Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Martial Meditations

Martial Meditations
By Tom Wachunas

“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” - Carl Sandburg –

“War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.” - Thomas Mann –

“Man has no right to kill his brother. It is no excuse that he does so in uniform: he only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.” - Percy Byshe Shelley –

From the title of his solo show at Main Hall Gallery at Kent Stark – “Wounds of War” - to the titles of the individual drawings, paintings, and collage/assemblages, it’s clear that Fredlee Votaw means for his work to pluck at our heartstrings and speak to our spirits. Given the show’s hot-button subject of war, one intriguing quality here is its overall sense of contemplative calm and, in some cases, an almost stoic serenity.

These aren’t pictures of war’s bloody atrocities. No visual histrionics or gratuitous political diatribes. Collectively, most of the pieces here address the less obvious or sensationalistic - but all too real - pain of longing, isolation, and loss that war heaps upon its victims and participants. Much of the imagery seems to emerge from and float in white voids, as in the series of four drawings called “Thinking About Iraq.” Three of those feature an impeccably rendered pencil or pen portrait of a child juxtaposed with the American flag pictured as the all-too-familiar funereal blue triangle.

Other works are distinctly more visceral, with brooding, earthen colors and textured surfaces embedded with human figurative elements. Visceral too is the simple (though certainly not simplistic) and jarring “Flag of Honor,” a found American flag that’s clearly been through a fire.

Even without the title references to war, these works unabashedly exude real emotion – some more intensely than others. “Missing Her Soldier Daddy” is a wispy oil painting of a little girl, standing against the ghostly side of a house that fades away into empty white space, clutching a stuffed animal, peering at us from under an oversized cap with a look of sadness too heavy for her years.

Sentimental? Surely, depending upon your definition. These days, and for that matter, for decades now, the notion of sentimentality in contemporary art has often been met with disdain and even vitriol by art world intelligentsia. Votaw’s gentle brand of authentic reflection and nostalgic reminiscence is made all the more present, and indeed urgent, by his drawing and painting technique, which is nothing short of jaw-dropping in its clean precision of detail (though there are here a few genuinely interesting forays into looser abstraction). But I would submit to you that ‘sentimentality’ is a matter of relative degrees, and not intrinsically exclusive of appealingly provocative, relevant emotionality – which abounds in Votaw’s work. And so it is that I think there’s nothing vapid, clichéd, or mawkish about his aesthetic sensibilities.

Artsy aficionados who feel differently are just itchin’ for a fight.

Photo: “Missing Her Soldier Daddy,” oil on canvas, by Fredlee Votaw, on view through November 30 in the Main Hall Gallery (lower level of Main Hall) on the Kent Stark campus. Viewing hours are Monday – Friday 11:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m., Saturday 10:00 a.m. - Noon

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