Monday, March 31, 2014

At the Corner of Here and There

At the Corner of Here and There

By Tom Wachunas

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
   Somewhere ages and ages hence:
   Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
   I took the one less traveled by,
  and that has made all the difference.  -Robert Frost

   EXHIBIT: INTERSECTION, work by luke kurtis in Studio M of the Massillon Museum, THROUGH APRIL 19 during regular Museum hours:  Tuesday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday 2:00 to 5:00 p.m., 121 Lincoln Way East in downtown Massillon, Ohio.

    Georgia-born interdisciplinary artist luke kurtis (he prefers his artist name printed in lower case) presently resides in Greenwich Village and said this about his exhibit at the Massillon Museum: "INTERSECTION is my ode to the south. These works show what I saw after going back there.  I wanted to use my sense of artistry—what I see as a very 'New York' part of myself—to expose an unseen side of the South."
    “Unseen side?” I’m not sure that his tiny digital chromagenic photographs (most are 5”x7” or 5”x5”) of rural landscapes and architecture show anything that could be considered necessarily unique to Georgia or even the south in general. In fact there is at first blush a generic anonymity about them - nothing unusually spectacular or revelatory. But that sensibility began to slowly dissipate as I was drawn in by their small scale to better appreciate the nuances of fine formal composition and visual textures.
    A considerably more expanded appreciation emerged in looking at the two large (32”x48”) photographs centered on one wall of the gallery. the unseen (2013) is a subtly distorted view of bare trees and shrubs, with pastel-colored sky visible through tangles of branches. The image appears to be two identical photos superimposed but slightly out of phase. Ghostly. The same effect appears in self portrait (2012). In one phase, kurtis gazes directly at us, while his “echo image” looks off to one side. Are these divergent perspectives a portrait of arriving, or departing? A yearning for identity and sense of place?
   The specificity of context is further solidified by the framed texts interspersed with the photographs. Some are found articles from vintage newspapers, others are kurtis’s original poetry. Additionally, and arguably the most compelling element in this exhibition, is an installation of 12 issues of kurtis’s monthly Intersection zine, which kurtis has described as, “… a way to re-contextualize, re-evaluate, and reveal.” (A zine is a self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images usually photocopied in small quantities.)

    Reveal indeed. It wasn’t until I took all 12 issues from the display home with me (they’re free for the taking), and read through each of them, that I was able to best comprehend the scope of this show, and the artist. While the publication is a vehicle for kurtis’s poetry – quite beautiful in its own right - and commentaries on contemporary art, it also includes disarmingly candid disclosures of meaningful – and hurtful - personal encounters. Therein the artist has spoken of the painful memories of select southern family members who refused to engage his Jordan’s Journey (an ambitious 2012 multimedia project that included a book he wrote about his family ancestry) because he’s gay.  
   After reading the zines, the entire exhibit took on the character of not just a visual experience, but an entirely spiritual panorama. The photographs and poetry acquired a new depth and intimacy. I could sense how the places pictured transcend their incidental banality and take on an elevating resonance. The images function like metaphorical mile markers on a road trip to bridge what was once an emotional and psychological chasm between the rural then of kurtis’s southern life and the now of his creative life in New York. It’s as if the artist can finally know, without anguished resentment, “wherever I go, there I am.”
    Here then is a revealing excerpt from Intersection no.6, August 2013, wherein kurtis reconciles the damage felt in his past life in the south with the healing “bohemian milieu” of his present life in New York.
    “…new york, you healed me. you took me in as your own. it took a long time but old wounds have healed and i love you both. you’re both a part of me and i wouldn’t be alive today without the two of you. stuck in between these two worlds, i suppose that’s my scene. that’s where i fit in. that’s where i strike my balance. somewhere between georgia and nyc i lost my innocence. and somewhere between the two again…i’m laying claim to it.”

    You might call it his Declaration of Independence.

    PHOTOS, from top: self portrait; barn shoot; field; hidden; unseen

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bewitched by the Banjo

Canton Symphony with Béla Fleck: Bewitched by the Banjo

By Tom Wachunas 

    There was more than one surprise in the March 22 program by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Umstattd Hall, billed as “A Béla, A Bartók, And A Surprise.” For starters, I’m fairly sure this was the first time the audience could see CSO musicians towering larger than life, captured live on camera and projected on to a screen behind the orchestra.
    It’s certainly an effective tool for highlighting various sections or soloists at work, but only if the camera shots are properly coordinated with the music. On this occasion there were some shortcomings in that regard, not unlike seeing footage of football players sitting on the sidelines while a big scoring play transpires on the field. That said, I’m sure that this new element will be successfully adjusted to become a great enhancement of the concert experience.
   The first work of the evening was Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, and the orchestra was in peak form as it delivered all the dances’ exotic modalities, rhythms and mood shifts. Including the work on this program had an added significance. The thematic eclecticism of Bartók’s music (springing from his seminal work in ethnomusicology) was a fitting foretaste of the wildly varied musical contexts explored by another Béla (named, in fact, after Bartók) – the inimitable contemporary banjoist and composer, Béla Fleck – in his The Impostor, Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra.
    No doubt many in the audience were already familiar with Fleck’s genius for expanding the parameters of the humble banjo far beyond folk and bluegrass genres to include ambitious fusions with jazz and classical idioms. For the uninitiated, and judging from the effusive response of the entire audience at the conclusion of his performance, this was indeed a surprising, ear-opening adventure of the most delightful sort.
   Composed in 2011, the work is in three movements, titled Infiltration, Integration and Truth Revealed, which treat the banjo as a “hero” who, in Fleck’s words, “…is trying to avoid the truth of who he is, but in the end cannot avoid it.” And so it is that Fleck’s concerto is a progressive jaunt through intricate articulations that at times echo Bach toccatas, shades of Stravinsky or Bartok, and hints of Copeland lyricism. The work is laced with contrapuntal playfulness and piquant call-and-response passages between soloist and orchestra. Throughout, Fleck’s technical agility was astonishingly relaxed and fluid, and many of its mesmerizing, virtuosic passages were punctuated by his gentle nod of approval to the orchestra followed by a warm, wide-eyed smile to the audience. Most impressive was an unexpected range of expressive tonalities emanating from the banjo, always flawlessly balanced with the ensemble. The invigorating third movement, flavored with Gershwin-like swagger, built to a jaw-dropping banjo cadenza that paraded the music back to Fleck’s roots in bluegrass and the music of Earl Scruggs, to whom the work was originally dedicated.
    Not surprisingly, the audience clamored for an encore. Fleck gladly obliged with an enthralling jazz-style improvisation on the theme song from the 1960s television comedy, The Beverly Hillbillies. Imagine if you can a meeting between Charlie Parker and Earl Scruggs.
   While it’s true that Fleck’s concerto effectively employed a range of intoxicating textures and colors that a full orchestra can bring to such a work, a concert by this orchestra would feel somehow unsatisfying without  showcasing even further the sheer breadth of its sonority and unfettered emotive power. To that end, the final work on the program, César Franck’s  Symphony in D minor, rounded out the evening with breathtaking radiance.
    But wait, there’s more! The ‘Surprise’? Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann called for Bob Leibensperger, CSO Board of Trustees member and Chair of the Capital Campaign project for the building of the new Zimmermann Symphony Center, to join him on stage. As CSO Assistant Conductor Rachel Waddell stepped up to the podium to lead the orchestra, both men took a seat facing each other, Leibensperger comfortably settled in an easy chair. Then, Zimmermann gifted him with a reading of Garrison Keillor’s The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra.
    It’s a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek admonition to those of the Lutheran persuasion who might be considering a career as classical musicians. The text is an inventory of the instruments in a modern orchestra, assessing their “spiritual” desirability (or lack thereof). The accompanying music was composed by Randall Davidson, arranged around two hymns, Beautiful Savior and Jesus Loves Me. At one point Zimmermann was “singing” a refrain with exaggerated solemnity. With this memorable display of avuncular good humor, the evening was truly complete.      

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Caught in the Throes of Absence, Part II

Caught in the Throes of Absence, Part II

By Tom Wachunas

   “…You look closely and wonder if something is still there, was that a flash of recognition? Did he understand? You visit and you carry on one-sided conversations just in case. It is a gesture of love, like visiting a grave.”  -Michele Waalkes

       EXHIBIT: Tangled Memories, new work by Marcy Axelband and Michele Waalkes, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH MARCH 29. Gallery hours Wed. – Sat. Noon to 5 p.m.

    ‘Translations Art’ indeed. I cannot but marvel at the love, courage and generosity of both these artists who look so deeply at, and write with such unguarded candor and tenderness about their fathers’ mournful dwindling into Alzheimer’s. While Marcy Axelband’s father is still alive at 89, Michele Waalkes’ father was diagnosed with Early-onset Alzheimer’s in his 50s, and passed away in 2000 at the age of 65.
    I’ve always admired Michele Waalkes’ digital photographic pieces for their meditative attributes. A consistent element of her oeuvre has been the use of superimposed images which simultaneously evoke the physical and spiritual, the earthbound and ethereal.
    While there are works in that vein here, Waalkes also works quite effectively in three dimensional mixed media. Tangled Memories, for example, is an amorphous form made of translucent material through which fragments of family photos, transferred on to strips of fabric, are visible. The membranous aspect of this “container” is a stark suggestion of brain matter collapsing in on itself.  
    Heredity is a haunting and sobering declaration of Waalkes’ inherited probability of getting the disease. The ghostly architecture of two railed staircases floats diagonally across the picture plane fused with images of leafy branches and their shadows. Up or down? When and where will life’s ascents end, its descents begin?
    Not surprisingly, some pieces resonate more than others with a distinctly funerary character. But in such compelling black and white interpretations of real loss as The Fading and The Wait , the spirit is one of dignity that transcends morbid tenebrism or lugubrious melodrama.
    In The Fading, rain drops dot the pale gray glass of a strongly defined window pane, the faint image of Waalkes’ father on the outside, out of reach. The Wait recalls a planned meeting between father and daughter at McDonald’s – one that he forgot to attend. The ghostly image of empty restaurant seats is a photo transfer on to maple panel, distressed with sandpaper and further accented with conté crayon. The deep value contrasts and subtle grit of the surface seems to heighten the sense of urgent loneliness.
   Refuge is an elegant, poetic gem of simplicity. An ornate wall lantern appears to hover in its own warm glowing. I was literally drawn to the light that gently illuminates lines of text extracted from the Book of Psalms – scripture that Michele read aloud to her father. People take refuge in the shadow of your wings…You are my strength…You are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble… A serene invocation of holy comforting.       

    To see these artworks, to read Waalkes’ words, is to experience a collective, palpable prayer. A potent soul baring, and soul bearing. 
   PHOTOS, from top: The Fading;  Heredity; Almost; Infinite Loop; The Wait   

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Caught in the Throes of Absence

Caught in the Throes of Absence (Part I)

By Tom Wachunas 

    “…How was this possible that he was living a life that had a delete button which, once pressed, forever lost information about self?”
- Marcy Axelband

    EXHIBIT: Tangled Memories, new work by Marcy Axelband and Michele Waalkes, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH MARCH 29. Gallery hours Wed. – Sat. Noon to 5 p.m.

    This exhibit is both a journey and a journal. It is a heart-rending articulation - in paintings, photographs and mixed media - from two very accomplished local artists who have witnessed the devastating spiral of their fathers into Alzheimer’s disease. Both Marcy Axelband and Michele Wallkes provide deeply affecting written observations – an eloquent mix of reverence and trepidation - with each of their works.

    After just a few minutes into my first visit to the show (there has since been a second, with a third viewing immanent), I knew it merited a two-part commentary. And so I begin with Marcy Axelband.

    If painting and written language can be regarded as analogous, Axelband’s visual language is not so much a delicate or florid poetry as it is a particularly muscular, arresting brand of prose. Her painterly vocabulary is steeped in bold color and robust gestural physicality. And to continue the analogy, she’s bilingual – equally fluent in her distinctive styles of representational and abstract imagery.

    Look closely at the surface of her paintings. There’s a history both underneath and on top of the finished “skin” of the images - ghosts of brush strokes, subtle ridges and furrows painted over, colors cut or scratched through. For as much as they are pictures of people, ideas or feelings, they are also records of a process, a progressive series of decisions, and I think a fitting metaphor for the longing of a child to understand the torturous progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

   Paintings such as My Dad and Jolly have a sculpted presence. In this context, the portraits present solid remembrances of better times. In contrast, the painting called A Life Forgotten is a startling portrait of the frowning father with eyes closed, seemingly adrift in a sea of lost connections, represented by a scattering of printed words and phrases floating on a black field (like a chalkboard). It’s a sad litany of once known facts and functions now on the verge of disappearing completely, and an otherwise jarring manifestation of absent consciousness.

   Two of the abstract pieces exude a rueful urgency while complementing each other in a haunting way. There’s a sepulchral aura of finality in the enigmatic Tangled Memories, symbolizing perhaps the inaccessibility of a damaged brain. On the other hand, on the wall opposite that painting, Torment is an aptly named explosion of slashed colors and corrupted shapes. This too is a portrait of sorts, depicting an eviscerated consciousness, and suggests a question of identity: Whose consciousness? Is Marcy’s father consciously aware of “torment” in the sense that we, unafflicted with Alzheimer’s, understand the word? What exactly is he cognizant of? This could just as well be Marcy Axelband’s self-portrait as an anguished daughter, desperately wanting to explain the inexplicable.

   For all of the tactile, visceral solidity that her canvas surfaces possess, there is a poignant transparency and evanescent spirit to this body of work. Call it pathos materialized.

    PHOTOS (from top): The Family; Jolly; Tangled Memories; Torment; A Life Forgotten    

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Writefully Perceived?

Writefully Perceived?

By Tom Wachunas

    Some folks (including a few of my students) have expressed to me their perplexity about the disparity of viewpoints between my review of the Players Guild production The Diary of Anne Frank (the post immediately preceding this one) and that of Repository reviewer Summer Moore. Here’s a link to her review from February 27, followed by a letter (printed here in italics) I sent on to The Repository which was, I’m grateful to report, published in the March 4 edition.

    Dear Editor,

   Meaningful critique of iconic, potent theatre art such as "The Diary of Anne Frank" calls for artful language. In that regard, Summer Moore's review of the Players Guild production of the play, published in the February 27 edition of The Repository, was shockingly shallow at best.
    Moore's sophomoric  complaint -  that actress Rebecca Yourko, in her role of Anne, was too rambunctious, loud and "giddy" - is specious,  and completely misses the point of Anne Frank's demeanor. Moore compounded her lack of depth with an insulting assessment of the eminently accomplished Players Guild as being outside its "comfort zone" with this production.
   Such insensitive writing is a great disservice to your readership.

    Now, I fully realize and accept that divergent opinions among critics in the arts world is a fact of life, and I have very rarely engaged in critiques of critiques. But in this case, I wrote my protest because I felt that in fairness to the Players Guild, a vigorous retort was in order, predicated by what I firmly believe is Moore’s disproportionately misguided take on the characterization of Anne Frank.
    Even more disturbing to me is an attitude implied in her closing paragraph. Is the Players Guild somehow at fault or inept when performers and audience aren’t given a platform “to have some fun?” Do we expect so little of ourselves? I have no axe to grind with the entertaining pleasantries of family-oriented productions and smiley-faced stories. But can we be so cavalier in our pursuit of “entertainment” that we dismiss dramas like this one as a threat to our psychological and emotional “comfort zone”?  
    As Moore rightly observed in her opening remarks, the story that this play imparts is “hard to tell, hard to read and hard to watch.” Harder to read and take seriously, however, was The Repository review.