Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mother Goosed Metaphors?

 Mother Goosed Metaphors?

By Tom Wachunas

    Exhibit: Out of the Woods and Into the Ring – works in clay by Kristen Cliffel, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio, THROUGH MARCH 6, 2016 

   …I find myself at odds with prescribed routes to “Happily Ever After” and “Success.”
  - Kristen Cliffel

    I used to be Snow White, but I drifted– Mae West

   Fairytales have always been handy cultural tropes for explaining life’s more vexing underpinnings.  Many of these symbolic narratives are traditionally inhabited by all manner of anthropomorphized animals and larger-than-life humans caught up in fantastical struggles wherein curses are lifted, evil is vanquished, and wishes magically come true. Essentially, fairytales are mythical formulas, or paradigms for constructing an idealized world in which we can happily live out even our most impossible dreams.

    In this exhibit, while Kristin Cliffel’s striking works in clay appropriate some familiar fairytale icons, they do so in a manner that gleefully subverts our traditional interpretations and applications of their meaning. Collectively, you could consider their odd juxtapositions of symbols as deconstructing the codified behaviors and expectations that fairytales commonly describe.

    Entering the gallery, we’re immediately greeted by a trio of characters mounted atop circus pedestals in Roll Call: What Kind of Mother Are You Anyway? The piece establishes a primary point of reference in the exhibit – one that seemingly questions the stereotypes and expectations of motherhood. A clown queen, a comforting storyteller and trained entertainer, a nurturing mamma bear? The recurrence of axe forms and imitative wood textures in some of the pieces might suggest mother as multi-tasker, chipping away at the challenges of being a homemaker, or otherwise navigating the circus/circle of life. In both Failing Upward and Unfinished Dreams, the Snow White-looking face wears a Pinocchio nose. Are her dreams of climbing the proverbial ladder of success tantamount to living a lie?

    As forms modeled in clay, these sculptures are wondrously crafted. Their spectacular colors and bold textures (both illusory and real) often evoke vintage Disney animations. Yet belying the sense of childhood innocence that such elements might conjure, an aura of irony and very grownup, glib humor is palpable. The fawn’s head in Welcome Friends, for example, looks for all the world like a smiling Bambi, mounted on the wall like a hunting trophy. A fractured fairytale indeed.

   PHOTOS, from top: Roll Call: What Kind of Mother Are You Anyway? / Mother / Unfinished Dreams / Failing Upward / Welcome Friends      

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Passionate Valentine from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

A Passionate Valentine from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

      Among the special features of the Canton Symphony’s February 14 Valentine’s Day-themed concert at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall was the return of Canton native son, violinist William Shaub. He began his violin studies at age 3, became a member of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at 16, studied further as a scholarship student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and is currently a scholarship student at Julliard School. Through it all he has been steadily building an impressive track record as a soloist throughout the United States.

    On this occasion he regaled us with what could appropriately be called impassioned love notes of the highest order. Based on his thrilling performances of Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, and Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), I hope it’s only a matter of time, the shorter the better, before the rest of the world is blessed by his giftedness.
    Shaub plays a violin made in 1865 (by Jean-Baptiste Vuilliame), and in hearing its unusual depth and warmth, there was an uncanny sensation that he was drawing out and communing with all the music that has ever imprinted itself on its mellowed grains. His unquestionable virtuosity was especially bedazzling in his effortless and witty grasp of the brisk, challenging Sarasate work. As if to deftly cool a musical wildfire that left the audience in slack-jawed amazement, Shaub’s encore performance of Kreisler’s Liebesleid was nonetheless an exciting and flawless rendering of the work’s lilting, bittersweet portrayal of heartbreak over love lost.

    The sheer passion evident in that encore was a fitting mood-setter for the orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy. Here was the CSO at its most commanding and emotionally articulate. From the rapturous soaring of the music’s famous love theme, and through to the thunderous, anguished lament over the society unsympathetic to the story’s ill-fated lovers, the ensemble delivered not just breathtaking music, but a gripping event.

   The remainder of the program - consisting of Carmen Suite by Georges Bizet, and Danzón No.2 by Arturo Márquez – was equally eventful. Members of the Canton Youth Symphony Advanced Orchestra, 42-strong, played side-by-side with the CSO ensemble. The resulting sound was understandably large, stirring, and more importantly, seamless. This was certainly a delightful testament to the high caliber of playing by these youthful artists-in-training, under the direction of Rachel L. Waddell. She’s both the CSO Associate Director and Music Director of the Youth Symphony. Here she conducted the Carmen Suite, delivering a crisp and spirited reading that clearly sparked the ensembles’ unified embrace of the music’s captivating charm. 
    Returning to the podium to conduct the electrifying Márquez piece, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann addressed the audience, acknowledging the remarkable talents of the Youth Symphony as well as all the music educators present in the audience. His eloquent comments were both heartfelt and cautionary as he expressed concern over the limited if not diminishing presence of music and arts curricula in our public schools. He observed that undervaluing or eliminating music education, or relegating it to peripheral extracurricular status, was tantamount to leaving us a future without our souls. Then Zimmermann led the combined ensembles on a rhythmically lush and ebullient jaunt. It ended when, on the final foot-stomping note of the music, all the players rose at once from their seats - an exhilarating call to attention if ever there was one.

    So speaking of souls, Mr. Zimmermann, Heaven called – again - and wants to talk to you about getting its orchestra back. Put your foot down, stand your ground, and keep ‘em on hold, Maestro. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Electric Epiphanies

Electric Epiphanies

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Climbing The Social Ladder – Illustrations by Jennifer Jones, at Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, OH, THROUGH FEBRUARY 27, 2016 – Viewing Hours: Mondays – Fridays 11:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m. (Thursdays until 7:00 p.m.)

   Jennifer Jones completed practically all of the 16 mixed media works here (charcoal, emulsion, and oil paint on paper) over only the past four months. Such a prolific outpouring is a remarkable accomplishment in its own right. More significantly, together these pieces constitute one of the most arresting and beautiful exhibits I’ve ever seen in this gallery.

    In referring to them as “illustrations,” and combined with the show’s title, there would seem to be an implied narrative of specific thematic content. But then, upon examining the actual visual evidence before us, we’re presented with some intriguing questions as to how what we’re seeing connects with our definition of “climbing the social ladder.”

    Keep in mind that words – whether as titles, descriptors, or labels – can cue certain expectations or assumptions. Climbing the “social” ladder? In what context, by what means, and toward what end? Maybe for Jones, her “climb” is as basic as the continuing commitment to her art and the ongoing endeavor to construct an enriching aesthetic and emotional experience for her viewers – something at which she is, I think, quite adept.

    While her figural and scenic configurations in this stunning series borrow generously from Buddhist and/or Hindu iconography, and even as they sometimes suggest illuminated Tantric manuscripts, they’re not overt interpretations of a single culture’s religious dogmas.  It’s more edifying to view them as open-ended, abstract allegories. We could then see the specific spiritual symbols that Jones employs here as sympathetic with the larger idea of oppositional forces poised in equilibrium, or seeking serenity amid clashing energies.

    In keeping with this spiritual modality, most of the works depict palpable tensions of one sort or another, wherein shapes, linearities, and electrifying chromatic elements are suspended in varying states of balance and harmonization - metaphors, perhaps, for self-realization. Many of the amorphous backgrounds are fields of smeared and smudged blacks and greys , ambiguous and ghostly. From these, boldly drawn figures, intricate mandalas, or very ornate architectures in charcoal emerge like so many songs, accented by the staccato notes of saturated colors that signal jubilant changes of key, so to speak.

    Indeed, it is a type of musicality that gives these works much of their lyrical or dramatic potency. Those brooding backgrounds bring to mind the dissonances of drone instruments - so present, interestingly enough, in the music of many non-Western cultures - against which percussive rhythms and melodies can soar in bright relief.

    Consider these marvelous pieces, then, as dazzling odes to the process of journeying, discovery, and ascension.

   PHOTOS, from top: Birth Rites; Blue Eyed; Presumptuous; Up Swing; The Toro’s Tantric    

Friday, February 12, 2016

Event Horizons

Event Horizons

By Tom Wachunas

EXHIBIT: Composing Identities, paintings by Melissa Markwald, THROUGH FEBRUARY 21, 2016, at Studio M in the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, Massillon, Ohio   330.833.4061

    “Faces are the most interesting things we see; other people fascinate me, and the most interesting aspects of other people – the point where we go inside them – is the face. It tells all.”       - David Hockney

    “It’s really absurd to make…a human image with paint, today, when you think about it…But then all of a sudden, it was even more absurd not to do it.”  - Willem de Kooning

   “Painting is the most magical of mediums. The transcendence is truly amazing to me every time I go to a museum and I see how somebody figured another way to rub colored dirt on a flat surface and make space where there is no space or make you think of a life experience.” - Chuck Close

    Featuring 10 very large oil portraits (each 6’ x 7 1/2’, with nine in Studio M, and one hanging in the lobby), this is Melissa Markwald’s BFA Senior Exhibition. She’s set to graduate from the Myers School of Art at the University of Akron in May 2016. In assessing the specifics of Markwald’s youthful vision, you can’t avoid admiring her hutzpah in tackling a prickly representational genre – one that has historically come into and out of art world favor with all the regularity of ocean tides – on such an imposing scale.

    Massillon Museum’s Studio M, despite its somewhat sterile overhead lighting and low ceilings, is an intimate and effective enough venue for looking at paintings within certain scale and spacing parameters. Here, though, the experience of standing before such oversized faces can be at once somewhat stifling and delightfully surreal. As viewers, we might feel like citizens of Lilliput, simultaneously cautious and curious in the presence of so many Gullivers.

    Still, in transcending human anatomical dimensions to the extent we see here, these works are pleasantly intrusive invitations to consider portraiture beyond the merely cosmetic incidentals of “individuality.” Instead, you might consider seeing them as allegories of a society far too fond of enlarging itself, of building and celebrating the predictable and superficial (think about all the megalomaniacal clutter on Facebook) in the name of declaring – almost desperately so – a uniquely meaningful identity. In her statement for the exhibit, Markwald tells us, “…These passages of paint allow me to construct identities rather than just capture them.”

    These constructions are a hybridization of some notable Modernist influences. There is a nod in the direction of Abstract Expressionism’s ideology of painting as a larger-than-life documentation of the painter’s decisions and actions, as well as a tentative kinship with Warholian idol-making. And while generated from photographs, Markwald’s canvases  eschew the intense  hyper-detailing and impersonal surfaces of Chuck Close’s monumental portraits of friends and family (which tended to have the detached look of police mug shots), in favor of something more overtly warm and lyrical. 

   While the visible traces of Markwald’s brushwork are subtle and relatively homogenized when compared to, say, the startling paroxysms of gestural activity in Willem de Kooning’s notorious Woman portraits, her paintings  nonetheless lend themselves to viewing in the abstract. Think of them as soft landscapes of a kind. Nowhere is that aspect more possible to embrace than in two portraits, side-by-side and head-to-head, that present sidelong views of the face. One is Markwald’s self-portrait, the other of her friend, Alyssa Williams. To “read” the individual features and expressions, we instinctively tilt our heads to orient ourselves for a more “personal” contact. Such images prompt us to alter our movement and/or position in the same way we might walk through and examine a vast natural setting. The act of looking ceases to be a strictly psychological encounter with a static figure in a neutral, compressed space. Like the act of painting, looking can become a physically kinetic event in real time.

   For sheer potential, I think Markwald’s aesthetic is fertile territory for even more intriguing developments, having already laid a solid enough foundation on which to build. Hopefully she will continue probing that potential as she faces, so to speak, the horizon of a promising future in painting.

   PHOTOS, from top: Self; Alyssa Williams; Matt; Alyssa

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Signals that Gather

Signals that Gather

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Signals that Gather, abstract paintings by Jack McWhorter, Bridget O’Donnell, George Schroeder, and Nancy Seibert, at The Painting Center, 547 West 27th Street, New York, New York  (212) 343-1060  THROUGH FEB. 27, 2016

    [Note to ARTWACH readers: I have written about all of the artists here in the past as they have exhibited locally, including shows at Main Hall Gallery on the campus of Kent State University at Stark. I felt honored when Jack McWhorter asked me to write the essay for this New York City show’s digital catalog, and so here I offer it for your reading pleasure. The exhibit opened in New York on Feb. 4.]
    According to the Roman author Pliny the Elder, the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis once competed against fellow artist Parrhasius to see who could make the most realistic image.  Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so convincingly that birds attempted to eat them. But when he tried to remove the disheveled curtain he thought was covering his rival’s work, he discovered that the curtain was in fact a painting, thus assuring Parrhasius the victory.

    In many ways this legend from the 5th century BCE encapsulates the raison d’etre behind Western painting that would hold court for roughly the next two millennia: the idealized imitation of the visible world. Painters were expected to be prestidigitators – master illusionists who fabricated beautiful windows on physical reality. Call it an intellectual slavery to the apparent.
    Fast forward to Modernism’s insistence on the flatness of the picture plane as a discrete object in itself, and then further into the pluralistic explorations of concepts and materiality commonly referred to as “Postmodernism.” It is a pesky term at best. Suffice to say that when we strip away the often arcane, sometimes silly philosophical rhetoric that surrounds it, we’re still left with the realization that the essential focus of Postmodernism is, arguably…Modernism. More precisely, it’s an ongoing commentary on, and re-assessment of, Modernist ideologies.  

    That said, the four artists exhibited here – George Schroeder, Nancy Seibert, Bridget O’Donnell, and Jack McWhorter – represent three generations of combined experience in examining the legacy of Modern/Postmodern abstraction. Each has developed a distinctive visual language - a codified system of interrelated markings, shapes, colors and planes that can simultaneously appear to congeal and disperse along the image surface. The painters’ manipulations of these signs, or signals, along with their respective palettes, may refer to “real world” sources, but only in a peripheral or idiosyncratic way.  And even as these painters have developed effective means by which to imply elements such as motion, rhythm, or tension, they do so without delineating  specific narratives or subjects.

    While the apparent structural rigidity and high contrasts of dark and light hues in George Schroeder’s paintings might suggest a kinship to Minimalist aesthetics, it is their quietly regulated surfaces that imbue them with a palpable sense of intuitive expressivity. Schroeder’s paint application allows for delightfully integrated passages wherein the top skin of color has been uniformly scraped away to reveal the grainy tactility of the canvas, tinted earlier in the painting process with shadows of underlying color
   Amid the precision of flat, hard-edged geometric design there is also a playful spatial dynamic – a gentle fluctuation between positive and negative planes that in turn balances rhythmic movement with stillness. What finally emerges from these works is a lyrical architecture of sorts, heraldic in its simplicity, and exquisitely engineered to generate moments of sublime equilibrium.

    Nancy Seibert has drawn her pictorial inspiration from nature in what she calls “…a synergy of paint and energy produced in brushstrokes…” Her recent mixed media works are highly tactile, atmospheric visions that can suggest the volatile movement of wind, water, or perhaps foggy mists across earthen tracts. Indeed, her recent canvases look as if pigments and particulate matter, once deposited on the surface, are in the process of being swept away, leaving in their wake vast white voids. Or perhaps the reverse is true – materials are in the process of arriving to fill empty space.

   In any case, the figure-ground shifts are intriguing. Seibert’s technique is spontaneous enough to allow her to frame essences, imbuing her surfaces with a sense of transient physicality. These are translations of, or meditations on, changeabilty. And you can almost hear the energetic motion of mark-making. Loud silence, or silent noise?

   A related spirit of flux and ambiguity is clearly at work in the mixed media works on paper by Bridget O’Donnell. Her pieces, however, are more autobiographical than ostensibly “natural.” Sourced in maps of places where she has lived, you might consider her visions collectively as an abstract journal of sorts, describing not just the rhythmic patterns of street layouts, but moving or “writing” through them in variable states of mind and heart.

   There is a tangible sense of urgency, mystery, and maybe even madness in her passages of scribbles, doodles, and amorphous clouds of pigment interspersed and synthesized with the grid configurations. It’s as if she wanted  to quickly record memories or sensations before they disappear into the ghostly backgrounds and disintegrate completely. Fragments float, are retrieved, or slip away, in a frenetic and dramatically engaging simultaneity of construction and disruption.

    Jack McWhorter is a painter’s painter. He’s a masterful colorist who revels in the materiality of oil paint, the physicality of the brushed mark or shape, the gestural fluidity of line. “I am drawn to organisms found in nature,” he recently stated, “and respond to their power as factual beginnings in making paintings, in the same way that a landscape painter might use the landscape as a factual beginning.”

    But only the beginning. In exploring the confluence of art and nature, or science, McWhorter formalizes his intuition in these current works via a continued focus on hybridization and what he calls morphology -  “…shapes and forms indicating states of growth or becoming…” His compelling visual syntax is rigorously grounded in the push-pull dynamic between organic/ geometric shapes, spectacular chromatic relationships, and spatial anomolies that might incidentally evoke natural objects or phenomena, yet effectively transcend literal illustration. In their interactions of rhythm, pattern and motion, these paintings pulse and crackle with a jubilant energy, describing structures or processes at once matured and nascent, static and changing.

    McWhorter’s invigorating offerings, and for that matter those of the other artists he has gathered here, take me back, oddly enough, to Zeuxis and Parrhasius. They embodied a painting tradition that never outgrew  meticulous narrating of the visible world. I’m reminded that one difference between representational and abstract painting is the difference between prose and poetry. 

    The stylistic variances among the works in this exhibit notwithstanding, each artist demonstrates a unique fluency in some dialect of abstraction. It is a poetic language to be sure, and one that can be admittedly complex, even confounding. But it remains ever true to its purpose of embracing that which is most ephemeral and ineffable about not just making art, but I dare say being alive.

   PHOTOS, from top: Sketch, acrylic on linen, by George Schroeder; Shore Dreams II, mixed media by Nancy Siebert; Akron, mixed media by Bridget O’Donnell; Slow Formation, oil on canvas by Jack McWhorter

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Metamatters and Matterfors

Metamatters and Matterphors

By Tom Wachunas

   EXHIBIT: Mythography 2.0, artworks by Scott Alan Evans, at Merging Hearts Holistic Center, 3751 Burrshire Drive NW, Canton, THROUGH FEB. 28, viewing hours variable – CALL 330.451.6214, or email inquiries to
Exhibit background and artist statement:

   Aegolius had worked himself into one of his famously flustered states. This was always the case whenever he visited an exhibit of what he called ‘postwhatsit’ art. “Well, I’ve never seen anything quite this…,” he blurted, “…and, well, I mean anything I could call…” His whiny voice trailed off into indecipherable muttering.
   Nyctea stroked his back gently and cooed, “Relax. It’ll come to you.”
   After a few more minutes of nervous pacing around and squinting at the strange works, wide-eyed Aegolius finally screeched, “Metamatters and matterphors!”
   And just as she had done countless times before, Nyctea nodded her approval. “Perfect,” she said.
 - From “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit –

    Of this collection of mixed-media works sourced in folktales, fantasy literature, and mythology, Scott Alan Evans says in his statement (see link above), “…To me this is a form of alchemy. The goal is that the art becomes magic and (if done well) the artist becomes shaman and story teller.”

   All true artists are modern-day shamans to one degree or another - conjurers, intercessors, interpreters.  More to the point here, their works can be bridges to other, more “mystical” dimensions of our consciousness and how we process them.

     The articulation of the mystical or fantastic has given rise in recent decades to an increasingly popular visual genre usually referred to as “fantasy art,” or “fantasy illustration.” And I admit to expecting as much when I went to view this exhibit, if for no other reason than its title. But these works by Scott Alan Evans don’t fit the stylistic mold commonly associated with the genre – an aesthetic brand, actually, characterized by a practically obsessive attention to elaborately detailed illusionism. I’m thinking of the kind of specialty art featured, for example, at Ikon Images gallery in downtown Canton (ARTWACH archive, Nov. 1, 2015). It’s interesting and even somewhat counterintuitive that hyper-realistic iconography of this sort can often leave little to the imagination of the viewer.

   Evans’ images, on the other hand, in traversing much of the same conceptual territory as fantasy art, are decidedly less precious in formal execution. Still, they’re fascinating enough invitations for us to fill in the blanks. Their impact lies not in meticulously depicting the physical illusion of specific alternate realities, but rather in how they suggest a materiality of mood, or the penumbral atmosphere of strange locales and phenomena.

   While the painting technique evident in some of these images is not what one might readily label as classically refined, it is nonetheless appropriate to their content in its sheer expressivity. And here’s where things get really intriguing. Evans’ strongest pieces are hybrid images, wherein paint is not a tactile presence (as it is in the visceral impasto acrylic work, “Archipelago,” for example), but rather incorporated and re-presented as areas of color and texture within the picture plane of digital photographs. In works such as “The Phoenix Rises” and “Siren Song,” what looks like thick paint isn’t paint, but a picture of paint – an embedded memory, or a document of a past action in real time.

   We could, then, call Evans a contemporary shaman. Beyond turning paint into ice or fire or a churning sea, his digitalized methodology has conjured arresting metaphors for both the making of myths and the creative process itself. Casting aside the incidentals of vengeful gods, demonic spirits, or malevolent beasts, myths have always been essentially stories of the human condition, constructed and embedded in our history to engage timeless questions about our very existence. Evans’ work is a compelling reminder that we remember our myths only because art, in all its forms, can give them their voice.

   PHOTOS, from top: Leviathan, acrylic; King of the Frost Giants, digital; Archipelago, acrylic; The Phoenix Rises, acrylic; Siren Song, digital