Wednesday, October 26, 2016

MassMu Déjà vu

MassMu Déjà vu 

By Tom Wachunas

   So let's leave it alone, 'cause we can't see eye to eye / There ain't no good guy /  there ain't no bad guy / There's only you and me / and we just disagree.  – song lyrics by Dave Mason

   EXHIBIT: Annual Stark County Artists Exhibition, at Massillon Museum, THROUGH DECEMBER 31, 2016 / 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon / Jurors: Mark Masuoka, Executive Director and CEO of the Akron Art Museum; Frank Oriti, visual artist from Cleveland, Ohio; Shari Wilkins, Founder and Director at the Cleveland Print Room
(Full disclosure - I do have a piece in this year’s exhibit. I wrote about it in April, at 
    In this postmodern era, there’s no universal standard by which to measure and declare an artwork’s indisputable excellence (much to the dismay, I’m sure, of some academic traditionalists). And regardless of a juror’s credentials, the process of determining relative levels of aesthetic quality is in the end a complex and mostly subjective one, fraught with subtle biases, including multiple definitions of art. The practice has become needlessly imperious and even a bit silly. Why can’t we simply have “jurors” as guest curators who choose the entrants to be exhibited and leave it at that? This is after all an art show, not a horse race. The designations of win-place-show certainly mean something unarguable in the sport of kings, but they have little if any truly meaningful function in the context of group art exhibitions.  [excerpt from last year’s ARTWACH post - Dec. 19, 2015]

   I said it last year regarding this annual exhibition (and for that matter, any exhibit with a hierarchy of awards, beginning with ‘Best in Show’)  and I’m saying it again this year. So call me a whiner if you will. I still think that to designate a single work as ‘best’ (or second or third) - in an array as impressively diverse in media, style, content, and techniques as this one is – is to imply that all the other un-awarded works are relatively inferior achievements. It’s an ultimately meaningless competition paradigm suggesting, perhaps, that jurors are unassailable umpires of aesthetic excellence. They’re not. And I would certainly think they’re sensitive and intelligent enough to realize as much. 

   That said, I can’t tell you why, in any objective sense, Daniel McLaughlin’s oil on canvas piece - a somewhat flaccid grisaille study of a vacuum cleaner called Hoover Concept 2 (Best in Show) - merited a $300 award over, say, Brian Robinson’s magnificent pastel landscape, Resting Soil, or Diane Belfiglio’s equally beautiful oil pastel, Going Deeper II, neither work garnering an award. What exactly makes Michael Weiss’s surreal digital manipulations in his The Island more deserving of a money prize (in this case, $100 for Third Place) than Karen Bogdan’s spectacular fabric work, Summer Flower Garden,  or Pamela Glover Wadsworth’s arresting mixed media abstract painting, Being Rorschach? Does the fact that both of these women were awarded a (piddling?) Honorable Mention mean that their works are somehow less-than, not-quite-so, or lacking-in…what? 

    Nor can I tell you why Spencer Molnar’s acrylic and oil Two-Faced - at once goofy and ghoulish - received Second Place honors over such un-awarded accomplishments as William Bogdan’s haunting and poetic woodcut, The Chess Player, David Kuntzman’s dazzling grids in Newton, or the serene simplicity of Kelly Rae’s mixed media painting, Refuge.

   I guess all this grousing makes me a back-seat juror. Enough already. Besides, it’s not the jury I mean to skewer here, but rather the paradigm or system they’ve been asked to enter. With no indisputable rubric for discerning what’s good, better, or best, the system itself is an arbitrary one and, in the end, merely an unpredictable exercise of opinions, albeit presumably educated ones.

  I don’t think there are too many Stark County artists who are naïve  enough enter a local juried exhibit with the singular desire to win cash, even though it’s fun (and for a lucky few, useful) to embellish a resumé with accumulated accolades. The fact of the matter is that, given Stark County’s pitiable dearth of suitably large, established gallery spaces, most local artists regard opportunities such as this annual event at Massillon Museum simply as a motivation to keep their work in the public eye, however marginal in these parts that may be. The most valid, meaningful award any artist can reasonably hope for is any viewer’s genuinely willful attention to the work at hand. 
   So here’s my heartfelt thanks to all of you who bestow as much on this exhibit.

   PHOTOS, from top: Childhood, by Daniel McLaughlin; Being Rorschach, by Pamela Glover Wadsworth; Summer Flower Garden, by Karen Bogdan; Refuge, by Kelly Rae; The Chess Player, by William Bogdan; Going Deeper II, by Diane Belfiglio; Newton, by David Kuntzman    

Monday, October 10, 2016

Seeing The Sublime

Seeing The Sublime

By Tom Wachunas
   “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.” ― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

   “…The eternal riddle encompasses points in time; it considers decay and rejuvenation. Its innermost secret is revealed in the "other", the spirit world - the ancestral footstep walking behind us.” - Marianne van Lent,  2014

   EXHIBIT: GLADE INVADED – Paintings by Marianne Van Lent / Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH OCTOBER 28, 2016 / Viewing hours Monday – Friday 11 A.M. – 5 P.M.

    Though it could seem unremarkable to some viewers, among the many aspects that make this exhibit so completely engaging is in how NYC-based painter Marianne Van Lent specifies her medium: fresco secco and dispersed pigment (on canvas or panel). Fresco secco. It’s the very old Italian term for the practice of painting on dried plaster.

    While other painters working in some related manner might be understandably content to list their materials simply as “mixed media on canvas,” Van Lent gives us an important insight to her aesthetic. Beyond its literal connotation, fresco secco indicates a subtle alignment with the momentum of painting history. Think of her iconography – even in its clearly abstract appearance - as a continuation of a long tradition, though certainly not limited to fresco secco per se. I mean ‘tradition’ here in the larger sense, namely the one which declared, centuries ago, the raison d’etre for painting to be the transformation of a two-dimensional plane into a compelling illusion or meaningful symbol of “naturalistic” reality.

    Modernist painters challenged and otherwise usurped that operative philosophy and, by mid-20th century, declared and liberated the picture plane to be a discrete reality unto itself. In so doing, they offered visions - both representational and non-objective - that we could rightly call metaphysical in character. Abstract painting was a formal departure, in ever varying degrees, from necessarily literal identification with the visible world. Yet at its most potent, such art can nonetheless actually enlighten how we define and perceive “reality” on multiple planes.

   So it is that Marianne Van Lent begins by priming her surfaces with a thin layer of plaster. This tactile skin could itself be a metaphor for consciousness – a constant awareness of all the painterly events that have transpired upon it. In that sense, her paintings are self-contained histories of their own making. The gently visceral ripples and creases in the undercoat are still perceptible under multiple layers of luscious translucent washes (the facile glazing of “dispersed pigment” invests her acrylic colors with the distinctive luminosity of oil paint) that seem to float forever in palpable tension with more opaque concentrations of codified, often stenciled shapes, all amid sweeping, gestural brush marks, and all rendered in an exhilarating color dynamic.

    While initially inspired by natural environs (glades, woods, or aquatic settings, for example), Van Lent’s imagery is encrypted to simultaneously suggest and transcend familiar physical incidentals. The apparently biological and botanical references to earthly places can just as well evoke processes and mystical phenomena on much larger, and more spiritual, planes. The cellular becomes cosmic, the minute, massive. 

   Many of the paintings embrace an additional sort of dichotomy: Our (i.e., humanity’s) tentative if not intrusive relationship with nature, which is to say our tendency to undermine the supremacy of spirit. Landscape can conjure, with equal force, an idyllic haven of rest or a scarred battlefield. In “Glade Invaded,” for example, the conical red shape and amorphous black splotch hover menacingly on a misty white field, as if to wound, or kill, serenity.  

   In considering Van Lent’s “subtle alignment” with the history of painting that I mentioned earlier, I think it’s possible to see her all at once as a Romantic, an Impressionist, a Symbolist, an Expressionist. Her compelling articulations can prompt us to contemplate and savor both the accessible and the enigmatic nature of nature – our own and that of the visible world.

    We can regard painters like her as our modern-day shamans – those who purge and intercede, who illuminate old and familiar things with new, magical light. They navigate the sublime – that ineffable state where agony coexists with ecstasy, where the pain of destruction and the rejuvenation of spirit are necessary adjuncts to being alive. To that extent, Marianne Van Lent is also a Realist in the truest sense.

   PHOTOS, from top: Radiolaria Red; Psychic Nucleus; Heart; Light Vision; Spinning in the Glade;  Glade Invaded     

Thursday, October 6, 2016

An Enchanted Evening from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

An Enchanted Evening from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

    The October 1 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was billed as “You Asked For It!” Last year, concert goers were given a list of three works in three categories from which to choose for this season’s opening program. As CSO Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann reminded us at evening’s start, we chose well. I’m also happy to report that Zimmermann asked his colleague, Eric Benjamin, to compose a new work for the occasion.

   In his program notes for the World Premiere of his Occasional Overture, Benjamin wrote that he was particularly inspired by Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, which he characterized as “…this little moto perpetuo that scurries, fizzes, explodes, dazzles, charms and does not overstay.”  Those words are certainly a fitting description of the aural titillations that Benjamin realized with his own overture in decidedly grand fashion. The short work (I actually wished it could have stayed a bit longer) is a glittering reverie of orchestral colors and textures. With a dizzying array of spicy variations in melody, rhythms, and tempi, this sonic casserole is a delightful dismantling of the time-honored sonata form. Complex but seamless, it tickles and teases at every turn, imparting the wondrous sensation of soaring through an enchanted kingdom on a fairy tale world.

   Interestingly, Mr. Benjamin’s adventuresome piece was an effective lead-in to what followed: Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) Overture. Not surprisingly, the orchestra navigated its energetic mix of comical and dramatic developments with sparkling fluidity.

   The centerpiece of the evening featured guest pianist Sara Davis Buechner in a soul-stirring performance of the notoriously challenging (for orchestra and soloist) Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. If it can be said that Rachmaninoff is a language, then Buecher speaks it with riveting authority and remarkable tonal warmth.

    At times her distinctively animated playing style exhibited all the lilting finesse of a ballet dancer, at others the ferocity of an impassioned orator. Time seemed to stand still during her delivery of Variation 7, the Dies Irae, wherein her thunderous playing exuded not so much overwhelming morbidity, but rather a delectable solemnity. Then, at the breathtaking emergence of the iconic Eighteenth Variation, we in the audience could literally read the nuanced dialogue between soloist and ensemble in Buecher’s swaying posture, the seeming weightlessness of her facile hands, and the radiant look of aching ecstasy on her face. Like her, we were spellbound. And soon, we were even more caught up in the electrifying thrust of the final section. Through it all, Buechner’s marvelous virtuosity was never a matter of gratuitous flashiness, but always purposeful and emotionally gripping. 

   After our exuberant standing ovation, Buechner returned to the stage and dedicated her encore to Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann. She poured herself into a deeply poignant rendition of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” She spoke for all of us.

    Speaking of that man, there was nothing forced or frenetic about his deportment as he conducted the evening’s final selection, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World). Not that there ever is. Yet with only the subtlest of hand movements, or a slight tilt of his head, he clearly elicited astonishing articulations from this highly gifted ensemble – the fierceness of percussion and brass, the ravishing winds, the palpable warmth and depth of the strings.  In this altogether splendid reading of Dvořák’s richly colored, sweeping vision, the Largo movement was especially engaging, driven by that noble melody on English Horn (later to become the well-known spiritual, Going Home), and here played with heartrending clarity by Cynthia Warren. 
   Under Zimmermann’s astute direction, Dvořák was a perfect choice for exhibiting the CSO’s uncanny ability to seamlessly balance penetrating grace with unmitigated muscularity, gentle lyricism with compelling power. Going home indeed, who could ask for more?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Beguiling Trio

A Beguiling Trio

By Tom Wachunas

    “People are the blooms and treasure of a culture. We all bask in the same light…”  - artist Leslie Shiels

   EXHIBIT: THREE VOICES – Conversations on Life and Conflict / work by Judith Brandon, Leslie Shiels, and Carol Snyder / at the Canton Museum of Art THROUGH OCTOBER 30, 2016 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio  330-453-7666

   From Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary:
   CONVERSATION : noun, con·ver·sa·tion /kän-vər-ˈsā-shən
   knowledge or familiarity based on study or use / a talking together; informal or familiar talk; verbal exchange of ideas, information, etc.

    To some extent, the title of this all-Ohio exhibit might suggest that a “conversation” is transpiring just between the three participating artists - Judy Brandon of Cleveland, Leslie Sheils of Cincinnati, and Carol Snyder of Columbus – and their respective bodies of work. Each “speaks,” in a particular dialect, about observations and/or discoveries of a personal (and yes, sometimes challenging) nature. Each is a response to both the physical and spiritual (emotional/psychological/intellectual) milieu of…being alive.

   But it’s also important to consider how, ultimately, art lives only if we as viewers choose to be more than merely casual eavesdroppers on the private dialogues between artists and the ideas they engage, which is to say the ideas that speak to them. The best art can indeed call us to enter and willfully “listen” to the artists as they in turn talk to their muses. In the process, we can discover how their perceptions can resonate and actually converse deeply with our own.

   Many of Carol Snyder’s exquisite white porcelain pieces – wheel-thrown as well as hand-built – could certainly be seen as utilitarian vessels. Yet for all of their elegant simplicity of form, they seem to have outgrown such a mundane functionality. The forms have been alternately incised, cut through, layered or otherwise altered so that they speak of Snyder’s connection to more primal things such as landscapes or geographical strata, or moments with nature. The clay recalls whence it came, and Snyder joins the remembrance. Here then are delicate memorial sculptures. Undulating and translucent, they’re transcendent, lyrical totems of places seen, roads taken, or, as in her mesmerizing horizontal wall piece, “A Walk in the Grass with Grandpap,” people well met. 

   Working in ink, charcoal, pastel, and watercolor, Judith Brandon creates  large panoramic landscapes on paper. Most of them are somewhat abstract, depicting varying states of agitation and flux. On one level they could be a dramatic homage to the majestic if not darker forces and textures of nature – earth, wind, water, and fire. 

   But the pictures take on another sort of dimensionality when we read the titles, or notice the ghostly traces of linear geometric shapes along with texts that hover amid the misty color washes and tonal fluctuations. These you could call Brandon's initial notes to herself, serving as a conceptual armature on which her expressive drawings rest and evolve. On the placard posted next to her “Golden Rule,” for example, she explains that the lines and text (often nearly invisible after all her very facile surface manipulations are done) “…become the geometry and emotional framework underlying each piece.” The conflagrations, the threatening black plumes and drips in “I Know Good People,” become metaphors for something beyond the apparent when we read her accompanying comments: “A visual sudden burst of gratitude and love for the people who have helped me through the years.”  Now the drawing is no longer a doom-and-gloom scenario, but an unfettered celebration of the explosive potency of gratitude as a life-changing force. 

   Leslie Shiels’ oil paintings are wholly breathtaking visions. Their tactile  surfaces are visceral reveries of rhythmic painterly gestures that punctuate opulent symphonies of saturated color. Though there’s plenty of room for enigma to breathe here, I get the sense that Shiels might be an old soul seeking to understand and reconcile frayed connections between disparate societies, past and present.
   Some of her most piquant works are double portraits, set in shallow, decorated space, presenting individuals from so-called First and Third World cultures side by side. It’s an arresting iconography that includes lavish, unifying background patterns of repeated glyphs or symbols. The portraits give us pause to consider how we define ourselves in relation to “the other,” and our historical tendency to codify personhood by objectifying outward appearances. 

   And what about that missing slice in “Let Them Eat Cake”? Think of it perhaps as a piece offering to us for sweet resolution. First World? Third World? Try One World.

  So it is that the call of this superb exhibit prompted me to visit it several times to bask in its marvelous light. Each visit was an occasion of increasingly treasurable conversations with artistic sublimity.

   PHOTOS, from top:  Erosion (on the left) and Tyndall Trees, by Carol Snyder / A Walk in the Grass with Grandpap (detail), by Carol Snyder / Anger Serenade, by Judith Brandon / I Know Good People, by Judith Brandon / Princes, by Leslie Shiels / Let Them Eat Cake, by Leslie Shiels