Thursday, January 17, 2019

Their Kingdom Come

l. to r.: Sarah Dubinsky, Meshal Alsunaid, Tehilah Caviness, Logan Peters




Their Kingdom Come

By Tom Wachunas

“Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
― C.S. Lewis, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

   "The Narnian books are not as much allegory as supposal. Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there?” – C.S. Lewis

   As of this writing, The Players Guild Theatre (PGT) production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is sold out. Still, I’m moved to gratitude, and to my continuing celebration of how blessed we are to have the PGT in our midst.

   The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fantasy novel written by C. S. Lewis in 1950, and generally regarded as the best known of seven novels comprising The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956). The story opens in World War II-era England and follows the adventures of the four Pevensie siblings after they stumble through the backside of a wardrobe closet and into a most unexpected place – the magical world of Narnia, populated by all manner of mythical talking animals. There, the children meet and aid the great lion named Aslan, who has returned to reclaim his kingdom from the evil White Witch and her cruel minions. After his victory, he departs for other realms and rewards the children for their trust and bravery by making them - whom he has called his Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve – heirs to his kingdom, the new Kings and Queens of Narnia.   

    Writing a really invigorating story, and then making really invigorating theatre from it, are both very much about surrendering, or stepping through a portal deeply embedded in the human soul. Call it what you will – imagination, intuition, or faith – it’s the portal of desire to see beyond the merely apparent and the willingness to go there. True artists, as well as children, are especially adept at reporting what happens upon crossing the threshold of that portal.

    Right from the start of this dramatization by Joseph Robinette, directed here by Jonathan Tisevich, it was eminently clear that the storytellers are indeed the children. As they flee from wartime air raids on a train ride to their rural refuge, they walk in a circle around the stage of the Guild’s arena theater, holding their suitcases above their heads, gently rocking them up and down to magically become rail cars rolling along country hillsides.

   So there’s nothing here of the glitzy special effects or breathtaking landscapes that dazzled us in the 2005 Disney film version. Instead, everything feels like it’s happening in, say, a dusty attic. Still, throughout this pared-down iteration of the story, the visual austerity of the set designed by Joshua Erichsen, together with the clever simplicity of the costumes by Stephen Ostertag, effectively conjure just enough alluring otherworldliness.

   Among the most thrilling aspects of this production is the riveting  authenticity which Sarah Dubinsky, Meshal Alsunaid, Tehilah Caviness, and Logan Peters bring to their respective roles of Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter. These performers are youthful adults, to be sure. Yet for the lion’s share of the proceedings, so to speak, they’re so emotionally invested in their characters’ distinctive personalities that I thought at times I was observing actual children. They’re that credible and endearing. And in navigating the play’s deeper themes of fear, betrayal, forgiveness, and sacrifice, they seem to grow up before our very eyes.

  Equally endearing in their effusive and giddy energy are Michael Burke and Morgan Brown as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Additionally, Jeremy A. Clarke brings enchanting tenderness to his role of the friendly faun, Tumnus. On the other end of the behavioral spectrum, Charli Habingreither is deliciously vicious in her role of Ulf, the wolf-captain of the White Witch’s police force. She’s all too eager to carry out her boss’s every murderous command.

    As the White Witch, Shley Snider is charming and seductive in the darkest, most deceptive sense of the words. With a voice sometimes searing enough to peel paint, she’s also literally chilling, considering how her character’s cold-hearted maleficence has wreaked permanent winter on Narnia.

   Interestingly, the most understated presence here is Aslan, played by Eric Dubinsky. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a very sensible understatement. Call it royal serenity. Or loving surrender. Dubinsky convincingly gives us Aslan’s unswerving compassion and confidence. Such qualities become all the more palpable and bittersweet as we witness his moment of real anguish when he’s about to die by the Witch’s hand.

   In the end, consistent with so many past occasions, I simply marveled at the exquisitely appointed portal to compelling art that The Players Guild Theatre keeps open for us. 
  
   The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe – at the Players Guild Theatre, THROUGH JANUARY 27, 2019 /1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio


   NOTE: I have included here some illustrations by Pauline Banes from the first edition of the novel in 1950, later hand-colored by the artist for the HarperCollins anniversary publication of the complete "Chronicles of Narnia," published in 2000

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A Transcendent Materiality

"Origins II..."


"Middle Horizons...Looking South"

"A Greater Volume..."

"Artifact of the Curious..."
A Transcendent Materiality

By Tom Wachunas

 “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives, the cumulative experience of many masters of craftsmanship…”  - John Ruskin

   “… Art is all about craftsmanship. Others can interpret craftsmanship as style if they wish. Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It's not what we say but how we say it that matters.”  - Federico Fellini

   EXHIBIT: The Matrix Series: Glass Art of Brent Kee Young, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 3, 2019 / 1001 Market Avenue North Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666 / Viewing hours: Closed Mondays; Tuesday, - Thursday - 10:00am - 8:00pm; Friday & Saturday - 10:00am - 5:00pm; Sunday - 1:00 - 5:00pm


video of Brent Kee Young process:


   Our most compelling artists can often transform their chosen raw materials with what seems to be pure magic. In examining such skillful articulations, our careful looking can in turn become a profoundly transcendent experience. A spiritual encounter. That’s certainly what can transpire when encountering the exquisitely crafted sculptures by Brent Kee Young.

   His raw materials are pencil-thin rods of flame-worked borosilicate glass. The radiant constructions here were inspired by iconic artifacts and ceremonial objects from Asian and Wari (a pre-Columbian civilization that flourished from about AD 500 to 1000 in what is now Peru) cultures.

   What wizardry is this…this uncanny union of cultural histories, science, engineering, and poetic vision? Looking at these objects, the very air itself – inside and outside their labyrinthine configurations – becomes a tangibly contoured and volumetric element. There are forms embedded in forms - 3D echoes or permutations that enhance their spatial depth and evoke a sense of timelessness. These wondrous webs of glass seem to breathe when moving around them, and are all the more enlarged by the elegant gallery lighting that casts their diaphanous shadows on to pedestals and floor.  
   Enlarged indeed, in their gossamer-like translucency, there’s nonetheless a solidly architectural sensibility to these works - one that held me spellbound and transported in rapt attention to memories of unique realities as well as fantasies. I thought of Gothic cathedrals and the glow of candlelight dancing on glittery reliquaries; of prisms and ice castles and moonlight glistening on snow; even the dazzling complexity of our brains’ chemical synapses and neuro- transmission junctures.  Yikes – all this and more just from the shapes of a few urns and bowls.

   At one point, the intersecting clusters of crystalline, light-bearing tendrils that comprise these enthralling vessels caused me to recall a personally cathartic moment from many years ago here in Ohio winter. Stepping outdoors one blustery morning after an ice storm, I looked into the woods behind my house. I was instantly drawn to a marvelous sound carried on the wind as it whistled through myriad ice-laden branches. They were so many sparkling lines, as if each was encased in a sleeve of glass, all etched into a sunlit sky, and all flapping together to make a joyful a noise. It sounded just like… applause. Pure magic.  

Friday, January 4, 2019

Valuing the invaluable: And the winner is...

"Fourier" by David Kuntzman


"The Nightgown" by William M. Bogdan

"L3-L4" by Stephen Tornero

"Burdened and Becoming #2" by Spencer S. Molnar

"Diary Portrait #58" by Anna Rather

"Chasing Shadows" by Laura Donnelly
Valuing the invaluable: And the winner is…

By Tom Wachunas

   “The studio is a laboratory, not a factory. An exhibition is the result of your experiments, but the process is never-ending. So an exhibition is not a conclusion.”  - Chris Ofili

   EXHIBIT: Stark County Artists Exhibition / THROUGH JANUARY 13, 2019 / at the Massillon Museum,  121 Lincoln Way East in downtown Massillon / Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am - 5:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm - 5:00pm / Phone: 330-833-4061 /


   It’s baaack…The Massillon Museum’s annual juried Stark County Artists Exhibition. By now, many of you readers have already seen it. If not, there’s still a little more time to do so, and it would be time very well spent. This diverse collection – 55 works by 43 artists chosen from 206 submissions from 84 artists - is even more exciting than last year’s in just about every way. And once again, I’m elated and grateful to be included.

   One predictable aspect of the show keeps it safely ensconced in the sacrosanct tradition of awarding prizes. It’s a typical practice that chooses one piece to be Best in Show, then a Second Place, then a Third Place, and several Honorable Mentions. In the past I’ve described the practice as stale and even at times feckless. In short, a largely irrelevant ritual. I still hold that view. More on this a bit later.

   Meanwhile, the photos I include here, in no particular order, are of just a few of many works I consider especially compelling or particularly fascinating in this exhibit. Two of the pieces pictured here are on the exhibition list of award winners; four are not. I’m choosing not to tell you which are which because the jurors’ awards in this show had only a small impact on my own assessments.

   David Kuntzman’s acrylic painting, Fourier, is downright spectacular in its sheer precision of execution.  With intersecting angular planes of eye-popping color, Kuntzman has constructed a playful geometric marvel of spatial ambiguity.

    There’s a stark, haunting simplicity to William Bogdan’s manually colored woodcut, The Nightgown. While the claustrophobic verticality of the work feels funereal, suggesting a person squeezed into a coffin, the featureless, tightly framed figure of the woman inside seems not so much gone, but uncannily present and rising.

   The linen weaving by Stephen Tornero, L3-L4, is an exquisitely crafted, fibrous organism or perhaps a landscape of sorts. It’s a dynamic tour de force of myriad threads that seem to breathe through undulating colors and patterns.

    Spencer S. Molnar’s abstract Burdened and Becoming #2 (acrylic, spray paint, and charcoal on canvas) is a startling, electrifying portrait –  bursting with vicious angst and raucous glee all at once. Electrifying, too, is the textured Diary Portrait #58 (mixed media), by Anna Rather. Here is a mesmerizing, shaman-like figure floating in the dark, with eight hands  conjuring or emanating (or absorbing?) all sorts of bright energy currents and waves of particulate matter and runic marks.

   And speaking of effective textures, with her modular Chasing Shadows, Laura Donnelly gives us a tender remembrance of a mother walking with her child on a sunny day. Donnelly adorned her ceramic grid of handmade stoneware tiles with a wispy rendering of the walking figures and their elongated shadows, and also incised the clay with subtle decorative patterns. Additionally, the tiles aren’t all mounted as if on a flat floor or wall. A few of them float above the picture plane, casting their own shadows, and enhancing the sense of motion in space. 

   I don’t think it at all unreasonable to expect that another group of jurors might designate any one of these, or for that matter a considerable number of other works in this exhibit, as the Best in Show, or second, third, etc. My annual complaints about hierarchies of awards are not at all meant to impugn the intelligence, integrity, or sincerity of the jurors.

   But the problem remains. Keep in mind that in juried shows, the works we see represent a daunting enough process of judging, of choosing. Any work we see has in effect already received a significant award, or honor, by virtue of being just that – one of the Chosen. I call the process ‘daunting’ because like it or not, for better or worse, in the realm of the arts there is no such thing as a universally applicable algorithm for objectively discerning absolute formal or conceptual excellence. There’s no inviolable constitution of art laws. Now more than ever before, isn’t it interesting how eagerly we might honor a work for how imaginatively it breaks what few academic rules of aesthetic order remain in place these days? That’s the delightfully unreasonable nature of this beautiful beast we call art – its often vexing capacity for usurping the status quo, for defying expectation, for posing tough questions rather than easy answers. Despite (or sometimes even because of ?) a juror’s education, experience, or expertise, it usually comes down in the end to subjective matters of personal tastes, biases, predispositions - at best a consensus of well-meaning opinions.

   Given these variables, our current paradigm for juried art exhibitions tends to be an exercise in distinctions without a difference. Instead of calling the folks who select the art ‘jurors,’ could we simply call them co-curators?  And in place of a descending order of monetary prizes, how about no prizes at all? If we still insist on giving some sort of special recognition beyond the very real honor of being one of the Chosen, maybe each curator could simply choose a favorite piece or two and issue a spiffy certificate declaring as much and leave it at that.

   Dreaming aside, somehow I don’t think such ideas will gain much traction in this culture of ours, entrenched as it is in cherished rituals of competition and celebrity. We love our trophies perhaps too much.

   In any case, let’s not forget the most unheralded winners of this art contest – the public viewing community. They’re not charged an entry fee, and they get to see invaluable evidence of extraordinary experiments and probative visions from another remarkable community - Stark County’s  artists. As a citizen of both communities, I am doubly blessed.

   Happy New Year.