Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Slow Dancing at the Gallery

Slow Dancing at the Gallery
(The Eyes Have It, part 2)

I look at looking, mesmerized by how people view pictures in a gallery. It’s a fascinating mental choreography, this business of looking at art. Through the years I’ve reluctantly come to realize that far too many people look at art as if channel surfing television. A kind of Attention Deficit Disorder on a societal scale. We demand instant sensory satisfaction. When the goods aren’t easily delivered we move on quickly, never looking back. To our detriment.

The art of Belgian painter Maria Swinnen, on view at Main Hall Gallery on the Kent Stark campus through April 3, calls for a slow dance. Partnering with the ephemeral. Indeed, here Swinnen has partnered with fellow Belgian, Johan Teirlinck, a philosopher and author. Their joint installation is called “Mental Spaces.” You could, to some extent, call Swinnen’s work a visual manifestation, or illumination, of Teirlinck’s ideas presented in his 2005 book, “Today’s Mind: Mental Space, Contaminations and Serendipity.” But even without reading the book, which addresses “the world in our head,” Swinnen’s paintings are, in their own right, a captivating union of cerebral musings and haunting, visceral visions.

Swinnen’s paintings seethe with intense and subtle surface workings, mysterious depths, and shapes both amorphous and specific. They conjure memories recent and ageless, personal and universal. Paintings like “Pompei,” with its sketchy torso rising from a scuffled, fleshy ground, or the somber and eerie “Frozen Bed,” evoke the familiar as well as the enigmatic.

On Friday, April 3, Second April Galerie will host a presentation (with images) by Swinnen and Teirlinck from 6 to 7:30p.m. in the gallery’s Kathleen Howland Theatre. While you’re in the gallery, look for the paintings by Martin Bertman.

Like Teirlinck, Bertman is deeply grounded in philosophy, and his paintings share a similar spirit of visual exploration with Swinnen’s. Call it a kind of runic rumination. And like Swinnen’s paintings, Bertman’s are not immediately “beautiful” in the tradition of Caravaggio, van Eyck, or Monet, to name only some. Nonetheless, they are beautiful renderings of separate, personal, and perhaps even archetypal realities, and well worth our undivided attentions.

At one point in the film, “Lust for Life,” Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh, through his inimitable gritted- teeth, snarls at a flummoxed Anthony Quinn, playing Paul Gauguin, “You look too fast!” Likewise, take your time when looking at the art of Swinnen and Bertman, and for that matter, any art that at first may seem resistant to your advances. Leave the remote at home. And rather than hip-hopping by the picture, try doing a tender waltz with it. Such work deserves an intimate pas de deux.

Look slowly. Live longer. Savor the dance.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Eyes Have It?

The Eyes Have It?
By Tom Wachunas

“Beauty is truth - truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (John Keats)

“Beauty is the purgation of superfluities.” (Michelangelo)

And let’s not forget that arguably most time-worn of pronouncements on beauty by Margaret Hungerford, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Does post-modernism signify the death of beauty in art, or does it point to a radical paradigm shift in our definition of beauty? Indeed, is there now and has there ever been a “universal” definition of beauty? And to further muck up the works, must art, by definition or intention, demonstrate beauty? Yikes, what a hole I’m digging. Look for my instructions for getting out of it in a yet unwritten book.

For now, suffice to say that in some past reviews of “controversial” contemporary art, I’ve moaned about how sheer ugliness (often, though certainly not always, perpetrated by truly unskilled artists), in the name of social relevance or “meaningfulness”, has usurped nobility, purity, and yes, beauty. In those reviews I added the observation that the post-modernist art context seems to have become, on too many occasions and in too many venues, a cultural junkyard of esthetic and even moral relativism. Maybe I should just accept the status-quo, go with the flow, and be content with the simplistic notion that art is, really, just “self-expression” (the ‘I’ factor). But art is much, much more.

What, exactly, is the “eye of the beholder”? Is experiencing beauty merely a chemical or biological response? A culturally dictated one? One that can be trained into those that have eyes? Let’s consider the “eye” in the broad sense of all our perceptual capacities informed by history (tradition). Then perhaps we can think of beauty as something that necessarily “happens” in both the mind and the heart – something that by definition lives in cerebral and emotional spaces simultaneously. Something perceived by (dare I say it?) the soul. I think it’s possible, then, for art that is not superficially pleasing to the eye by traditional standards, to nonetheless be beautiful by virtue of what it suggests or conjures in the soul of the beholder. Which is to say that certainly not all post-modernist art is categorically ugly.

All in favor say I.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Downtown Dumping Ground

Downtown Dumping Ground
By Tom Wachunas

Recently I drove by another public art piece by Canton artist Patrick Buckohr. It’s located outside the Center Ice Sports Complex in North Canton. At least I think it’s his. If it’s not, then someone out there has appropriated his style perfectly. Anyway, it’s another of his whimsical painted metal ring animals, done in the same mode as those that were commissioned by ArtsinStark (working in conjunction with other supporters) to adorn various street corners in downtown Canton. This one is a big, family-friendly penguin, which is appropriate enough for the location, as is, for that matter, his camel outside the Desert Inn Restaurant on 12th Street.

On close examination, these examples of “junk art” (as in pieces made from trash or recycled industrial bric-a-brac) are somewhat generic renderings, and not very exemplary of the elegance and depth I know Buckohr is capable of displaying. These are simplistic and cartoony – in short, lackluster drawings in 3-dimensional space. But if I’m picking a battle here, it’s not with Mr. Buckohr.

Encountering this style of public art to the extent that it’s currently present in downtown Canton borders on kitschy overkill. My problem isn’t so much with the art itself, as long as it’s sensibly placed in some sort of dynamic relationship to its surrounds. The problem arises when the placement of such pieces appears to be so arbitrary and disconnected, and their content so vapid. The problem is, just who is making these decisions? If the decision makers genuinely believe that Canton is in the glorious throes of a serious arts renaissance, why is so much of the public art they commission so downright amateurish?

When such art is foisted into the public arena, I wonder about the qualifications of those who do the foisting. I wonder if they have the sensibilities required to weigh real esthetic issues in supporting worthwhile public art. And I wonder how many more ill-placed monuments to mediocrity will appear before someone qualified says… enough already.

Monday, March 16, 2009

When Sardonic Gets Sinister

When Sardonic Gets Sinister
By Tom Wachunas

My acquaintance with Michael Horvath is one of those six degrees removed kind of things. He grew up in Akron, went to Akron U and OSU (my alma mater in a different era), now lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York (where I too lived for 11 years in another era), and has been, for roughly 20 years, Director of Acquisitions at Ira Spanierman Gallery in Manhattan (where, in another era, my connection to midtown galleries was that of a pesky wanna-show). I’ve never met him, though we seem to have a mutual friend in Minnesota who told his wife about this blog, where I here offer my take on his debut as an author.

Taken as a whole, the two novellas that comprise his “Brighter Graphite” are of an allegorical piece. Each is a delightfully quirky, clever and engrossing journey into what could be a parallel universe apparently dominated by artists and their endeavors. I’m reminded of the classic Saturday Night Live routine of Father Guido Sarducci describing a parallel earth forever hidden behind our sun. The sole difference between these two earths is that on the hidden one, folks hold their corn cobs vertically while chomping. Horvath’s world is distinctly more varied, complicated, and even sinister, though in a darkly comedic way.

“Graphite” is a compelling, confessional story of a maddeningly meticulous writer driven to finding out why the world’s finest pencils have become defective, and who chances upon a morbid resolution to the crisis. Confessional and morbid, too, is “Brighter,” featuring one Jano Gambon. He’s a jaded, minor painter-turned-art dealer who finds himself caught up in, then taking advantage of, a murderous feud beween the Formalists and Romantics. Amid an eccentric hermit’s supervision of his startling design for ending the conflict, Gambon hatches his own equally startling plan to claim the fame that had always evaded him, though at the dearest imaginable cost to himself.

Horvath is a masterfully facile, witty wordsmith. Like the train that transports the determined “Graphite” writer through weird geographies, Horvath blazes his bizarre path with wonderful, rich descriptions of predominantly gray-to-dark cityscapes with language that is anything but drab. The book is a well-delivered, two-fisted poke at the pathology of obsession that often fuels artistic passion. On the one hand, it’s a confident and humorous exploration of ethics and esthetics. On the other, it’s a gleeful foray into the ill-natured idiocies of life itself. Either way, it’s a knockout.

“Brighter Graphite” by Michael Horvath, 2009/ paperback/ Tatra Press LLC, 292 Spook Rock Road, Suffern, NY 10901, Library of Congress Control Number: 2008937944
CONTACT: Emily Church, Tatra Press (845)357-4843

Monday, March 2, 2009

Kimono Buffet and the Sum(o) of All Things

Kimono Buffet and the Sum(o) of All Things
By Tom Wachunas

It all started when I volunteered my services to ArtsinStark to write up the press release for the Sumo wrestling bout scheduled for March 22 at the Canton Museum of Art. After some internet researching of Sumo and pondering such an event in conjunction with the work of Itchiku Kubota, I had great concerns about efficacy and propriety, and shared them with the good folks at ArtsinStark, including Robb Hankins, ArtsinStark president and CEO.

Not long into our e-mail exchanges, I was told (not by Mr. Hankins) that my services would not be needed after all, as ArtsinStark decided to handle the Sumo publicity in-house. I admit that my initial reaction was that perhaps a message was being sent: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. But that’s another story. Besides, I’ve been writing press releases and program notes for the Canton Symphony with no problems, even though I might not really “like” or “get behind” a particular piece that the Symphony has slated to perform.

What’s really at issue here is something more complicated. Hankins’ response to my concerns spoke volumes about the operative philosophy behind Kimonofest – the myriad of events and activities that have been attached to the Kimono exhibit. Kimonofest was clearly designed to offer and reflect the cultural cornucopia that is modern-day Japan to as wide an audience as possible. “Not low-brow, not high-brow, but every brow,” Hankins wrote. Accompanying all this cultural bric-a-brac, this buffet of all things for all people, it seems to me, is a throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude that experiencing art must first, by definition, be fun.

I have nothing against the Sumo tradition or even witnessing a Sumo bout. But not here, not in this museum. Call me old-school and high-brow, then. Art museums are not just reliquaries that preserve the remarkable and precious accomplishments of the past. They are living sanctuaries of a sort, lifting up the genius and profundity of individuals like Itchiku Kubota, who spent a lifetime deeply, spiritually connected to translating the awesome glories of nature.

This exhibit, as I’ve mentioned before, is a masterfully prepared feast indeed. But beware the lesser chefs who have offered side dishes of their own. Some are truly tasteless.

I welcome your comments, one and all.