Monday, December 28, 2009

For Auld Lang Syne?

For Auld Lang Syne?

By Tom Wachunas

After living in New York City for 14 years, I left in November of 1991 on a Greyhound bus bound for Syracuse. It was during rush hour. I was in a hurry to join my brother and his family in time for Thanksgiving. From there it was on to Ohio, and to another brother’s household in North Canton. My Christmas visit with him and his family lasted well over a year before I found my own apartment and a job (the first of many). I’ve been a Canton resident ever since. That’s the sugar-coated, short version of how I got back to my Ohio roots.

The warts-and-all short version reads something like this: I left New York City, a sniveling, homeless drunk with only a gifted, one-way bus ticket to my name, running from the debt and the damaged or destroyed relationships (including my first marriage of 10 years) I left in my wake. I continued to live foolishly, dangerously, and drunk for the better part of the next 8 years. It is ONLY by the grace of God, my surrender to Jesus Christ, the Lord of my life, and my commitment to fellowship with many others who have successfully wrestled the same demons, that I have savored the undeserved gift of uninterrupted sobriety since 1999.

When I began this blog nearly one year ago I vowed to myself that it would not be a rambling on-line diary - a platform for communicating my most personal dreams and confessions. In that regard, I am certainly aware that in offering my views on the arts and artists, I bring to the table varying degrees of confessional content, but only to the extent that such content serves, hopefully, to clarify or justify my opinions.

So why share such intimate information now? It points to my motivation in writing this blog in the first place. And this is, after all, the time of year when we traditionally dedicate some energy to reflection, projection, and resolution.

It was always my hope with this blog to establish a meaningful and useful forum for informed awareness and intelligent discussion, as well as a vehicle for my own constantly evolving passion for writing about the arts. Through all the above-mentioned years of struggle and turmoil, that passion never left me (a miracle in itself), and I have consistently sought outlets for it. Journalism has been a reasonably dependable anchor in keeping me moored to the arts community at large. For this I am ever grateful. It is a community comprised of individuals who are in many ways among the most courageous and passionate people I know. And I think ‘courageous’ is particularly apropos here, given that Canton, Ohio is a particularly daunting “market” in which to ply a fine arts trade, including writing about it.

In this context it is my fervent resolution with this blog to continue observing, encouraging, and analyzing just what it is we do as artists, why it’s important, and to let the citizens of greater Canton (and beyond) know about it. That resolution comes with an abiding and increasingly urgent hope. It’s lonely here in cyberspace. I hope that you, the readers, avail yourselves of the opportunity to insert your comments and suggestions here on a regular basis, and to tell your friends to do the same. Along those lines (you can file this one under shameless self-promotion on my part), I also encourage you to let our local newspaper, The Repository, know that its readership would be very well-served by the long-overdue addition to its staff of a local arts critic-at-large.

Our best days are still ahead. Meanwhile, it remains my pleasure to serve you. Happy New Year. Write on.

Photo: “Claude Monet Reading a Newspaper,” by Auguste Renoir

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Expectations: Great and Shattered

Expectations: Great and Shattered

By Tom Wachunas

Good news and bad news. First, the good news: the long-awaited installation of Tommy Morgan’s latest public artwork in downtown Canton, “Shattered Expressions,” is complete. Now for the bad news: the long-awaited installation of Tommy Morgan’s latest public artwork in downtown Canton, “Shattered Expressions,” is complete.

At this juncture I respectfully refer you, good reader, to two past posts (in the Archive box here) for some background on my thinking about not just this particular work, but public art in general. The posts are: August 15, titled “Desperately Seeking Connections, Part 2…,” and October 20, titled “The Power of Public Art…” It is with those considerations in mind that I offer the following.

The artist has explained his work this way: “I am trying to capture the essential human expressions of joy, rage, and sorrow. As human beings we cannot have one of these emotions without having all the others.” Huh? On the surface, this idea seems to be sufficiently ambiguous and arguable enough, certainly, to justify any number of esthetic solutions to the problem of giving it clear form. So I’m not really surprised that Morgan opted to treat all three emotions/faces with a stylized equality, manifested by his “decorative” surfaces of curving fragments in muted, even sickly colors. The overall effect actually undermines – in fact shatters - their three-dimensionality. This is an artwork in the throes of an identity crisis, and surely not a pretty one. Are these paintings that want to be sculptures, or sculptures that would prefer being paintings? I firmly believe that, putting aside formal and esthetic opinions of this work per se, Morgan’s idea was simply not appropriate to a public art installation. And while this $35,000, 40’x10’ disappointment cannot technically be considered an abuse of public tax dollars, it is nonetheless taxing to behold.

Beyond the many challenging questions (both subjective and objective) about what constitutes edifying or “good” fine art, though, it seems to me there are other more pressing issues here that need to be addressed, and the sooner the better. Issues that have been flapping in the wind for far too long without resolution.

I still wonder (OK, whine about…) who, if anyone, in the Canton Development Partnership, ArtsinStark, or the Architectural Review Board at the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, has formulated any consistent operational philosophy and methodology as to the raison d’etre behind installing public artworks in the first place. Robb Hankins, ArtsinStark CEO, stated recently, “In the future, we hope to get formal public arts ordinances passed by the city and county governments here, so that we could have both a full time public arts administrator on staff, and a formal public art process.” In view of all the hype about the “explosion” of public art in Canton’s arts district over the past few YEARS, perhaps the current powers that be need to be reminded that the future has been here for a long while. In the meantime, without the just-described overseeing in place, plans are evidently still afoot to go ahead with future installations by a few other, already selected local artists.

My concern is certainly not that local artists are incapable of producing the kind of public art that would suit one of ArtsinStark’s stated goals of attracting larger audiences and garnering prestigious attention to Canton’s arts scene. Rather, my fear is that unless a process of public art installation methods and practices is formally in place, Canton will become increasingly mired in an insouciant, self-congratulatory hodge-podge of public artworks that are more embarrassing than enticing.

Photo: courtesy ArtsinStark

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's A Delectable Life

It’s A Delectable Life

By Tom Wachunas

To the very general extent that a work of art is a record of the artist’s technical and/or esthetic decisions over a period of time, one could fairly call any artwork autobiographical in nature. At a deeper level of autobiography, some mediums- like painting, for example- are particularly appropriate for “illustrating” the more ephemeral elements of a life, as in particular events, significant ideas, or memories. One medium that doesn’t immediately come to mind for such purposes is ceramics.

At the risk of underestimating the general viewing public’s familiarity with the depth and range of ceramic arts these days, I still sense that too many people over-associate clay with quaintly decorative, traditionally functional crafts. Not that there’s anything bad or wrong with decoration and functionality. What I’m talking about here is a medium fully transcending its traditional definitions and associations and moving into purer visual pleasure for its own sake, while telling a story at the same time. As a concept, this in itself is certainly nothing new. When looking at the work of Cincinnati ceramic artist Terri Kern, however, it surely and delightfully seems that way.

The current show of Kern’s new work at the Canton Museum of Art is called ‘45’. It’s named for the number of pieces on view as well as Kern’s number of years on this planet, though much of her work possesses a distinctly otherworldly or fantastical quality. In a parallel universe they could well be the pantry wares you’d find in the homes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits. But these very real objects are signposts of a kind – commemorative markers, as Kern tells us in her statement, of her personal history. Wheel-thrown as well as slab-built and carved, her vessels and panels translate that history into an electrifying visual language that is as endearingly whimsical as it is deeply poetic.

Kern masterfully employs an ornamentation technique of clay carving called ‘sgraffito,’ wherein a top layer of pigment, or ‘slip,’ is scratched to reveal an underlying layer. The technique, along with multiple layerings of underglazes, has yielded astonishing results here in terms of both exquisitely delicate line quality, and colors so luminous and deep that they seem to breathe right before your eyes.

Some works appear to be celebrations of simpler times and memories, as in her free-standing triptych, “The Carrot Thief,” a gleeful depiction of caped rabbits and gravity-defying carrots. It is her hand painted ceramic wall panels, though, that speak of more poignant matters, perhaps. With titles like “Possibilities,” “Out of Darkness,” and “Waiting,” among many others, these are imbued with a profound sense of serenity, if not gentle melancholy. The background in “Shades of Morning,” with its floating leaves and stars amid spiraling swirls, is subtly reminiscent, though in a much more amiable way, of van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

One panel –“At Last”- is particularly stunning not just for its vibrant palette and figuration, but also in how it conveys what could be considered the spiritual essence of all these works. We see a tent-like banner of sorts, stretched between trees. One of the tree trunks is a human spinal column - a direct reference to a line in the beautiful poetry we read on the banner, written by Richard Hague:

At last she listens:
Pioneering the territory of herself,
she builds a lean-to of words
against the trunk of her spine,
camps for a season
near her own heart like a spring,
studies its upwellings and eddies.
Healing, her strength coming back,
she risks the ridges of dreams,
halloing in the dark.

As viewers we may not be privy to every emotional nuance, or the intended, specific “meaning” that these objects have for the artist. Some appear to be literal, others allegorical. I’m not sure it matters a great deal. A little mystery – indeed artistic magic - rendered here with eminent skill, goes a long way toward carving out our own connections.

So linger and look. These works are a sincere and compelling invitation to become immersed in the warm glow of a life delineated with enthralling passion.

Photo: “Shades of Morning,” hand painted ceramic panel by Terri Kern, on view at the Canton Museum of Art, through March 7, 2010.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Close Encounters of the Ecstatic Kind

Close Encounters of the Ecstatic Kind

By Tom Wachunas

The Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 12/6/2009

Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (1943)

Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (1935)

Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suites 1 & 2 (1912)

In this third concert of its 2009-10 MasterWorks Series, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) demonstrated, once again with notable panache, what can best be called a de rigueur mastery of wildly varied textures and tonalities, all executed with electrifying clarity. Call it a benevolent conspiracy, then, between Umstattd Hall’s great acoustics, the orchestra’s unity of purpose (surely the result of very fine conducting), and the engaging program selection.

The evening began on a solemn, reverential note as Maestro Gerhardt Zimmerman reminded the audience of the recent death of Linda V. Moorhouse, a beloved former executive director and CEO of the orchestra. After his moving and affectionate remembrance, Zimmerman led the orchestra in a dedicatory, stunning performance of Elgar’s Nimrod.

Matthew Brown, CSO assistant conductor, then came to the podium to conduct Copland’s Appalachian Spring. He gave as succinct and bright an account of this iconic American masterpiece as I’ve ever heard. Responding in kind, the orchestra performed as would an eager dance partner, attentive to every nuance of Brown’s buoyant leading. The net result of this happy pairing was unquestionably mesmerizing.

Mesmerizing, too, was violinist and CSO Concertmaster Nathan Olson as he performed the centerpiece of the evening - Prokofiev’s compelling Violin Concerto No. 2, conducted by Zimmerman (who also conducted the final work on the program). Prokofiev set out to achieve what he called a “new simplicity” with this work, and it is fair to say that while embracing a lyricism that echoed Tchaikovsky, modernism was still clearly in tow. Prokofiev’s neo-Romantic melodic themes – soaring and sweet- are punctuated with a considerable number of blindingly fast, sometimes dissonant passages. Olson performed them all with a poetic confidence that was muscular (was that smoke I saw billowing about his fingers?) without being overbearing. His tempo remained in perfect sync with the orchestra along with his gently blended timbre. The closing of the third movement builds from a staccato solo into a tumultuous flurry of eighth notes, ending abruptly, like an exclamation point, sending a wave of vociferous adulation through the audience.

While that performance would seem like a hard act to follow, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites 1&2 fit the bill quite nicely. It is a work amply equipped to showcase the orchestra’s sonorous depth. Both suites, each divided into three parts, are symphonic meditations that contrast lyrical, pastoral beginnings with tumultuous finales, or fiery dances. It is the second suite, though, that captures and focuses those contrasts with particularly breathtaking drama. If sunrise can be said to have a sound, it is surely here in the first section, Lever du jour. Amid shimmering flute solos mingling with reeds and harp, the orchestra, like a master painter, rendered lush, enchanting textures that set an ever-brightening tone for what was to come. The finale – Danse generale – is an ecstatic bachanale, a percussive love dance. The orchestra rose to the celebration with astonishing energy as it delivered rolling crescendo after crescendo, like distant winds gathered into thunderclaps. Such delightful musical paroxysms were clearly thrilling to an already enraptured audience.

Photo: violinist and Concertmaster of the Canton Symphony Orchestra, Nathan Olson – courtesy Canton Symphony Orchestra

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Pax On All Our Houses

A Pax On All Our Houses

By Tom Wachunas

My paraphrasing of Shakespeare replaces “pox” – a disease or plague – with the Latin “pax” – peace. ‘Tis the season when all sorts of other phrases abound in our vocabulary, like “Merry Christmas,” “keep Christ in Christmas,” and “Jesus is the reason for the Season.” And as I – like countless millions the world over – become enthralled (or entrapped) by the glitz and glitter of this annual ritual celebration, I’m also reminded of a Warholism – “I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.”

There is an unmistakable, palpable importunity about this year’s Players Guild Theatre musical production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It’s not that director Jon Tisevich ever doubted the story’s popular appeal. It is, after all, a classic in every sense of the word, and as such it is etched as an unquestioned, even timeless tradition into our cultural embrace of Christmas. Rather, I think, its sense of immediacy rises from the challenge to dust off the story’s seasonal trappings and keep the narrative relevant to today’s audiences. In short, to present meaning that transcends merely great entertainment -which this cast delivers abundantly- and become revelatory, applicable truth in our lives RIGHT NOW.

Much of the emotional power of the story is gloriously enhanced by the score composed by Steve Parsons (who here directs a superb live orchestral ensemble), with lyrics by John Popa. In both melodic and lyrical presence, the music has all the memorable variety and impact of the finest Broadway musical literature. The vocal ensemble work of the cast is performed with impeccable enunciation along with genuine, contagious warmth.

Don Hillenbrand’s Scrooge is a remarkably impassioned and credible portrait that perfectly captures the character’s repressed pain masked as a monumentally acerbic world-view. Even in the scenes when he looks upon the proceedings from a distance, his face is captivating in its various expressions of authentic soul-searching.

Those scenes are all the more powerful due to the riveting performances by Kelley Edington (aided by the wonderful flying effects) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Christopher Gales as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Edington is utterly mesmerizing as she sings the ethereal “Wandering,” and Gales equally so in his alternately muscular and tender, jovial admonishings of the flummoxed Scrooge, who is slow in figuring out the joy that propels his nephew, Fred. In that role, John Scavelli is a delightful picture of irrepressible optimism and willingness to love his uncle.

It is, though, the pivotal scenes of searing pathos that ultimately drive home the story’s urgent message of forgiveness and redemption. Among those, Amanda Medley is compelling and sonorous as she sings the doleful “I Have to Know.” And nowhere are Mark McCarthy as Bob Cratchit, and young Drake Spina as his son, Tim, more heartrending and utterly real than in their singing of “A Child Alone.”

Interestingly enough I kept thinking about Scrooge in Biblical terms. Cocky and self-absorbed, he had become comfortable, justified, and otherwise complacent in feeling that his moral obligations to the less fortunate were sufficiently met by his taxes paid to the government. He had become the equivalent of the Pharisees, whose heartless legalism Jesus found abhorrent.

In his 1843 introduction to the story, Dickens wrote to his readers that he hoped his “Ghostly little book” would “haunt their houses pleasantly…” I wonder if he had any idea of the sheer staying-power of his tale across centuries. And after seeing this masterfully mounted production, I was left with another more serious question: How willing am I to become an embodiment of real hope and relief - here, now, and forever beyond this season - for someone who needs it? I don’t think Dickens would mind if I offer this alteration to his introduction: May it haunt our lives pleasantly…

God bless us, everyone indeed.

Photo (left-to-right): Don Hillenbrand as Ebenezer Scrooge, Drake Spina as Tiny Tim Cratchit, Mark McCarthy as Bob Cratchit in the Players Guild Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Cultural Center for the Arts, through December 20. Tickets: (330) 453 – 7617 or

R. Mutt Redux?

R. Mutt Redux?

By Tom Wachunas

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to…conceive. As in birthing ideas, not babies. Besides, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies. But birthing ideas? Surely. All the time. Good ones? Maybe a few.

The mischievous Frenchman, Marcel Duchamp, fathered many ideas, too. None, though, was more outrageous in its day than the scandalous brainchild he loosed upon the art world in 1917 - his infamous “Fountain,” a common ceramic urinal signed R. Mutt. The popular understanding of Duchamp’s defense of his “work” rests largely on his statement that, to paraphrase, it’s art because the artist said so. This understanding, in and of itself, fails to satisfactorily address the more complicated metaphysical and esthetic issues raised when presenting “found objects” as art – issues that Duchamp did in fact address, though somewhat obliquely on many occasions, throughout his lifetime. Still, long after the arrival of Duchamp’s “readymades,” a considerable number of artists seem to be continually inspired to justify their work – no matter how insipid- on the basis of the sacrosanct “I said so” argument.

I’ve always harbored a suspicion that Duchamp opened his Pandora’s Box with the sole intention of letting other artists, and/or critics and philosophers, identify and tame (or re-capture) the myriad wild spirits he unleashed. He didn’t make his way into the history books so much as laugh his way there. Maybe, just maybe, that was his true art – to keep the rest of us, lest we take ourselves and our art too seriously, guessing and humble.

The current show at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), called “Something from Nothing: Contemporary Recycled Sculpture from America’s Rustbelt,” is comprised of work by 13 artists who work with a variety of raw materials, including found “junk.” The exhibit was curated by Canton’s own Pat Buckohr, who made such a public splash with all those downtown animals – goofy sidewalk sentinels made from recycled metal rings.

Interestingly enough, those works possess a careless, throw-away quality and are perhaps best considered as anomalies when compared to other more artistically elegant and substantive works I’ve seen by him. Indeed, M.J.Albacete, CMA executive director, told me recently that he and Buckohr have regularly discussed the contemporary art scene in Canton. Albacete noted, “He (Buckohr) is an exceptionally talented artist whose roots are embedded in the historic traditions. So, when we decided to do a cutting-edge exhibition of creativity based on recycled materials, Pat was our first and only choice. He took to the project with enthusiasm, and his selection of artists covers a wide swath across Midwest USA. His selections are stupendous, making this the most impressive show of its type ever to grace the galleries of the CMA. Knowing Pat’s capabilities as an artist and a curator, I’d like to see him receive a major commission for a downtown sculpture much as he really deserves…say $20,000 or $25,000?” That, friends, is what can easily be called a glowing and well-earned endorsement.

Interesting, too, are Buckohr’s motives for organizing this show. In his statement he cites a “lack of academic acceptance” for his beloved medium of recycled materials, and, if I read him correctly, academia’s perception that recycled materials are somehow antithetical to edifying art. Such a blanket assessment is, it seems to me, a tad ironic and overstated, and perhaps the subject of a separate discussion. Certainly, if not for academia, we wouldn’t be acknowledging Duchamp’s influence on contemporary found-object art in this context (as Buckohr does in his statement) at all.

Putting aside such precipitate musings, it’s time to lighten up. Whatever anxieties Mr. Buckohr may have had in pursuing this endeavor, he can put to rest. Even the most rigorous academic traditionalists would be hard-pressed to call this show anything other than a resounding success - a grand affirmation that art made from recycled junk need not be junky.

The work that greets viewers entering the main gallery is literally a soaring example of just how beautiful “junk art” can be. “Reestimate” is a startlingly realistic eagle by Paula J.Jensen. Made from scrap steel with piercing copper eyes, the majestic bird is poised in flight above us as it negotiates a precarious landing on the too- thin tip of a writhing branch. Breathtaking.

This show occupies a varied landscape of conceptual approaches from playful to profound, and a considerably broad terrain between the two. Daniel Horne’s “King and Queen” presents the life-size royal couple of welded scrap steel as whimsical, kinetic skeletons who invite viewers to gently push various parts of their anatomies and enjoy their moving parts. Kyle Fokken’s mixed media “Uptet (Babylon Gunship)” and its more “modern” counterpart, “Ship of Fools,” are both solidly constructed, fascinating war machines in miniature. “Uptet” looks like a creature from a science fiction story, and would be a downright hilarious apparition were it not for its clearly deadly function. Nonetheless, both works are riveting in every sense of the word.

Joseph Carl Close possesses an utterly unique artistic vision that ranks him among Canton’s – indeed this region’s - most exciting artists. And most mysterious. Here, his monumental (approximately 11’ tall) “Tower” exudes a kind of lonely, even dark heroism. Who, or what are the “figures” that seem poised on the brink of either joining or disintegrating? It’s a masterpiece of intricately layered textures and images all entwined in an uncanny duality of serenity and looming threat – a guardian, perhaps, of vaguely familiar histories, or memories just out of reach.

One arguable legacy of Duchamp has been the perception of the art milieu as a democracy of ideas, which in turn can fuel esthetic anarchy – an “anything can be art,” and “anyone can be an artist” sensibility. If we regard art as a melding of intent and context, then perhaps this statement by Duchamp can at least define some, albeit vague, parameters: “Art may be bad, good, or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way as a bad emotion is still an emotion.”

Be assured that the art in this exhibition is neither indifferent nor bad. In fact, for sheer craftsmanship, delights for the eyes, and engaging conceptual content, it’s marvelously entertaining. Why? Well (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)…because I said so.

Photo: “Tower,” by Joseph Carl Close, 2009, wood, steel, glass, oil. On view in “Something from Nothing: Contemporary Recycled Sculpture from America’s Rustbelt,” through March 7, 2010, at the Canton Museum of Art.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Diamonds among the Rhinestones

Diamonds among the Rhinestones

By Tom Wachunas

Mark Twain once wrote, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” His observation rattled around in my memory as I looked at the exhibit of works by 33 members of the Canton Artists League (CAL) currently on view at the Stark State College of Technology Student Center. Twain’s poetic assessment of the difference between competent and genuinely excellent literature can, I think, be applied to all the arts.

This group show is fairly typical fare for CAL – a crowded, mixed bag of largely representational works (heavy on landscape and floral themes, several animal and figurative works), with a smattering of abstract pieces. Viewing it is like sorting through a jewelry box, overflowing with costume baubles that look almost like authentic precious stones, before chancing upon true gems. In that respect, five of the works her resonate with particularly unmistakable allure.

Judi Krew is largely known for her paintings about the human situational and behavioral quirks and foibles that can make us laugh, or wince. While wildly popular with a considerable number of viewers, I confess to simply not getting their point, and for the most part, regarded those garish cartoons as sophomoric fluff, and badly painted fluff at that. So it is that I am elated to report that in this exhibition, Krew’s pastel portrait, “Robert in a Blue Robe,” shows clearly that she is a marvelously facile and sensitive master of pure drawing. Wispy blue highlights - quietly intense, like neon - illuminate and charge an intricate collection of gestural marks set down with truly remarkable authority.

“Terra di Vino” is a tantalizing watercolor by Lynn Weinstein. Her landscape is somewhat Cezannesque with its fragmentation of the picture plane. Here, those fragments seem to dance across the liquid pastures, shimmering like the facets of a diamond reflecting an eerily warm, wine-colored sky. The hills are indeed alive with drunken iridescence.

Equally tantalizing is “Terra Magica,” a watercolor collage by Meize Riedel. Her colors aren’t about intense, vibrating luminosity. Yet, beneath the muted hues of this picture there is intrigue, springing from its elegant, perfectly balanced arrangement of forms and textures, all harmonized with very subtle transitions of saturated hues into more transparent, earthy passages. The diagonally placed, crack-like slivers of unpainted white space (the exposed ground of the watercolor paper) bring an exciting dynamic, seeming like canyons or riverbeds that play up the depth of this magical, gently churning land.

Dr. Fredlee Votaw’s “Fisher of Men” is another stellar example of the inventive combination of various raw materials and exquisite drawing technique that he employs to create uniquely stunning visions. Here, 12 fish hooks are inserted into the peripheries of an aged square of cloth. Above, a circle cut into the matting encloses a delicately drawn portrait. Honesty compels me to tell you that I was moved to ask Votaw if indeed this was a portrait of Jesus, and he kindly confirmed as much. It is a thoroughly contemporary visage, and a far cry from the traditionally sappy representations of the blue-eyed, bearded Christ with long flowing tresses and gentle smile. This hairless Jesus gazes away from us, unsmiling, his eyes utterly mesmerizing as they exude a spirit that is something between tired sadness and searing concentration. He is considering (and Votaw confirmed this, too) the state of troubled and failed humanity in light of his seminal, history-changing teachings, implied by the alphabet and numerals printed on the cloth. This is, quite simply, achingly beautiful art – timeless, serene, haunting.

And finally, there is “Beacon of Light,” a watercolor night scene by Nick Lanzalotta. From an all-white lighthouse nestled among the pine trees on a rocky bluff, a beam of yellow light seems frozen in air, right at the moment it is about to travel far into the deep blue night that is settling upon the bay. Relative to most of the other watercolors in this show (a fairly dominant CAL medium, to be sure), this is a comparatively opaque handling of the material, possessing a gouache-like density. Additionally, Lanzalotta’s drawing technique is more workman-like than academically fluid, giving the work an enchanting folk-art flavor. Yet, for all of its child-like simplicity of execution, this dream-like piece is startlingly muscular, executed with saturated colors that speak…make that SHOUT ...its message of safe, even joyful haven. It is a message conveyed in “words” that are not almost, but completely…right.

Photo: “Beacon of Light,” watercolor by Nick Lanzalotta, currently on view through December 26 in “A League of Its Own,” works by members of the Canton Artists League, on the second floor mezzanine of the Student Center at Stark State College of Technology. Viewing hours: Monday-Thursday 8am to 8pm / Friday 8am to 4pm /Saturday 8am to noon

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Cutting Edge of Warm 'n Fuzzy

The Cutting Edge of Warm ‘n Fuzzy

By Tom Wachunas

The current exhibition by four women artists at Main Hall Gallery on the Kent State University Stark Campus is called, simply, “Cozy.” Curated by Kent Stark Associate Professor of Art Carey McDougall, the show’s title is a pleasant if not ironic invitation to consider subversive twists and transformations of things traditionally associated with, for the most part, feminine roles, memories, and materials.

Julie Deutschman’s untitled hanging menagerie of hand-stitched furry critters in electric colors looks like props from Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. Fun, and harmless, they’re the conceptual lightweights here, and about as close to “cozy” as it gets. Call them a primer for the relatively headier content of other works in the show.

Not so harmless are the fabric constructions by Kortney Niewierski, which are formally somewhat reminiscent, though on a much smaller scale, of Claes Oldenburg’s 1960s soft sculptures of consumer bric-a-brac. Here, Niewierski offers stuffed doll houses, or perhaps windowed toy boxes. But belying the wildly colored, frolicking patterns and frills of their exteriors are contents that look beyond merely innocent playtime. Lurking inside are strange, bulging, even phallic forms. Maybe I’m reading too much into these works, but they might literally be the stuffing of dreams (or nightmares?) wherein comfortable, familiar things cavort, then morph into looming danger. Like smiling clowns turned into fanged demons.

An odd, yet quietly moving spirit of nostalgia is evident in the relief prints and lithographs by Angela Nichols. Their retro look is largely due to their appropriation of stylized imagery from vintage Goodhousekeeping ads and photos. Such icons of suburban domesticity - “Yummy” shows a silhouetted woman triumphantly raising up a fresh-baked pie - were once regarded as potent symbols of correct and noble feminine duty. But rendered here in their palette of faded, pale colors, the images are mute artifacts or fossils from a society whose values and behaviors might now seem mysterious at best or, worse, irrelevant.

The most visually compelling works here – also possessing an air of nostalgia - are by Summer Zickefoose. “The Scenery Series” is a collection of eight vintage handsaws, their blades lovingly encased with various floral print fabrics. With their aged wood handles, some cracked and bleached, they exude a distinctly rural, folk sensibility that makes for an engaging counterpoint to the industrial look of “Saw Tooth Doilies” hanging next to them.

These are four circular saw blades, looking all new and factory shined, mounted with heavy-duty bolts threaded into the gallery wall. As the title indicates, Zickefoose has transformed the blades into very fancy doilies via laser-cut patterns of her hand-drawn designs. The intriguing shadows they cast on the wall play up the fascinating contrast of modern hard labor melded with the proverbial “woman’s touch.” While certainly delicate, this is art with some teeth on it, literally and otherwise.

Photo: “Saw Tooth Doilies” by Summer Zickefoose, on view through December 5 in “Cozy,” an exhibition at Kent State University Main Hall Gallery.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Measuring the Immeasurable

Measuring the Immeasurable

By Tom Wachunas

Ludwig Van Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 (1810); Concerto in C Major for Violin, Violoncello, Piano and Orchestra, Op. 56 (1805); Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (1807)

Beethoven: Claremont Trio – Emily Bruskin (violin), Julia Bruskin (cello), Donna Kwong (piano); Gerhardt Zimmerman (conductor)

The November 8 all-Beethoven concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra was more than a memorable celebration of the composer’s indelible signature on the history of music. It was in fact an electrifying demonstration of the disciplined sonic power that makes the Canton Symphony Orchestra such a wonder to behold.

Beethoven was thrilled at the prospect of writing incidental music for a revival of Goethe’s 1788 stage drama, Egmont. Beyond his abiding admiration for Goethe, Beethoven identified with the play’s message of victory over political and religious tyranny, and his music for the overture brings to bear all his genius for communicating triumph amid tragedy. From the opening movement’s somber, whispered rumblings, through the quickening pace of the optimistic Allegro, to the inspiring ebullience of the thunderous finale, the orchestra unfolded this piece with riveting authority.

It is with equal authority that the youthful Claremont Trio delivered Opus 56, commonly referred to as the Triple Concerto. In his astute (as always) program notes, Kenneth Viant observed that this work is a relatively neglected one, and unfairly so. I wondered if the ghosts of negative critical reception of its 1808 premiere still might be haunting it, or if it has been consistently overshadowed by the Eroica symphony and the Appassionata Piano Sonata. Those works were composed immediately preceding and following, respectively, Beethoven’s completion of the Triple Concerto, and are often regarded, in comparison, as more exemplary of the composer’s gifts for sustained dramatic content.

From that perspective, I think a fairer consideration of Triple Concerto is that more than ample drama lies in the successful performing of its joyously rich and formidable technical challenges. And in that regard, the Claremont Trio – a delightful personification of very real musical passion and virtuosity- set the house afire.

Indeed, the traditional concert etiquette of refraining from applause until all movements of a work are performed was pleasantly breached at the conclusion of the opening, very long Allegro movement. It is a movement of substantial intricacy, and in many ways a complete entity unto itself. After hearing its myriad rhythms and grand crescendos, played with white-knuckle finesse and breakneck speed by cellist Julia Bruskin and violinist Emily Bruskin (twin sisters), and pianist Donna Kwong, the audience responded immediately with vociferous applause. Also noteworthy is that while the piano part is certainly vital to the chemistry of the work, it was written with distinctly fewer challenging passages per se than those for cello and violin. Kwong’s technique was nonetheless flawless, delivered with sonorous warmth along with its own share of gentle flamboyance. Additionally, the trio performed, at times, as three separate voices engaging in highly animated and nuanced conversation. At other times, they spoke as one voice, perfectly balanced and seamlessly blending with the subtle ebbs and flows of the orchestra.

Closing the evening was arguably the greatest symphony ever written- the inimitable, indomitable Fifth. I confess to waxing hyperbolic in my praises of the work, as well as its performance on this occasion. Quite simply, this Beethoven masterpiece ranks among humankind’s most noble and glorious concoctions. Here, there was no overly- ponderous rest in the famous opening four-note couplet. Instead, Maestro Zimmerman and his orchestra seemed inextricably connected to a reading of the music that was all about unbroken, quickening excitement – an urgent appointment with Fate that Beethoven allegedly claimed as his theme.

It was particularly interesting that Zimmerman opted to include the third movement repeat. Beethoven’s original score showed a repeat mark written after the scherzo and trio sections, indicating that the orchestra was to play those sections again from the beginning. Most modern transcriptions eliminated the notation, following the long-held belief that the shorter reading was closer to the composer’s ultimate intentions. Some conductors, however, have become receptive to retaining it and, in the end, the choice here afforded an already enthralled audience all the more time to revel in the orchestra’s facile mastery of the music’s searing emotionality.

Whatever spirits might have driven Beethoven to such musical heights, I am fairly convinced they were of the angelic kind. I am also convinced that they were on hand for this concert, inspiring a truly magnificent performance.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Still Tasty After All These Years

Still Tasty After All These Years

By Tom Wachunas

The Canton Symphony Orchestra, Cable Recital Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 29.10.2009, (TW)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 17 in G Major, K. 129 (1772); Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 (1787); Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364 (320d) (1779)

In the second of its Casual Concert Series for the 2009-10 season, The Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) presented an all-Mozart evening. The program was comprised of three selections that provided a thoroughly edifying cross-section of the composer’s astounding gifts for melody, elegant structure, and emotional depth.

This CSO series is less formal than the Masterworks series for full orchestra at Umstattd Hall. The smaller Cable Recital Hall stage is better suited to chamber-style concerts, allowing for conductor and/or performers to engage the audience more intimately. The orchestra for this concert consisted of 17 instruments, though still in keeping with how the pieces on the program were originally scored.

Matthew Brown, the CSO Assistant Conductor, introduced the proceedings by calling the evening “the story of two crescendos.” He explained that the first work on the program –Symphony No. 17- incorporated Mozart’s earliest use of the Mannheim Crescendo, named for the court orchestra in Mannheim, Germany, that had become famous for its virtuosity and the innovative changes it pioneered in 18th century orchestral techniques and compositional styles. Mozart was moved by the orchestra’s mastery of diminuendo (a slow softening of volume) balanced with crescendo (gradual increasing of volume). He would further perfect this development in other works, particularly in his Sinfonia Concertante, which closed the evening here.

Also worth noting is Brown’s humorous acknowledgement that the order of the program was something of a break from the traditional practice of saving symphonies for the climax of the evening. As it turned out, though, the programming on this occasion served the notion of crescendo very well indeed. Call it a gourmet meal (this was, after all, Mozart) with courses served out of “normal” sequence.

In this context Symphony No. 17 was an appetizer, albeit a delectable one. From the light-hearted, unified dance rhythms of the Allegro and the simple magic of the Andante, through the jig-like processional melodies of the finale, the orchestra performed with crisp, infectious joie d’vivre. That same spirit was magnified in the orchestra’s effervescent performance of the iconic Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I often wonder what Mozart would think of how his string serenade – originally written as background music, really – has fared in modern times. It has become ubiquitous in its incarnations, including sappy muzak versions piped into elevators and shopping malls. Common as chocolate, perhaps, but truly fine chocolate at that. Surely, as this orchestra so deftly reminded me, the work is a deliriously sweet, even addictive confection. Dessert had been served.

And so it was time for the entrĂ©e. For sheer melodic depth and lyrical warmth, Sinfonia Concertante is certainly among Mozart’s most compelling string concertos. Here the orchestra’s sound took on a distinctly more muscular sonority. This was apropos to the music’s aural essence, built upon the throatier tonal qualities of the solo viola and its soaring duets with solo violin. The guest soloists were violist Jonathan Kim and violinist Emily Cornelius. Both were nothing short of brilliant. Together they delivered the soul of this work with astonishing grace and virtuosity, and the orchestra rose to the task with equal panache. Particularly memorable was the doleful and heartrending Andante movement. The soloists were fully immersed- like a single instrument- in the music’s pathos, with the violin’s fiery outbursts perfectly met by the viola’s darker pleadings. Then, in a dramatic change to a mood closer in character to the sumptuous opening Allegro, the music shifted back into high spirits with the ebullient Presto movement. As if in a frantic game of leap- frog, violin and viola engaged in a technically thrilling, seductive series of call-and-response passages for the electrifying finale.

In the end, the audience responded with the same unfettered adulation they might accord master chefs who had just served up an unforgettable feast. Bon apetit.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tactile Soliloquies

Tactile Soliloquies

By Tom Wachunas

The title of the current exhibit at The Little Art Gallery – “Sheer Obscurity”- presents a bit of a conundrum. Is the art intentionally dark, or its meaning deliberately arcane? Or is it simply a poetic, even cautionary announcement of the art’s “personal” qualities, thereby preparing us for art that is more meditative than merely decorative or “entertaining”? I favor the latter reading, while considering the act of meditating on art quite entertaining nonetheless. In any event, I find the show’s title to be an effective hook on which to hang some observations.

Ken Carter makes hand-blown glass objects. Michele Waalkes makes (for the most part, here) pictures from photo transfers on to translucent as well as opaque fabrics. Hence, both artists work in “sheer” mediums. And both artists share subtle palettes that effectively make their works exude an earthy spirituality.

Carter’s glass pieces are, at their most fundamental level, connected to traditional functionalities of the medium – vases, bowls, and bottles. But those functions seem secondary to the pieces’ truer natures as independently engaging objects – intimate glass sculptures inhabited by an archetypal spectre of timelessness. Many of them look as if they were made from molten geological strata – viscous, swirling, and still gently seething and breathing under their polished patinas.

That sensibility of breathing is intrinsic to most of Waalkes’ pieces, too. Many of them are sylvan visions of interlacing tree limbs that shimmer and shift ever so slightly the longer you look at them. Some appear to go impossibly deep into the picture plane. Into the woods indeed, these are not so much mysterious forests as they are elegant invitations to simply explore and marvel at nature’s intricate, lyrical depths. Other images are fascinating juxtapositions of arboreal motifs with classical-looking architectural settings and quiet interiors – a kind of humanity-nature morphology.

Viewed in the aggregate, these works could well address a wide range of narratives and sensations both private and universal. And so it was unsettling to me to witness two other individuals come into the gallery during my 40-minute visit. They blew through the exhibit in 3 or 4 minutes, never getting any closer than about 4 feet from any single piece. With such a careless embrace, how could anyone possibly see, or perhaps even hear what message might await them? Their loss, I thought. Good art deserves better. Allowing ample viewing time seems a paltry sacrifice to make when the pay-off is the abiding serenity and unique, palpable pleasure for the eyes that this show so richly provides.

Photo: “Sheer Obscurity” (publicity art) from The Little Art Gallery/ left: “Alluring,” Fibers, by Michele Waalkes; right: “Encalmo Doughnut Bottle with Stand,” by Ken Carter. On view through November 17, gallery located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main St., North Canton (330) 499-4712, extension 312

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fauna, fondly

Fauna, fondly

By Tom Wachunas

Somewhere around the age of five or six years I made my first real paintings (watercolors) on pieces of unprimed corrugated cardboard. They were images of dinosaurs and birds copied from encyclopedias. For several years I was more than casually interested in these creatures. I read everything I could get my hands on about them. I shared my findings in great detail as my family listened with respectful if not begrudging interest during many evening meals. Honestly, I was sure that there was a mysterious kinship between extinct reptiles and the feathered critters that swarmed around the redwood birdfeeder that my father so lovingly maintained. He even secured an Audubon Society membership for me by the time I reached fourth grade. Imagine my delight in finding out many years later that my juvenile intuition was validated when the scientific community confirmed once and for all that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs.

That childhood passion eventually blossomed into more serious studies of paleontology (it nearly became my college major), ornithology, and zoology. Even though I ceased, for the most part, making pictures of animals long ago, I’ve always nurtured a deep appreciation for wildlife artists and animal-world illustrators of all kinds.

So it is with some degree of unabashedly sentimental intentions that I curated “Animal Instincts” at Gallery 6000. Still, in as much as the show is an homage (and a fairly restricted one at that) to enjoyment of the animal kingdom, it is also most certainly a celebration of four notably uncomplicated local talents who clearly have a passion for their subjects. By ‘uncomplicated’ I mean unpretentious, and that the art here is refreshingly straightforward without being insipid. There are no vexing mysteries to unravel, no arcane or cryptic meanings to decipher, no visual angst with which the artists can mercilessly elicit our dumbfounded silence, as so much postmodernist art (in the name of profundity and originality) is apt to do. In short, what you see is what you get, not what you guess.

If horses can be said to have a topography, Kelli Swan could rightfully be called their master cartographer. Her pencil drawings of horses are marvelously rich in tonal variations and equally riveting for their precision of detail. You can almost see the animals’ muscles ripple beneath their velvety coats. And while Swan’s portrayals here are largely in the context of horses submitting to human games, they nonetheless project a loving respect for, and fascination with, wild equine dignity.

The oil paintings by Sue Steiner are simple gems of fluid color and gestural brushwork. Though small in scale, they imbue their subjects – pets and farm animals- with an expressive energy that is gently heroic. The intriguing head of the cat in “Wild Thing” fills the picture frame with an atmospheric meditation on things that surely only cats can see.

Vicki Boatright, who signs her work BZTAT (after a favorite cat), paints her electrifying images of pets and domesticated animals in acrylic on particle board. The board provides a tactile backdrop that is visually decorative as well as significant on a conceptual plane. There is a resultant air of immediacy in these neon-bright images that, despite their often whimsical folk stylings, project all the social urgency of urban graffiti on boarded-up buildings. Ebullient, surely, yet they can also be distinctly haunting, as in “Anonymous.” Here, an alarmed cat takes on iconic presence, stripped down to a kind of logo that is symbolic of Boatright’s stated concern for the awareness and welfare of all animals, including feral feline populations.

Rounding out the show are the spectacular – in every sense of the word – photographs by Stephen McNulty. He’s a conservation photographer whose zeal for the wonders of nature has taken him to places as far-flung as, among others, the Alaskan backcountry and jungles of the Amazon. His dazzling UltraChrome Giclee prints are sumptuous evidence of a sharp eye for composition, and surely the necessary patience in choosing to “capture” the most impacting scenes. “On Resplendent Wings, 2005” is a breathtaking vision of pure natural drama. In startlingly sharp focus, a Bald Eagle soars intently along frothy, sparkling surf. All of McNulty’s photographs are jubilant records of utterly beautiful moments in places many of us only dream about.

That’s one mark of genuinely compelling art – its capacity to inspire viewers to witness or re-live a unique moment, or to reconsider a truth of our world. And thus this exhibition simply asks us to savor animals for what they are – thrilling denizens of Creation that bring joy to our existence.

Photo: “Predatory Instincts” by Vicki Boatright, acrylic, on view in “Animal Instincts” through November 18 at Gallery 6000, located in the dining room of the University Center at Kent State University Stark campus, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Best viewing times are Monday-Friday, 8am to 11am, or 1:30pm to 4:30pm. It is highly recommended to first call (330) 244-3300 to confirm availability for viewing

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Giants Among Us

Giants Among Us

By Tom Wachunas

Theofanidis, Mozart, Dvorak: Menahem Pressler (piano), Gerhardt Zimmerman (conductor)
The Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 10.10.2009, (TW)

Christopher Theofanidis: Rainbow Body (2000)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K.453 (1784)
Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op.88 (1889)

Umstattd Hall, the performing home of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), is certainly, for most orchestral intents and purposes, acoustically impeccable. Its design sufficiently eliminates ambient noise, providing optimal listening conditions. So for that, there isn’t here a bad seat in the house. But what if a musical composition is inspired by, and indeed calls for the constant resonance of ambient sound?

That phenomenon is the lush aural soul of Rainbow Body, a thirteen-minute work by American composer Christopher Theofanidis, which opened the first concert of the CSO 2009-10 season. Theofanidis surrounded his principal melodic theme with what he has called a “wet acoustic,” successfully imitating the echoes and reverberations one would encounter in a cathedral. The effect is apropos to the melodic source, a chant by the 12th-century mystic and abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. Its haunting resonance is created via notes sustained at the end of one musical passage while the next is being introduced.

In his delightfully avuncular fashion, Maestro Zimmerman introduced the work by reminding the audience to not read while he was speaking, since he had some fascinating information to impart which was not to be found in the program notes. Specifically, toward the finale of the piece, orchestra members vocalize in the “whooping” tradition that Theofanidis encountered at the dress rehearsal for the piece’s London debut. The composer was so moved by the effect that he permanently scored it into the music.

Zimmerman then proceeded to lead the orchestra through each phase of the work with all the studied finesse and reverence of a priest performing a sacred ritual. The orchestra responded with equal finesse in delivering the work’s rapturous changes of color. The eerily quiet violins began with a sustained tremolo, like the vibration of a faint electrical undercurrent. Over this whisper, various instruments sounded short bursts, heralding darker passages to come. Strings introduced the primary melody, and this meditative theme returned several times throughout, rising more gracefully each time through several distinctly ominous-sounding passages. The work took on nearly cinematic urgency as it built toward a percussive, then brassy finale, interspersed with the players’ vocalizations. But these were not voices caught up in cacophonous celebration. Rather, they were a gentle yet soaring praise of transcendent human spirit, all culminating in the unexpectedly intense climax, clearly moving the audience to a visible level of awe-inspired attention.

The centerpiece of the evening was the Mozart piano concerto, featuring the inimitable Menahem Pressler, who delivered the most memorable performance by a CSO guest soloist in recent memory. With the thunderous conclusion of the Theofanidis work still resonating in my memory, I thought the overall sound of the orchestra in this piece was somewhat anemic by comparison, though certainly not for lack of melodic heft. To be fair, Mozart did score the work for a medium-sized orchestra, as evidenced here by fewer musicians on stage. Nonetheless, Pressler’s interpretation of the music was powerfully fresh and polished, and all the more amazing when considering that at 85, he still enthralls audiences with both stellar technique and riveting poeticism. And as if Pressler’s playing of Mozart weren’t enough to whet our appetites for excellence, his exquisite encore performance of Chopin’s mesmerizing Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor (Op. Post.) was the stuff of pure musical genius. Pressler is a marvelously transparent player. His face, with its animated expressions of genuine wonderment at the music, was an engaging performance in its own right. He didn’t merely play the music well. He inhabited it.

All of the orchestra’s commanding aural presence returned with electrifying passion in performing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. With its varied palette of emotions from searing pathos to unfettered jubilance, the rich melodic content throughout this masterpiece is largely driven by the cellos. Here they rose to the occasion with startlingly sonorous unity, leading the way for the rest of the orchestra to perform in similarly invigorating style. By the sounding of the last note of the heart-stopping finale, the orchestra had clearly reaffirmed its legitimate claim of being one of the most exciting and accomplished young orchestras in America.

Photo: pianist Menahem Pressler, courtesy

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Power of Public Art: Connecting with Community

The Power of Public Art: Connecting with Community

By Tom Wachunas

(This article was published in the Fall edition of Northeast Ohio Municipal Leader magazine)

Even a cursory examination of art history will demonstrate the vast and dramatic changes that have transpired in societal definitions of art – its purpose, forms, and functions. Modernist and post-modernist practices have largely supplanted traditional artistic values, once perceived as practically universal and immutable, with what I like to call the embrace of esthetic relativism. What you consider to be “beautiful” art may very well be to me simply ugly, and not art. This brings up many prickly questions, including whether or not art necessarily needs to be beautiful at all. And to make matters muddier, what is beauty anyway? Like it or not, the state of 21st century arts is indeed a tangled web.

As art viewers we have come to depend increasingly upon a given context in determining the validity of a thing’s claim to be art. So it is with a kind of blind faith that we may encounter what we feel is an utterly mystifying object or picture in, say, an art museum. After all, it is an art museum, and presumably qualified and knowledgeable people in authority have determined that the things we behold there are indeed worthy of our consideration as art. We trust that the things we are seeing in that context have some respectable, explainable relationship with, or place in, the continuum of art history.

But what about art works placed at street corners, in public plazas, on building facades, or in city parks? Here the context is the tangled web of “out there,” in the world, in traffic. In a very real sense, works of public art bear a heavier burden (literally and figuratively) and responsibility than the art we normally see in the confines of a museum or gallery. The most compelling public artworks are essentially lasting evidence of fruitful dialogue among qualified individuals acting in concert to intentionally inspire and edify the public. Such works speak effectively, then, to not just our sense of the aforementioned art continuum. To some degree or another, they also must embrace their specific physical surroundings as well as the local history (where applicable) and overall civic sensibilities of the community that installed them. In short, the milieu in which these works must function and have relevance is both a social and an esthetic one.

In the process of conceiving and installing a work of art for the public arena, should the planners expect or even seek from the community a significant consensus of definitions, standards, and practices? If the planners’ only source of input is the proverbial man-on-the-street, then no. This is certainly not to say that the general population of a community is incapable of articulating opinions. A traditional democratic approach in this context, however, is untenable if only because of the increasing pluralism in esthetic tastes that our modern society seems to so deeply cherish. Intellectual biases and cultural predispositions have a tendency to constrain our ability to collectively evaluate works of art, making it practically impossible to speak with one voice. We simply like, perhaps too much, to agree to disagree.

Who, then, should ultimately shoulder the responsibility of searching for, and determining the nature and relevance of, a public work of art? And should the need arise, to whom do we go for an authoritative justification of the work’s esthetic qualities? The hired artist? City Council? A beloved local art tzar or rich benefactor? None of these, it seems to me, either singly or in combination, can necessarily assure a fair and balanced weighing of the issues that public art often raises. Complex questions must be addressed. Is it vitally important that viewers fully comprehend the work? Is controversial art necessarily a bad thing? How will the artist be selected? The very real danger in this scenario is that the art reflects a constricted sociopolitical agenda, or a personal vision far too narrow to have any significant meaning or appeal to the viewing public at large.

So in the long run, another proxy for the people needs to be considered in the form of an ad hoc partnership of various authorities - a committee of experts. Utilizing their combined expertise in both physical logistics as well as intellectual and esthetic content issues, these experts could identify and delineate an idea relevant to community interests, and select an artist capable of articulating it. All of the individuals comprising this partnership should be highly learned and accomplished in their respective professions. Those professions must necessarily span a variety of disciplines that may include architecture, painting, sculpture, landscape design, art history and curating, and fundraising. It’s vital that the committee also be diligent in seeking input from local civic leaders who have a clearly proven awareness of their community’s overall sense of itself – its social and cultural posture. Additionally, the committee should regularly inform the public of its process and progress via local media reportage (print, radio, and television).

Here, though, a caveat is in order. The establishment of such a committee, operating in even the most optimal conditions and with the best of intentions, is still not an unconditional guarantee of an art work that will thrill the entire viewing public. Such an expectation is simply unrealistic. Still, I believe that the varied make-up and procedures of the committee I have described here could provide the chemistry needed to arrive at an art offering that would not stir the viewing public’s outrage.

Such was precisely the case, for example, at the unveiling of the 1981 work, Tilted Arc, by world-renowned Minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. The work was placed in the center of Federal Plaza in downtown New York City. The piece was a menacing (a few called it graceful) steel wall 120 feet long and 12 feet high, paid for with taxpayer dollars and approved by the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., which in turn was advised solely by a panel of prominent artists selected by the National Endowment for the Arts. There was no consultation within a broader community context. Immediate public reaction to the work was predominantly hostile, and after years of litigation and hearings, it was dismantled in 1989.

Even if a public work of art is privately funded, I don’t think its installation should be a license to ignore exploring its implications for the surrounding community. Otherwise there is the real possibility that the art is merely an insulated symbol of arrogance, declaring, “We put it here because we could.”

Art in the public arena can commemorate an important person, event or place, or simply be a thoughtful visual enhancement of the environment. Whatever its reason for being, the power and vitality of effective public art lies in its capacity to impart a meaningful encounter relevant to not only the community that installed it, but to all who see it. And whether a community is celebrating its past history, or presenting a vision of pride in its present, its public art, when carefully chosen, can leave a compelling legacy for generations to come.

Photo: “Tilted Arc” by Richard Serra, Federal Plaza, NYC, rolled steel, 120’x12’

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Culture Shocks and Naked Truths

Culture Shocks and Naked Truths

By Tom Wachunas

There’s nothing quite like encountering nudity for bringing us back to…Eden. It’s in our genes. It’s under our jeans. One way to appreciate the history of clothing is to think of it as the unexpected evolution of the fig leaf all the way up to modern fashion design. Genesis 3 tells us that Adam and Eve were the first seamsters, sewing together fig leaves to cover themselves after noticing for the first time that they were naked and embarrassed by it. Shortly after reading them the riot act of all riot acts, God further obliged his errant children by providing sturdier animal skins (arguably making him the first beast slayer?) to more effectively hide their shame. And the rest, as they say, is haute couture.

Hiding shame is one thing. We’ve made an art of it. But guilt? If there’s one animal, other than that pesky snake, that followed Adam and Eve out of Eden, surely it was an elephant…the same one that has occupied the living room of our souls ever since. Guilt. I often wonder if that isn’t at the heart of the many issues that get stirred up when considering nudity, including its presence in our art.

Very often the whole notion of the unclothed human body seems to trigger controversy, discomfort, angst both intellectual and spiritual. Nude, we are found out, vulnerable, exposed for the flawed, imperfect and indeed failed creatures that we are. Genesis is fairly clear on this point: we, by our own choice, fell from grace. We didn’t measure up. Nudity, when considered in the negative abstract, then, might not be so much a symbol of our original, glorious state of being as it is an unwelcome reminder of paradise lost and our species’ innate guilt.

Of course art history is replete with images and sculptures of the undraped human figure, some of them unabashedly frank and accurate, others more “tasteful” in their rendering. Donatello’s “David”(1428) presents the giant killer as a smirking, weak-muscled boy wearing only boots and a “helmet” that looks more like flowered bonnet, his pose more cocky than demure. Michelangelo’s “answer” (1501) was to present the hero as a svelte young man (no boots ‘n bonnet here) poised for the kill. Artistic nudity in the Renaissance was a revival of classical Greek ideals and esthetics, largely regarded as representing mankind’s nobler aspirations. But even Michelangelo had his detractors, mortified at the sea of nude (frontal and otherwise) figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One of the “disturbing” images of God the Father, though not rendered as a nude, shows him from the back as he creates the planets, his clingy white garment just sheer enough to show us ample evidence of a very muscular, round butt. Oh, the affront (or in this case the a-back) of it all!!!

And so it is that today, in the world of art, exposed flesh can still raise the ire and eyebrows of some viewers. Case in point: the current show, called “The Digital Cloth: Images That Make You Go Hmmm…,” at Kent Stark’s Main Hall Gallery, on view until October 23. The work is by Vince Quevedo, associate professor at Kent State University’s School of Fashion Design and Merchandizing. There have been concerns as well as outright complaints about the full-frontal (male and female) nude images. Some have called it pornographic, which I find to be a gross misunderstanding of the term. Call it vocabulary abuse. A word is a terrible thing to waste. Viewer discretion, and more important, viewer concentration is advised.

On both technical and formal terms, these are fascinating, poetic and at times utterly beautiful images. Professor Quevedo has transferred computer-manipulated digital photos, via bubble jet printer, to quilts and wall hangings made from silk organza and cotton. All of the images are based upon his interpretation of biblical themes, many from Genesis. His “Adam and Eve” is a simple, frontal view of the couple that in no way conjures anything remotely pornographic. In fact, it is a straightforward consideration of created, not “born,” humanity. As the artist noted during his gallery talk, you’ll notice they have no navels.

There are several pieces here that are comprised of two pieces of fabric hung just inches apart, one translucent image lined up directly in front of the same image printed on opaque fabric. The resulting effect is like a shimmering hologram that shifts and changes as you move around it. And it is that shift in appearance that points in a larger way to the very process of how we might interpret art. “Meaning” and indeed the “truth” of a work is as much dependent upon what we bring to it (cultural, social, and/or personal pre-dispositions or education) as what the artist has provided in terms of visual information. In a sense, then, the Biblical references here may or may not be necessary (though I find them compelling just the same) in appreciating the visual impact of these pieces. So, aside from specific narrative content or “message,” this is art about seeing art.

I admit to struggling with what photo I would attach to this posting. I could have shown you one of the frontal nudes. That, I at one point had convinced myself, would be a demonstration of the courage of my aforementioned convictions. Then I thought that such a photo might be regarded as prurient by those who, ill-disposed to nudes in general, might chance upon this blog and find it somehow sensationalist, or worse. Then I thought I think too much. In the end I chose “On the 7th Day” because it speaks so powerfully to me of the spirit of this show. It’s a stunning, even electrifying quilt. It reminds me that God is God. His created world is an entity separate from himself, and one that can choose to resist his restful embrace. And of that resistance, I don’t mind telling you, I am often, you guessed it…guilty. Hmmm…

Photo: “On the 7th Day”, digital photo on quilt, by Vince Quevedo

Friday, October 9, 2009

Waterborne Wonders

Waterborne Wonders

By Tom Wachunas

Maybe it was seeing one too many craft shows and art fairs in my youth. Maybe it was one too many sappy amateur renderings of decrepit red barns (with the prerequisite CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO emblazoned on their knotty sides) heroically rising from windswept plains. Or all those ridiculous liquid flowers fading away into empty white paper. Just because the watercolor medium is waterborne, why do so many watercolors end up looking so…waterlogged? Thus for years I was predisposed to disdain, regarding the medium as the flimsy domain of beginners and hobbyists or, at best, a kind of gateway drug, opening the door to more muscular artistic habits. In my arrogance I thought that if one aspired to be a really serious painter, one would surely graduate from watercolor. Like being weaned from white wine spritzers along the journey to straight Vodka.

Fortunately I have recovered (in more ways than I can tell you here) from such besotted ignorance. The fact of the matter is that when truly mastered – a challenging discipline, to be sure - watercolor is indeed a versatile medium capable of delivering substantial detail, depth, luminescence, and texture. All of that versatility is gloriously abundant in the current exhibition at the Canton Museum of Art, “A Century of American Watercolor,” on view through November 1.

The exhibit, guest-curated by James Keny, of the Keny Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, is comprised of 49 works made from about 1892 through 1992, and gleaned from the Canton Museum of Art permanent collection along with some from selected private collections. Beyond its wide range of techniques, styles, and subject matter, the show is a marvelous record of American art history, offering exhilarating works by “old” as well as contemporary masters of the medium. Here is stunning proof that the Canton Museum of Art has amassed one of the most remarkable collections of watercolors in the Midwest.

Not surprisingly, then, there are several works here that embrace Midwestern life with endearing charm, effectively transporting mind and heart to bygone days, as in the works by Clyde Singer, and Thomas Hart Benton. Similarly, though rendered in tighter detail, “Girl at the Side of a Lake,” by Daniel Ridgeway Knight, exudes contemplative and elegant grace. Nearby is “An Interesting Book,” a trompe l’oeil gem from 1890 by Claude Raguet Hirst. Who knew that watercolor could deliver such startling realism? Elsewhere there are much looser visions that border on pure abstraction, like the gestured fluidity in works by John Marin and Charles Demuth.

While the show offers plenty of thrilling examples of watercolor’s capacity to render saturated and electrifying color (as in George Luks’ delightfully van Gogh-esque “My House, Berkshire”), there are several works that are equally resonant in their stunning celebrations of earthier tonalities. “Wash Bucket,” by Andrew Wyeth, is a disarmingly simple composition rendered in gritty grays, browns, and tans, all orchestrated into a fascinating homage to texture and ethereal light. A similar mastery of neutral palette and subtle light is at work in Jamie Wyeth’s haunting “Partridge House.”

And for those who might over-associate watercolor painting with necessarily smaller-scale, or “intimate” works (as I once did), the three contemporary paintings on the back wall of the main gallery- by Carolyn Brady, Patricia Tobacco Forrester, and Joseph Raffael- are ample evidence to the contrary. These are, relative to all the other works in this show, colossal in size, and each a masterpiece in its own right.

But it is Raffael’s 1992 “Red Lily” that lives up to its scale (45”x 67”) in a way that so completely embodies all that watercolor can be. Here, intricate passages of shimmering reflections amid iridescent forms seem to dance and pulse before our eyes. It’s a deep and sumptuous panorama that reads successfully as both literal figuration and engaging abstraction. The painting is an unforgettably powerful union of medium and subject, a testament to physical and ephemeral harmony. Born of water- that most essential of natural substances- this is art that mesmerizes while immersing us in its life-affirming spirit. Call it, then, a baptism.

Photo: “Wash Bucket” by Andrew Wyeth, 1963, watercolor on paper, 22’’x29”, courtesy Canton Museum of Art, one of 49 works in the exhibition, “A Century of Watercolor,” on view through November 1, 2009, at the Canton Museum of Art.

1001 Market Avenue North in the Cultural Center for the Arts, Canton, Ohio.
Phone: 330-453-7666

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Power of Four

The Power of Four

by Tom Wachunas

Linden String Quartet, Cable Recital Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 11.9.2009, (TW)

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 76 (1796-7)
Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 3 (1927)
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 59 (1805-6)

The Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has greatly enhanced what already promises to be a marvelous season with the recent appointment of the Linden String Quartet as its Quartet-in-Residence. The appointment is at the heart of the CSO program to promote Classical music and string playing through various educational presentations in regional schools. Formed in the spring of 2008 by members of the professional chamber ensemble CityMusic Cleveland, the Linden String Quartet won the 2009 Grand Prize and Gold Medal in the prestigious Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition (the largest in the world), as well as the Coleman-Barstow prize at the 2009 Coleman National Chamber Ensemble Competition.

After hearing the Quartet’s inaugural Canton concert (opening the CSO Casual Friday concert series) on September 11, it was easy to understand that such accolades were well deserved. This is an astonishing chamber ensemble, and its presence here marks nothing less than a local cultural milestone.

One immediately intriguing aspect of the concert was the continuity of the musical selections – a continuity not in chronology, but in conceptual terms. The Haydn quartet, first on the program, is among the composer’s most ambitious, written at a time when his instrumental sensibilities were at their peak. As such it was a seminal influence on Beethoven, who would begin composing his own quartets just a few years later. His quartet closed the program here. Placed between the two was the thoroughly modern-sounding Bartok, reminding us with a jolt, perhaps, that he is nonetheless still generally appreciated as the most important contributor to the string quartet genre since Beethoven. Kindred spirits of a sort, both composers consistently and radically expanded the form in their passionate search for new musical expressions.

Thus the imaginative programming laid a solid foundation for showcasing the Quartet’s remarkable depth of technique and brilliantly nuanced, sumptuous tonality. And all of the music on this occasion was delivered with a palpable, infectious joy.

The Quartet’s playing of the Haydn allegro exuded all the delicate grace intrinsic to the music, and was equally confident in delivering the adagio’s cadenza-inspired passages. The performance of the ebullient finale was a gem of show-stopping panache.

Violist Eric Wong then regaled the audience with his humorous but concise introductory comments on Bartok’s complex musical mischief, describing, for example, the allegro movement as “very fast, with some head-banging.” With electrifying and gleeful precision, the Quartet proceeded to execute Bartok’s dense, kaleidoscopic range of percussive effects and thrilling tonal acrobatics. The 15-minute work elicited a considerable number of pleasantly startled looks, and murmurs of delight from the audience.

Violinist Sarah McElravy warmly introduced the Beethoven piece with an informed grasp of its significance in history as well as its sheer musical power. Indeed, the Quartet demonstrated an uncanny ability to sound downright symphonic, particularly in rendering the second movement’s dreamlike atmosphere, as well as the jaunty dance energy of the presto finale.

What resonated, too, was McElravy’s poignant observation of Beethoven’s response to critics of the day who reacted unfavorably to the evolving formal innovations in his quartets. “Oh, they are not for you,” he said on one occasion, “but for another age.” As evidenced by the standing ovation here, that age is clearly our own.

Tom Wachunas

Photo by Josef Samuel for the Fischoff National Chamber Music Association.

The Linden String Quartet (left-to-right): Eric Wong, viola; Sarah McElravy, violin; Catherine Cosbey, violin; Felix Umansky, cello

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A League of Our Own

A League of Our Own

By Tom Wachunas

Dear Canton Artists League,

As I approach my third year as a member of the Canton Artists League (CAL), I feel compelled to communicate some things for our members’ consideration, and for that matter, anyone else who might be interested. To one degree or another, some of you may be taken aback by my opinions and observations, and I add only that these are offered in a spirit of honesty and genuine concern.

It’s clear to me that CAL is a combined fellowship of accomplished masters in their respective mediums, apprentices- in-progress, and dedicated novices, which would include hobbyists and “casual practitioners.” This is to be expected in a group such as this, with its generalized “mission” – a democratic embrace of art-makers at varying levels of development and passion. As I understand it, CAL’s over-arching intention is to encourage and inspire its members to not only nurture their artistic passion, but to “further their creativity” through various workshops and exhibition opportunities.

My concerns are in the area of what CAL demonstrates to both the art-viewing public at large, as well as to the local community of serious practicing artists who seem content to remain unaffiliated with it. In particular, I’ve been wondering about exactly what the League has projected to these communities with its flurry of group shows in the last 6-8 months or so, and its ever-growing hunger for exposure as it searches for more shows in more venues.

Of all our most recent exhibitions, the largest of course was the CAL Spring Show at the Canton Museum of Art. Some of you may recall my blog review of the show. Therein I observed that it was a good thing for student and novice artists to rub elbows with those who are decidedly more accomplished and mature in their adopted visual languages. I meant it strictly from the perspective of demonstrating to greater Canton that there’s a remarkable amount of joyous creative energy in this community. But by now, that’s old news (and has been for years, actually), and creative energy in itself is not synonymous with noteworthy art or art shows. Thus, I didn’t mean to imply that the Spring Show was a hotbed of stellar talent. It surely wasn’t. The League was quite fortunate to have the opportunity to present itself in such a prestigious context, and it seemed to me that maybe half of the works in that show were merely competent at best, and not museum-caliber material by a long shot.

The problems at the heart of the Spring Show were the same problems at the heart of all the CAL shows (I was in a few myself) over the past several years. Based on the overall content of our shows, the message we have consistently sent (and I agree with what I have heard from several dozen non-member artists, as well as curators and astute art viewers over the years) is that we are often too watercolor-heavy, and otherwise entrenched in the traditional niceties of representational art, though certainly there are a few interesting pure abstractionists and experimenters on our roster. And this is certainly not to say there’s something inherently wrong with watercolors or representational art, or that we must beat the pavement to fill our ranks with an avant- garde element -though we shouldn’t necessarily dismiss that possibility as untenable or ludicrous. Still, CAL shows have become increasingly predictable in how they exude a lethargic, generic regionalism. And with as many shows as we seem interested in lining up, I fear we will become too familiar too often (or have we crossed that line already?) to the viewing public. And familiarity here doesn’t so much breed contempt as it generates sheer boredom.

What is our primary purpose when we mount an exhibit? To invite the public to see our self-congratulatory indulgence in mounting lots of shows, of uneven quality, all over the place? Or are our shows strictly for us, to see how our work stacks up against that of our fellow CAL members? Do we want to consider a curatorial element, as in juried shows in the truest sense? Do we fear that such an element would foster unwanted competition, or internal divisiveness? For now, I think that for better or worse, it’s a foregone conclusion that as long as we carry on with business as usual, CAL group shows will continue to be mixed-bag affairs that have little impact beyond the confines of our membership. And if that works for the membership, so be it.

Yet, when I really get down to some serious daydreaming, I envision CAL as a local cultural lightning rod. I see a permanent facility- a home base- that presents a rotating exhibit of its members’ work, with knowledgeable and accomplished guest curators overseeing the installations. I envision a concerted effort to find grants, endowments, and/or filthy rich art lovers able and willing to get such a project off the ground.

Maybe this isn’t a sustainable vision at this or any juncture. Or maybe Canton isn’t ready just yet. Still, it would be thrilling to see us called up from the Minors to play in the Majors.

Photo: “Man Writing a Letter,” oil, by Gabriel Metsu, 1660

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wrong Stuff, Right Stuff

Wrong Stuff, Right Stuff

By Tom Wachunas

Consider this particular post a grab-bag of sorts…just some things I need to communicate. For starters, I love the attached cartoon. Is it prophetic in the context of my recent musings about the state of public artworks in Canton? I certainly hope not. The worst case scenario is that the wrong people foist the wrong art into the public arena, making Canton a laughingstock.

Speaking of states of things, Lois DiGiacomo, founder of Rainbow Repertory Theater (among other hats she wears well) and a charming arts raconteur who hosts her own show on Canton City Schools Television called “State of the Arts,” was gracious enough to interview me recently and we talked about my ideas on…you guessed it, public artworks in Canton. I am grateful. She asked some probing questions. I know this is short notice, but if you have access to Canton Time Warner Cable Channel 11, our talk airs several times for the remainder of this week, including Wednesday, September 16 at 6am and 7:30pm, Thursday at 12:30am (yikes), 6:30am and 8:30pm, Friday at 7am, 10:30am, 2:30pm and 6:30pm, and Saturday at 3am (yikes again), 7am, 10:30am, and 9:30pm. I’m the second guest on the show, and please do watch the whole show and for that matter keep watching it in the future. You can see the program schedule listed on the calendar at . DiGiacomo is doing a great service for Canton, giving voice to all sorts of artists and arts organizations. Her show is an example of the right stuff going on around here when it comes to promoting arts awareness and dialogue.

If it’s not apparent to you by now, I love writing about what goes on around here, because there’s so much right stuff right here right now. For example, the Canton Symphony Orchestra. It’s one of the crown jewels residing in the Cultural Center for the Arts, along with Canton Ballet, Players Guild Theatre, VOCI (Voices of Canton, Inc.), and of course the marvelous Canton Museum of Art. I am happy to report that very shortly (beginning in another week or so) I will be a regular contributor to a web site called MusicWeb International, and in particular one of its links for live concert reviews, “Seen And Heard.” Canton’s orchestra can hold its own against some of the best I’ve ever heard, and deserves in-depth commentary that unfortunately you’ll never see (yet, anyway) in The Repository. The website is at When you get there, click on the tab for “Live Reviews”, which will take you to “Seen And Heard” web magazine, then click on the"International Concerts" tab. Better yet, go to and order tickets to see a phenomenally fine orchestra work its magic. Write on.