Monday, July 30, 2012

Doodads, Watchamacallits, and Thingamajigs

Doodads, Whatchamacallits, and Thingamajigs

By Tom Wachunas

    “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”  - comedian Steven Wright –

    “History is representational, while time is abstract; both of these artifices may be found in museums, where they span everybody’s own vacancy.”  - Robert Smithson –

    EXHIBITION: The Odditorium at the Massillon Museum, on view THROUGH AUGUST 26, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon,  (330) 833 – 4061

    I’m reminded by this exhibit that in all the years I’ve been writing about art shows at this venue (and long before this blog came into being), I’ve tended to forget that the words “of Art” do not follow “Massillon Museum,” as is the case, for example, with The Canton Museum of Art. I’m also reminded that museums are essentially missional institutions, i.e., cultural entities with a particular purpose or intentional focus. The mission statement for the Massillon Museum reads, “The Massillon Museum collects, preserves and exhibits art and artifacts to enrich our community through education and experience.” I’ve noticed various promotional materials for the Museum with this addendum:  Where Art and History Come Together!

    “…preserves and exhibits art and artifacts…” What a word, artifact. In some contexts I’ve often regarded it as somewhat problematic when presented as separate from art per se. It seems to imply the plethora of stuff  we wouldn’t fully embrace as outright art, or fine art, or high art, but somehow still related – arty facts, but not necessarily art as a matter of fact. I suppose that way we can comfortably praise or savor the “craft” of a thing, or its historical/ educational relevance, without feeling compelled to call it real art. Of course such musings may seem needlessly elitist, nitpicky and otherwise opening up a phenomenological can of worms – an ideological maelstrom of definitions and categories. But as this exhibit makes clear enough, some cans of worms, as it were, are more grandly constructed and attractive than others.

    For this show, the Museum has plumbed the depths of its surprisingly voluminous permanent collection. Who knew that lurking behind the utterly ordinary fa├žade of this building in downtown Massillon were store rooms brimming with some 100,000…things, many rarely exhibited, amassed over a 79-year collecting history, mostly as gifts from the community?  The “brainchild” of Canton Repository arts and entertainment editor, Dan Kane, in collaboration with Museum staff and other partners including Craig Joseph (Translations Art Gallery) and Kevin Anderson (Anderson Creative), the exhibit presents an overwhelmingly eclectic and eccentric array of objects ranging from the truly fascinating (historically and aesthetically) and rare to the just plain kitschy,  organized into a series of themed rooms in the house of the fictional Wunderkammer family, named for the German noun meaning “chamber of wonders.”

    Wonders? Some. You need to sort through a considerable quantity of  unremarkable bric-a-brac. The show exudes all the theatrical spirit of carnival sideshows – some of it endearing, nostalgic, even beautiful, and some unapologetically bizarre. Entertaining? No argument there. For example (pictured above), there’s a framed Hair Wreath from 1885, meticulously woven out of hair salvaged from Josephine Derr’s brush. Evidently some Victorian ladies had entirely too much time on their hands. And there’s Richard A. George’s jarring, untitled 1973  painting (also pictured above) of a naked lady ascending a train engine. A kinky rendezvous with the engineer, or a Realist’s answer to Duchamp’s Cubist Nude Descending a Staircase? Curiouser and curiouser, these are just a paltry few of my favorite things here.

    I couldn’t help thinking that some museums’ permanent collections might be examples of a culturally acceptable OCD – a kind of pathological drive to hoard all kinds of disparate stuff.  Or might it be an equally pathological fear of turning down gifts from well-meaning benefactors? I mean this all in good fun…I think. In any event, should the Massillon Museum decide to ever seriously clean house, it could be the occasion of a monumentally historic eBay feeding frenzy.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Realed In

Realed In

By Tom Wachunas

     By the end of the first act of The Agency, the new play by Sherry Yanow and Deborah Fezelle currently showing at the Kathleen Howland Theatre (for a much too-short run of four shows), I thought I had resolved  a few important  questions (or mysteries, or ‘issues’) central to the plot. Oddly enough, this discovery, though perhaps making me feel a wee bit proud of myself, had the greater effect of making me suspect that the writing, or the directing by Fazelle, was somehow flawed in telegraphing such revelatory information too early in the proceedings.

     Seriously, I’m really not all that smart. I’m fairly certain that many viewers could pick up on the same cues. Still, I remember thinking (in retrospect, maybe over-thinking)… now what? How can the rest of the story be anything but a drawing out of the inevitable? I couldn’t have been more wrong.  And so it is that as Act II unfolded, the earlier reeling-in picked up truly startling momentum until I was ‘got’ -  hook, line, and…thinker.  
    This psychological thriller is an intriguing collision of two narratives. One tells of ‘The Agency,’ a clandestine, non-governmental entity headed by Judge Gabe, looking to hire an assassin, Micah Gideon, to carry out its plan to track and eliminate a human target. The other is the story of Dr. Truman Warrik, who desperately seeks the help of his therapist, Dr. Stacy Lyons, in coming to terms with his terrifying, life-disrupting nightmares. And throughout the evening, just when you think you’ve got this thing figured out, like peeling an onion, another stinging layer of truth is exposed, made all the more pungent by the performances of the remarkable cast.

    Rufus Malone, Jr., in his portrayal of the ostensibly generous, loving emergency room Dr. Truman Warrick who is undergoing hypnotherapy, is himself hypnotic to watch in his urgent, transformative struggle to reconcile lost childhood memories with the reality of his haunted  present. An equally riveting transformation unfolds in Kevin Wells’ jarring portrait of Micah, the would-be hired killer who abandoned his wife to pursue his obsession with all things murderous. Wells brings a dark, pathologically chilling presence to the stage, fueled by his character’s hatred for the target. But his is a psychosis that morphs into something utterly unexpected.

    Meanwhile, in his role of Judge Gabe, W. Bradley Vincent provides a convincing picture of the stern and cold Agency boss deciding whether or not to ultimately hire the uncomfortably cocky and volatile Micah. He enlists the services of Angelique to help assess Micah’s suitability and stability. In that role, the fiery Ariel Roberts is all business and protocol as she angrily butts heads with the arrogant assassin. But she, too, has secrets that will surface, as does therapist Dr. Stacy Lyons. To that role, Marilyn Wells brings real sincerity and warmth, displaying just the right degree of clinical dignity. But she’s also intensely fascinating if not unsettling  as she detachedly refers to herself in the third person, speaking into her recording device of the pressing need to heal the deep wounds of her own dark past. Physician, heal thyself?

    Rounding out the cast are Cynthia Gribble as Stephanie Warrick (Truman’s wife), and Andrew Bors as Detective Otto Polaski, who advises the Agency on Micah’s past involvement with police investigations. (Bors also composed the evening’s appropriately eerie and otherwise gripping incidental music.) Their performances, while short, nonetheless bring important background to understanding the big picture here, and are very credibly delivered.   

    So OK, back to those aforementioned crucial revelations from Act I. What are they and how do they inform and drive the rest of the ever-deepening (and in the end, unpredictable) story? If I told you I’d have to… I’d better think about this, huh?  

    The Agency, written by Sherry Yanow and Deborah Fezelle, directed by Deborah Fezelle, at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in the lower level of Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton. Shows are Friday, July 27 and Saturday July 28 at 8 p.m., and Sunday July 29 at 3 p.m. Tickets $10. Call for reservations at (330) 451 – 0924.

    PHOTOS: (Top) Rufus Malone, Jr. (left), Kevin Wells / (Bottom) cast members, clockwise from top left: W. Bradley Vincent, Kevin Wells, Ariel Roberts, Marilyn Wells, Rufus Malone, Jr

Monday, July 23, 2012

Gilt Icons: Toward a Reconciliation?

Gilt Icons: Toward a Reconciliation?
By Tom Wachunas
    “Self-portraiture is a singular in-turned art. Something eerie lurks in its fingering of the edge between seer and seen.”  - Julian Bell –

     “Mary is the most sweet bait, prepared and ordained by God, chosen to catch the hearts of men.”
- St. Catherine of Sienna –

      “Confound the nose, there’s no end to it!”  - Thomas Gainsborough –

    EXHIBITION: “Essential Momentum” -  mixed media works by Amanda VanDenberg and “Shotgun” pottery by Joseph Bower, at The Little Art Gallery (located in the North Canton Public Library), THROUGH AUGUST 18

    Belying all the apparent simplicity of approach in Amanda VanDenberg’s  14 graphite and acrylic self- portraits  are some fairly complicated ideas, just briefly hinted at in the gallery hand-out  for the show. But curator Elizabeth Blakemore was kind enough to give me a lengthier artist statement as to the raison d’etre  behind these intriguing drawings – a series collectively titled “Madonna Complex.”

    VanDenberg admits a “tongue-in-cheek” appropriation of the term. In the world of analyzing the psychodynamics of gender relationships, the “Madonna/Whore Complex” has generally referred to conflicted men who view women as either saintly or debased. VanDenberg’s title, while grounded in her own fascination with Christian iconography of the Blessed Virgin (Madonna), is more symbolic of her complex personal struggle to reconcile the image of the independent, self-made feminist with her sense of  pressure to conform to Madonna ideals of “perfect” beauty, sensuality, morality, and motherhood. “To try to be everything to everyone,” she writes, “and the extreme guilt I feel when I put any of my desires first…These self-portraits are a conversation with myself about how to be the sensual and sexual wife, the nurturing and devoted mother and still maintain my intellectual and creative self.”  

    So there is a background here of perceived expectations to achieve perfection against which the artist  sees herself…evolving. In VanDenberg’s self-seeing, that background takes the form of all-gold, empty space -  gold being such a prevalent  feature in Byzantine images of the Madonna. Gilt icons. Or maybe here, icons of guilt? Unlike those elaborately jeweled and ornate icons of old, though, the gold in VanDenberg’s images seems somewhat oppressive – a painterly encroachment upon the contours of her sketchily rendered faces. The paint congeals into slightly raised ridges that often become breached boundaries  dripping onto her introspective countenances.

     Those elegantly penciled countenances, in turn, have a tentative, pared-down yet intensely expressive sensibility - a quiet theatricality, yet with no defined source of light, no dramatic chiaroscuro. While the linear details are more defined around the eyes, nose and lips, there is nonetheless a compelling sense of ghostly disembodiment, of forms waiting to become more sculptural, of blanks waiting to be filled in. Of questions waiting to be answered: Am I pretty or desirable enough? Am I smart enough? Am I submissive enough? Do I think too much? Am I too serious, self-involved, unapproachable, unavailable?

    Where have I fallen short? I will say 14 Hail Marys.

    Photos: Top – Madonna Complex Nos. 5 & 6 / Madonna Complex Nos. 13 & 14

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Printed Matters

Printed Matters
by Tom Wachunas

    “Print is the best of God’s inventions.”  - Martin Luther –

    “The act of printing has always seemed to me a miracle, just such a miracle as the growing up of a tiny seed of grain to an ear – an  everyday miracle, even the greater because it happens every day. One drawing is sown on the stone or the etching plate, and a harvest is reaped from it.” – Vincent Van Gogh -

EXHIBITION: Print That – selections from the permanent collection at the Canton Museum of Art, through July 22

    There’s still a few days left to visit the Canton Museum of Art and view Print That – a thoroughly diverse and edifying selection of prints from the museum’s permanent collection.  This is a remarkable compilation, and one that reminds me how thrilling it can be to see the look of astonishment that crosses many of my art appreciation students’ faces when they fully comprehend the many challenging processes involved in printmaking. An artist can’t simply generate an image with the same spontaneity or immediate results as when making a drawing on paper or a painting on canvas. There are specific procedures and mechanical disciplines involved.

    For example, in a multi-colored woodcut, particularly where edges of shapes need to meet precisely, each color requires carving a separate block of wood. And let’s not forget that printmakers think… backwards. That is, they need to remember that in the print pulled off the wood block or metal plate or litho stone, the right-left orientation of their original drawing gets reversed.

   Lest you construe from any of these pitiably few observations that I am a printmaker myself, be assured I’m not -  at least not since my last hurriedly-made woodcut from around 1982, which was a terribly crude self-portrait carved with a dull matte knife and a 16-penny nail. But seeing the stunningly elaborate, ambitious design and color in works such as Jennifer Bartlett’s combination silk screen- woodcut At Sea, Japan here, a kind of longing to re-engage the sheer, magical craft of it all stirred inside me.

    No promises, but maybe someday my prints will come.

    Photos: Top – Crak by Roy Lichtenstein, 1964 Lithograph / Forest Shade, Lithograph by Stow Wengenroth / At Sea, Japan, woodcut and silk screen by Jennifer Bartlett


Friday, July 6, 2012

Material Witness

Material Witness
By Tom Wachunas

    “A shape, a volume, a color, a surface is something itself. It shouldn’t be concealed as part of a fairly different whole.”  - Donald Judd –

    “We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end.”  - Ralph Waldo Emerson –

    “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  - Leonardo da Vinci –

    EXHIBITION: A site-specific installation by Natalie Dunham called TRANSITION_study on view at Translations Art Gallery, THROUGH JULY 28, 331 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays – Saturdays.

    Oh to have lived in New York City during the 1960s , to rub elbows with the movers and shakers of the day, when the art world seethed with the schismatic energy of clashing aesthetic ideologies. It was the era that gave rise to Minimalism, that radical proposition to excise ‘self’ from artistic expression. In rejecting the wildly humanistic indulgences of Abstract Expressionism, pesky Minimalists such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris and Richard Serra, to name only some,  dis-invited viewers to seek anything approaching emotionality or otherwise subjective associations with their work.  Judd, though, along with others, fiercely derided the term ‘minimalist.’  Instead he suggested “primary structures” as a more accurate way to describe the pared-down formalism of the objects he and his cohorts were putting forth.

     Over the past 20 years or so, this postmodern era of ours has generated a resurgent cacophony of expressionistic styles and practices among  many younger artists emerging from art academies and universities. So I think it fascinating that an artist as young as Natalie Dunham (2010 MFA in Sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art) would so clearly identify –  even sympathize  -  with the detached, industrial slickness often associated with the Minimalist movement of old. That said, I certainly don’t regard her work as anachronistic or a retro eccentricity.  It is in fact downright exciting and refreshing to see a local gallery offer up installation art of this engaging caliber.

    While Dunham has used the word “deconstruct” in reference to her arduous manipulating of found and industrial materials (here, wood shims, lattice, coarse twine, plastic strapping, and lots of connecting hardware), I think the term is a bit too generic and imprecise in assessing her work.  Besides, it smacks too much of entropy.

     Yes, there is a reductivist sensibility at work, a winnowing down of forms in space to their more ephemeral purities. There’s also a deeply abiding passion for large-scale tactile patterns, impeccable craft and precision, and ordered linearity. But combine that with Dunham’s apparent surrender to the nature and dimensions of the materials themselves -  how they “behave” in air and gravity, for example  -  and another quality emerges. In their elegant simplicity, her pieces allow for a kind of serendipitous, phantom poetry that speaks of things not so much falling apart or deconstructed, but coming together, reconstructed.

     It’s what separates Dunham’s works from the clinical severity that characterized so much of 60s Minimalism. And to the extent that Dunham’s aesthetic transcends such austerities, you might say it leans toward the kind of lyricism, or whimsicality, or frisky sensuality that “ post-minimalists” like Eva Hesse explored in the late 1960s and what critic/philosopher Arthur Danto called her “nonmechanical repetition.” I would even go so far as to say that for all of its ostensible kinship to certain aspects of Minimalism, Dunham’s visual language and working process are evidence of a latent Romanticism.

     Don’t just look at these pieces as isolated, static art objects in a gallery. You’re permitted, indeed encouraged to literally get in touch with their moving parts, to feel their textures, to walk through them. You’ll soon get a sense of how they are integral to, and physical extensions of, the whole gallery environment. Look at the shadows cast on walls and floor.  Notice how the 83 lattice strips in the piece mounted high on the wall in the back corner of the gallery intersect with, and seemingly grow into, the exposed linear structures of the ceiling. Stand in the middle of “No. 14.447.2_STR” (the titles are numeric codes that translate into info about the work – the deciphering”key” is  printed out at gallery entrance) and you might well exSTRAPolate the sensation of being in a corn field, or lost in swells of yellow waves.

     It’s all an intriguing twist on viewer pARTicipation.

    Photos courtesy Craig Joseph.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Words Too Small For A Life So Large

Words Too Small For A Life So Large
By Tom Wachunas

    You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.  – Psalm 16: 11 -

    “…art deepens my person, indeed it is the color of my emotional exuberance.” – Martin Bertman  -

    Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.  – Shakespeare (Hamlet) –

     His son, Chaim, told those gathered at the July 3 funeral service that  words were too small a container for   his father’s life.  And yet the son’s profoundly moving words made the father live ever larger in my consciousness.  Hearing them fully affirmed what I think I had already sensed, but never completely articulated, about Dr. Martin A.  Bertman – Mich’l (his Hebrew name) -  prior to this bittersweet occasion.

    The several long sessions we spent looking at and discussing many dozens of his paintings in our final selection process for his Canton Museum show (which ran from December 2011 to March 2012) will forever remain among my most cherished memories. I was privileged to have been touched by a deeply human essence. Throughout our discussions he often spoke of what he had once called the “striving of selfhood” in reference to his passion for connecting art and philosophy.  It occurred to me then that his selfhood was as much an outward as it was an inward- looking practice. Which is to say that when you spoke to Martin, you felt him really listening, as well as his genuine gratitude for the experience. I think he had an uncanny way of making whomever he was engaging feel significant in the moment. In that, he was eminently generous -  a champion of personhood.

    In fielding my admittedly complicated  questions about the lavish and often mystical inner narrative that colors so many of his exquisite  paintings, Martin was himself a picture of patience and disarming graciousness. He was neither imperious nor condescending. It was his humility, not hubris, that imbued his answers – indeed his life -  with real meaning and relevance, and made our short journey together all the more delicious.

    Dr. Martin A. Bertman, gone too soon. I thank God for blessing my life with Mich’l, a true mensch.

    Link to review of Martin’s last solo exhibit: