Friday, December 15, 2017

Here's to Vigorous, Artful Eclecticism

Here’s to Vigorous, Artful Eclecticism

By Tom Wachunas

   EXHIBIT: Stark County Artists Exhibition, at The Massillon Museum, THROUGH JANUARY 31, 2018 / 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon / 

   This year’s incarnation of the annual juried Stark County Artists Exhibition – 55 works from 40 artists, chosen out of 189 entries- is flavored with some decidedly unremarkable pieces, ranging from stale and trite to just plain uninteresting. No matter what their credentials might be, jurors (and critics) are only human, and no less capable of feckless decision-making than anyone else. Over the years I’ve come to expect as much.

   Still, the good news is that this year’s roundup also happens to be among the most satisfying I’ve seen in the past 15 or so years, featuring a thoughtful confluence of highly diverse media and compelling iconographic content. And when I say ‘satisfying,’ I must add that yes, a very recent work of my own (pictured above, and written about in October, at  ) was accepted into this show. I’m certainly thrilled to be in this eclectic company of artful visions, and happy to offer here my take on a few of the more intriguing entries.
  Back in June of this year, I wrote the following about the woodcut print by William Bogdan that we see in this exhibit: “…the skewed perspective and dramatic figure-ground contrasts in “Man, Bed, Cat” might make you wonder who is dreaming here – the sleeping man, the cat, or that ghostly figure off to the right side, floating in a white void?”  But there’s a difference this time around. The original ghostly figure and the white void have been replaced (buried, or exorcized?) by a scruffy veil of blueish, grey-green paint. It’s a fascinating editorial decision on Bogdan’s part - this altering of a memory, this re-dreaming of a dream. A somber, visceral incantation of sleep.

   A likewise solemn and ritualized air of remembrance emanates from Clare Murray Adams’ “Six Degrees of Separation,” which garnered the Second Place award. It’s a mixed media collection of tiny portraits on actual tea bags pinned to the wall, rendered in varying stages of clarity or disintegration – the faces of people (both still present and perhaps departed) and connections steeped, so to speak, in the sepia tones of memory. 

   In the realm of non-objective abstract painting, “Writer’s Block,” by Pamela Glover Wadsworth, is a startling mixed media metaphor that lives up to its title and stopped me in my tracks. It’s a wondrously intense essay on purposeful accidents, on finding the right words and deleting the wrong ones. Frantic brushwork, seemingly random smudges and scribbles, and sinewy drips describe the indescribable, all constituting a suspended history of painterly decisions. 

   Emily Bartolone’s very large abstract acrylic painting, “Stellar,” is just that. A vast, immersive cloud of hot reddish orange seems to emerge from surrounding murkier hues and undulate with a gentle scattering of grainy flecks and spectral wrinkles. Not far away on the wall from this work, a similarly hypnotic experience transpired when I examined the enthralling color dynamics of Stephen Tornero’s  textile banner, “Violet X” – a masterpiece of intricate weaving.  
   I’ve seen many oil landscape paintings by Heather Bullach in the past, but none more exquisite than her entry here, “Embers.” Aglow in ethereal orange and purple light, every impasto stroke of this tactile tone poem floats like a glimmering facet embedded in a stunning jewel. Breathtaking.

   In photography, two particularly extraordinary works are Michael Barath’s “Study of Broken Glass #3” – which won Third Place – and Mark Pitocco’s “Coastal Abstraction, Schooner Gulch, CA.” Barath’s image is a mesmerizing grid, capturing the multiple perspectives and sporadic pulse of industrial decay. Pitocco’s arresting aerial view of rocky terrain, sharply detailing a microcosm of bulges, cracks, and crags is also, from a slight distance, an eerie suggestion of reptilian skin.
   From my past appeals to common sense, regular readers of ARTWACH may remember my objections to juried shows that still employ a ridiculous tiered awards format. These days, deciding on a “Best in Show” is an inherently absurd pursuit, amounting to high-minded lunacy. That said, there’s something delightfully lunatic about the jurors’ choice this year – Judith Krew’s whimsical sculpture, “I do, I doodle, I do.” So roll out the red carpet.

   It’s an impeccably well-crafted work, to be sure, in the form of a puffy white dress comprised of individual paper napkins, each bearing a simple line drawing (mostly of a sketchy or cartoonish nature) in what looks like black felt-tip pen. A giddy foray into hoot couture, Krew has done a dandy doodle indeed. Take that, Versace.  

   PHOTOS, from top: After the Sermon - by Tom Wachunas / Man, Bed, Cat – by William Bogdan / Six Degrees of Separation – by Clare Murray Adams / Writer’s Block – by Pamela Glover Wadsworth / Embers – by Heather Bullach / Study of Broken Glass #3 – by Michael Barath / I do, I doodle, I do – by Judith Krew

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Christmas Gem from Eric Benjamin and a Timeless Gift from Beethoven

A Christmas Gem from Eric Benjamin and a Timeless Gift from Beethoven

By Tom Wachunas

    In the beginning, I thought that the December 3d MasterWorks program by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), called “Gifts of Fate,” was a peculiar, even arbitrary pairing of very disparate works: The Secret Gift, a Christmas-themed symphonic poem of sorts, written in 2013 by American composer Eric Benjamin; and Ludwig van Beethoven’s iconic 1807 masterpiece, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. But by evening’s end, I heard the connective light.

   Eric Benjamin, Musical Director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic and the Alliance Symphony, named his work after a 2010 book written by Ted Gup, which chronicled the generosity of Gup’s grandfather, Sam Stone, a clothing store owner in Depression-era Canton.  In December, 1933, Mr. Stone was so moved by a church performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that he placed an ad in The Canton Repository asking for those in dire need to send him a letter describing their circumstances. Ultimately Stone, under the pseudonym “B. Virdot,” sent gifts of $5 to 150 destitute families. That’s perhaps a laughable pittance by today’s standards. But during the Great Depression, it was a Godsend.

   Conducted with amiable panache by CSO Assistant Conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz, Benjamin’s work is a remarkable achievement of poignant storytelling. Evoking a Dickensian setting, the music feels like a lavish film score leavened with variations on 19th century English Christmas carols (such as God rest ye merry, gentlemen, and Here We Come A-wassailing), as well as imaginative passages  – at times reminiscent of George Gershwin’s melodic sensibilities - describing various events and individuals related in Gup’s book. In his program notes, Benjamin wrote of some musical styles he sourced, “ …Rumanian folk music for the account of Sam’s childhood there, early jazz for his arrival in and beginnings of his career in the U.S., something vaguely like cantorial music to underline his orthodox Jewish roots and the Talmudic teaching on social justice…” The spiritual dynamic of the work was further augmented by the dramatic sonority of the Canton Symphony Chorus. 

   Vintage photographs of 1930s Canton people, places, and letters sent to Sam Stone were projected on the large screen above the orchestra. Throughout the performance, Benjamin himself was an especially warm and empathetic narrator. The work was also peppered with narrations drawn from the citizens’ letters to B. Virdot, beautifully spoken by a cast of 11 gifted actors directed by Craig Joseph. 
   While Benjamin’s music is often heartrending in its sentimentality, it’s never mawkish. Beyond a deeply emotive remembrance of Sam Stone’s philanthropic heart and the lives it graced, the potent lyricism of the score transcends its specific historical narrative to resonate as a clarion call for compassion and hope in any era or circumstance. There is indeed an aura of timelessness about this work.

   And who could possibly doubt the timelessness of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, conducted here by Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann? He reminded the audience to reflect on the enormity of Beethoven’s desperate efforts to battle through his increasing deafness, once declaring in a letter that he was determined to “…seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely.” 

   Hence the forever unforgettable opening of the work (“Thus Fate knocks at the door,” Beethoven was reported to have said) proceeds through a vast terrain of emotions in a heroic journey to arrive at the equally unforgettable and triumphant coda of the finale. Zimmermann’s reading of Beethoven was consistently brisk, translated by the ensemble into a palpable urgency, yet tempered with thrilling alacrity. Appropriately enough, the marvelous aural clarity and sheer power of the CSO throughout this phenomenal work suggested nothing so much as life’s most compelling forces.

   Beethoven’s developments from C minor to C major in his Fifth Symphony could be rightly regarded as a metaphor for darkness giving way to light. In that sense, his music is a gift for the ages, an exhilarating symbol of human spirit. Benjamin’s work proclaims a similar bent-but-not-broken message. Hearing them together on one program was an experience at once sobering and joyous.        

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Urban Scintillations

Urban Scintillations

By Tom Wachunas

   “We become intoxicated with color, with words that speak of color, and with the sun that makes colors brighter.”  - AndrĂ© Derain

   EXHIBIT: PAINTINGS by Christopher J. Triner / in the Fountain Gallery /  on view THROUGH DECEMBER 10, located in the Johnson Center on the campus of Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio / Gallery open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.– 6 p.m., and closed when there are no classes in session.

   On one level, there’s something delightfully retro about the seven recent paintings that comprise this exhibit by Christopher Triner. Think of France in late 1905, and the reactionary Salon d’Automne in Paris. There, AndrĂ© Derain and his illustrious co-rebel, Henri Matisse, showed some of their radical new paintings. The innovation of those works was lost on the critics, one of them curtly dismissing the paintings as “les Fauves,” i.e., “the wild beasts.” Still, the name stuck, and Derain and Matisse were soon recognized as establishing yet a new, vivid painting style in those already eclectic times, thenceforth dubbed Fauvism.

   Wild indeed. The landscapes, portraits, and urban scenes by the Fauves were veritable explosions of untamed colors. They made even the most experimental of Impressionist works feel conservative in comparison.   

   Similarly, Triner’s acrylic architectural landscapes here were designed to dazzle. His hues are so saturated and luminous that the canvases themselves can seem like they’re extruding real sunlight.

   Much more than a simple throwback to the Fauvist aesthetic, however, the luminosity of Triner’s paintings is not an opaque one. Through the layered translucency of his colors, the canvas surfaces are alive - gently excited with a rich array of painterly underpinnings.  There, undulating shapes, patterns, and subtle textures all contribute to a sense of liquid depth.  Familiar structures and skylines – some of them local - are morphed into mesmerizing, crystalline etherealities. In this beautifully painted urban milieu, architectural materiality becomes palpably, even joyously…spiritual.

   If you’ve not seen the exhibit yet (my apologies for this late posting), I highly recommend a visit. And bring your sunglasses.

   PHOTOS, from top: Fountain Gallery installation / Stark County Courthouse / Graphic Canton / Graphic Cleveland / Graphic North Canton

Monday, November 27, 2017

Compelling Nondescriptions

Compelling Nondescriptions

By Tom Wachunas
   “A photograph is an instantaneous evidence, a mechanical capturing; but, painting is evidence through layering and materiality.   Painting is an accumulation of marks and a series of decisions. And it is the evidence through time and labor that pushes the portrait beyond a fleeting moment and develops a unique personal relation between the model, the artist, and the painting.”  -Melissa Markwald

   EXHIBIT: New Chapters – Paintings by Melissa Markwald / in the Malone Gallery /  on view THROUGH DECEMBER 10, located in the Johnson Center on the campus of Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio / Gallery open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.– 6 p.m., and closed when there are no classes in session.

     Here’s part of what I wrote in February, 2016, about Melissa Markwalds’s immense (the largest being 90” x 72”) oil portraits in her solo exhibit at Massillon Museum: ...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…
(for the full review of that show, click on this link -  

    While you may or may not agree with that particular read on the sheer hugeness of the faces, the larger-than-life aspect of Markwald’s work is still present in her current show at Malone Gallery. For all of her big paintings’ association with photography, it wouldn’t be accurate to consider them as Photorealist in the purest, formal sense of the term. From a distance they certainly do appear to be startlingly faithful imitations of human countenances. But this convincing mimeticism is momentary, soon enough giving way to the ubiquitous presence of the artist’s hand. What we actually see is the brilliant instrumentality of Markwald’s brush as authoritative blender of so many accumulated and harmonized marks. Their kinship to photography is essentially superficial – superfacial, if you will - resting primarily in the uniformity of smooth, flat surfaces.

   The truly “New Chapters” in this exhibit, however, are to be found in the groupings of much smaller (8” x 10”) paintings on panels. If the scale of those large canvas paintings could arguably be construed as a commentary on our social obsession with celebrity or standing out from the crowd, then there’s a fascinating irony at work here. Markwald’s “Anonymous” portraits in oil, despite their nondescript character and relatively tiny size, do indeed stand far apart from their monumental counterparts. Yet in their smallness, they shout their individual identities with remarkable intensity. 

   This is not Markwald the deft illusionist, but rather the equally adroit abstractionist, wholly surrendered to the real essence of her craft – the skillful manipulation of paint across a flat plane. I’m not even sure that “portrait” is the most appropriate designation for these intimate, raw, highly tactile visions. To the extent we can call them faces, they’re alternately dreamlike, disquieting, even alien. Perhaps any one of them could just as well be called a haunted still-life, or ghosted landscape. In their bold distortions or denials of the familiar, they’re nonetheless eminently true to themselves.

   PHOTOS, from top: all “Abstract Anonymous Portraits,” oil on panel, 8” x 10” / courtesy