Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Life in Relief









 A Life in Relief

By Tom Wachunas

   “…Disjointed scenes of a life lived in nighttime dreams. Memory holders of what? Wood, ink, paper – stuff of another age. Like me. Not perfect. Film noir. Cuz I never dreamed in Technicolor. Poetry, not prose. My biography.”  - from William Bogdan’s Artist Statement

   “Art teaches nothing except the significance of life.” – Henry Miller

   EXHIBIT: Xylographic – Biographic, woodcut prints by William Bogdan / THROUGH JULY 15, 2017, at The Little Art Gallery / located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio / 330.499.7356 /  www.northcantonlibrary.org

   After only a few seconds and footsteps into The Little Art Gallery’s opening reception for William Bogdan’s solo exhibit, I was floored. I hadn’t greeted anyone yet, hadn’t even looked closely at a single piece. But I saw immediately something wholly fresh and arresting about the space.

    The walls are a spectacle of black and white starkness, at once startling and inviting. The sheer uniformity of Bogdan’s presentation – each piece matted in white and set in a simple, elegant black frame – is spot-on. And curator Elizabeth Blakemore has done a superlative job in sensitively spacing the works with a keen attention to not only their variable subject matter (including landscape, architectural, and figural content), but also in setting up a variety of visual rhythms that can keep your eye engaged and moving throughout the gallery. We would expect nothing less from a show that featured electrifying works with a strong color dynamic. But interestingly enough, while there is no such dynamic here to excite our senses, the room still pulses with a strong heartbeat.
         
   Could you describe your world without actual color? Could you envision a lifetime of experiences engraved into your memory as a panorama of only black lines and shapes, all intertwined against the white sky of existence? To put it another way, can you see your past simply as symbolic black marks on paper?  In his artist statement, Mr. Bogdan likens this collection of his woodcut prints, made over the last seven years, to “…photo snapshots kept in an album…keepsakes that preserve a moment in time, but with a story before and aft that is meaningful to me.” Bogdan’s personal story is the ‘Biographic’ (or more accurately, autobiographic) component of this exhibit. 

   So, “photo snapshots kept in an album”? While there’s a certain intimacy to the idea of flipping through a photo album to fondly remember the past, I think this exhibit is more akin to reading pages, indeed chapters from a book you can’t put down. A book of remembered people, places, and sensations, of moments poignant and mysterious, or painful or comforting or…  Books. Remember those? Organizations of white papers inscribed with marks made from ink. You’ll notice one of those here, “Bill’s Hill,” made in 2010, visible in one of the gallery’s glass showcases. 
  
   Then there’s Bogdan’s ‘Xylographic’ component. We don’t hear the word xylography too much these days in reference to the printmaking process of making woodcut images. It’s from the Greek ξύλο (xylo), for wood, and γραφή  (graphé), for writing. The English term arrived in 1816, translated from the French, recalling the Japanese and Chinese techniques (from the 8th and 9th centuries) of carving text or patterns in relief on a wooden block, which was then inked for applying to paper. Wood-block printing as a fine art form emerged in Europe during the 14th century, and the process would ultimately inspire Gutenberg’s method of printing from movable type in 1439. Voila, books.

   I offer this nutshell history if only as a kind of lyrical appreciation of Bogdan’s methodology. Sourcing a technique originated in the very distant past – making a connection to time-honored art history - the act of carving away at a piece of wood (itself a holder of history) to make a picture can in many ways be seen as a poetic metaphor for cutting through the present to reveal, or uncover something of the past. To remember is to actively make the past present. Right now. At any point in time, what is our right -now if not an accumulation of assimilated back-whens?

   Look at the haunting way Bogdan takes us to a back-when in his piece called “4”, depicting the legendary New York Yankee, Lou Gehrig (who wore number 4), showing us his heartrending gratitude and mortality. In another back-when, “The Picture on the Gallery Wall,” a few folks appear oblivious to Bogdan’s art on the wall, as if imprisoned and isolated by their own passivity. And here we are in our right-now, looking at a picture of them not looking at a picture. Intriguing.

   Bogdan’s representational drawing (or should I say cutting?) style can vary from the relatively tight and crisp, to the loose and spontaneous, sometimes giving way to amorphous passages of generalized or abstract markings amid spatial ambiguities – a tentative yet fascinating conflation of the primitive and the refined. For example, the bright, crisp clarity of detail that we see in such pieces as “1604” has the marvelous effect of beckoning from a distance as you enter the gallery, calling you to perhaps  frolic with the children in the front yard of the house with the 1604 address. On the other hand, 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?

   In the 20 works exhibited, there are only two occurrences of color. Miniscule as they are, they function as exclamatory punctuation marks within their respective narratives. In “Simon 23, 26” (a reference to the gospel of Luke, 23: 26, wherein Simon of Cyrene briefly carried the cross for Jesus), one of Simon’s fingertips is covered in blood. That splotch of red is echoed by a red fingerprint at the bottom of the image – a deeply loaded signature, to be sure. There’s a religiosity, too, about “The Orange Chair,” though I’m not convinced that the the two bright orange stickers – one a circle (eternal cycle of life?), the other a triangle (Holy Trinity?) – are successfully integrated with the intricate imagery. Like a storyboard for a time-lapse film, seven continuous panels comprise a sequential view of a house interior showing the woman who lived and died there, her favorite chair empty and dotted orange, and in the last panel, a young girl standing in a doorway, the orange triangle hovering above her.

   Despite my reservations about the indelicacy of its orange intrusions, the piece is nonetheless exemplary of Bogdan’s capacity for conveying an uncanny, fragile harmony between timidity and fearlessness. His visceral images feel searched out and sifted through,  often as if quickly excavated and recorded before they can fall back into the dusty piles of more peripheral memories. To varying degrees, each one suggests an illustrated transition from the scenic to the psychic, the physical to the spiritual.

    Bogdan’s Book. He draws like a writer.

   PHOTOS, from top: 4 /  The Picture on the Gallery Wall / 1604 / Simon 23,26 / Man, Bed, Cat / detail from The Orange Chair  / The doe lay dead in a field of asters

Monday, June 12, 2017

Ruffly Speaking




Ruffly Speaking

By Tom Wachunas

   “I thought it would be very interesting, if somebody came back to life as the dog of their worst enemy. I got very excited when I realized I could kill my protagonist at the act break.”  - playwright Lee Blessing, commenting on his play, Chesapeake

   Considering the societal bad blood so profusely flowing in America of late, Canton’s Seat of the Pants Productions designed its Summer season of plays, under the collective name of ACTS OF DISSENT, to, in the words of Craig Joseph, “…dramatize and "storify" some of the conflicts that exist in America today in an effort to move hearts and open minds, thereby creating an avenue for increased understanding and potential dialogue.”  Joseph stars in the current production of Chesapeake, a one-man show written by Lee Blessing in 1999.

  The setting for Chesapeake harkens to the tumultuous “culture wars” that began during the late 1980s (and raged through the 1990s), when vitriolic conservatives, including North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and his dour cronies, sought to diminish or dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for its perceived promulgation of “indecent” art.

   Here we meet Kerr, a bisexual artist whose NEA-supported performance piece draws the ire of one Therm Pooley, a blustery Southern conservative. After winning his Senate seat largely by stirring up public furor over Kerr’s “obscene” art, Pooley campaigns to shut down the NEA. The outraged Kerr in turn concocts an elaborate act of revenge – which he considers a performance art work in itself - and steals the Senator’s beloved Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Lord Ratliff of Luckymore, nicknamed ‘Lucky,’ and affectionately called ‘Rat’ by Pooley. But before Kerr can fully consummate his nefarious invasion of Pooley’s life, things go terribly wrong, taking a simultaneously bizarre and utterly hilarious turn when Lucky literally inhabits the body of Kerr. Or is it that Kerr inhabits Lucky? This entire performance is surely a metaphysical monologue.

   As Kerr, Craig Joseph is brilliantly commanding. He immerses himself in a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of performing stamina to sustain an astonishing range of postures and vocal nuances. Something of a neurotic anarchist at heart, Kerr struggles through his pride and vulnerability to define and perhaps breach the shifting boundaries between art and life. He wags his shaggy tale with an incessant alacrity as endearing as it is quick and startling. So there’s a staccato intensity in the way Joseph pours out the confessional cascade of Kerr’s childhood memories,  recollections of the other characters (including Pooley’s alluring personal assistant, and Pooley’s domineering wife), and the fiery allocutions of his aesthetic philosophy, however confused it may be. As viewers, we become witnesses to an increasingly funny but ironic and complex transformation. It’s an extraordinary morphing wherein Joseph’s most riveting sleight–of-personality is his portrayal of the self-aware Lucky. While seeing life from Pooley’s perspective, Lucky/Kerr also temporarily poses as God, hoping to direct Pooley’s NEA policy decisions. 

    In a future time and place, maybe this play will be regarded simply as a curious, sardonic caricature that skewered the self-righteous sloganeering and misguided visions of myopic politicians and artists alike. But as it is now, and beyond considering potential elimination of the NEA (always an easy target in the panoply of Federal budget expenditures), Blessing’s play (a blessing of a play) still speaks with palpable urgency and thought-provoking wit to our acrimonious times.

   At the end I was reminded that now more than ever before, we need to start seeing each other not as adversarial agendas, but rather as faithful retrievers, so to speak, of cultural dignity and peace. These days, maybe America is like that old joke about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac who stayed up all night, thumbing through the Bible, looking for Dog.

   Chesapeake, at the Black Box Theatre, located in GlenOak High School, 1801 Schneider Street Northeast, Canton, OH / Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, Sunday at 2PM, June 16 -18
Tickets are $15, and can be purchased at                          www.chesapeakecanton.eventbrite.com

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Commendable Community Assets








Commendable Community Assets

By Tom Wachunas

   “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”  - Albert Einstein 

   “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”  - Henry Adams 

   “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”  - John Steinbeck

    EXHIBIT: Mastery: Teachers from the CMA School of Art , THROUGH JULY 23, 2017, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N, Canton, Ohio /  330-453-7666 /   https://www.cantonart.org/exhibits/current
 
DOWNLOAD HIGH RESOLUTION IMAGES VIA THIS LINK
 
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   From the Canton Museum of Art News Release:
Canton Museum of Art (CMA) presents a community-focused exhibition Mastery: Teachers from the CMA School of Art. This new exhibition of local artists is on view now through July 23, 2017 and features ceramics, paintings, drawings, sculpture, and more. The teachers at the CMA School of Art are inspired by many things when they create, yet they are also motivated to share their passion and knowledge with others. CMA teachers ignite that much-needed creative spark within their students in a broad range of media and styles…More information about the CMA School of Art is available at   www.cantonart.org/school
 
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   What follows is just a partial list of works I found particularly remarkable in this otherwise dynamic and engaging group show.

   There’s nothing overly ponderous or forbidding about the cityscapes by Ted Lawson, one of our region’s most accomplished watercolorists. With a remarkable synchronicity of fluid, lustrous color and sparkling light, he achieves an uncanny ethereality and ebullience in the way he conveys the urban milieu.

   Complementing the visceral, eye-popping abstract paintings by Allison Uhl are the oil paintings by Frank Dale, something of a legend in these parts. Amid all the sheer wildness we can regularly encounter in contemporary painting, he remains a passionate devotee of the Old Masters, specifically of the Flemish technique. Call his works charming anachronisms if you will, they are nonetheless hauntingly beautiful.

   There’s a haunted quality, too, in Shroud #1, and Portrait of Karolina, oil works by Kit Palencar – the former with its literally veiled reference to vanitas  paintings of old, the latter a rendering of a dripping, maybe burned face fading from view. Nearby is Rosemary Stephen’s Pendant, a mixed media on fiberglass wall hanging that’s eerily reminiscent of ancient Egyptian Fayum portraits. And Laura Kolinski-Shultz’s Shaman is a breathtaking pit- fired stoneware sculpture that looks like cast bronze, and seems interestingly enough right at home with the current major CMA show on view, Avatars.
 
   Elsewhere in ceramics, there’s Bound Geometry by Kim Eggelston-Kraus. It’s a fascinating, free-standing sculpture wherein an industrial-feeling architectonic form is merged with more organic, curving forms. An elegant harmony of opposites.

   The infamous line from George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play, Man and Superman -  “…those who can, do; those who can't, teach…” - is usually regarded as a cynical or disparaging assessment of the teaching profession. As if to say, in this context, teaching is a lesser practice than making. Nonsense. I don’t know the extent to which any of the artists here actually make a total living out of making their art. But that doesn’t matter in the least. And I’m in no position to rightly assess the overall quality or ultimate effectiveness of any of them as teachers. What we need to first remember, though, is that teaching art is itself an action, a real doing, every bit as important and yes, noble and inspiring, as dragging paint across a surface or building clay forms or making a drawing or print or… You get the picture. 

   As experienced individuals who teach what they practice, the artists in this exhibit provide a service of incalculable worth to Canton culture. So thank you, Canton Museum of Art, for giving them a vital platform.

   PHOTOS, from top: Rush Hour II, by Ted Lawson /  Still Life with Kiwi, by Frank Dale / Shroud #1, by Kit Palencar / Pendant, by Rosemary Stephen / Shaman, by Laura Kolinski-Shultz / Bound Geometry, by Kim Eggelston-Kraus

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Bilingual Utterances








Bilingual Utterances

By Tom Wachunas

   “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
  
   “I think there has to be an interesting transformative process between your perception of reality and making the paintings. If you are just trying to render what you see you are not entering into a transformative process. And that's what makes a good painting: the process of transforming and the willingness to leave reality behind.”   -Susan Rothenberg
   

   EXHIBIT:  Paintings and Drawings by John W. Carlson,  Studio M exhibition at the Massillon Museum ON VIEW THROUGH JUNE 25, 2017 / The Massillon Museum is located at 121 Lincoln Way East (Ohio Route 172) in the heart of downtown Massillon.  Free and convenient street parking is available on adjacent streets.  A visit to the Massillon Museum is always free.

   There’s a dichotomous, sensate tension that saturates just about all of John W. Carlson’s pieces here. It’s as persistent as the ripe, visceral oil paint that sits on and within his canvas surfaces in much the same way some mysteries and riddles can chronically tease or vex the mind.  So maybe the best introduction to his work would be for you to click on this link and read his statement, which is a beautiful poem by Joe Psarto:
 
   The aforementioned tension comes initially in the way Carlson marries his representational figures, or “characters,” to his abstract grounds.  Stylistically, there’s no bravado of illusionism or superficial preciousness in the way he draws the heavily contoured people we see. They exist in dense, truncated spaces -  ambiguous, nonobjective fields that seethe with painterly activity. Ironically, in many of Carlson’s pieces, the almost generic simplicity of figural rendering can push our attention to the intense gestural energy of paint around them, giving the backgrounds a dramatic life and personality all their own.  
     
    I keep coming back to Carlson’s statement - the Psarto poem - and a few particularly resonant lines: ‘battles and tranquilities,’ and ‘intervals of violence and peace, as in a man’s history.’  History… though not in any conventionally narrative sense. 

   The paintings aren’t illustrations of stories as such, though you certainly wouldn’t be wrong to think that they somehow hint at the aritst’s personal psychology, a narrative of emotional states, or perhaps cathartic circumstances of his life. In general, they exude a sense of arrested flux. While many specific visual clues and cues appear to have been obliterated, some remnants seem to still lurk under layers of thickly brushed, scuffled, and rubbed paint. Carlson may be at once erasing memories and creating new ones, yet what consistently remains after all his surface action - whether frantic and quick, or nervous and tentative - is always a human figuration. If there are conflicts and tensions to be remembered or resolved here as laid down by the artist’s hand, we the viewers have just as much a hand in deciphering them. Fill in the dense painterly blanks and blotches with your own history, because you’re already a part of the implied drama simply by virtue of looking at them.

   This art is a compelling reminder that painting is a truly unique language comprised of many dialects, many of which conceived to formulate what might otherwise be impossible to manifest or communicate. Carlson speaks in tongues, as it were, and his fluency is very well suited to explaining the inexplicable…if that be possible.

   PHOTOS, from top:  Cinderella Sleeping It Off (2017) / Doubt (2014) / Visitation (2009) / Struggle (2009) / Car (2015) / From Here In (2016)