER 26
330.453.7666  www.cantonart.org

    Once again, many thanks and praises to the Canton Museum of Art for bringing us a high-caliber show, this one being the Midwest premiere an important travelling exhibit (the first two stops were in Massachusetts and Florida) that fascinates on all levels. Curated by Colette Loll, founder and director of Art Fraud Insights (here’s a link: http://www.artfraudinsights.com/ ), the exhibit has been featured on the CBS Evening News as well as in The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
    Here, original works by Honore Daumier, Amedeo Modigliani, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others, are interspersed with some 50 pieces by five of the world’s most infamous art forgers in modern times: Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947), Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976), Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), John Myatt (b. 1945), and Mark Landis (b. 1955).
    One common element among these con men is that none was able to forge, as it were, a livelihood from producing work in his own style. This is not to say that they were wholly incompetent artists in their own right. Far from it. And at the very least, they were masterful imitators. Look at Elmyr de Hory’s Portrait of a Woman and it’s certainly plausible that he could pass it off as an authentic Modigliani. Similarly, experts in 1941 were certain that Han van Meegeren’s  eerie Head of Christ was convincing evidence of Vermeer’s so-called “lost religious period.”
    But for four of these artists (Mark Landis being the exception, since he donated his pieces to museums and no money was ever exchanged), the frustrations and anxieties that came with not being recognized for their talents led to their seeking lucrative commercial success by duping curators, connoisseurs and other experts of the day with their outright fakes (duplications) or forgeries (falsely accredited works done in the style of the original artist).
    For all the intriguing and disturbing facts that are so well organized and presented here as to the biographies, motivations and ingeniously deceptive practices of these con men, it seems to me that the exhibit raises just as many  thorny considerations  about art world practices, motivations and values in general. These considerations take on even more depth particularly if you choose to delve into two excellently written books relevant to this exhibit - both available for purchase at the museum: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures, by Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team; and The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist, by Mark Forgy.
    While Forgy’s account of his years with his mentor Elmyr de Hory often smacks of misplaced hero worship, both books shine a glaring light on the intricate (and maddeningly arbitrary) wheeling and dealing within the art world. It is at times a corruptible and complicated world that insouciantly operates in a whatever- the- market- will- bear milieu. It is a world wherein objects of unquestionable artistic merit as well as contemporary objects of dubious worth can be equally regarded as negotiable commodities available to the highest bidder. To the uninitiated, it would often seem to be a world whose stock-in-trade isn’t really the savoring and protecting of true art so much as the pure hype of celebrity, profitability and the allure of ownership.
    I believe that the actions of the individuals spotlighted in this exhibit (again, with the exception of Mark Landis, whose activities were apparently driven by deep compulsion to be regarded as a philanthropist) demonstrate unmitigated hubris. Aside from a lust for financial profit, their activities are wholly indefensible despite any rationales built upon flimsy moralizing (such as in Eric Hebborn’s statement, “Only the experts are worth fooling. The greater the expert, the greater the satisfaction in deceiving him”), and regardless of any perceived aesthetic merit to their forged works. The deliberately fictionalized provenances (origins and ownership histories) of their works corrupted our grasp of authentic cultural realities. Of the more than 1,000 forgeries thought to be foisted on to the world market by Elmyr de Hory, for example, many are still in museums and have yet to be exposed.
    But I also think one could make a fairly good argument that if “fakery” in this context can be defined as dressing shallow artifice in the guise of significant fine art (and reaping ridiculously hefty monetary reward), then the art world at large has succeeded more than once in pulling the wool over our eyes. Think of it as the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome. Case in point: In 2013, Jeff Koons’ kitschy, mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture, Balloon Dog (Orange), became the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold at Christie’s for $58.4 million.  
    Who’s fooling whom?


    PHOTOS, courtesy http://www.intenttodeceive.org/ , from top: Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976), Portrait of a Woman, in the style of Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884-1920), 1956-1957, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Scott and Pamela Richter / Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), Head of Christ, in the style of Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675), 1940-41, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / Mark Landis (b. 1955), Women Seated on Lawn, in the style of Charles Courtney Curran (American, 1861-1942), ca. 2000, oil on pressed board. Courtesy of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum / Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), Standing Young Man Leaning on a Plinth, in the style of Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 -1721), 1970s, black and red chalk on laid paper. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Gift of Dian Woodner, 2008.38.6. / John Myatt (b. 1945), Charing Cross Railway taken from the Savoy, in the style of Claude Monet (French, 1840 – 1926), 2011, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Clive and Shyamali Fenton, UK. Photo: Washington Green Fine Art.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Seeing the Elephant






Seeing the Elephant

By Tom Wachunas


    “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”  -Dante Alighieri

    “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

    “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
-Matthew 13:49-50

    EXHIBIT: INFERNO: Ten Artists Recreate Dante's Masterpiece, THROUGH SEPT. 27 at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. PARTICIPATING ARTISTS: Erin Mulligan-Brayton, Bobby Rosenstock, Rich Pellegrino, Kari Halker-Saathoff, Marcy Axelband, David McDowell, Margene May, Marti Jones Dixon, Gabriel Mejia, Steve Ehret.  www.translationsart.com


    Whether seen as the divinely ordained final home of the hopelessly wicked, or a human construct to describe earthly cruelty and suffering, Hell has always been a hot-button topic. I suspect that for some (many, actually), the proposition of facing an eternal fiery punishment – either metaphorically or literally - for a life ill-lived is simply too complex, large or seemingly impossible to grasp. It's the ultimate elephant in the living room.
    I’ve often encountered the moral relativism espoused by individuals who are either ambivalent toward the notion of Hell or outright dismissive of it. Such folks might couch their attitudes in cavalier witticisms like Mark Twain’s “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company,” or Aldous Huxley’s “Maybe this world is another planet’s Hell.” Or there’s always this nifty observation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
    For the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Hell was the subject of Inferno, the first part of his iconic masterwork written between 1308 and 1321, The Divine Comedy (part two being Purgatorio, and part three, Paradiso). [The work is anything but “funny.” ‘Comedy’ here refers essentially to the classical literature term for a narrative without tragic ending.] This epic poem (14,233 lines!) is an allegorical vision of the journey toward God from the perspective of medieval-era Christian theology. Inferno tells of Dante embracing the reality of sin and its consequences for sinners as he’s guided by the Roman poet Virgil in a descent through Hell’s nine circles of suffering. The farther they descend – the more distant from God – the more egregious the sins.
    Translations curator Craig Joseph invited ten artists to recreate this literary classic by making triptychs (a three- panel format of continuous narratives once commonly made for churches) to be mounted alongside his written synopses of the 33 cantos that comprise Inferno. This show is a companion to the exhibit of lithograph illustrations by Amos Nattini, organized by the Canton Museum of Art, on view at Walsh University’s Birk Center for the Arts through December 1.   http://www.walsh.edu/the-illustrations-of-amos-nattini-fall-2014
   There is much to recommend the wholly spectacular Translations exhibit. In terms of diversity of media, and the technical/formal levels of excellence in individual works, it’s one helluva show (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). But I think the real significance of “the art experience” here is in how the participating artists, without necessarily communicating their own views about Hell, nonetheless collectively draw us, as individual viewers, inward to a transcendent probing of the compelling subject matter.
   Say what you will about roads paved with good intentions. I can tell you only that I have absolutely no desire to ever know what Hell really looks and feels like. That said, I’m deeply gratified by what the powerful visual interpretations offered here bring to my mind and heart. And for that, I leave you with these words from the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, from his 1945 work, The Great Divorce – itself an allegory in the spirit of Dante’s Divine Comedy:   
 “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”


    PHOTOS, from top: “Crossing the River”, mixed media on paper by Rich Pellegrino; Canto XIV, mixed media by Kari Halker-Saathoff; Cantos XVI & XVII, acrylic and graphite on canvas by Marcy Axelband; “The Devil”, mixed media fiber by Margene May; “Inferno II”, oil on board by Marti Jones Dixon

Monday, September 8, 2014

Theatre On Fire





Theatre On Fire

By Tom Wachunas 

    You’d think that a musical with all the towering anger and darkness of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street would naturally demand a venue of sufficiently large dimensions to vent its blistering intensity. So if the decision by the Canton Players Guild to eschew a mainstage spectacle and mount the work in the intimacy of its downstairs arena theater may seem counterintuitive, in retrospect it was also a stroke of creative genius. This production is magnificently realized in every way by a wonderful, gifted 21-member cast under the inspired directing by Jonathan Tisevich.
   The blunt simplicity of the angular wooden platforms and ramps (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen), along with the expressive lighting (designed by Scott Sutton) perfectly conjure 19th century London’s gloomy side streets. Herein the grizzly story of Sweeney Todd unfolds like a raging wildfire, beginning with the straitjacketed character of Tobias (Matthew Heppe) at center stage, corpses strewn about the periphery. With swollen, sad eyes and quivering voice, he intones the opening words of the doleful Ballad of Sweeney Todd, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” and the ensemble joins in, “he served a dark and angry god…”
    With the constancy of a death knell, pieces of that anthem are threaded throughout the performance. Much of the complex musical score is colored by a tonal dissonance that casts haunting aural shadows on the proceedings. It’s an understandably daunting challenge for singers, and one very well met by the entire cast – lead players and ensemble alike – as well as the excellent nine-member off-stage orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons.  
    Once a happily married barber with a beautiful wife and baby girl, Sweeney Todd (Micah Harvey) was unjustly convicted by the malicious and covetous Judge Turpin (David Everett). After fifteen years Todd escapes his prison in Australia, returns to London, and is soon told that his wife is gone and his teenage daughter, Johanna (Rachel Balko), has become a ward of the lascivious Turpin. Driven to wreak vengeance on Turpin and his cruel right-hand man, Beadle (Greg Emanuelson), Todd hatches a monstrous plan with his newfound partner, the conniving Mrs. Lovett (Heidi Swinford), owner of a bake shop that sells pies filled with cat meat. She reveals Todd’s precious barber’s implements that she’s been keeping during his prison exile, further sharpening his steely resolve as he addresses his razors in the chilling My Friends.
    Whether together or separately, Micah Harvey’s Sweeney and Heidi Swinford’s Mrs. Lovett are deliciously animated. He with his sonorous voice like thunder and menacing eyes like caves, and she with her indefatigably naughty, impish manner, provide remarkable operatic thrust to the production. The raucous punning in A Little Priest at the end of Act I is a hilarious showstopper wherein the pair proposes to make meat pies out of citizens in various professions. Sweeney vows to give them all the closest – and last – shaves they’ll ever have.
    Others among the many memorable passages here include Rachel Balko’s sweet soprano rendering of Green Finch and Linnet Bird, wherein the confined Johanna identifies with caged songbirds and muses, “…teach me how to sing. If I cannot fly, let me sing.” Soon after, Jimmy Ferko, in his role of Anthony, who is deeply smitten with and vows to rescue Johanna, sings the charming ballad Johanna with touching urgency. Equally moving is Matthew Heppe’s portrayal of the endearingly nervous street boy, Tobias, as he pledges his undying loyalty to Mrs. Lovett in Not While I’m Around. Daryl Robinson is delightfully eccentric as Adolfo Pirelli, a con man and blackmailer who pushes Sweeney a bit too far. And as the beggar woman, Stephanie Cargill is a riveting, frenzied presence. She’s a spying banshee haunting the shadows, prone to sexual solicitation – seeing, hearing and knowing too much.       
    When did this 1979 Sondheim masterwork ever stop speaking to the horrific predicaments of humans in too many places across our world? The turbulent, gripping finale of the story is a sobering reminder that Sweeney Todd’s “dark and angry god” is his own prideful invention - an impotent response to the searing pain of stolen dreams. He doesn’t “serve” such a god so much as surrender to it, and to no good purpose. Yet still, somewhere beyond the cacophonous, bloody end, it’s the back story of Johanna and Anthony, deceptively na├»ve on its surface, that hopefully continues to sing. Attend the tale…      

    Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton. Suggested for mature audiences. Shows THROUGH SEPTEMBER 21, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets $18. Order at (330) 453-7617 or at www.playersguildtheatre.com 

   PHOTOS, by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Micah Harvey; Micah Harvey and Heidi Swinford; Jimmy Ferko and Rachel Balko; Matthew Heppe

Friday, September 5, 2014

Homage To A Living Legacy






Homage To A Living Legacy

By Tom Wachunas 
 

    "…always present the spectator with a transfigured view of visible reality." –Jan Van Eyck


    EXHIBIT: The Great Masters As Teachers – oil paintings in the Flemish technique by Frank Dale and his students, in the Wilkof Courtyard of the Canton Museum of Art. Opening tonight, Sept. 5 and on view through tomorrow, Sept. 6. THE SHOW WILL BE RE-INSTALLED ON SEPTEMBER 16 and REMAIN ON VIEW THROUGH SEPTEBER 21.

    www.cantonart.org  330-453-7666


    In one way you may call this entry ‘confessions of a flummoxed judge.’ When artist and teacher Frank Dale asked me a few months ago to judge this exhibit of 50 works by 23 of his students (from 10 to 81 years old), I was flattered, gratified and eager to oblige. Little did I appreciate then what a thorny gauntlet he had thrown down. The endeavor became the most daunting assessment task I’ve ever undertaken.
    At one point during my second extended look at the show, I was exasperated and otherwise reduced to being a victim of analysis paralysis. I  couldn’t decide on an order of first, second and third place. Determining the Honorable Mentions proved equally elusive – the show is, on the whole, simply that superb. All of the participants here should be rightfully proud of their achievements. A vast majority of the works demonstrate both an astonishing level of technical excellence and breathtaking beauty.
    Frank Dale’s field of award-winning expertise is in the ‘Old Masters’ Flemish method. The technique of layering translucent oil color glazes imbues the painted subjects with extraordinary luminosity and vitality. All of the paintings here are modeled after works by historic masters spanning roughly five centuries.
    Copying the masters in this context necessitated working from photos. Photographs of paintings can vary widely in terms of their overall clarity, and aren’t always dependably accurate records of the original works. So I think it fair to say that in a number of cases here, the artists needed to exercise some interpretive freedom in approximating certain nuances of detailing and color. But keep in mind that I think the goal for the artists isn’t so much perfect replication as it is to embrace the overarching vision of the chosen master and in turn learn more of how that vision was accomplished. In other words, what are the skills and mechanics needed to deliver the essence of a subject (especially in portraiture)?
    Ultimately my difficult choices for awards (all pictured above, with the exception of an Honorable Mention for Kris Wyler’s The Girl with the Red Hat from the original by Jan Vermeer) were delicate matters of balancing head with heart. It’s a process that can’t be translated into a rigid, pedagogical formula. The works I chose, and for that matter many others here to varying degrees, transcend the demands of physical rendering to present not just pristine surfaces, but ‘places’ or even ‘events’ where poetry meets practicality, where the spiritual and cerebral resonate in harmony. These highly gifted artists have effectively captured the uncanny sense of palpable life – the exquisite anima – of the original works that inspired them.
    I commend Frank Dale and his student artists for their courage in carrying forward an aspect of art that I think is often all too lacking in contemporary painting. Call it the enchanting aura of unabashed nobility.

    PHOTOS, from top: Child At Bath, by Kathy Israel, First Place, from the original by William Bouguereau; Madonna of the Lillies, by Dan Wilkey, Second Place, from the original by William Bouguereau; La Donna Velata, by Nicole Hill, Third Place, from the original by Raphael; The Book of Fables, by Sujata Mukerji, Honorable Mention, from the original by William Bouguereau; Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Frank Dale, “Teacher’s Best” certificate, from the original by Jan Vermeer