By Tom Wachunas
“In any art, you don’t know in advance what you want to say – it’s revealed to you as you say it. That’s the difference between art and illustration.” -Aaron Siskind
“But, after all, the aim of art is to create space – space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.” - Frank Stella
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” - Lewis Carroll
EXHIBIT: Dream Worlds: The Art of Imaginative Realism, at the Canton Museum of Art / THROUGH MARCH 12, 2017 / Curated by Chris Seaman / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330-453-7666 / www.cantonart.org
Once upon a time, a genre named Fantasy Art was born. When it was young, it was relegated to the covers or the pages of sci-fi and fairytale books, or sometimes movies. But it could find neither a validating assessment from the intellectual art world elite, nor a substantial place in world-class art museums, where contentious purists too often looked down their noses, crinkled their high brows, and sniffed, “Why, that’s not really fine art, it’s just illustration.” Harrrumph.
It’s no secret that by the second half of the 20th century, many purveyors of Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetics theory, particularly in the context of abstract painting, viewed Fantasy Art (or Imaginative Realism, if you will) pejoratively as some sort of cultural pariah. In dismissing it as the commercialized craft of eccentric illusionism, they effectively marginalized historic precedents for rendering dream-like, mythological, or otherworldly realities. Many Western-culture artists and styles come to mind in this regard, among them Hieronymous Bosch, the Mannerists, Fransisco Goya, William Blake, the Symbolists, and the Surrealists.
But as this exhibit, guest-curated by Canton native Chris Seaman, so abundantly demonstrates (with some 65 works from more than 20 arists, many of them significantly impacting the international realms of cinema, 3D animation, and gaming), these days the genre is something more than just a problematic aesthetic anachronism or peripheral creative pursuit. The simple fact of the matter is that the Imaginative Realism genre very often reveals an uncanny level of disciplined technical and formal finesse on the part of the artist. Understandably enough, such creative prowess can certainly tantalize and otherwise entertain viewers in a manner similar to that of master magicians who leave us awestruck with their elaborate prestidigitations.
While there are several remarkable 3D works here - including a thoroughly spooky, incredibly credible, life-sized tableau by Tom Kuebler called The Mythical Menagerie of Doctor Baltus Bagoon - the exhibit is predominantly paintings. In many of these, the caliber of hyper-realistic illusionism, combined with elegant naturalism, is nothing short of astounding.
Some of the thematic content is unabashedly whimsical or at times cartoonish, such as Jeff Miracola’s exceedingly goofy Kurious Kong. Other spectacular renderings, like Donato Giancola’s Wounded Hawk, or Rob Rey’s We are Made of Stars, recall Baroque and Romantic-era stylizations. And in an intriguing if not bizarre Neoclassical vein, few works here exude more arresting theatricality than the paintings by John Jude Palencar. His compelling figures, such as in Pagan, are at once monstrous and tender, placed in lonely, compact spaces, rendered with an earthen tonality and muted light that brings to mind some of Andrew Wyeth’s more haunting scenes.
All the artworks in this exhibit tell or imply a story of one kind or another. So call them allegories. Cross-pollinated as they are with the powerful resonance of art history, keep in mind that wherever we go, even in our most far-fetched imaginings, there we still are. Whether celebrating the courage, hope, or love that brings nobility to our unpredictable, embattled lives, or portraying the terrifying demons in our midst, the so called worlds they describe aren’t really as impossible or alternative as they might seem at first blush. The realities they depict are actually more quotidian than completely new or otherworldly.
Consider, then, the impassioned intensity of technical execution that informs these works, with its meticulous attention to the mysterious and magical, the infinitesimal, the unknowable. Look closely, and you may rightly get the sense that this exhibit glows with the subtle aura of a benevolent madness. As fine art, Imaginative Realism is indeed a magnificent mania.
PHOTOS, from top: 1. Craig Maher (American). Tread, 2011. Oil on paper on board, 45 x 30 in. ©Craig Maher / 2. 1. Donato Giancola (American). Wounded Hawk, 2007. Oil on panel, 48 x 36 in. © Donato Giancola / 3. Jeff Miracola (American). Kurious Kong, 2016. Acrylic on Masonite, 24 x 18 in. ©Jeff Miracola / 4. Rob Rey (American). We Are Made of Stars, 2014. Oil on board, 30 x 24 in. © Rob Rey / 5. John Jude Palencar (American). Pagan, 2015. Acrylic on birch panel, 33 x 37 in. © John Jude Palencar / 6. The Mythical Menagerie of Doctor Baltus Bagoon, by Tom Kuebler, silicone and mixed media, 9’1” x 6’1” x 3’9”