Wednesday, May 30, 2012

One Man's Treasure...

One Man’s Treasure…
by Tom Wachunas

    “Determining the difference between lowbrow art and highbrow art is very often a matter of appreciating the difference between what people want and what people need.” – June Godwit –

    Folk Art. Naïve Art. Outsider Art. Kitsch. At its best, “The Creative Spirit” exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art is, in all of its distinctly quirky content, highly entertaining, serving up a spicy hot stew of delectable collectibles. At worst, it’s a gooey gumbo of regrettable forgettables.

    Specifically, the show points up the wild range of tastes displayed in the sprawling personal collection of Mark Chepp, an artist ( a remarkable painter reviewed here in my post dated Sept. 12, 2010) and retired director of the Springfield Museum of Art. Beyond that, and in as much as the show is surely a celebration of flea market/ antique emporium/ yard sale finds, it also celebrates the uniquely, intrinsically human activity of responding to life by making all manner of pictures and objects. More than simply wanting to make things, we are genetically wired, indeed compelled to do so.

     So here is a vast accumulation of stuff, made by passionate artisans with varying degrees of skill, as well as less refined hobbyists, known and unknown. Something for and from everyone, it would seem. The show is marvelously eclectic evidence of a wanderlust for things whimsical and primitive, simple and mystical. Speaking of mystical, most of you faithful readers won’t be surprised to know that the pieces most resonant for me are those that are spiritual or religious in character. There are enough of them to warrant their own niche in one of the smaller side galleries. Along with a strong showing of Christian iconography, there are other fascinating and strange visions of a more totemic or ritualistic nature.   

     Back to the regrettable forgettables for a moment - all those sock monkeys, bottle cap figures, goofy face jugs (to be fair, some of those are genuinely exciting), and garish Elvis busts (making me wonder if they’re more posthumous punishment than praise)… OK, so the operative intent here is probably something close to “let’s just get off our high horse for a bit and celebrate ‘low’ culture,” which makes for some innocent fun and can even be quite enchanting as far as it goes. And where is that, exactly?  Many of these artifacts do remind me of the chintzy shelf-stuffers I recently saw at a local Cracker Barrel Restaurant gift shop.

    Museum goers predisposed to expect classically spectacular or conventionally elevated aesthetics will find this exhibition decidedly raw and down to earth if not somewhat undignified. Keep in mind that thanks to the radical shifts in 20th century Western thinking about what constitutes a work of fine art, and who determines such things, we’ve come to accept (for better or worse) ideologies far less stringent and exclusive than those that ruled our minds and hearts for so many previous centuries. Our populist democracy of ideas when it comes to defining and embracing art has soared to new heights and sunk to ludicrous lows, all in the name of righteous inclusivity. And it’s probably fair to say that many of the objects here were made by folks who couldn’t care less about intelligentsia philosophizing anyway.

    So, junk or jewels? You decide.

    Photos: “The Good Samaritan” carved, painted wood by R. Smith / “Man” welded steel by Kurt Fisher/
“Monkey and Snakes in a Chair” painted wood and found objects by Edd Lambdin (next to anonymous sock monkey)   ON VIEW THROUGH July 22 at the Canton Museum of Art   

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Magnificent Miles Avenue Menagerieum

The Magnificent Miles Avenue Menagerieum (and other collected thoughts)
By Tom Wachunas

     Two current exhibits – “The Odditorium” at the Massillon Museum, and “The Creative Spirit” at the Canton Museum of Art – have each inspired a mood to have some fun with the notion of collecting. While I do plan to post something on both museum shows sometime soon, I’m lately on a vacation from “serious” critique writing, instead spending some down time ruminating (roominating?) on all the stuff stuffed into my studio over the past ten years and otherwise on to the walls of my modest but cozy Canton home.

    For ‘stuff’ here, read ‘my art works.’ One of the hats I where is that of Curator of Collections at The Miles Avenue Menagerieum, located in the spectacular Northern reaches of Perry Township, which boasts the world’s largest collection of Tom Wachunas originals. I suspect there are more than a few artists in our midst who hold similar positions related to their own accumulated works, no doubt situated in somewhat fancier locales.

     I also suspect that more than being disappointed owners of the unsold (or unsellable) labors of our passions, we are simply caretakers, unwilling to part with the lovingly wrought evidence of those passions. When pressed, some of us might admit the gushy but poignant cliché that these things which occupy the floors, shelves, or walls of our domiciles are somehow our ‘children.’ Other than stealthily abandoning any of them (with urgent “please give my child a good home” letter attached) at the entrance of a legitimate art museum, trashing them outright would be tantamount to murder. Looking at some of my more sordid practices of the 1980s, I guess that makes me something of a serial killer.

    Aside from the aforementioned artworks of the past ten years, the only other seriously collected objects in my life were vinyl recordings. Five thousand-plus of them. That was at last count, which was toward the end of 1991, when I sold the entire collection to a decidedly thrilled but stingy record dealer in Greenwich Village. I was jobless, recently divorced, in debt, on the verge of being homeless, and desperate for cash. Rows upon rows of meticulously organized rock, jazz, classical, and international folk recordings, amassed over 20 years, stacked majestically upright across long and sturdy wooden shelves, were gone in an instant, sold by the foot for a pittance. For a considerably long time I was heartbroken by the void of silence that ensued in my life. The music had always spoken to me in one fashion or another.

    No such void exists for me today. What I call my studio, ridiculously tiny by many standards, is really a haven for hearing what these strangely evolved aesthetic contrivances have to say to me. They spoke to me when I made them, telling me exactly what they wanted to be, and they continue to speak even as they gather dust. Sometimes I imagine them conversing among themselves, rehearsing the critiques and admonishments they will impart next time I’m in their presence. If they’re children, then I’m eternally grateful I don’t have to feed them. In fact they nourish me. And they often speak of how I should go about engineering the next generation of their siblings.

     I think it joyously ironic that the once long shadow cast by the loss of my beloved audio collection has progressively faded into the light of my current visual collection. Cluttered and disorganized to be sure, it is a collection that nonetheless teaches me how to listen.

    Photos: From the studio wing of the Miles Avenue Menagerieum

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Malone Melange

A Malone Melange
By Tom Wachunas

    While there’s no specific theme to the eclectic group show currently showing at the McFadden Gallery in Malone University’s Johnson Center, there is a unifying element among the five featured artists. Three are Malone Fine Arts program alumni, and two are Malone Fine Arts undergraduates. In a short statement accompanying the show, curator Rick Huggett (whose work is included in the exhibit) wants viewers to have some fun guessing which artists are the grads and which are the undergrads.

     I’ll never tell. And for those not acquainted with the artists, it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious in the looking. Along with Huggett’s pieces – some seen before, some new -  there are works by Heather Bullach, Amanda Gaumer, Emily Mills, and Angela Welch. All of the participants, ‘students’ or not, offer substantially engaging visual and conceptual experiences.
    Hopefully some of you might recall past ARTWACH commentaries on the work of Rick Huggett, as well as Heather Bullach. If not, there’s always Google. And Amanda Gaumer has here provided just enough of a teaser with her strongly accomplished ceramic vessels to make me want to see more. Likewise, it’s the arresting works by Emily Mills and Angela Welch that cause me to regard these two painters somewhat like diamonds in the rough and on the verge of sparkling futures.

    In some ways, the landscapes by Emily Mills demonstrate a painterly understanding of color and form that gives them the look of Monet/Cezanne hybrids (though her gutsy “Garden” brings to mind Thomas Kinkade on steroids). In some of them, she brings an intriguing dimensionality and tactile magic by attaching shiny colored wires to the surface, tracing the contours of the land forms. But it’s her ambitious and large oil, “Remnants,” that is most remarkable. This work is a marvelous interior anatomy of a cavernous, abandoned factory or warehouse, replete with earthen tones subtly illuminated by the diffuse daylight pouring through the white windows deep in the background. The contrasting angles and textures of upright pillars, ceiling girders, and planked ceiling make for a stunning, intricate perspective on linear rhythms.

    Angela Welch is more abstract in her pictorial language. She’s clearly fond of natural, organic structures and energies, and paints them with a calligraphic fluidity that brings an emotional intensity to her “scenes.”  Her “Deep Roots Cultivate Morals” is an intriguing visual counterpoint to Mills’ “Remnants,” equal in scale and, for all of its relatively eccentric, even decorative content, every bit as compelling in its own right.

    Here’s hoping both these young painters make their way on to the larger local exhibition scene soon, and with increasing regularity. They’re ready.

    Photos: Top -  “Deep Roots Cultivate Morals” by Angela Welch / “Remnants” by Emily Mills

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Exquisite Ambiguities

Exquisite Ambiguities
By Tom Wachunas

    Sometimes I get the impression that Malone University’s Fine Arts Department wants to keep its exhibitions a secret. Even the department’s web page isn’t current at the moment. Were it not for the tip I received a few weeks ago from Malone graduate Rick Huggett (whose recent work at Gallery 6000 was reviewed here on April 27), I would not have visited the McFadden Gallery (lower level of the Johnson Center) to see the gem of a show he put together there for the summer. That’ll be the subject of the post following this one. After viewing it, I also saw the nearby exhibit in the Fountain Gallery and was completely stunned by its material and conceptual freshness – a freshness I don’t often encounter in these parts.

    “Interior Landscapes” is the name of this show of eight black and white pencil drawings on unbleached/unstretched muslin by Heather Bryson. At this point I can only guess that they’ll be on view for the duration of the summer. The captivating sound of falling water in the space’s fountain is the perfect complement to these contemplative works. Deceivingly simple, sometimes sparse in content, their substance nonetheless appears to breathe, literally and otherwise, as the air movement in the exhibition space makes their sheer surfaces flutter ever so gently against the wall.

    In her statement posted with the show, Bryson calls her drawings non-traditional self- portraits that began by imagining the insides of her physical body, and evolved into somehow linking the imagery up with - or drawing out – emotional energy or associations. The resulting configurations delineate symbolic, organic landscapes of a kind, or perhaps amorphous, surreal figures. In any case, they’re more lyrically suggestive than formally illustrative of specific structures or feelings.  Their spatial ambiguities add to their dichotomous nature: morphing yet permanent, airy yet dense, seen yet unseen.

    And for all of their delicate, tentative appearance, these are solidly, refreshingly hypnotic essences.

    Photo: pencil drawings on muslin by Heather Bryson, on view at Fountain Gallery, located in The Johnson Center, Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Ave. NW

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Crowded Spectacle...(Part 2)

A Crowded Spectacle…(Part 2)
By Tom Wachunas

    “All artists lift from everything that interests them and always have – from earlier art, other work that’s around, or sources outside art.”  - Joyce Kozloff -

    Let’s get metaphorical. Much of this exhibit makes me hear music. It’s a concert of ‘performers’ – singers and instrumentalists, if you will – influenced or inspired by centuries of art history to stage an elaborate  production in many acts.

     Some works suggest the elegant drama of opera, such as Janet Baran’s hauntingly beautiful “Waiting” (First Place winner in the mixed media category). The empty chairs in this room are upholstered with the printed image of a bedbound man hooked to monitors and IV drip. A lone Starbucks cup sits atop the table. The back wall is covered with the repeated word WAITING painted in thick relief – a muted wallpaper of patience and patients. Similarly, it’s not a big stretch to consider oil portraits such as Frank Dale’s “A Hat With A Veil,” Heather Bullach’s “Iraqui Girl” (Second Place winner in oil and acrylic category), or Michele Blate’s colored pencil “First Taste of Winter” as quietly gripping arias.

    Some works are imbued with a classical precision of technique, like James Bennett’s  drawing, “Olifant.” As the virtuosic bow work of a master violinist would articulate a difficult, intricate solo, so too Bennett deftly wielded a pencil to achieve the stunning textures and tones in this rendering of an elephant. Equally virtuosic is the tiny (9”x11”) but arresting oil painting, “Virginia” (First Place winner in the oil and acrylic category), by Erin Wozniak (shown in part 1). A portrait approached through the back door, so to speak, this unusual perspective is sharp and unwavering in its candid poeticism.

   Threaded throughout this eclectic show is a healthy dose of modernist as well as postmodernist sensibilities. Some exude a riotous, cabaret theatricality, as in Isaac Stanley’s endearingly silly “Vainglorious Spectacle” (Honorable Mention in the oil and acrylic category) showing two llamas in party garb, and a very funky “Self Portrait” assemblage by Robert Gallik (Honorable Mention in the mixed media category). The funk factor is similarly at work in Gary Howes’ scruffy wood sculpture of a naked male ping pong player splayed out in mid-slam, called “Ping Pong Passion – A Tale Of The Table Tennis Tally Whacker.” And “Sea Worthy” by Mitchell S. Murphy is a wildly ornate, fantastical mixed media sculpture of a boat that looks like it came from the mind of Willy Wonka.

    Bold-faced parody and appropriation are alive and well in Linda Faulkner’s version of Munch’s “The Scream.” Faulkner’s electrified “The Siren” is a kind of Desperate Housewives redux version. And Judi Krew got impressively busy with her animated inventory of art history’s most memorable figures and faces in her “Occupy Art.” Imagine a crowd that includes, among many others, Mona Lisa, Whistler’s Mom, Wyeth’s Christina, Botticelli’s Venus, and a pipe-puffing, bandaged Van Gogh rubbing elbows at a Wall Street demonstration. Among the more solid abstractions are the elegantly composed, dramatic “Austin City Limits” by Wanda Montgomery, and Randall Slaughter’s “Gardening at Night” – both mixed media.

    Back to the metaphor thing. There is certainly an ‘easy listening’ element to the show, as expressed in the watercolor entries. No surprises here, though their presence might be considered as traditional respites from tackling some of the relatively more discordant contemporary works.

    Of those, “It Flew Away In The Granite Sky” by Annette Yoho Feltes is particularly enigmatic and visceral. As much a relief sculpture as it is a ‘picture,’ it’s an awkward if not dreary work – a sad song at once strangely childlike and almost savage in its eerie suggestion of lost innocence. It’s the intriguing bits of refined cacophony like this one that keep the show truly engaging, honest, and above the ordinary.

    Photo, courtesy The Little Art Gallery: detail from “Waiting” – mixed media by Janet Baran