Friday, April 15, 2011

Giving the Past a Future in the Present

Giving the Past a Future in the Present

By Tom Wachunas

“We need look no further than Genesis 3 to find the greatest tragedy ever recorded. In a decision that would thenceforth confound and wound all of humanity, Adam thought he could improve upon the Divine Countenance of Eden. He ended up with thorn bushes. Ever since, longing to dwell once again inside the garden’s miraculous, verdant spectacle, his children have desperately sought to breach its guarded gate.”

- From “Summaries” by June Godwit –

Sometimes I think the history of painting (Western painting particularly, from about A.D. 1300) is like that – a continuum of attempts, both valiant and tortured, to remember or re-enter Paradise. To remember and celebrate the First Beauty, and our capacity to perceive it. A considerably long passage in that history shows us art that was a skillful recapitulation of physical reality – so skillful that it could lift us to sublime heights of existential awareness. It was by disciplined observation of the natural world, with eyes wide open and gifted hands to re-present it, that we honored and savored the created universe around us. We made art that delighted the soul by enticing the eye to immerse us in what we saw. Baptism by vision.

Such were the paintings by many artists throughout the Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Romantic eras. Echoes of those times have certainly continued to resonate, though with diminished returns. By the end of the 19th century, the roots of modernism were solidly in place, and the subject of painting was increasingly becoming…paint. Or the very act of manipulating paint for its own sake. With the arrival of pure abstraction, painting was finally liberated from bondage to outward, natural appearances, and thought by many to be an intrinsically heroic expression and symbol of unfettered human spirit.

Heroic? Not always. Unfettered? I’ll grant that. But in light of what preceded it, I continue to wonder if much of modern painting, despite or maybe because of all its myriad forms, was an abandonment of the dignity and inspiring nobility of faithful facsimile. I have often admitted a deep appreciation of modernism’s powerfully entertaining attempts to embrace the stuff of being alive. Still, though, no abstract painting has ever elicited the undiluted awe I felt when I stood for the first time before a monumental landscape by Albert Bierstatd, or an oil painting by Caravaggio or Rembrandt. At their most compelling, many modernist experiments in soul-stirring are too often crude and painful (like thorn bushes?) when compared with, to name another example, the Renaissance masters’ authentically heroic visions that still touch me to the core.

And so it’s precisely that tradition which is the subject of the current exhibition at Gallery 6000, titled “Legacy of the Masters: Frank Dale and His Students.” For the first time, the walls of Gallery 6000 exude a consistently distinct aura of traditional, classic elegance. In as much as the show is a stunning homage to pictorial styles that some (maybe many?) consider dead or irrelevant, it is also a tribute to Massillon artist and teacher Frank Dale, and his passionate preservation of the oil painting method called the Flemish Technique. The method, based upon thinly-applied oil paint glazes of varying transparencies to achieve lustrous colors and startling naturalism, was originally perfected by several Renaissance wizards such as Jan Van Eyck. By 1991, after painstakingly researching, formulating, and mastering a workable system of reproducing the technique, Mr. Dale began teaching it to his private students with - as evidenced by this show – marvelous results.

The list of raw materials that Dale researched and reformulated for his mediums conjures ghosts from an alchemist’s laboratory with its exotic inventory of secret resins and obscure materials including Amber, Balsam, Copal, Mastic, and Venetian Turpentine. Passing on the formula of these elements, combined with his clearly successful guidance in understanding efficacious composition and color dynamics, Dale set a high bar for his students, and elicited from them an astonishingly beautiful collection of works, masterful in their own right.

Along with several arresting and spectacular works by Dale, the show includes paintings by 22 students (a substantial number of them already accomplished professionals familiar to local art viewers) ranging from adolescents to senior citizens. They are: Cynthia Capestrain, Megan Farabee, Kathy Israel, Nick Jessup, Jack Keeliher, Deborah Kohler, Mary Lange, Pam LaRocco, Kit Lupsor, Jen Madaffer, Nicole Miller, Myrna Myllius, Michelle Mulligan, Erin Mulligan, Tricia Oyster, Jake Rinkes, Debra Thompson, Dan Wilkey, Christine Williams, Lisa Woods, Kris Wyler, and Kirsten Zirngibl. Rest assured that every one of these laudable painters offers something considerably more than merely fledgling efforts at a very challenging procedure. Dale has said that by closely observing and copying the past, he wants his students to feel like they’ve walked in the Old Masters’ shoes. And indeed his students wear them well. There’s deeply alluring magic afoot here – from charming and whimsical, to mystical and dramatic.

This is one gloriously sumptuous exhibit, and a resounding declaration that the future of painting – at least for these artists - could still be a symbolic, relevant, and reverential journey to Eden’s gate. Call it the fervent pursuit of incorruptible beauty.

Photo: “Leitzel,” oil, by Frank Dale. On view through June 24 at Gallery 6000, located in the dining room of The University Center, Kent State University At Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. OPENING RECEPTION on TUESDAY, APRIL 19, 5:30p.m. – 7:30p.m. Please RSVP to Becky DeHart at 330-244-3518 or

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