Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Juried...

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Juried…

By Tom Wachunas

   “There are still many more days of failure ahead, whole seasons of failure, things will go terribly wrong, you will have huge disappointments, but you have to prepare for that, you have to expect it and be resolute and follow your own path.” ― Anton Chekhov

   As I mentioned in my comments about the 72nd Annual May Show at The Little Art Gallery (posted here on May 12), an artist friend whose work (which I have admired considerably) was not accepted for the exhibit told me that he considered the rejection as a rejection of him. He wrote to me: “The art, the artist; same thing. It has to be this. If it’s not you (me) hanging on the wall, then it’s bogus. It’s just furniture, something to decorate a room.
    This is certainly not an uncommon attitude – ‘I am my art, my art is me’ – and one which I espoused more heartily in younger days. Perhaps another way to put it is, ‘I define my art, my art defines me.’ So yes, in accordance with the hopes or expectations that come with such an attitude, I am certainly sympathetic to (and very experienced with) the frustrations and painful disappointments that ensue when one’s work is rejected.
    But as time goes on, I’ve found this perspective to be an overly- precious kind of Romanticism tinged with hubris. The substance of my own art has evolved over the past 12 years to a point that symbolically examines my sense of self - my personal identity - in relationship to truths (ideas, realities, phenomena) wholly separate from me which nonetheless beckon me to somehow embrace them, to live in symmetry with them. And that symmetry itself, that balancing, is in such a constant state of growth and transformation – call it creative, purposeful flux – that for me, the making of the object has become of central importance. It’s more the responsive process, and less the product, that defines my passion for art. This is not to say the product is of no consequence, but only that I remain larger than any and all works of my hands.
   If any of my pieces could be equated with the totality of me, it is only to the extent that a fossil represents what was once a more complete entity in its time. Evidence of a past life process. Or, in the case of an art object, evidence of past decisions in my engagement of a methodology. Once the work has been released to “the world” for “judgment,” I am free of it, for better or worse.
    Viewers or jurors aren’t looking at me per se, but at an artifact that I permit to exist on its terms and in the highly changeable climates of their interpretive methods, biases and agendas. I don’t seek their acceptance as an ultimate validation of my personhood, though I’m gratified when it comes my way. Likewise, though rejection can often feel like a rocky detour on my self-esteem map, it is but a fleeting setback that does nothing to diminish my insatiate desire to make art or, if you will, necessary furniture.  

    PHOTO: found on “The Art League Blog” – an arts organization in the DC Metro area,  posted Jan. 3, 2012

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Love At First Fart

Love At First Fart

By Tom Wachunas 

    Note to self: The next time Jonathan Tisevich directs a Players Guild Theatre production, sneak into rehearsals to find out how he’s able to so consistently inspire sustained, high-energy performances from his cast. Does he spike the drinking water, cast hypnotic spells, conjure the Muses? His impressive track record as a former Players Guild Resident Director includes electrifying productions of Ragtime, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and Oliver, among others. Whatever his methodology might be, and with this superbly capable cast, he’s outdone himself with Shrek The Musical.
   Based on the DreamWorks animated film, with lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, this is the story of Shrek, a friendless ogre whose private swamp is invaded by a veritable mob of fairytale characters exiled by from the land of Duloc by mad Lord Farquaad. To regain the deed to his land, Shrek must find the maiden Fiona, imprisoned in a dragon’s lair, and bring her to Farquaad to wed. The story is laced with sophisticated humor and inside jokes, often geared more toward adult appreciation. That said, there’s plenty of snap, giggle and pop in this send-up of classic fantasy tales to engage the whole family.
   Micah Harvey, as the cranky green ogre with the Scottish brogue, is a credible embodiment of Shrek’s heft and heart, bringing to the role a robustly honest singing voice. As the story progresses, he slowly but surely sheds his fierce territorial and cantankerous demeanor, no doubt a surrender to the comically annoying antics and magnanimous nature of his travelling companion, Donkey. In that role, Brandon Talbert is delightfully fleet of hoof and mouth – a hyperactive gadfly, unafraid of Shrek’s “ferocity” and who brings palpable soul to his singing.   
   In a fascinating bit of casting turnabout, Craig Joseph, who has in the past directed remarkable Guild productions such as Legally Blonde and Hairspray, owns the role of Lord Farquaad. Bedecked in a clever sight-gag costume that leaves him notably short in physical stature but long on show-stopping laughs, Joseph commands our attentions with brazen aplomb. He presents a deliriously weird portrait of an eccentric, strutting megalomaniac with an inferiority complex. Alternately a needy bad boy, a bossy clown, a calculating misanthrope, he’s an altogether high-stepping parody of fantasy villains.
    An eminently gifted actress and singer, Brittany Lynne Eckstrom plays Fiona with marvelous expressivity. At times sweet and vulnerable, at others sardonic and earthy, she delivers some of the evening’s most engaging scenes and songs. Among those, I Know It’s Today is a reflection on her hope to be rescued by her true love, sung as if unfolding across time, joined by her young self (Brianna Swinford) and teen self (Natalie Welch). Their harmonies are utterly gorgeous. And I Think I Got You Beat is a raucous duet with Shrek, wherein they argue as to who has had the harder life. It’s here that Shrek finds to his delight that Fiona can fart and belch as effectively as any…ogre. Ain’t love grand?
    A particularly electrifying component is appearance of Tahja Grier, singing as the Dragon in her fiery, no-holds-barred R&B style. And more giddy thrills are provided by the ensemble of displaced classic fairy tale characters who champion rather than hide their freakishness, all led by the hilariously frenetic Pinocchio, played by Greg Rininger.
    You’d think that translating the magic of digital animation on the scale of the Shrek films to a live stage would be an impossible task. The visuals alone might seem too weighty and cumbersome. But the elaborate costuming by Jensen Glick doesn’t limit the cast’s ability to stay infectiously lithe and vivacious while performing the Broadway-caliber choreography by Michael Akers and Mary Vacani. Combined with the scenic design by Joshua Erichsen and the exhilarating live orchestra under Steve Parsons, this is a happy conspiracy of production elements that makes for dazzling doings in Duloc.

   Shrek The Musical, Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, THROUGH JUNE 1, 1001 Market Ave. S., Canton. Tickets $25 adults, $23 seniors, $19 ages 17 and younger. Order at or call 330.453.7617

    PHOTO by Don Jones: (left to right) Brandon Talbert, Micah Harvey, Craig Joseph

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Delicious Indelicacies of Looking for Love

The Delicious Indelicacies of Looking for Love

By Tom Wachunas

     When Frank Sinatra cheerily observed in a 1955 chart-topping hit, “Love and Marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” marriage as a societal institution was regarded, if still only in theory, as fairly unsullied and holy ground.  What the song didn’t tell us was that carriages will lose wheels just as horses will go lame. Old Blue Eyes himself could well attest to that. And were they alive today, such 1950s television champions of “normal” family life as Ozzie and Harriet, the Cleavers and the Father who knew best would no doubt feel like strangers in a strange land.
    Long before 1996, when Joe DiPietro (lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music) premiered their off-Broadway musical comedy I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, societal ideas about the nuclear family and the practices that sustained it had already undergone drastic changes, for better or worse. ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ had morphed into the more complicated pluralism of ‘be useful and multitask.’  The generally clever writing – often bordering on pure kitsch - is alternately sardonic and sobering in its examination of the mating game/marriage zeitgeist. While gender stereotypes are skewered with humorous abandon, there’s not much to digest in terms of life-changing profundity. It’s simply not that kind of show.
    It is nonetheless a remarkably intimate (aided in this case by the cozy, rural lodge feel of the performance facility) and entertaining collection of vignettes and songs about relationships between men and women. They traverse a broad social arc from lust, dating disasters and successes, real love and marriage in Act I, to break-ups, babies, parenting frustrations, and aging in Act II.
    This delightful musical revue, with fleet-fingered piano accompaniment by Elaine Wedges, was produced by Kevin and Marilyn Wells (Kevin also directed). They form half of the four-member cast which also includes Andrew Donaldson and Alison Matis. It’s an astutely directed ensemble of actors/singers who are equally adept at balancing high-flying comedy - performed with cabaret-style verve – and genuine, palpable emotionality.
   As collections of songs go, there aren’t any especially “classic” soaring anthems of love or loss here so much as ephemeral melodic glimpses of  moods and situations. That said, a few are truly inspired gems of tenderness. Alison Matis mesmerizes with the sweet, introspective “I Will Be Loved Tonight.” Equally captivating is Andrew  Donaldson as he assesses his decades-long marriage in “Shouldn’t I Be Less In Love With You?”   
    Among the many high points of hilarity is the “Tear Jerk” scene, wherein Kevin and Marilyn Wells are munching popcorn and watching a chick-flick, much to Kevin’s dismay. Despite his macho resistance to being drawn into her teary attention to the syrupy drama, his focus is progressively rerouted and he breaks down into unabashed weeping.
   The proceedings come full circle in the closing scene, wherein Kevin and Marilyn appear again, this time as a widower and widow meeting by chance in a funeral parlor. As they gently chat about their respective pasts, and wryly compare notes on getting old, they agree that their lives are now a moment-to-moment proposition. Could a date be forthcoming?
   Sometimes falling in love is an irrational act, and marriage might seem a seriously silly attempt to reconcile opposing forces. Then again, it might be infectiously healing. And as the funeral parlor song says, I can live with that.

    I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, at Fieldcrest Estate, 1346 Easthill (55th Street) S.E., North Canton.  Shows May 17, May 23 and 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets $12.50 adults, $10.50 students. Available at , 330-933-0216, and the door. Recommended for ages 15 and older.

    PHOTOS by Tracy Brewer: Top- Andrew Donaldson and Alison Matis; Bottom – Marilyn Wells, Kevin Wells         

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Compelling Perspective on Local Contemporary Art

A Compelling Perspective on Local Contemporary Art

By Tom Wachunas

    “…It is incumbent on artists to anticipate as much as possible how their work will be received and positioned. But, after a certain point, it is not in their control to do so.”  -Hal Foster 

   EXHIBIT: 72nd Annual May Show, at The Little Art Gallery (LAG), located in the North Canton Public Library THROUGH MAY 31, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, 330.499.4712  Ext. 312

    In a recent email, an artist friend shared his dismay at not being included in this long-established annual juried show. He took it as a rejection of him – his invested self. His thoughts prompted a mental note to myself to write a post about the whole idea of being rejected from juried shows and what it might signify exactly. Meanwhile, I add here that I was gratified to have a piece accepted for this exhibition, which garnered an Honorable Mention in the mixed media category.
    As artist/blogger Judi Krew pointed out in her recent comments on this exhibit (see ), “…some long-time established talents are missing in action.”  Until a few years ago, there was a consistent presence of repeat performers who for years seemed to have “cornered the market” of local juried shows. But an air of decorative sameness had settled in. Beyond the traditional representational art (floral/landscape, still-life and portraiture genres) so dominant in these parts, even overtly modernist works seemed often to have become increasingly mimetic and formulaic to the point of vapidity.   
   So I think it refreshing that the sheer diversity of artistic practices and philosophies characterizing the postmodern era is becoming more apparent. As lesser-known artists and modes of expression emerge, exhibits such as the LAG May Show and the annual Stark County Artists Exhibit at Massillon Museum have become notably broader in their iconographic and ideological content. Artistically speaking, Stark County’s once lethargic stroll into the 21st century is picking up speed.
    The jurors’ (Della Clason Sperling, Ph.D., and Heather Hayden) statements for this show are unusually revelatory in terms of the serious thinking they applied to the task at hand. I highly recommend you read them when you view the exhibit. This is one group show that doesn’t move me to complain much at all about their prize picks. Collectively, they’re an extraordinary group of technically excellent pieces that range from traditional styles and subject matters to more challenging conceptualizations.
    Murli Marayan’s well-named Harmony (Second Place, Oil category) is practically symphonic in its rhythmic interplay of light, color dynamics, textures and patterns depicting women working in a rice paddy. A serene, spiritual vision.
    Indeed, spirituality is a recurring element in several works. Among those, Theater of the Mind by John B. Alexander (First Place, Acrylic) is painted on the back side of a clear acrylic panel attached to a clothes hanger. A figure posed in yogic meditation faces a gray brick wall. Transparent resin oozes down from the top of the panel - a drip-dried enigma, a mystery washed with clarity. Thinking about the unyielding substance of… nothing? We may never know. Red alert…the show has been cancelled.
    There is at once a sobering, funereal gravitas and maybe just a hint of hope about Dr. Fredlee Votaw’s God Please Exist (First Place, Mixed Media). His shadow box format is well suited to the coffin-like feel of his figures masked in gauze on the left side. One is a sleeping (or dead?) adult, the other a baby. Buried or emerging? Nestled on the right is a rectangular, wood-slatted form/vessel covered with tiny strips of paper reading “God, please exist!” Are these the chanted supplications of myriad souls hoping to enter eternal bliss? Or is this a sarcophagus, a reliquary for the desperate and lost?
    Votaw’s work is placed next to a lovely, haunting oil painting by Lisa Jackson Wood, called Innocence. The painting is executed on an arched wood panel, suggesting perhaps a church window. A little girl reaches for the wing of an angel hovering above her, casting its shadow across her dress and the face of her doll on the ground. The group of locusts at her feet is static for the moment, like impending trouble held at bay by a holy protector.  The proximity of these two pieces allows them to play off each other in fascinating ways. It’s just one example among many here of LAG curator Elizabeth Blakemore’s sharp attention to both visual logic and thematic content, creating a cohesive viewing experience throughout the gallery.
    Finally, Best in Show honors went to Dan Chrzanowski for his graphite work, 13 ½ x 14 1/2 With String. This is a tour de force convergence of stunning technique and ideation. It’s art about art; drawing about drawing; a sort of conceptual selfie; a picture of a piece of wrinkled white paper on a piece of flat dark paper…on flat white paper. Rendered in pencil, it has all the look of a fine lithograph. Imagine that. Illusion on illusion.
    In some ways the work is complementary to the aforementioned John B. Alexander piece. To the extent we can imagine lifting a raised corner on Chrzanowski’s crinkled paper to reveal something –to look behind the wall as it were - we are indeed drawn into a theater of the mind. I’m reminded of Pliny the Elder’s famous story of a contest between two Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that birds attempted to eat them. Parrhasius responded with a painting of a curtain so convincing that Zeuxis attempted to push the drapery aside to see the painting behind it.
    This is to say that while I think the Best in Show entry here has roots in the Classical view of art as a perfect reflection of natural/physical reality (and in that sense “entertaining” in the noblest sense of the word), it’s also an exquisitely subtle, challenging meditation – a metaphor, actually - on how we define, process and evaluate art today.

    PHOTOS (from top): Harmony by Murli Narayan; Theater of the Mind by John B. Alexander; God Please Exist by Dr. Fredlee Votaw; 13 ½ x 14 ½ With String by Dan Chrzanowski   

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mulligan's Travels

Mulligan’s Travels

By Tom Wachunas

    “There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told. Then there's what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

― Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam

    “Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso

   EXHIBIT: Symphony of Life: The Art of Erin Mulligan, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH JULY 20; 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton; 330.453.7666

    For the last eight years or so, I’ve watched Erin Mulligan continually secure her place as one of this region’s most compelling and, no doubt, popular painters. In all that time, this exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) is the largest gathering of her work I’ve seen in one place. It allows some of my past observations about individual works, scattered through many group shows, to finally coalesce into a more unified appreciation of her oeuvre.
    In some ways Mulligan’s work recalls the symbolic sprawl of Hieronymous Bosch paintings, the stark scenarios of Salvador Dali, and the elaborate allegorical journeys and characters described by J.R.R. Tolkein. After viewing this show three times, however, I find other hackneyed generalizations such as ‘surreal’ and ‘fantastical’ (which I’ve previously employed in discussing Mulligan’s work) to be ultimately unsatisfying descriptors of both her content and style.
   Those terms don’t go far enough in separating her iconography from many other painters who render all manner of alien landscapes, goulish monsters and slap-dash sci-fi silliness. Not that there’s anything wholly vapid about that level of sensationalist pictorial entertainment, but I think Mulligan offers something more conceptually engaging if not enigmatic.
    If only in their virtuosic technique, with their astonishingly fine, crisp detail, her musings are of a distinctly elevated character. She doesn’t just put oil paint on the surface of her clay board panels so much as embed it. In the laudable tradition of the finest Flemish masters, she builds up her paintings in successive layers of pigmented glazes that give a remarkable chromatic depth to her images.
    Some of the paintings are reminiscent of the tenebrism employed by post-Renaissance masters whose figures appeared to be sharply illuminated in contrast to darker, relatively featureless backgrounds. Mulligan’s murky, vaguely defined backgrounds in pieces such as The Consequence of Being Human, The Poetry of Deception or Cicadas After Rembrandt  evoke real drama. The sheer theatrical intensity of these painted stories is, ironically enough, all the more augmented by their very small scale.
   At times their theatricality is simply eerie. At others, it’s utterly nightmarish. Saturn after Goya is a direct appropriation of Francisco Goya’s horrific Saturn Devouring His Son – one of his “Black Paintings from late in his life. Mulligan’s version, every bit as ferocious and bleak, might be a fable about lost or destroyed youth, as her Saturn ingests a child dressed in bunny pajamas.  
    In the paintings with the most brightly illuminated passages, as in Cosmos Umbilicus  among others, the light, for all its otherworldly lustre, seems less than joyous. It’s a tentative light, more like twilight than dawn, and one that seems to impart a patina of pessimism. It never fully overcomes the pervasive sense of tainted innocence, conflicted emotions and frail mortality threaded through many of the works here.
    Rabbits breathe fire or morph into frogs, cats grow wings, fish parachute into fiery battles, humans grow spider legs or birth alien parasites… Even the air in Mulligan’s strange narratives is equal parts sparkling fairy dust and ash. Yet the chimerical whimsicality of her images belies their very robust and urgent embrace of vexing dualities in this world.
    We’re told in the recent issue of the CMA magazine that Mulligan compares her paintings to orchestrated music – symphonies – to be perceived and unraveled by the viewer. An interesting metaphor, to be sure. Her spectacular paintings remind me that soaring, melodious lyricism is never so sweet as when it is placed against haunting dissonance.
   And that, as Mulligan suggests in her statement for the show, is the stuff of life.

    PHOTOS (from top): Cosmos Umbilicus; The Consequence of Being Human; Nadine’s Curtains; Katywhite (A Treaty with the Slugbots) and Katywhite Embryonic Stage    

Friday, May 2, 2014

A Scholar and Artist of Remarkable Passion

A Scholar and Artist of Remarkable Passion

By Tom Wachunas

    “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.”

    -Leonardo da Vinci

    For those of you who missed the recent Repository articles regarding the retirement of M.J. Albacete, executive director at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) since 1988, I include here the links:

   Particularly thrilling was Gary Brown’s piece that started on the front page of the April 20 issue, and continued to occupy ALL of page A-6. I can’t recall reading a heftier or more warmly written Repository profile of a local citizen than this. And the fact that it speaks so comprehensively of one man’s astonishing impact on the local arts milieu is all the more gratifying.

   So while there’s no need here to recap his curriculum vitae or an inventory of the commanding CMA exhibitions presented during his tenure, I feel moved to offer some thoughts along more personal lines.
    I returned to Canton in late 1991 after living as an artist/ journalist in New York City for 14 years. It was to be at first a temporary geographic change - a critical crossroads as I needed to rethink the trajectory of my life. I don’t mind telling you that during my first several weeks here, I feared I had entered a cultural wasteland, devoid of a vibrant arts community or contemporary “gallery scene.”
    But it was in fact my earliest visits to the CMA in 1992 that greatly swayed my decision in favor of settling in Canton, and soon I was regularly reviewing its captivating exhibits for two regional arts publications. For the remainder of the 1990s and well beyond, I’ve had countless opportunities to speak with Mr. Albacete (whom I will henceforth refer to as Al) about the exhibits I was addressing. I remain wholly impressed by the depth of his analyses and his gift for articulating them beautifully, both in written and spoken form – something I consider to be a fine art in itself.
    From the beginning of our professional relationship, it was clear to me that his sage observations and assessments are predicated on a firm grasp of art history, which is in turn a manifestation of his very real passion for grasping and expressing essences. Through the years I’ve personally found that passion to be increasingly contagious, and I can’t be grateful enough.
   Long before Canton’s downtown arts scene became a reality, Al’s tenure was already distinguished by an astute attention to the highest standards of aesthetic quality as seen in CMA exhibitions.  More than an “executive” in the administrative sense, he is an inspired/ inspiring custodian and proponent of cultural excellence.  And while the museum has been  billed “First Stop” for the popular First Friday events downtown, I think it’s fair to say that the CMA has always been first in the minds of those who consider visual arts presentation as a vital component of Canton’s cultural profile. Thanks to Al’s tireless dedication to overseeing the presentation of truly edifying art, I also think it right, now more than ever before, to call the CMA “Gateway to the Canton Arts District.”
   Now, thinking about his immanent retirement and possible pursuits to come, I recall a few past Repository articles wherein some local leaders expressed their hopes for Canton to become a viable cultural destination beyond just a football mania Mecca. So here are a few questions – challenges, actually - to Repository policy makers: Do you share the same hopes? Is it unreasonable to think that your newspaper itself could be a relevant cultural destination? Then why not elevate public awareness and include the voice of Albacete in truly educating your readership through his writing on the arts?  
    On a lighter note, if there’s anything even vaguely resembling a dowdy side to Al’s myriad intellectual and artistic interests, it may well be his love for limericks. These are humorous poems usually associated with naughty (some might say “dirty”) content, comprised of five anapestic verses in a rhyme scheme of aabba. [Note: an anapest is a metrical foot consisting generally of two short syllables followed by one long syllable, or of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable.]
    A few years ago we were exchanging thoughts, albeit somewhat jokingly, about the efficacy of writing “clean” limericks, even though the idea does seem antithetical to their traditional nature. Still, in fond remembrance of all our exhilarating exchanges over the years (and certainly in anticipation of more to come), I offer this closing shot to Al and all my readers:

    This is my work anapestic,
    only a little majestic.
    I labored last night
   to get these rhymes right,
   so here’s a poem antiseptic.