Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Measure of Magic

A Measure of Magic
By Tom Wachunas

In the realms of cinema, television, and fashion photography, one sure way to heap praise on the performers is to tell them, “The camera loves you!” If the idea of an inanimate object willfully entering into a relationship with a person seems too absurd to warrant any deeper consideration, I still would ask you to consider another possibility along the same line. It is this: the best painters have the ability – however inexplicable it may be to the reasoning mind – to elicit from the tools of their trade the capacity to communicate palpable, soulful energy. “Talent” is not what I’m talking about here, though that is certainly a prerequisite. No, here I’m talking about a specific and peculiar, yet more ephemeral ability to manufacture pure enchantment.

As evidenced by the current exhibit, called “Realism Revisited,” at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, the canvas loves Lynn Digby’s touch.

In her statement that accompanies the show, Lynn Digby calls herself a “contemporary realist.” The pesky term “realism” in painting was originally assigned to the work of mid-19th century French artists who addressed subjects and scenes that were then considered to be beneath the purview of classically fine art. Realists were summarily dismissed by the French Academy for their attentions to the ugly and ordinary. These days the term seems to have acquired a more generic connotation, referring to anything that conveys – with varying degrees of exactitude - the illusion of physical reality. “Wow, that looks just like a photograph,” some of us often say when viewing certain landscapes or portraits. Oddly, from that perspective, painters of the Renaissance and Baroque eras (hundreds of years earlier) were clearly more “realistic” than the Realists.

The classical practice of rendering pleasing, glassy-smooth illusions of reality was precisely what the original Realists set out to usurp. In the process, many of them began in earnest to explore the physical reality of paint itself. And like the Impressionists and Expressionists who would follow their lead, their pictures rarely attempted to disguise what in fact they were - paint (generous gobs of it, in many cases) applied to canvas. This growing embrace of the physicality of oil pigment, while certainly not new in the history of painting, was arguably the single most important formal development in finally liberating painters from the academic constraints of illusionism (though much can be said for the arrival of photography), effectively opening the door to modern painting.

So, what academics once considered woefully coarse and unrefined handling of paint became standard practice, and subsequently a respected tradition in its own right. Lynn Digby’s style of loose, expressive brush work and tactile surfaces (though not in the heavy impasto style of, say, Millet or Van Gogh) springs from that tradition while imbuing it with an engaging character distinctly her own. To use an analogy to classical music, examining her elegant brush work is like listening to an invigorating orchestral suite. Adagios (slow, graceful passages) seamlessly flow into allegros (brisk, fast), all skillfully accented with breezy solo flourishes. In short, music for the eyes.

There’s ample proof in this show of 28 works (all but one are oil on canvas) of Digby’s stated interest in intricate pattern and rich color. Her statement elaborates further, “I look for serenity and stillness within chaos; order and unity in seemingly disordered and disparate elements.” One needs to go no farther than a car graveyard to encounter visual chaos and disorder. Yet Digby’s “Bus Stop,” depicting the rusted shell of a car perched atop a gutted bus, nonetheless gleefully elevates ordinary junk to the status of heroic archaeological ruins. Edgy, to be sure.

Edgy, too, are the portraits. Commissioned portraits are a specialty of Digby’s, and the examples here all show an uncanny knack for capturing her subjects’ unguarded moments with a disarming naturalism, as well as an eye for the quirky. The young woman in “A Measured Glance” peers at us perhaps reluctantly, as if we’ve disturbed her melancholic reverie. The startling, exotic tattoo in “Bill’s Back” looks like a demon ready to jump off Bill’s back and the canvas as well.

Each of the many landscapes here is a gem of atmospheric subtlety, exuding a light so stunning it seems touchable. And in the area of pure compositional prowess, there’s the wonderfully dense watercolor, “Still Life with Dried Hydrangeas.” It’s a tour-de-force of complex patterns and shapes dancing amid enthralling rhythms of color.

Digby clearly demonstrates a marvelous technical ability to convey with notable sureness the look of a person, place, or thing. Beyond that, though, there is that mysterious synergy of brush-in-hand, paint laid down and pushed and pulled, coaxing the canvas to breathe as if it had a life of its own. But that’s simply not reasonable, right? Paintings can’t do that, can they?

That would be too much like…magic.

Photo: “Sunset, Monument Park,” oil, by Lynn Digby, one of 28 paintings in the exhibit “Realism Revisited” at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, (330) 499-4712, ext. 312.

For information on portrait commissions, visit www.LynnDigby.artspan.com or contact her at lynndigby@sbcglobal.net

Friday, June 12, 2009

Shutter To Think

Shutter To Think
By Tom Wachunas

Sturgeon’s Law was born in the 1950’s out of Theodore Sturgeon’s interestingly reasoned reaction to attacks on science fiction writing. His Law states, “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” Sturgeon further elaborated in his Corollary 1 that, “The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.” Half a century later, it would seem the Law is holding up quite well.

The contemporary “arts and entertainment” milieu – a tangled alliance of traditional mass media inextricably entwined with the ubiquitous internet – now more than ever runs on run-on images. As “consumers” we are assaulted by a torrent of visual information, so much so that it has become alarmingly difficult to recognize images of any real quality, to embrace the “fine” in fine arts (sort of like not being able to see the trees for the forest). This of course presumes we even still value the capacity to recognize fine art when we see it. With so much to look at, the activity of concentrated seeing is itself becoming something of a lost art, and our ability to discern anything of esthetic value is effectively numbed if not sabotaged. That ten percent of treasure alluded to in Sturgeon’s Law is all but completely buried by our culture’s visual trash. And if we are numb to seeing, we become complacent in the presence of passion and beauty and relevance. The end result is we wallow in crud and apparently like it that way. “Whatever the market will bear…,” as the saying goes.

Ironically, it is photography we have to thank for this sensory overload and its consequences. I say “ironically” because the history of photography as art is the story of individuals who have risen above a merely technical ability to reproduce the obvious. It is the story of artists who have created visions that provoke us to see what is essentially important, compelling, excellent, or beautiful about our world. While pure photography as a fine art certainly continues to be practiced, it tends to be a form too easily taken for granted and under-appreciated when measured against the sheer volume of eye candy (more like eye-irritants, really) that clamors for our consumption.

And so it is that the new Joseph Saxton Gallery Of Photography (named for the American inventor who made the earliest surviving American daguerreotype) is much more than a stunning and welcome addition to the growing arts district in downtown Canton. Owner and photograph collector Tim Belden has generously – even courageously - created an enthralling and impeccably mounted history museum wherein we can savor original works by the artists who elevated what was once considered just a newfangled technical curiosity to the level of serious fine art. The current exhibit of more than 200 photographs is a comprehensive collection that includes not only the medium’s most illustrious masters from the past, but also an impressive selection of works by significant contemporary artists. In fact, Belden is a photographer himself. His color images here are fascinating still-lifes that magically blend a modern spirit with a sparkling patina of bygone days. They seem intensely intimate and personal, yet never arcane.

Here then is a delightfully bright and airy place to re-consider, re-assess, or perhaps discover for the first time the unique power of artful photography to capture and hold our attention to what may otherwise get tossed out with the trash. No crud here. Just the crème de la crème.

Photo: Interior of the Joseph Saxton Gallery Of Photography, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio. Tim Belden, owner; Stephen McNulty, general manager.
Office: (330) 438-0030

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Making Sense of Making Art: Confessions about the Big Picture

Making Sense of Making Art: Confessions About The Big Picture
By Tom Wachunas

I often wonder very seriously how many artists realize that what they do, whether they know it or not, is nothing more and nothing less than remembering and celebrating God’s first recorded act. Actually, his second recorded act, if one can call his simply ‘being’ before there was any ‘thing’ an action. Which I do. Look it up. The first sentence of Genesis tells us so. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” First, he was there – “In the beginning God…” Then, he made stuff – “…created…” If it’s not apparent to you yet, my observation is predicated upon my firm belief that the Bible is God’s words to us – what we Christians embrace as “His Holy Word,” among other terms - and therefore true.

Now, with all due respect to the Dominican Sisters who influenced so much of my early time and thinking in this vale of tears, it was art, not catechism, that first brought me to my knees in awe-filled silence at the idea of God. There were many childhood hours of simply staring at pictures of the Sistine Chapel and countless other religious images (and those sculptures, oh those sculptures!) from the Renaissance, all the while listening to Bach, Beethoven, Handel, or Mozart, and fantasizing, “Could I ever make art about God like this?” As it turned out, no and yes. Undaunted by limited technical skill, for nearly 30 years I forged my own path through a substantial inventory of styles and ‘isms’ that addressed nothing even remotely connected to God, much less my relationship with him, since I didn’t even acknowledge I had one.

That all changed some years ago when, all puffed up with pride and praises for the marvelous artistic “creations” of humanity (my own included), I was once again brought to my knees, but not by merely abstracted, intellectual, or historic notions of God. This time it was personal. I surrendered to the astounding central meaning and reality of Jesus Christ. Consequently the look and content of my art has come to reflect that reality, albeit via symbolism that may at first glance appear cryptic in nature. More important, I have come to an expanded sensibility about the very process, purpose, and place of the arts in the world, and that in turn has informed how I evaluate the art I encounter.

To put it another way, I have found that for me, the art (or music, film, theatre, literature or dance) that is most edifying and efficacious is that which can, directly or indirectly, lead my mind and heart to recalling, honoring, and praising God and his act of creation. Here I feel it important to add that I am not proposing to storm the world with sappy pictures of smiling shepherd Jesus, martyred saints, or choirs of chubby cherubs, no matter how well rendered. God loves wild variety. Look it up. Genesis also tells us that all of his creation was “good,” including humanity, which houses his very breath and “image.” As the crowning glory of his creation, even in its corrupted and fatal choices to remain apart from him, humanity’s capacity and unceasing drive to make art is nonetheless itself a gift intrinsic to its spirit, an eternally remnant spark, a still- smoldering cinder from the explosive moment when God said, “Let there be light.” Herein we find the ineffable power of the arts to stir in us the primal recollection of the very source of our existence. In this light, I believe that we artists are accountable for the gift. It behooves us to remember the giver, and use the gift to lift him up as we illuminate, inspire, and encourage each other, and our patrons, to do the same, and certainly not for our own glorification. I like to think of artists as life-long apprentices to the First Artist. And in his big picture, we are all, in the end, imitations and imitators, not originators.

What ultimately prompted these musings were some works of art currently on view in an exhibition called, interestingly enough, “The View From Here,” at Second April Galerie in downtown Canton. A particularly direct illustration of the aforementioned is a tiny oil painting by Michelle Mulligan called “His Purpose.” A figure rises up from a liquid vortex of worldly stuff, including a pair of handcuffs (or maybe leg shackles?) – signs of enslavement. His outstretched arms reach into sun- drenched, white light, wherein Mulligan hasn’t painted so much as whispered with paint the Hebrew letters for YAWEH, one of God’s biblical names. Deft and elegant, the painting is a masterful homage to divinely bestowed hope and joy.

This current exhibit also features “Passages,” the work of photographer E. Bruce Lee, and his exquisite black-and-white (with subtly stunning hand-coloring) images offer what can fairly be called an indirect illustration of my thoughts. Without any overtly biblical references (other than in his posted artist statement), he nonetheless transports us to a soulful and enthralling consideration of things serene and promising. Whether through an alley between factory buildings, a woodland path overgrown with lush foliage, an office building corridor, or the interior of a barn, the artist gently leads us along passages to distant, but not unreachable light. To the threshold of possibility. These photographs breathe a palpable peace, and in so doing, they are a soaring, memorable celebration of our capacity, indeed our gift, to see.

I humbly offer these observations as a reminder and a request that as artists, we remain vigilant as to our messages and motives. And I’ll leave you with something you don’t have to look up. It’s from the apostle Paul to the Philipians: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Phil 4:8)

Photo: “His Purpose,” oil, by Michelle Mulligan. Second April Galerie, Canton.
www.secondapril.org (330) 451 - 0924

Monday, June 1, 2009

Gifts Simple and Sultry

Gifts Simple and Sultry
By Tom Wachunas

The fascinating genre of the short play poses some distinctly unique challenges for playwrights. Unlike novelists or screenplay writers, they don’t have the luxury of indulging in slow character developments or elaborate subtexts. When a short play works well, it’s largely due to the playwright’s diligent attention to selling the audience that old show biz truism, “buy the premise, buy the bit.” And to be sure, imaginative directing and solid acting can’t hurt. For the most part those provisos are firmly evident in the third annual New Works Festival, “From Script To You,” at the North Canton Playhouse.

Originated in 2007 by creator, producer and artistic director Jeremy Lewis, and Mary McManaway, North Canton Playhouse artistic director, the festival is designed to promote new works (short plays) by writers from across the U.S. in collaboration with local directors and actors ensembles. This year’s seven entries are, as in the past two years, an edgy and entertaining mix of content and styles, ranging from psychologically complicated to simply romantic. Additionally, this year’s plays appear to share a loose theme of human dreams and plans in various stages of either coming together or falling apart.

“Marge Zero/Karen O,” a writing debut by Justin Edenhofer, and directed by Meredith Borling (both students at Malone University), is a funny, sometimes caustic word duel between two roommates, each inventorying the other’s shortcomings as a roommate. Their bickering is all the more exasperated by their inability to get a new TV operational. In a pleasantly surreal call- and- response exchange, Alyssa Pearson as Marge is bellowing her objections about the unjust treatment she received after a car accident she caused. Simultaneously, air-headed Karen, played very convincingly by Ashley White, has called up the TV manufacturer and is largely oblivious to Marge’s complaints. Flummoxed and confused, Karen hilariously fumbles her way through customer service phone prompts as if punctuating her roommate’s diatribe.

Meredith Borling also directed “Bad Connection,” a story where phone communication – or lack of it - is much more central to the story. Written by Judi Kristy, a somber phone conversation unfolds between Ellie, a housewife played by Ashley Frederick, and David, the love of her life. Both Frederick, and Rick Bowling as David, turn in believable renditions of people on the cusp of life-changing decisions. Ellie announces her intention to divorce her husband and live the life she always wanted with David who, not prepared to deal with this news over the phone, has serious reservations. The story ends, unresolved, closing with Ellie’s haunting (and perhaps prophetic) line to her husband as he walks into the kitchen, “Hey, Bob, don’t forget to take out the garbage.”

While there may be a thoughtful and subtly noir nihilism afoot in “Bad Connection,” the two entries here by Michael Laurenty, both from his full-length “Dream Café,” and directed by Jeremy Lewis, offer a considerably lighter approach to couples seeking romance. The dialogue between the characters Sara and Jason in “Twice Concise” is a clever, rhythmic one-word-at-a-time request for a date, and playfully accomplished by Betsy Marinucci and Michael D. Miller. Both performers’ delightfully choreographed facial expressions effectively pick up where words leave off. And if “Sailing” - the second piece from “Dream Café” – lacks depth as literature for the stage, it nonetheless elicits genuinely warm, if not awkwardly charming (which is appropriate to the story) performances by Ken Reinoehl and Vera Rippert.

There’s plenty of warmth and charm, too (with a healthy dose of humorous sexual innuendo), in “Backstage,” written and directed by Stephen Thomas. Nate Ross plays Jake and B. Ruth Hitchcock plays Ashley in this story of two thespians basking in the glow of their just-finished stage performance. Both performers deliver a sharp sort of tango as they negotiate tricky territory between fiction and reality.

“Suddenly Nobody,” written by Noell Wolfgram Evans, and directed by Jeremy Lewis, is an absorbingly ingenious foray into absurd comedy with moral, or at least philosophic, undertones. Mary Mahoney, in her role as Fontaine, a one-legged lion tamer, is the picture of giddy delight as she has miraculously grown a new leg overnight. As she gushes about dreams of a whole new life before her, David, her business manager, sees his world disintegrating. In that role, Stephen Thomas delivers an explosively maniacal, gut-splittingly funny portrait of an incorrigible, high-strung profiteer. Stacy Essex, playing Ann, his somewhat daffy secretary, is engaging to watch, too, as she weighs her loyalties and sees her boss’s true colors.

Lewis also directed the evening’s “dark side” entry, “My Sexy Doll,” written by Stanley Toledo. Here, significantly more than in “Bad Connection,” nihilism takes the stage, but in the guise of comedy, or perhaps more precisely, a cartoon a la Alfred Hitchcock. Laura Swinsburg is mesmerizing in her role of Doll, cavorting about the stage in exaggerated sexy poses for her traveling salesman lover, Darling, who has a wife. Darling indeed. In that role, Rick Bowling is convincing as the paramour with a cavalier attitude, a woman-in-every-port agenda, and who soon finds out his lifestyle is about to bite him in the worst way.

By now it’s fair to say that this annual New Works Festival is a serious and commendable commitment on the part Jeremy Lewis, Mary McManaway and the North Canton Playhouse, which already has a remarkable history of producing very fine theatre. In light of greater Canton’s ever-burgeoning arts scene, the addition of this particular venue for writers from outside our region enhances its visibility and viability as rich ground for new voices.

Photo: Mary Mahoney as Fontaine, and Stephen Thomas as David, in “Suddenly Nobody,” a short play written by Noell Wolfgram Evans. The 2009 New Works Festival at the North Canton Playhouse in the McManaway Studio Theatre, Through June 6.
(330) 494 – 1613 www.northcantonplayhouse.com