Monday, December 30, 2013

Taking the coal out of the fire?

Taking the coal out of the fire?

By Tom Wachunas

     “A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.” –Albert Camus

    “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”

    -Anais Nin

    Though I didn’t mention him in my review posted here on December 11, one of the artists who deservedly earned an Honorable Mention in the Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum (still on view through January 5) is William (Bill) Bogdan. His piece, a large black and white woodcut print called Apis 8 – The Beekeeper 5/16, is the first image pictured above. The work is another solid example of Bogdan’s somewhat surreal, stark yet mystical iconography. Here’s a link to a past review of a group show that included his woodcut print called Shadows, also pictured here (below Apis 8):  And it’s Shadows that I re-visit here, if only in an indirect way.

    During the opening reception for the aforementioned Stark County show on November 2, Bill surprised me with a 60-page booklet comprised of approximately 12 email letters he had written to a friend – David Girves - from his high school days, titled Understanding “Shadows”: A Field Guide,” and subtitled What I was thinking when I made the picture – the Girves-Bogdan Letters 2013. Bogdan’s motivation was, as he put it in his prologue, to “…explain to Dave the mindset of an artist; that is, how I view the world” by meticulously examining the symbols and process behind Shadows.

    Here I must point out that the vast majority of you, my readers, are now -  and very possibly will forever be - at a great disadvantage in fully appreciating Bill’s remarkable document. My copy is one of just four that he printed. The others were for Mr. Girves, of course, and one each for Lynda Tuttle, of Lynda Tuttle’s Art Center, and Craig Joseph, curator of Translations Art Gallery. Both Tuttle and Joseph have shown Bogdan’s work in the past.

   There is certainly enough substance in Bill’s document – something of a mini-autobiography (some of it heartrending), really -  to recommend it as an artful work in itself. His transparent, spontaneous writing style, free from arcane artspeak, is so disarmingly honest that he questions the efficacy of his own labors to explain, in words, the significance of his visual symbols. Toward the end, on page 48, he writes, “And this, Dave, concludes my little reading of my art – despite my reservations in imparting my meaning, thus blocking any meaning the viewer may bring to the piece.”

    “…little reading…”? Bill’s humility notwithstanding, what makes his effort to communicate the nature of his art so very important to me, far beyond the specific work he addresses, is the sheer largeness of the philosophical questions it raises. For I believe that all artists, at one time or another (some of us constantly so), wrestle with the tenuous relationship between their creative intent and viewers’ perceptions – their “take-away.”

    Do we expect artists to routinely translate problematic or challenging visual works into another form (the proverbial “artist statement” for example) so as to resolve viewers’ perplexities? Does such an expectation defeat the purpose or mystique of the art, destroy its essence, or render it powerless? Can artists live comfortably with an outcome wherein what is clearly significant to them may remain inaccessible to others? How much information is “enough” to engage the viewer on a cerebral and/or spiritual plane? Making art can be a risky proposition. Ultimately, all artists must contend with the reality of those viewers who either cannot (through no fault of their own) or will not (intellectual atrophy or willful ignorance?) stretch their own powers of imagination and cognition to appreciate a work of art – especially art of Bogdan’s caliber.

    I’m reminded of the questions that vexed theologian C.S. Lewis in his efforts to understand theories of the Eucharist. Is the bread actually the flesh of Christ, the wine his real blood? Lewis wrote that for him, looking too closely at the idea in order to explain it was “… like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal.”

    Still, if an artist feels compelled to employ written or spoken language in interpreting a visual work, I don’t believe we can take it to mean that the work in question is necessarily incompetent or unsuccessful on its own terms. Nor do I believe that in so doing with Shadows, Bill Bogdan is summarily “blocking any meaning the viewer may bring to the piece.” He is not offering us a dead coal, as it were. Rather, in identifying his specific symbols and process, he draws us further into the glow of his passion.

    For me, Bill’s “field guide” is an eminently generous and courageous act.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013



    …He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake / He knows if you’ve been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake…

    The photo above is of this year’s edition (acrylic painting) of my annual Christmas image. After these introductory comments, the rest of this post, in its entirety, is not my writing. That’s a first. But I found this blog post by Father Dwight Longenecker so important, intelligent and true that I offer it to you as a gift. Though I am not a practicing Catholic, I am nonetheless a Christian, and Longenecker’s words are humbling, inspiring and encouraging. In his original post there are other links to pertinent materials supporting his observations, so here’s the link to his blog with the post below:   Before you embark upon the following message, I add these words from Jesus: But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32)  Merry Christmas!

    Can You be Good Without God?  By Father Dwight Longenecker

    Atheists like to tell us that they can be “good without God.”

    What they rarely do is define what they mean by “good”. If they mean they can have good manners, do volunteer work, give to worthy causes to make the world a better place, then of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can be sophisticated people of good taste with fine connections in the world and a place at high table, of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can be noble souls who endure suffering in a dignified silence, weep at moments of tragic romance, gasp with delight at the finest art and the beauties of nature, of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can love family and friends and country and be loyal and kind and gentle and feel the sweep of fine feelings within their heart, of course they can be “good without God.” Can they feel themselves to be good and have high self- esteem and deem themselves upright and worthy individuals? Then they can indeed by “good without God.”
    All of these things are possible without God. In fact there is more to it than that. Catholics have always believed that man, according to natural reason alone can understand what is good and evil, and that he can also know by general revelation that there is a God. In other words, not only can man be “good without God” in this sense, but he can also know the difference between good and evil and make good choices over evil choices.
    Humans might be able to live (and) pursue a noble and tasteful and even an altruistic life without God, but why should they? What’s the point? Without God the only point of human goodness must be utilitarian. There must be some purpose to it. So the atheist who wishes to be good must point to the consequences: “I will be good because I will thereby enjoy higher self- esteem and be more contented and happy in this life.” or “I will be good because if we were all good the world would be a happier, safer and more peaceful place to live.” or “I will be good because my being good will be the best way for my family and friends and I want them to be happier and more peaceful too because I love them.” All this is fine as far as it goes, but unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough.
    Any moral stance that is based only on utilitarian principles must therefore be relativistic. If one is good because there is a “good” or desirable outcome, then when the desirability of the outcome changes what is good must change. If one’s concept of “goodness” is based on some sort of useful end result, then when the desired end result changes what is good changes, and there is nothing that can undo this change.
    Here is an example: Let us say that a good atheist determines that to be good one should not kill another human being intentionally. One should certainly not kill another human being intentionally for one’s own benefit. The atheist takes this humane position because it brings about whatever desirable end he determines (either consciously or unconsciously). What if, however, the atheist’s elderly mother suffers from dementia and the family can no longer afford to keep her? How would he decide whether to end her life or not? Because his ethic is determined by utilitarian principles he may change his code of conduct and decide to euthanize her. There is no reason why he should, but there is also no good reason why he shouldn’t. There was no greater underlying principle to his ethical choice than some form of utilitarianism. As an atheist he has no grounds on which to say there is some innate, eternal worth to a particular human person. Why would there necessarily be any innate worth to a particular human person except (by the Catholic reckoning) that person was a unique creation of God–an eternal soul created in the image and likeness of God?
    Either the human person is an animal who can be put to sleep in the interests of the greater good, or he is an eternal soul created by God who cannot be intentionally killed for any reason. This difficulty will echo into every ethical position of the “good atheist” for the atheist’s goodness can never be more than an ornate form of utilitarianism. Whatever goodness the atheist upholds he can only uphold for a practical, utilitarian reason and therefore when the practical reason changes it makes sense for the ethical position to change. This is why atheists down the ages have so happily committed themselves to genocide. As good human beings they were not in favor of killing millions of people, but because the greater good demanded it for utilitarian purposes–there was no great loss. This is the end point of ideologies–thought systems that aim to do good but end up doing great evil.
    I therefore welcome the goodness of all atheists. I’m glad they want to have high values, make good moral decisions and lead the good life for all, and I agree that they can be good in all these practical and laudable ways.  What they seem to miss however, is that their lives of good deeds are not actually what Christianity is all about anyway. In fact, if they had even a Sunday School level of understanding of Christianity they would realize that it’s not about “being good” anyway, but about “becoming good.”
    See, Christianity is far more radical than simply setting up a set of rules to obey. Christianity is concerned not so much with being good and behaving ourselves and staying out of trouble and being good citizens and tasteful, polite, well- educated good “all rounders”. Instead Christianity is about being transformed by a supernatural power into beings who are virtual gods and goddesses.
   The Eastern fathers talk about something called “theosis”–a process by which an ordinary person is transformed by a supernatural goodness into goodness itself. They are not just “good people” they are people who have been merged into all that is good. They have ingested goodness if you like. They have become one with goodness. They have been made radiant with goodness like a candle flame is one with light.
    Atheists may go about being nice good and noble people all they like. Christians are trying to do something far greater than that, and the process of doing this–compared to merely being good–is like climbing Mt Everest is to a walk in the park. Christians are seeking to become the very stars of heaven. Compared to this simply “being good” is like switching on a flashlight. Christians are attempting to become radiant eternal beings–sons and daughters of the most high God–infused by eternal light to become all that they were created to be.
    To do this requires a lifetime of prayer, sacrifice, discipline and courage. The lives of the saints reveal a strange and supernatural journey–one in which there are no directions, vast confusion, darkness, alienation, suffering and for each their own agony in the garden. To do this requires a lifetime of obedience, submission to a greater and more mysterious will and a bewildering psychic launch into worlds unknown. Obeying the moral law and “being good” for them was only the first baby steps of the journey. “Being good” for them was simply what learning their scales might be to a great concert pianist.
    This greatness–incredibly–is the destiny of all who call themselves Christians. Do Christians fail in this great enterprise? Of course we do. Most of us do. Many of us fail magnificently and tragically, but that doesn’t stop us trying. Can we accomplish this “divinization” simply by being good and nice people? That is not only a heresy, but a banality.
    I fully accept that non- believers may find this post to be so unusual as to be insane. I expect a very good number of people who call themselves Christians will find it odd. That’s fine, but I am simply expressing the historic Catholic faith.
    If anyone doesn’t like it I suppose they could just go ahead and try to be good.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Formed in Faith: One God, Many Voices

Formed in Faith: One God, Many Voices

By Tom Wachunas 

    “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  -Hebrews 11:1

    EXHIBIT: Sacred Voices, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 2, 2014, 1001 Market Avenue North. (330) 453-7666

    Long before acquiring any substantial understanding of Christian theology (grade school Catechism notwithstanding), my love for God was largely informed by my boyhood passion for looking at pictures of religious Renaissance and Baroque-era art. I remember being gently scolded by nuns for laughing at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel rear-view rendering of the Creator of the cosmos. Here was God, after making the sun and stars, seemingly floating away from the viewer, and dressed in a garment so clingy and sheer that you could see his butt, not to mention the bottoms of his bare feet. Oh, those curvaceous cheeks! Why, they must be the size of planets!

    Still, my reaction was not then, nor is it now, a vapid laughter, but rather a giddy reverence. For here was art that presented God as all-powerful, enigmatic and infinite, yet somehow still earthy, familiar and accessible.

    Mixed among his heroic Sistine portraits of Biblical prophets, Michelangelo saw fit to include five Sibyls - prophetic female figures from Greek mythology. One legend surrounding the most prominent and beautiful - the Delphic Sybil, considered by the ancients to be the voice of Apollo - holds that her last prophecy was the birth of Christ. Here was symbolized the idea that Christ/God would make himself known to all eras and cultures in the world. Surely art has historically been a vehicle for that knowledge. And this Michelangelo moment is a powerful example, communicating a profoundly important aspect of humankind’s relationship to the Divine.

    In this context, I’m reminded that the human proclivity for making things that we have come to identify as “art” is in fact a primordial calling, and perhaps a survival reflex. Further, even the most ancient of our created images and objects, regardless of which cultures produced them, commonly embraced the supernatural.  It has always been in our nature to make art that expresses beliefs about presences beyond our physical world.

   Sacred Voices then, organized by guest curator Michele Waalkes as a companion show to The St. John’s Bible, is a genuinely captivating re-affirmation of the ageless potency of religious art.  It features 37 artists from around the world who present their personal connections to God from the perspective of three monotheistic faiths – Christian, Judaic and Islamic.

     While I’m thrilled to tell you that I have a piece in this show, I may or may not post a separate commentary on it in the future. In any event, here’s a link to a recent article in Ohio magazine featuring four of the artists:  Additionally, here’s a link to a Youtube video - a quick tour of the exhibition space - made by Adil Akhtar, one of the artists in the show:

    Not surprisingly, many of these contemplations of faith are stylistically abstract and symbolic in nature. Chris Wurst’s intriguing Forgiving Father III, made from plaster and finished to look like aged, etched bronze, is a twisting, airy form. From some angles it’s vaguely suggestive of a heart entwined with arteries. From other perspectives it harks to the ornate arabesque designs so prevalent in Islamic motifs.

    Those designs often include the sure-handed intricacies of Arabic calligraphy (itself uniquely pictorial in appearance), such as in the striking, dramatic triptych by Faraz Khan, In the Name of God, Beneficent, Merciful. The title is a verse repeated in the Quran (Koran) 114 times, rendered in Arabic here with bold red flourishes on a dark ground.

    There’s drama, too, in Ameena Khan’s crisp acrylic and ink painting, In Defense of Eve. Here, the text in the background is an English translation of Quranic verses about God’s forgiveness of Adam and Eve. As Khan explains in her statement, the work speaks of her concerns about those contemporary Muslim practices that demean and subjugate women. Eve’s extended hand has dropped the weighty apple, releasing her burden of guilt and shame.

    Ascension to Sinai, by Joy Stember, is a stunning example of contemporary Judaica. A copper bowl, plated with gold on the inside, rests atop a platinum tripod fashioned after rams’ horns. This dazzling chalice is both a recalling of Moses’ climb to the presence of God and an elegant symbol of human desire to be filled with Divine spirituality. Our cup runneth over indeed.

    Without a doubt the most arresting work here, if only for its physical enormity (125” x 155”), is Second Adam, an oil painting on wood with gold and silver leaf, by Bruce Herman. This homage to Renaissance altar pieces and religious frescoes is utterly astonishing in its facile handling of visual textures, letting the surface exude a classical aura. Read Herman’s concise statement and you’ll come to savor how well his ingenious compression of Biblical time serves the painting’s message of a new beginning for the human race.   

    Speaking of reading messages, I highly recommend that you read all the statements that accompany the artworks, keeping in mind that the show is clearly not designed to be a heavy platform for doctrinal pedantry. For the most part, the statements are simply personal and often disarming revelations of heart and mind.

     The aforementioned works are but a very small representation of a show that is otherwise a deeply probing spiritual event – a remarkable gathering of worshipful artistic voicings - as well as a completely enthralling visual experience.

     With God as the subject matter, could we expect anything less?

    PHOTOS (from top): Second Adam by Bruce Herman / Ascension to Sinai by Joy Stember / In Defense of Eve by Ameena Kahn / In the Name of God, Beneficent, Merciful by Faraz Khan

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Illuminated Truth, Ineffable Grace

Illuminated Truth, Ineffable Grace

By Tom Wachunas


    “…a ploughboy with the Bible would know more of God than the most learned ecclesiastic who ignored it.”  -William Tyndale

EXHIBITION: Illuminating the Word: The St. John’s Bible, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, THROUGH MARCH 2, 2014. Viewing hours and ticket information at 330-453-7666, or visit

    In the 22 years I’ve been viewing exhibits at the Canton Museum of Art, none has been so personally significant and completely edifying as this one. Here is the world-premiere of a work that is a wholly – indeed holy - breathtaking aesthetic experience, transcendent like no other in its visual and conceptual scope.

    The St. John’s Bible is a work of timeless monumentality, and the stunning result of an arduous process initiated in 1995 by the community of St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The first words were scribed on Ash Wednesday, 2000, the last “Amen” on May 9, 2011.

    Handwritten and illuminated, i.e. illustrated, using medieval materials and methods, this is the first Bible  - the complete New Revised Standard Version in seven 15 ¾” by 23 ½” volumes of 1,127 pages that include more than 160 artworks -  commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years. The elegant, very readable calligraphy was executed on vellum (calfskin) with hand-cut feather quills and ancient, hand-ground inks. The brilliantly colored page illuminations incorporate 24-karat gold leaf, silver leaf and platinum accents.

    Here in Canton is the first touring exhibit of 34 displays, showing 68 original manuscript pages, and 32 illuminations, from all seven volumes. A team of 23 professional artists and scribes, working in a scriptorium in Wales, created the actual pages under the artistic direction of renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson, Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.

    Don’t be put off by the unusually dim lighting. While it certainly brings an aura of hushed solemnity to the event, the material components of the work require it, lest they become discolored under prolonged exposure to normal lighting conditions. Your eyes will quickly adjust and, just as quickly, be drawn toward another sort of light, spiritual and physical – the altogether extraordinary, alluring radiance of the pages.

    A particularly arresting element here is the stylistic nature of the illuminations. This isn’t traditional religious scenery. It is rather an intensely thoughtful probing of multiculturalism through contemporary imagery, even to the point of embracing modern humanity’s strides in science and technology. Collectively, they present an ecumenical joining of Eastern and Western iconography. Yet these compelling montages are all consistent with Divine perspective and purpose as revealed in the Bible.

    From Genesis, seven vertical strips represent each day of Creation. In day three, signifying the division of land from water and the appearance of vegetation, there are satellite photos of the Ganges River Delta. The creation of humankind on day six is rendered with images from Australian and African aboriginal rock paintings.

    The spectacular abstract treatment of the Psalms frontispiece features superimposed digital voice prints, i.e. electronic images, of sung chants. These include men’s Gregorian Chant at St. John’s Abbey, Jewish men’s chorus recitations of Psalms, and a Native American sacred song, among others.

    The interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision in Valley of the Dry Bones is a sobering and stark modern junkyard. Piles of eyeglasses recall the Holocaust, shattered windows are the ruins of terrorism, and trashed autos point to environmental corruption. Still, overarching this dark debris are interlocking rainbows at the top of the page – vibrant symbols of hope.

   In the Genealogy of Christ illumination from the Gospel of Matthew, we see a tree of life, functioning as both a family tree and a menorah. Interwoven are the double helix forms of DNA and ancestral names in English, Hebrew and Arabic. At the base of the menorah is a mandala shape – common in Eastern traditions – symbolizing God’s continual presence.

    And from the book of Acts, To the Ends of the Earth marks the first time a picture of earth, as seen from space, has ever appeared in a handwritten Bible.

    For some viewers, the exhibit will doubtless be a desirable and rewarding destination, eliciting rightful gratitude for the power of art to re-affirm their grasp of the immutable, eternal Truth that is God. This has certainly been the case for me, and I can fully appreciate Donald Jackson’s words in describing the beginnings of this glorious journey, born out of a boyhood dream, “…The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page, is the closest I have ever come to God…”

    It is my fervent hope that for many other viewers, The Saint John’s Bible may well signal the beginning of their own earnest journey toward the same experience. Just as God’s Word is to and for all humanity - past, present and future - this magnificent achievement is an inspired facilitator, and truly art for the ages.

    It is both a noble service to, and blessing on, all who view it.

    PHOTOS, from top: 1.Donald Jackson, Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37: 1-14 NRSV Translation), 2005 - Scribe: Susan Leiper - Vellum, with ink, paint and gold, Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 2. Donald Jackson, To the Ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8 NRSV Translation), with contributions from Andrew Jamieson and Sally Mae Joseph, 2002 - Scribe: Sally Mae Joseph / Vellum, with ink, paint and gold / Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 3.  Donald Jackson with contributions from Chris Tomlin, 2003 / Scribe:  Donald Jackson / Genesis frontispiece: Creation (Genesis1:1–2:3 NRSV Translation), Vellum, with ink, paint and gold/ Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN / 4. Donald Jackson, Genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-17 NRSV Translation), 2002, Scribe: Donald Jackson / Vellum, with ink, paint and gold / Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Drawing a Bead on Stark's Artistic Diversity

Drawing a Bead on Stark’s Artistic Diversity

By Tom Wachunas

“I am interested in ideas, not merely in visual products.”

–Marcel Duchamp

    Exhibit: Stark County Artists Exhibition 2013, at Massillon Museum, THROUGH JANUARY 5, 2014, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon,  (330- 833 – 4061)

    Once again, a large and locally important juried exhibit. Once again, I wonder about the jurors’ award designations (Best in Show, Second Place, Third Place, five Honorable Mentions). There are indeed some curious choices in the mix.

    But there’s nothing surprising about that - it’s the nature of the beast. As it is, this year’s Stark County Artists Exhibition is in general a notably solid one and certainly more exhilarating than usual in its remarkable eclecticism of media and styles. I suspect it was a particularly daunting endeavor for the jurors to choose 79 works by 60 artists (including my grateful self) from a total of 211 entries submitted by 82 artists.

     While Mark Pitocco’s digital photograph, Discarded Memory, East Liverpool, Oh, garnered an Honorable Mention, this image of a white gown hanging in a store window is a bland and otherwise far less compelling composition than his Two Mothers, Newberry, Michigan, 7.5.2013.

    Compelling, too (though no thumbs-up from the jurors here), is the black and white photograph by Michael W. Barath, titled Self Portrait with Boo, which gets my vote for best photo in the show. It’s a genuinely engaging (and more beguiling than sentimental) tribute to the bond between man and dog – a wondrous portrait of intricate shape-changing.

    In the realm of drawing, among the more exquisite entries are Heather Farthing’s Break (Honorable Mention), a haunting, mystical charcoal contemplation of intertwined, biomorphic shapes and textures executed on wood; Amy V. Lindenberger’s fantastical Transformation/Liberation in colored pencil; and a brilliant (in color and design) composition in oil pastel of leafy shadows on a sunlit outdoor wall by Diane Belfiglio, Digression into Detail III.

    This year there’s a generous scattering of distinctly heady works. Let’s for the moment regard them as challenging if not bold experiments. The remainder of this commentary addresses only some of those.

    One, Higharekie by Erin Meyer, was awarded Best in Show (?!). It’s a mixed media installation featuring a large contour drawing of a bunk bed, made from black tape stuck to the wall, spilling down on to the gallery floor. A curled-up cat sleeps up on the bottom bed. Above is Meyer’s excellent self- portrait in oil, topped by a silver plastic child’s crown. Queen of the broken picture plane, dreaming of childhood days? And speaking of childhood’s broken picture planes, Meyer’s large abstract oil diptych, A Table with a Split, is likewise unconventional and playful.

    Playfulness is very much in the character of the video loop by Matt Kurtz. Several household appliances perform on real musical instruments. A hilarious robotic band. A similar spirit prevails in Kurtz’s Rhythm Drawing, wherein a snare drum protrudes from the wall. The swirling graphite drawing on the drumhead cleverly echoes the textures of the found piece of wood -  the drumstick, so to speak -  that rests on top.

    A particularly strong abstract entry is Jerry Domokur’s black and white (though very rich in tonal variety) digital piece, Quandary. High-tech, to be sure, the work is nonetheless a hypnotic and immersive sprawl of radiating shapes, simultaneously mechanical and organic in nature, bringing to mind a prismatic mandala.

     Also fascinating in the abstract genre are the wildly muscular paintings by Maggie Duff (Business as Usual) and the ironically titled Safe For Now by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker. While Duff’s oil impasto musings are overtly structured and seem somewhat contrived, Parker’s jarring acrylic canvas is more about what’s hidden than apparent, like a painterly game of hide and seek. So what’s with those brutish swaths of orange and green? Call it the intuitive, rough-edged calligraphy of pure abandon.

    Finally, there’s Garden Buckets, a canvas and steel sculptural installation by Priscilla Roggenkamp and Keith McMahon. To anyone within earshot of my snide comments on opening night upon hearing that the work was awarded Third Place (?!), I humbly wish to amend my initial assessment. I seem to remember saying something like, “R. Mutt called. He wants his readymades back.” (I should talk, considering the objects included in my own work). My second visit to the museum widened my perspective.

    While there is a Duchampian character about these six, person-sized canvas bags suspended in air, something persistently striking – and yes, odd -  about their ambiguous and enigmatic nature lingers in my mind. Are these found objects, or invented to suggest a utilitarian purpose, as the title indicates? Harvest implements? Debris containers? Their shapes seem vaguely anthropomorphic, even feminine. Farm laborers’ uniforms from an alien world?

    In any event, these “bold experiments” imbue the exhibit with an elevated and invigorating conceptual dimensionality. Without them, the show would be merely safe. So here’s to art on the edge.

    PHOTOS (from top): Garden Buckets by Priscilla Roggenkamp and Keith McMahon; Higharekie by Erin Meyer; Rhythm Drawing by Matt Kurtz; Safe For Now by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker     

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Auroral Substances

Auroral Substances

By Tom Wachunas

    “…All great paintings are sculptures – there’s so much of the actualness about it that a great painting forces you into a visual, physical movement of yourself. That’s what determines the way you experience a painting kinetically. You move closer, you sight down it, you tilt your head, you step back, you feel as though you are in it. That being in it is just as important as looking from a distance.”  - painter Kenneth Noland

    “My visual world, though rarely depictive of any specific subject matter, is usually grounded in dynamic, primordial natural forms, especially elements of the human body. The microcosm that is the curvature of an arm may end up evoking the macrocosm of a sweeping imaginary landscape. My paintings often call to mind the rich colors and textures of the earth.”  - painter  Annette Poitau

   EXHIBIT: Annette Poitau, abstract oil paintings, at Journey Art Gallery, 431 4th Street NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH JANUARY 4, 2014. Gallery hours are Tues. and Thurs. Noon to 6 p.m., Wed., Fri., & Sat. Noon to 9 p.m., Sun. 1 to 5 p.m. until after the holidays.

    From a distance, the oil paintings by Annette Poitau have something of a family resemblance to the very large abstract Color Field “stain” paintings of Helen Frankenthaler or the “Veil” series of Morris Louis, among others. But come closer to Poitau’s more intimately-scaled surfaces (and yes, do “…sight down it,… tilt your head, …step back…”) and you’ll be engaged with a different visual dynamic altogether.

   Whereas the aforementioned abstractionists intended their translucent layers of pigment be “at one with” the canvas as opposed to sitting on top, Poitau’s undulating, intensely saturated hues become physical topographies that seem to emerge from subtle, liquid underlayments. These brilliant visions are a hypnotic merging of the material with the ethereal. To some, they might suggest at once spectacular earthen formations and atmospheric phenomena.

    In her statement quoted above, Poitau refers to this suggestive quality in her work as evocative of landscape. Keep in mind, though, that “evoking” is a concept wholly separate from “imitating” in the representational sense. And herein is a capacity unique to this particular kind of nonobjective abstraction: The power to conjure essences, or ineffable energies, freed from identifiable subjects.

   If I understand Poitau’s methodology correctly, briefly described on her web site at, she allows the varying viscosities in her layers of paint to interact in ways that produce the sensation of motion in shifting planes or “clouds” of color. Call it a controlled abandon, or a surrender to the properties of paint to do what it will naturally do. Remarkable, minute details can surface, as in the upward movement of feathery green rivulets in the lower portion of her painting titled Vague.

   Overt brushwork is a minimal presence in the flowing, spontaneous feel of these paintings. There is occasional evidence of intentional action (or “drawing”) by Poitau’s hand. But it’s neither an overly fussy disruption of the visual gestalt, nor an unnecessary afterthought. The three ghostly, greenish horizontal trails through the surface in one of the untitled paintings (hanging in the classroom area of the gallery), for example, are but a gentle intrusion. Such gestural moments are a poetic reminder, perhaps, that the auroral glow of these works is indeed of human origin.

    Regardless of the objective realities we might discern these works as somehow describing, I think the primary subject matter here is paint itself. The strength and appeal of this exhibit is in Poitau’s apparent gift for investing something so inherently inanimate – paint – with such astonishing vitality.

    PHOTOS, courtesy Su Nimon at Journey Art Gallery (from top): Vague, oil on canvas, 34”x60”; Untitled, oil on board, 50”x27”; Untitled, oil on canvas, 36”x48”