A Captivating Call and Response
By Tom Wachunas
EXHIBIT: Readapt: Artwork Inspired by the Permanent Collection / at the Massillon Museum, THROUGH SEPTEMBER 25, 2016 / 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon / participating artists: Kevin Anderson (Canton), Kristen Cliffel (Cleveland), Melissa Daubert (Cleveland), Dana Depew (Berea), Andy Dreamingwolf (Mogadore), Brian Harnetty (Columbus), George Kozmon (Gates Mills), Noel Palomo-Lovinski (Kent), Francis Schanberger (Dayton), Gina Washington (Cleveland) www.massillonmuseum.org
EXHIBIT: Conversations With Our Collection, featuring works by 15 Massillon Museum staff members / at Cyrus Custom Framing and Art Gallery, THROUGH SEPTEMBER 23, 2016 / 2645 Cleveland Ave. NW / 330.452.9787
participating artists: BZTAT—Vicki Boatright (Art Teacher) , Heather Bullach (Traveling Exhibits Coordinator) , Alexandra Nicholis Coon (Executive Director) , Christopher Craft (Artful Living Program Director) , Demi Edwards (Education Intern) , Diane Gibson (Art Teacher), Samantha Lechner (Social Media and Events Intern), April Bernath Olsen (Education and Outreach Coordinator), Scot Phillips (Operations Officer), Mandy Altimus Pond (Archivist), Meghan Reed (Registrar), Emily Vigil (Studio M Coordinator), Margy Vogt (Public Relations Coordinator), Michelle Waalkes (Artful Living Program Art Teacher), Jamie Woodburn (Social Media and Shop Intern)
There’s plenty of precedent for the idea of contemporary artists creating works which intentionally echo, without directly copying, a particular artwork or significant artifact from a previous era. Some examples come immediately to mind: Edouard Manet’s confrontational “Olympia” from 1863 - a direct reference to Titian’s 1538 Renaissance masterpiece, “Venus of Urbino”; Otto Dix’s gripping “The War” (1929-32) - its triptych configuration being a deliberate appropriation of Renaissance altar pieces; or Picasso’s late-career variations on the magnificent Diego Velasquez painting (c. 1656), “Las Meninas.”
While the motivations for such endeavors can be many and varied, the most engaging results go well beyond simply formal imitation. They’re very often predicated on the desire for connecting with the past as a path to illuminating the present.
For its ambitious and very handsomely mounted exhibit called “Readapt,” the Massillon Museum commissioned 10 Ohio artists to make pieces inspired by artworks or artifacts from its permanent collection. Each artist’s piece is accompanied by a photo of an object or image selected from the museum collection, along with a bio of the participating artist and statement of his or her approach or process in creating a response. Curator Heather Haden said this about the show: "No two people interpret an object the same way. What does the art and historical legacy of the Massillon Museum collection look like to artists, and how might it inspire continued creativity? That is the question posed by this project… The task of each artist was to adapt some element—aesthetic, historical, or even an emotional response—of his/her assigned Museum artifacts into a new creation.”
Among the more intriguing works here are Melissa Daubert’s “Harvey mends the sawfish rostrum,” which joins Harvey the monkey (back in the 1970s, live specimens were kept by the museum in its former building) with a sawfish rostrum (nose). Daubert has created something of a delightful children’s tale, perhaps, with fiberboard and wire, wherein Harvey rescues and repairs the captive sawfish.
“Out of the shadows,” an exquisitely textured wall piece by Kevin Anderson, is a tall, narrow piece of leopard wood, with its surface carved out to make an elongated silhouette of David Hostetler’s (1926-2015) beautiful “Yellow Hat,” a free-standing woman sculpted in wood. The inside of Anderson’s silhouette is in turn painted to recall “Collage I,” a dramatic 1973 scratchboard portrait of an African American family by Donald Townsend.
The acrylic painting, “Blood, Steel, and Tears,” by Andy Dreamingwolf, is a stark exploration of the troubled history of steel in these parts. The work is somewhat jarring in its reductive black-and-white contrasts, underscored by a blank panel of red, like an angry footnote. Yet for all of its crisp, minimalist markings, it is remarkably - even profoundly - expressive.
Meanwhile, at Cyrus Custom Framing and Art Gallery, 15 Massillon Museum staff members have assembled their own works in a similarly conceived and equally striking exhibit. Considering the notable preponderance of photographs in the Massillon Museum’s collection, it’s not surprising that many of the artists have sourced them to create their pieces here.
Michelle Waalkes’ fascination with old buildings is in excellent form with her phototransfer image on gold leaf called “The Interior,” prompted by a 1900 photo of Massillon State Hospital. It’s an eerie evocation of minds locked (imprisoned?) in receding layers of oddly glowing mystery.
Heather Bullach, in her exquisite oil painting called “Subtelty,” has deleted the figure of a lone woman standing on a shore that we see in Nell Dorr’s 1937 photo, “None But the Lonely Heart.” As a viewer of Bullach’s painting, you might project yourself, then, as a lone walker contemplating the soft quietude of the scene.
Emily Vigil was also inspired by Nell Dorr’s photographs, particularly of children in nature, for her sumptuously painted oil diptych called “Young Explorer (Madelyn and the Banyan).” The painting exudes a genuine sense of pure, youthful excitement at discovery.
It’s both important and interesting to note that not all of the contributors to the Cyrus exhibit are what we would automatically call “artists” in the sense of them being trained and/or practiced in pursuing a specific medium or style, or regularly exhibiting their work in a gallery context. Yet this in no way diminishes the validity or imaginative scope of their contributions.
“Roots,” for example, by Meghan Reed (who told me this was the first time she’s ever made a painting), is a triptych of very small canvases painted to suggest a red brick wall, or the windowless facades of three individual buildings. The work is a deceivingly simple response to a more dense-looking mixed media work from 1965 by Alice Lauffer Lawrence called “Brownstone Fronts.” Reed interrupts her free-hand brick patterns with the addition of a few green splotches that trace the mortar joints. Are these cryptic insertions a metaphor for the intrusive vagaries of life both inside and outside human-made structures? Are we to view Reed’s response to the work that inspired her (or the call, if you will) as interrogative or declarative in nature?
It’s a lively spirit of inquiry, then, that makes both of these exhibits so arresting. Art – whether making it or viewing it - is essentially nothing if not a dialogue, a conversation. And that conversation, as art so often demonstrates, can be equal parts answers and questions. The past need not be merely a preserved collection of silent or static artifacts and images. As these artists show us, our history is a continuum - a living catalyst for enlivening our present.
PHOTOS, from top: Harvey mends the sawfish rostrum, by Melissa Daubert; Blood, Steel, and Tears, by Andy Dreamingwolf; Subtelty, by Heather Bullach; The Interior, by Michelle Waalkes; Roots, by Meghan Reed; Thoughts, by Mandy Altimus Pond