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