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 www.cantonsymphony.org

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 www.cantonart.org