Saturday, July 30, 2011


By Tom Wachunas

Those of you of a mind to cruise the archives herein might wish to re-visit my March 30 post of this year. There, I wrote about an exhibit at Second April Galerie of paintings by the late David Grant Roth. That show was appealing to me on several levels. Ever since seeing it, I’ve wanted to show his exquisite work at Gallery 6000, the space I curate on the Kent Stark campus. In fact, Roth’s work had resonated in my memory with such persistence that they inspired the theme of “Atmoscapes,” the new Gallery 6000 show that opens Tuesday, August 2. So here’s a special thank-you to Brennis Booth of Second April for his allowing me to borrow five Roth works that have been in his care.

With their gentle swells of thin, amorphous pools and clouds of luminescent hues, Roth’s color-field abstracts are conceptually simple, easy on the eyes, retreats for the soul, and places to reflect on - if not be fully immersed in - serenity. And it’s that notion of ‘spiritual place’ that I wanted to embrace with this show - places familiar as well as strange and mysterious, without being too unwelcoming. The works by the other participating artists – Lynn Digby, Carol McGill, Michele Waalkes, and Michael Weiss – bring a rich spectrum of complementary and compelling visions to this gallery journey.

Lynn Digby is a deliciously versatile painter. The brush work in her representational oil works here is laid in with an impressively fluid confidence, effectively embodying nature’s luscious physicality along with its atmospheric subtleties. “Sanctuary” is an impressionistic work stunning not just for its dynamically structured composition, but also in its marvelous concentration of light on the central boulder and sylvan pool of crisp, sparkling water.

Carol McGill’s acrylic canvases are less overtly representational than Digby’s. For all of their up-front color intensity and saturation, they have a distinctly ethereal presence. Her distant, expansive “skies” and horizons are gently punctuated with vaguely-defined masses both liquid and earthy. Amid the dominant, hot reds and analogous fiery hues (layered planes of color looking more rubbed or stained into the canvas than brushed on), McGill deftly introduces subtly blended transitions into cooler-colored edges or larger passages, bringing a fascinating tension to her distillations of hauntingly beautiful panoramas.

In Michele Waalkes’ elegant photo transfers of natural scenery on to sheer fabrics (which includes the occasional sewing of fiber elements directly on to the picture), the resultant images transcend the confines of pure photography. These are intimate, playful, and contemplative manipulations of the picture plane that, rather than shrouding or corrupting the images, give them a surprising, magical depth.

A magical intimacy is also at work in the digital pieces by Michael Weiss. But his intriguing photoshop prestidigitations have a decidedly painterly sensibility. With their ingenious patina of scratches and smoky, vintage colors, they look like they could be photographs of aged canvases depicting a mysterious and topsy-turvy world. There’s a Rene Magritte - meets - Harry Potter air in pieces such as “The Boat” and “Dropping Books Instead of Bombs.” In its eerie symbolism and dream-like scenarios, Weiss’s digital wizardry masterfully draws on a Surrealist tradition. And like all the works in this show, his are solidly poetic and evocative.

ATMOSCAPES opens at Gallery 6000, located in the University Center at Kent Stark, with a reception for the artists on Tuesday August 2 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Please RSVP to Becky DeHart at (330) 244-3518 or

Photo: “Dropping Books Instead of Bombs” digital image by Michael Weiss, courtesy of the artist.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eloquence in Clay and Carbon

Eloquence in Clay and Carbon
By Tom Wachunas

“Clay. It’s rain, dead leaves, dust, all my dead ancestors. Stones that have been ground into sand. Mud. The whole cycle of life and death.” – Martine Vermeulen –

“Art is accusation, expression, passion. Art is a fight to the finish between black charcoal and white paper.” – Gunter Grass –

In the grand scheme of humanity’s passion for making stuff out of other stuff, we can credit the harnessing of fire in the development of some of our most ancient mediums. It’s not unreasonable to think of the first stoneware vessels as inventive responses to the accidental discovery of solidified clay at the bottom of a fire pit. A similar eureka moment might have happened in the noticing of powdery black marks left on the skin after touching cooled wood embers. Thank God for opposable thumbs. Prometheus had the vision and chutzpah to see fire’s possibilities and wrest it from Zeus’s stingy hands. The rest, as they say, is art history.

While making any kind of art is to be joined to the existential continuum of human creativity, I’ve always thought there’s something particularly primordial – even cosmic - about working with clay or charcoal. As an artist’s hand caresses the visceral simplicity and easy movability of these earth-born substances, even the subtlest of finger movements or pressures can cause a mark to appear here, an impression or gentle swelling there. A magical call-and-response between the artist’s will (whether meandering or directed) and the material’s surrender.

There is an arresting spirituality about many of the works by Ron Watson and Bob Yost currently on view in “Making Marks” at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton. Yost is a ceramist who makes interesting-enough clay vessels. But it’s his wall pieces – decorative tile plaques of a sort - that intrigue me here. More specifically, his pieces that employ cobalt-blue glaze on white or near-white grounds are stunning in their meditative, abstract simplicity, and bring to mind ancient Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. That kinship is furthered by Yost’s wispy blue glaze configurations that float in gentle splashes atop his grids of little square tiles - like calligraphy rendered in the tradition of Oriental brush-and-ink scroll drawings. Spontaneous, lyrical, quiet. The Zen of the clay.

There is a distinctly timeless quietude, too, in the charcoal drawings by Ron Watson. They’re dark, but not in any negative, brooding, or off-putting way. His landscapes are masterfully controlled, contemplative fields of marks both lushly accumulated and softly rubbed, or perhaps partially erased, to allow for the presence of light. And even at their most weighty and saturated, the blacks are just delicate enough to reveal fascinating, intricate textures. I’m reminded of the hypnotic, calming effect of staring at a campfire and how, with burnt sticks of wood, Watson has magically rendered elegant visual tone poems. Compelling invitations to be mesmerized.

Photo, courtesy The Little Art Gallery: “Twilight” vine charcoal by Ron Watson. On view THROUGH AUGUST 20, at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. (330) 499-4712, ext. 312

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What Were They Thinking?

What Were They Thinking?
By Tom Wachunas

“The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.” –Paul Gauguin-

“Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals.” –Susan Sontag-

“This grandiose tragedy that we call modern art.” –Salvador Dali-

“Art, modern or otherwise, has always been a record of the artist’s decision-making process. If we are to fully understand it, we need to know what or who, exactly, colored those decisions. Then again, there’s the counter-intuitive idea that some of our most memorable art is indiscernible from utter mystery.”
-June Godwit-

When I started teaching at Kent Stark nearly five years ago, the name of the course was ‘Art Survey’. Rolls off the tongue quite nicely, and there’s just a distinct enough separation from ‘Art History.’ Art Survey. Really, it’s a euphemism for Art Appreciation. But recently the course name was changed to ‘Art as a World Phenomenon.’ Whatta mouthful. It tempts me to refer to it in acronym form: AAWP. Cute if not aawkward. I think the powers that be wanted to assure a better, more balanced and relevant embrace of global concepts of art.

I’m currently engaged in teaching a somewhat truncated version of the course, crammed into a measley 4 weeks (meeting for four evening sessions of two hours each per week), rather than a whole semester. Particularly when we encounter some radical and challenging 20th century works, there have been moments when I’ve felt sufficiently boggled enough to silently rename the beast ‘Art as Rapidly Grown Global Hokum,’ the acronym, appropriately enough, being AARGGH (he moaned).

As it is, negotiating the text book for the course is an exercise in judicious presentation. Now in this Summer abbreviation, teaching the course brings to mind images of winning a 5-minute shopping spree at Walmart or Target. So much to grab, so little time. I admit that while the course is certainly intended to instill a generalized grasp of art’s (and artists’) reasons and riddles - as well as results – it’s also a glimpse into my own passion for the stuff. And that’s where I need to be careful. I can muck up the already overwhelming works with my own predispositions. I’m not there to dictate what’s loveable or detestable so much as arm my students with the wherewithal to make intelligent assessments for themselves, and, more important, enjoy the process of it.

It’s challenging enough to present various methods of understanding and evaluating movements like Cubism, or Duchamp’s 1917 submission of a urinal to a prestigious French juried art show, or Pollock’s action paintings, or Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder drawings. Things can get really dicey as I search the room for glimmers of comprehension when we (OK, I, mostly) talk about the 1965 Dusseldorf ‘performance’ by Joseph Beuys wherein he, his face slathered with gold leaf and honey, talked to a dead rabbit in his arms.

And speaking of performance art, there was a time, had I been teaching about the subject long ago in a land far away, when I would have killed a few birds with one stone by walking into class one day and, while fully and quickly disrobing, pronounced with mock solemnity something like, “All you need to know today about Postmodernism is that it is the ongoing decision to re-think all the decisions of Modernism.” Then I would walk out of the room. Class dismissed.

Note to my students (whom I have politely asked but not required to read my blog): Ain’t gonna happen. I love my job too much to lose it by foisting such a felonious and absurd assault on your minds and eyes. I’ll find other ways to lead you through the enthralling labyrinth of AAWP. I’d better get busy. AARGGHhhhh.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Low Spark of High-Heeled Guerrillas

The Low Spark of High-Heeled Guerrillas
By Tom Wachunas

“…and the thing that disturbs you is only the sound of the low spark of high-heeled boys.”
- lyrics by Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi -

Since its beginnings several years ago, the Acme Artists space in downtown Canton has rarely failed to stir up my memories – both fond and loathsome - of the New York City ‘alternative art’ scene of the 1980s. Back then I ran with a noisy, mischievous crowd of unevenly talented wannabes and couldabeens who were mad as hell and weren’t gonna take it anymore.

We were mad at the exclusive Uptown and SoHo galleries that called the shots and garnered the critics’ attentions, not to mention astronomical art prices. We were the disgusted, the disgruntled, the disenfranchised (and jealous). We became an underground avant garde. We were the ‘art guerrillas’ who commandeered abandoned storefronts and warehouses to mount impromptu exhibitions - ‘art attacks’ - that farted in the general direction of those blue-chip art profiteers and aficionados who touted the likes of Julian Schnabel’s awful broken china paintings. We were iconoclasts at heart and none too pure or simple.

Much of the art generated by this anarchy (my own included) was deliberately incomprehensible if not outright hideous, even by the strange ‘standards’ of the then newly-blossoming school of “Bad Painting”. So it’s not out of any sense of unqualified pride that I share these memories. I tell you this not because I think Acme Artists represents an exact duplication of those days’ attitudes or practices. Rather, it’s that Acme seems to embody a similarly bold, broad spirit of hit-‘em-and-run experimentation and planned unpredictability. Like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. If what’s there tastes too crunchy, bitter, or stale, wait a few days and come back. The place is an ever- revolving/evolving emporium of works by some of Canton’s ‘edgier’ artists.

Case in point: the current show (which may or may not be intact by the time you read this) called “Buffy’s Rules”. Buffy, of course, is Holly Buffy Atkinson, and she’s organized works by 13 other artists for this collective interpretation of her “rules”. Rules for what? While there are some specifics - like kindness to animals, approved sports, social behavior, and fashion – the overall thematic content spans a wide, somewhat ambiguous spectrum. For example, part of the exhibit is comprised of decidedly risqué works displayed behind a heavy red velvet curtain. ‘Adult’ content, to be sure. I’m not sure if Atkinson’s greeting cards there, featuring vintage photos of partially nude women in suggestive situations, are meant to be a celebratory show of tolerance for ‘alternative’ life styles, or simply an arbitrary symbol of artistic freedom masquerading as kinky sensationalism? Or both?

There is a substantial number of remarkable individual works here by well-known known local artists who have been consistently present in past Acme exhibits. One painter here is new to me, though – Joe Cortese, who has several works on display. A few of them, particularly behind the curtain, are dreadfully meandering, semi-abstract affairs of questionable intent and quality. Some of his paintings in the main part of the gallery are relatively more resolved, and indicate a unique, intriguing visual language that might still be in its infancy – a melding of sharply defined, ornate, graffiti-like geometries clustered and floating in slightly blurred fields of patterns. Decorative, yes, but in color and surface, visceral and brooding.

In some ways the paintings are problematic, but they do show considerable promise. And they nonetheless seem right at home in this space, bringing to mind, once again, that over-used e-word: edgy. I’m as guilty as anyone in resorting to the term too often, realizing full well that it’s become a generic catchall, a euphemism for ‘challenging’ or ‘outside the box’. Worse, it’s too often used to somehow legitimize and praise unremarkable work of no consequence, as in utter garbage. But that’s not the case here.

When I think of ‘edgy’ these days, it generally connotes ‘uneasy’ or ‘precipitous’. As in walking along an unfamiliar, even threatening path. Uncomfortable. Acme Artists has never been about exclusively safe, vapidly pretty, or easy art. In all its variety, much of it certainly palatable, there is in this show some typically challenging and difficult work to digest. Art can be that way sometimes. And that, I would think, is one of Buffy’s Rules.

“Buffy’s Rules” at Acme Artists until it’s not, 332 Fourth Street NW, downtown Canton. (330) 452 – 2263

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two-Faced Us, Articulated

Two-Faced Us, Articulated
By Tom Wachunas

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” - Romans 7:18-20 –

History has bequeathed us myriad philosophies and commentaries on ‘The Problem of Evil’. That would include examinations of exactly what humanity’s first sin was. Many have made the case that our dismissal from Eden was the consequence of disobedience. Just as many have cited pride. And let’s not forget lust – essentially the desire to possess, at any cost, what we don’t have. Or how about greed – the blinding compulsion to possess more than we need just because we think we can? And so it goes.

History also illuminates our capacity to sense, define, and categorize what is both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ about us. Virtues and vices. Right and wrong. We’re instinctively (spiritually) called to obligatory behaviors, ethical codes of conduct. While we certainly seem to agree in theory that love is preferable to hate, all behavioral evidence indicates the dual-nature of humanity as in a war between spirit and flesh, an incessant struggle between our higher and lower natures. It’s not just in the academic (sociological/military/ political) chronologies of cultures or civilizations where we encounter such evidence, but certainly in our art history as well. Recognizing and expressing the numinous (divine) aspects of our existence – the strivings toward the theosis of humanity – has been a recurring, at times even dominant theme in artmaking across many cultures, Western and otherwise.

The new exhibit at Anderson Creative, called “Of Vice & Virtue: The Moral Universe of Marcy Axelband”, is neither a declaration of the artist’s perfected arrival at oneness with God, nor a preachy, new definition of morality. Axelband’s canvases are thoughtful, often gripping metaphors, in the form of portraits, for the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues. And it’s true that when I saw ‘moral’ and ‘universe’ in the same phrase, my internal GPS (God Positioning System) kicked in and to some degree filtered the material’s appearance, both visually (outward) and conceptually (inward). So while there might be something vaguely, arguably ‘religious’ afoot here, the work clearly exudes an overarching spirituality. Intriguingly so.

Let’s start with outward appearances. Axelband’s painterly language is that of a self-described “outsider” – an artist not formally trained in traditional studio practices. This is not to say her imagery is in any way unduly eccentric, crude or ‘ugly’. By classical standards her figurations are somewhat simplistic and awkward. But this lack of ‘naturalistic’ refinement (not to be confused with lack of drawing ability) gives her portraits a compelling, raw immediacy. Often, in their tactile surfaces alive with raised ripples of underpainting, flurries of scratches, and shapes reformed and repainted, they look as if they’ve recently emerged from a struggle, victorious and confident if not a little battle-weary. Adding to the paintings’ visceral physicality are the frames – thin metal strips attached with highly visible masonry nails – as if to literally nail down the ephemeral content. The scarred earthiness of the faces is a dramatic counterpoint to the electrifying, saturated colors that make up many of the backgrounds, or the simplified forms of the figures’ clothing. Distinctly vivid, yet never gratuitously lurid, Axelband’s esthetic is a contemplative melding of form and function, and one that serves the subject at hand very well: the human yearning to peacefully balance conflicting ethical/moral dichotomies.

Now for the inward. Each painting is accompanied by the artist’s musings on a vice or virtue. Her writing is charmingly sensitive, fluid, concise, and disarmingly frank. Particularly interesting are the beginnings of the definitions of various vices, all cut from the same fabric, as it were, of laziness. For example: Lust is “Too lazy to love.” Gluttony is “Too lazy to consider others’needs.” Wrath (Anger) is “Too lazy to consider the consequences of vengeful acts.”

And so it is all the more fascinating that one of only two overtly abstract works here is about selflessness. “Generosity” is an edge-to-edge field comprised of hundreds (thousands?) of loosely drawn, empty squares. A nearby tray holds tubes of paint and a few brushes, with an invitation for us as viewers to fill in as many of the tiny blanks as we want to with color. Then we are asked to go out into our world and perform a generous act equivalent to the number of squares we’ve painted in. An invitation to be not lazy. It’s a delightfully potent form of interactive art.

In enunciating her symbols of human desires and behaviors – beautifully refined in their way - this intensely facile outsider engages us in a dialogue that transcends private meditation. It’s an enthralling dialogue that reveals Axelband’s personal “moral universe” to be neither inaccessible nor all that separate from our own. So paint in some squares. We’re all in this together.

Photo, courtesy Craig Joseph: “Meekness” by Marcy Axelband, on view THROUGH JULY 30 at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Noon to 5 p.m Wednesday - Saturday