Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Animal Magnetism

Animal Magnetism

By Tom Wachunas

   “The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art's audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.”   - Paul Gauguin

   “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” - Robert Henri

   EXHIBIT: Art and the Animal – Annual Traveling Exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists (SAA) / at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / THROUGH JULY 17, 2016 / 330.453.7666  www.cantonart.org 

    To begin, I provide here some useful background info excerpted (italicized here) from the Canton Museum of Art News Release from a few months ago:

   Art and the Animal refers to both the annual exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists, and the traveling exhibition and tour that is generated from it…

…Only the best animal art is selected for Art and the Animal. Consequently, it extremely difficult, and therefore prestigious, for artists to have artwork accepted into the exhibition. Combining natural history and fine art in creative ways, SAA members compete to have their work included in annual exhibitions chosen by a selection jury comprised of SAA members who meet at the Salmagundi Club in New York each Spring…

…The Society of Animal Artists was founded in 1960 by the late Patricia Allen Bott and Guido Borghi, two visionaries who sought to reposition animal art as an important contemporary art form by creating a community of like-minded artists…”



   OK now, onward. I’m not going to be commenting on any specific pieces if only because there are simply too many of equally superb caliber in this exhibit of more than 60 works from world-class wildlife artists. I have no “favorites.” In fact, I was amply overwhelmed at the consistent level of utterly exquisite technique and design sensibilities apparent here in both 2D and 3D works. To be sure, the SAA is one very seriously gifted fellowship of, as stated above, “like-minded” artists. And it’s that “like-minded” reference, along with “…to reposition animal art…” that resonate most deeply with my appreciation of this spectacular show. As it is, my commentary here is largely centered on the art of painting as perceived and appreciated by both those “in the know” as well as by the general viewing public “in the now” of these postmodern times.

    For many years I have sung the praises of non-objective, abstract, “painterly” works – their pursuit, both dauntless and daunting, of intuition, spontaneity, improvisation…of inventing the world anew to the point of creating an autonomous reality, true only to itself, it would seem. Vive la differénce.

   Yet all along I’ve been acutely aware that this sort of contemporary painting can often be perplexing enough to squelch meaningfulness to many viewers who might be too easily if not wrongly dismissed as unsophisticated, or insensitive to really seeing. I remember feeling both amused and humbled when I saw a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon some years ago, wherein I read, “As my artist statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible, therefore full of deep significance.” It’s hilarious in its way, not to mention ironic in how it embodies the elitist philosophy apparent in so much art critique these days – experts floundering in arcane artspeak to “explain” the latest showing of the emperor’s new clothes.

    Don’t get me wrong – my respect for, and appreciation of truly compelling non-objective painting remains undiminished. That said, I think it also true that representational art of the sort seen here (call it what you will – Realism, Naturalism, tromp l’oeil, even Hyper-realism) harks to a time and culture where faithful imitation of the natural world was a sufficiently compelling enough metaphor for the nobler aspects of the human condition. I think we’re currently entrenched in a culture that has too quickly marginalized such art, somehow determining it to be merely nostalgic, pleasant or “entertaining,” but impotent. Hence, the SAA and similar entities must necessarily – and courageously – continue to “reposition” themselves in the minds and hearts of all those dedicated to savoring truly great art.   

   If Modernism opened a Pandora’s Box of stylistic and philosophic variances in painting, Postmodernism has served to further advance both the best and the most eccentric, ridiculous, and aberrant of those variances. Vive la differénce, but how much, and for how long? This is certainly not to say there’s no place for non-objective expression, only that history will find a way to sort out and prioritize the vagaries of trending cultural tastes.

   Meanwhile I’m nonetheless hopeful, even confident, that when representational art rises to the level of visual sublimity we see in this particular exhibition, it rightly remains a timeless, relevant and necessary witness to the ineffable beauty of the natural world.

   Can what was old be made new again? Vive la révolution.

PHOTOS, from top, courtesy Canton Museum of Art:    Ed Takacs (American). Gelapagos Marine Iguana, 2014. Acrylic, 23 x 29  in. Image Courtesy of the artist © Ed Takacs / Cynthie Fisher (American). Ambush!, 2015. Oil, 48 x 65  in. Image Courtesy of the artist © Cynthie Fisher. / John Baumlin (American). Out on a Limb, 2015. Oil on Linen, 26 x 36 in. Image Courtesy of the artist. © John Baumlin. / Grant Hacking (American). Ancestral Bloodline, 2014. Oil on Canvas, 47 x 57 in. Image Courtesy of the artist. © Grant Hacking. / Patsy Lindamood (American). Upward Bound, 2011. Pastel on Ampersand Pasteboard, 24 x 30 in. Image Courtesy of the artist. © Grant Hacking.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Eloquent Obsolescence

Eloquent Obsolescence

By Tom Wachunas

    “I’m fascinated by objects that outlast their utility, that are still around after advancing technology has long ago made them obsolete. Using a camera from the ’70s or a micrometer from the ’40s is an amazing experience. In a world where the camera you bought today was replaced yesterday, that's a rare opportunity. If I'm lucky, I'll outlast my usefulness too.”  - Jeremy Aronhalt 

    EXHIBIT: Older Than I – Photography by Jeremy Aronhalt, curated by Craig Joseph,  THROUGH JULY 17, 2016, at Studio M in MASSILLON MUSEUM, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, Ohio /  Museum hours: Tuesday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. / 330-833-4061 / www.massillonmuseum.org   

   Standing alone recently in Massillon Museum’s Studio M, I was facing and looking at a photograph of a camera…through my camera. In that lens-to-lens moment, it seemed strange if not downright surreal to be making a picture of a picture of a thing that once made pictures. But I had decided to document this commentary on the photographs (Archival ink jet prints) by Jeremy Aronhalt, curated by Craig Joseph, in a manner more true to their physicality, their reality as art objects presently on a wall in a specific place, rather than presenting out-of-context, pristine digital reproductions.

   Speaking of ‘pristine,’ all of the photos in the exhibit are under glass, uniformly framed in black, each showing an object crisply focused and perfectly centered, or a small collection of objects elegantly arranged and balanced, and all appearing to be situated on a blank white “field.”  There’s something scientific about the presentation, suggesting inventoried  specimens from a bygone era.

   The analogy isn’t so farfetched. As Aronhalt tells us in his statement, these are pictures of objects that have outlasted their original functions. In that, they’re like so many fossils of extinct species. But as any paleontologist would tell you, fossils are neither useless nor mute.

   This exhibit, then, is certainly not an exercise in vapid nostalgia or pointless curiosity.  Aronhalt’s ‘fossils’ are largely of vintage devices used for seeing, measuring, or building, and as photographs they’re imbued with an oddly beautiful, sublime simplicity and precision.  Consider them as eloquent symbols that speak of the uniquely human desire and capacity to consciously connect with history. On one level, these photographs remind me that we can most intentionally and fully appreciate where we are now only to the extent that we can appreciate the ideas and technologies that got us here.

   So there I was, photographing photographs, noticing the interior of the room reflected off their surfaces, including myself, holding the camera, a  gadget for seeing, measuring, building a connection. Think of it as a merging of past with present, of artifact with artifice. Or better still, think of the art of photography as the useful pursuit of timelessness.

   PHOTOS, from top: Thread Gage / Handy Reference / Lufkin I.D. Mics / Dial Indicators / Installation view   

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Finding a Nexus

Finding a Nexus

By Tom Wachunas

    nex•us (ˈnɛk səs)

n., pl. nex•us•es, nex•us.

1. a means of connection; tie; link. / 2. a connected series or group. /3. the core or center, as of a matter or situation. / 4. a specialized area of the cell membrane involved in intercellular communication and adhesion. [From the Latin nexus - a binding, joining, fastening, derivative of nect(ere) to bind, fasten] / Citation: Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.


     “Picasso was the first person to produce figurative paintings which overturned the rules of appearance; he suggested appearance without using the usual codes, without respecting the representational truth of form, but using a breath of irrationality instead, to make representation stronger and more direct; so that form could pass directly from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain.”   - Francis Bacon

    EXHIBIT: Vibrant Intuitions, paintings by Tina Meyers, at the Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, THROUGH JULY 9, 2016 / 185 N. Main Street, North Canton, Ohio  330.499.4712  Ext. 312

   The above quote from painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is particularly apropos to this exhibit on a few levels, which I’ll elaborate upon shortly. First, though, I point out that Bacon’s assessment of Picasso’s originality was a bit too generous if not inaccurate. While it’s true that Picasso radically transformed traditional 2D representation early in the 20th century along with his cohort, Georges Braque, in their invention of Cubism, he acknowledged the significant influence of his predecessor, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), whom he called on more than one occasion, “the father of us all.” It was Cezanne’s late-19th century quest for “a new optic” that would ultimately set the stage for the revolution of pictorial form that became Modernist painting.

   Looking at the 32 works here by Tina Meyers, most of them acrylic paintings that span the past two years (she’s a remarkably prolific artist), I wonder if she has asked herself on many occasions the same question that Cezanne repeatedly embraced: Can a painting convey a sense of natural solidity and depth without depending on the academic conventions of illusionism?

   It’s interesting to note that Meyers is self-taught. So was Francis Bacon. As she tells us in her statement for this exhibit, her work is a “therapeutic process” wherein her pictures evolve over time. It’s an intuitive process – you could call it a self-correcting response to her own abstract mark-making – that can allow relatively identifiable images to emerge. The resultant surfaces, while not seething with impasto paint textures, have a subtly tactile and layered physicality. And it’s that ideological arc of immediacy - of being in the moment of putting paint to surface, of seeing a mark and progressively responding to it with another mark or a broad swath of color or a simple line – that conceptually aligns Meyers’ approach with, among other influences, Abstract Expressionism. 

    So it is that some of her figural pieces, such as “Night Swimmer” and “Solitude,” or nature images such as “May Flowers,” exude an intensely gestural and spontaneous energy. Brushstrokes have a swept or blurred look similar to that which haunts so many of Francis Bacon’s paintings.

   Then again, many other pieces, including “Disagreement” and “Canopy,” clearly demonstrate Meyers’ Cubist sensibilities. And like the Cubists, Meyers seems cognizant to varying degrees in such works of Cezanne’s employment of color “passages” – planes of color that both fade away from and meld with surrounding areas.

   Meyer’s handling of pictorial space, however, significantly differs from that of Cezanne or the Cubists, who opted to fully integrate objects with their “backgrounds.”  Her renderings of specific things or figures generally have a constructed, even “sculpted” feel in that they’re autonomous, volumetric occurrences (an exception being the geometric abstraction in the enigmatically titled “Advices”), standing on somewhat undefined, shallow, though very painterly, “fields.” Sometimes her use of black lines (ink pen or Sharpie) to trace a contour or reinforce a texture feels like a too-cute and precious afterthought - an unnecessary intrusion on the overall dynamic of the picture.

   That said, those are relatively minor glitches in the otherwise memorable and unique aesthetic dialect that Tina Meyers has adopted. In doing so, she has effectively fashioned a seductive nexus of Modernist sources.  

    PHOTOS, from top: May Flowers / Disagreement / Canopy / Solitude / Advices

Monday, June 6, 2016

Alluring Echoes of Science

 Alluring Echoes of Science

By Tom Wachunas

   “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”  - Albert Einstein

    EXHIBIT: FUSION – The Merging of Art & Science / works by Sarah Burris, Jennifer Anne Court, Keith Freund + Linda Lejovska, Micah Kraus, Beth Lindenberger, Jack McWhorter, Miwa Neishi, Lorraine-Heller Nicholas, Seth Shaffer, Donna Webb (also with Beth Lindenberger and Joseph Blue Sky), Wei Zeng / at  SUMMIT ARTSPACE,  through JUNE 18, 2016 /  140 East Market Street, Akron, Ohio / Gallery hours Thursday and Friday 12 – 7 p.m., Saturday 12 to 5 p.m. /  phone 330-376-8480 / www.summitartspace.org

    The theme of this group show – “The Merging of Art and Science” – suggests some intriguing considerations. Initially, it might seem predicated on a conventional perspective that art and science are separate and discrete …what? Disciplines?  Motivations?  Methodologies?  In the past, this sort of compartmentalizing tended to make us associate such things as intuition, chance, and emotionality with art, while assigning reason and logic to the realm of science. It’s the classic dichotomy of subjectivity and objectivity, creating and perceiving, or if you will, of spirituality and materiality.

    But I think our postmodernist philosophizing and its penchant for deconstructing old assumptions and definitions can be useful in appreciating how the boundaries between art and science aren’t as substantive or necessary as we might think. For the moment, consider both simply as human pursuits or aspirations, cross-fertilizing each other, and otherwise united in that they are, essentially, responses to being alive. As such, both pursuits are inherently exploratory and expository activities, ultimately probing  the meaning of our aliveness. In that regard, the sheer variety of media to be found here makes the exhibit at once aesthetically engaging and - particularly in the mesmerizing collaborative video installation by Lorraine-Heller Nicholas, Sarah Burris, Keith Freund and Linda Lejsovka - cerebrally challenging.

    This is not to say that these artworks are “scientific” illustrations or expositions of the apparent workings of the universe, or declarations of immutable truths. They don’t “explain” in the cognitive sense so much as they imply or abstract, while often celebrating evidence of nature’s fecundity of organic forms, physical systems, and/or processes. The curator for this exhibit, Rob Lehr, puts it this way: “Artists and scientists both investigate the world around them to absorb and transform information into new and unexpected ways. From laboratories to studios, biomimicry with all of its fascinating nuances, merges art and science, allowing onlookers to grasp nature’s remarkable power to evolve and survive.”

   Though Jennifer Anne Court calls her beautiful digital prints “Microscapes,” their rippled fields of color seem to somehow evoke not just fluid movement on a small scale, but perhaps cosmic waves of stellar energy as well. On the other hand, Wei Zeng’s series of intimately-scaled pieces, under the title “Live Like Cells” and made with silver and polymer clay, are more clearly inspired by microscopic cellular growths. But here they’re objectified and enlarged enough - as indicated in the accompanying snapshots of (presumably) the artist – to be worn like jewelry. There’s an elegant intimacy, too, in Beth Lindenberger’s delicate terracotta evocations of forms reminiscent of seedpods or spores.

    On a headier note, Micah Kraus’s collages of found imagery  along with relief and screen prints read like a Dada scrapbook, or whimsical manifestos on psychology and physiology. And it seems to be a psychological “space” as well that Miwa Neishi explores in an array of fascinating open-volume, brightly-hued sculptures.

    The wall sculptures by Seth Shaffer are meticulously crafted boxes that have been deeply incised to reveal amorphous cavities made with recessed layers of hand-cut paper. The depth, intricacy, and variable patterns of these layers are a wondrous counterpoint to the slick stability of the outer surfaces of the boxes.  Metaphors for the neuron networks deep inside the skull?

    And speaking of counterpoints, music of a kind came to mind when I saw the four spectacular oil paintings  by Jack McWhorter.  Pulsing, layered, soaring music. Broad brushstrokes like melody lines. Coming forward,  fading inward, then forward again. Entwined with polyphonic harmonies. Driven along by bold, brassy staccato notes. Dotted with steady percussion. Tone poems about the movement of molecules, or chemical reactions, or interactive systems of living things growing and evolving.

    Call them songs about science.

    PHOTOS, from top: Resurrection Shell, by Jack McWhorter / Sheba 1196, by Seth Shaffer / Plum Blue, by Miwa Neishi / Cellscape #2, by Beth Lindenberger