Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Watts Up at the Beethoven Festival

Canton Symphony and André Watts: Serving Up A Sumptuous Beethoven Feast

By Tom Wachunas

    I’m fairly sure that from its inception, the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s  much-anticipated Beethoven Festival that commenced on March 28/29  posed some challenging program questions. Which works could best celebrate the composer’s genius while sating the appetites of his most ardent aficionados? Should the festival, spread across four concerts, be built upon only the symphonies?
    As it is, each program can be appreciated as an edifying, forward-looking mini-survey of Beethoven’s progressive climb toward the monumental achievement  of his Ninth Symphony, which will close the festival on April 26. Specifically, the festival programs center around Beethoven’s five piano concertos as they represent a steady, thoughtful journey into the composer’s ever maturing explorations of pathos and joy. And who better to lead us on that journey than Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s colleague and long-time friend, pianist André Watts?
   The March 28 concert opened with Coriolan Overture, an intensely stormy and compact work from 1807 in sonata form.  In many ways it presages the Sturm und Drang aspects of Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony, completed in the following year. Here, the string section rose to the occasion with brilliant solidity and finesse, flawlessly articulating the work’s constant tension between two thematic developments – one agitated and bellicose, the other gentle and contemplative.
    The orchestra was wholly enchanting in the evening’s third selection - the overture and selections from an 1801 ballet called Die Geschöpfe Des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus). Particularly remarkable were the solo passages from Erica Snowden (principal cello) and Randy Klein (principal clarinet) in the Adagio following the overture, at once lilting and poignant.
    Set between these two works, the second program selection was a step back into Beethoven’s youth. He was only 25 when he completed his Piano Concerto No.2 in 1795 (the first of his piano works, though not published until after No.1). While not as musically ambitious as his later works in the form, this shortest of his piano concertos nonetheless points to the emergence of a fresh and compelling lyricism. This was especially apparent in the slow movement.  Watts navigated its torrent and tenderness with inspired – and inspiring - vigor and clarity.
   The following evening’s concert began with the orchestra’s memorably crisp, sparkling rendition of selections from Contradances, composed in 1802. For all of its unpretentious charm, the collection is most significant for dance No. 7, which contains a theme first encountered in The Creatures of Prometheus, and more notably the finale of the magnificent third symphony, Eroica.
   Then, the same inspired energy that sustained André Watts’ astonishing virtuosity of the previous evening remained undiminished, and in fact was substantially augmented, in his performances of Piano Concerto No. 1 (1798) and No.3 (1803). The slow movement in No.1 was utterly breathtaking in its searing emotionality, likewise the third movement in its unrestrained joy. It is in Concerto No.3, however, where a newer lyrical substance and interplay with the orchestra came to fruition for Beethoven in a significant separation from the influences of Mozart and Haydn.
    Interestingly enough, the only jarring moment of the evening came at the end of the slow movement, an emotionally transcendent study in ethereal solemnity. It was followed immediately by the third movement. No pause between the two. No chance to breathe out, to savor even briefly the ineffable beauty of the music that had just unfolded. Still, Watts dutifully brought us back to earth, as it were, with the furious joviality of the finale. As in all of his performances, watching him play here was to see an artist physically pour himself into his instrument to draw out what can rightly be called the Beethovian Zeitgeist.
   Clearly spent yet exuberant at the end, Watts and Maestro Zimmermann quickly engaged in a triumphal hug. This spontaneous gesture of mutual adulation between conductor and soloist immediately prompted me to think that all of us in the auditorium, standing now in our boisterous ovation, had been spoken to and embraced by the spirit of Beethoven himself.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Writes Of Passage

Writes of Passage

By Tom Wachunas

    “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”  -Thomas Merton

    “As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.” –Calvin

    And now for something completely different – a man with three buttocks. Er, umm…, thanks anyway, Monty Python. Let’s start again.
    And now for something completely different – the “critic” bares (bears?) his soul about his art. This I assure you is a loaded gun proposition.
    I can’t remember anymore how many times fellow artists have asked me, “Are you making any new stuff lately?” To which I’ve often shot back, “Read my blog lately?” While I can certainly appreciate how such a quip could be taken as flippant or arrogant, it is generally and sincerely meant to be an invitation.
    Throughout the past several years, I’ve come to embrace the act of writing well about art (or the arts) as essentially an extension of making an art object. I mean this in the sense that any work of art is at its core a formal externalization of the human spirit and all it might connote – mind, heart, soul. In giving form to ideas and/or emotions through words, my processes and methods of constructing a critique or commentary are no different than those I engage in constructing my mixed media works.
    It all comes down to configuration – the overall intentional structuring or arrangement of a given set of components (elements) to achieve a desired end (whole). This end could be one or a combination of the following: to instruct, impart a personal message, provoke inquiry, evince a truth, evoke an experience, or simply “entertain.” Determining and manipulating the material medium and formal vocabulary (i.e. line, shape, form, texture, color, etc.) that best serves my intentions as a visual artist is an often enough daunting process, and one nonetheless parallel to choosing and composing the most efficacious words for my essays. In as much as I consider this blog site to be a “gallery” of other artists’ works and a platform for offering insight as to their meaning, it is also a venue for my own.
    Over the past few years, my visual work has evolved into sculptural drawings in high relief - configurations - often incorporating found objects and “pedestrian” materials. These mixed media assemblages are tactile metaphors for contemplating the tensions between various dichotomies I see working in my daily life as I discern its meaning and purpose: hiding and uncovering, illusion and reality, spirit and natural substance, seeking and discovery. Conceptually, for me these works address physical, emotional, and cerebral processes of making and interpreting art. You could call it three-dimensional writing.
    The pieces pictured above (on view for a few more weeks at Gallery 6000, after the current Spring Break at Kent Stark – see my post here from Feb. 9) represent a reworking of older pieces to symbolize the vague (and often nagging) sense of immanent change I’ve been feeling lately as to the trajectory of new work. Word play has always figured highly in many of my titles, intended to imply a multiplicity or layering of meaning. Knot What It Used To Be and Gauze For Concern, for example, remain consistent with my abiding fascination with the ephemeral, ambiguous nature of signs and symbols within our materialistic culture. Yet they also signify a personal desire to recognize and heal spiritual wounds.
    What all this might mean for future artworks remains uncertain. If I think about it too much, I get all tied up in nots knots.

    PHOTOS, from top (click on pictures for enlarged slide show): Knot What It Used To Be; Gauze For Concern; Tiechotomies  

Friday, March 13, 2015

Toward Dismantling Patriarchy

Toward Dismantling Patriarchy

By Tom Wachunas

    “…THIS IS THE POTENTIALITY OF / THE HUMAN RACE BORN AGAIN…”  - from This Is For You, by Sara Benton

    “…Do not fear your experiences, as we do not fear ours, only ask if your experiences have the oxygen to be remembered; recorded.”
- from A Moving Manifesto by Peggy Corlew

EXHIBIT: POINT OF REFERENCE, through April 6 at Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University At Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday 11 AM to 5 PM, Saturday 10 AM to NOON. (Gallery closed March 23-28 during Spring Break)

A collection of works by artists from the Watkins School of Art in Nashville, and Middle Tennessee State University: Caleb Adcock, Sara Benton, Burt Blackwood, Peggy Corlew, Ashley Doggett, Kelsey Goessman, Corina Joyner, Mika Millenkopf, Maxwell Parker, Jill Schumann, Sophia Stevenson, Johanna Torre, Laura Whitfield

    Certainly the most resonant aspect of this challenging exhibit’ aside from any particular work, is its intensely probative and courageous character. It is decidedly not intended as casual viewing entertainment, or passive observation of artist-made stuff. Call it an experiential installation, and a very provocative one at that.  While it is comprised of many individual works, they’re all components of a remarkable communal identity united under the still-too-often misconstrued aegis of Feminism.

     To best grasp the conceptual backdrop of this project, I think it vital to read Peggy Corlew’s A Moving Manifesto, provided by the gallery. The document is not a strident call to arms, but rather a declaration of attitude and philosophy. It clearly transcends the superficialities of gender specificity to embrace authentic human individuality as a foundation for creating and nurturing a culture of empathetic communal action and compassion. We are so tired of being small,” Corlew writes at the beginning, and continues, “we want to be expansive. Feminism is the name of our expansive living, breathing space.” A little later in, we read, “How can we abandon our shackles welded by systematic patriarchy?”

   How indeed. From the outset, beyond words such as Feminism, there’s plenty of loaded language here to contend with. Start with manifesto, a potent term that often carries the connotation of propaganda, which in turn has lost its original, purer meaning of ideological propagation to take on unsavory associations with deception or distortion. Those negative associations aren’t relevant here.  And then there’s patriarchy. On the face of it, governance by men is not an inherently bad principle. But in this contemporary context, I think it helpful, and to a large extent fair, to consider patriarchy as a privilege and ideology that has been rightly perceived by many (women AND men) as imploding over time into a societal malaise fraught with ethical – and moral – turpitude. 

    Do the works in this exhibit present any new or persuasive canon of ethics, or tangible paradigm, for escaping such turpitude? Not specifically. Instead, they allegorically and metaphorically embody a worldview that eschews pedantic browbeating in favor of an impassioned sharing of deeply personal circumstance, identity, memory, and desire. That said, the unflinching honesty in some of the most compelling pieces here may well provoke emotional and psychological mortification, if not uncomfortable perplexity, in some viewers, myself included to varying degrees.

    Holy 3, a haunting video triptych by Burt Blackwood, has an autobiographical feel. It had an uncanny power to hold me in its dark narrative thrall, replete with unsettling imagery, including unmistakable references to pedophilia.  

    Likewise, the searing video called TAKEWANT / WHATNEED, by Jill Schumann, is still freshly branded in my memory. It’s a recorded performance piece wherein Schumann’s steady gaze at us is at once deadpan and impassive and ever-so-subtly plaintive and glassy-eyed as she is slapped firmly and repeatedly on her left cheek by a disembodied hand. SLAP. “Take what you want,” she murmurs. SLAP again. “What do you need,” she says. Slap, take what you want. Slap, what do you need. And so on, over and over, the intervals between slaps varied in duration, her cheek getting progressively redder.

    Works such as these, seeming on one level to expose the tension between tacit submission and a desired release from external forces of manipulation, generated a sensation of being a reluctant, mesmerized voyeur, entering secret places of the mind and heart (my own and the artists’), all the while wondering… who or what is in control?

    And who or what once occupied the voids covered by the upright robes or shrouds (made of slip-cast fabric) that comprise Sophia Stevenson’s untitled sculpture? Does this clustering of vacant shapes on the floor signify a funeral procession, or a resurrection? Imprisonment or liberation?        
   Sara Benton’s This Is For You is a metaphorical moment that in many ways speaks to the ethos of the entire exhibit and the community that gave rise to it. Think of it as an alternative or expanded definition of artful creativity, just as the works in this exhibit point well beyond their own aesthetic or formal trappings. A chunk of white marble and tools for sculpting it are on a wooden work table. Read Benton’s accompanying inspired poem and have at it. Strike the stone. Release the form locked inside. Chip away at old history to create a new one. What do you need? Carving as catharsis.

   Feminism. It’s not exclusively a woman thing (was it ever?), but a human one. Finally, a beginning of peace?

    PHOTOS (click on them for enlarged slideshow), from top: Untitled by Sophia Stevenson; Transgression by Caleb Adcock; Fantasma by Kelsey Goessman; installation statement

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Majesty in the Maelstrom

Majesty in the Maelstrom
By Tom Wachunas

    “The human body is a way to express our “soul’s experience.” There is an inner landscape within us that is often veiled, even from ourselves…It is complicated and simple…It is full of life, struggle, endurance and stubbornness.”  - Karen Laub-Novak
   “Laub-Novak was one of the vanguard of faithful Catholic artists from the Vatican II era who believed that modernist artistic expressions were not only compatible with the faith, but also were capable of opening up new insights into Church traditions.”
   - exhibit curator Gordon Fuglie                           

    EXHIBIT: Karen Laub-Novak: A Catholic Artist in the Age of Vatican II, THROUGH MARCH 15 at Walsh University Birk Center for the Arts, 2020 East Maple Street, North Canton, open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

    With only a week left to see this superb exhibit, I apologize for my late commentary. Nevertheless, if you’ve not seen it yet, I respectfully ask that you do so quickly. Featured are 36 drawings, prints and paintings by the late Washington, DC, artist, Karen Laub-Novak (1937-2009) that cover her career from the period of the early 1960s Vatican II reforms in the Catholic Church through 2000.
   The exhibit title notwithstanding, don’t expect a heady exposition of exclusively “Roman Catholic” symbols, dogma or practices. The works presented here are from various series that drew their inspiration from not only the books of Genesis and Revelation, but also the struggle to find faith and salvation described in T.S. Eliot’s “conversion poem,” Ash Wednesday, and the existential suffering embraced by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Wilke in his Duino Elegies.
   While much of the iconography is indeed Biblical in nature, Laub-Novak’s brand of Figurative Expressionism effectively transcends merely literal illustration. I think her imagery metaphorically addresses the human milieu  coming to terms with the ineffable fullness of Divine being – what in Christian Scripture and theological discourse is referred to as the pleroma.
   Many of the Biblically-sourced lithographs are loosely rendered figural situations  that appear to emerge from abstract murkiness into cathartic episodes, transpiring perhaps in maelstroms of holy desire and conscience, or rising out of eschatological darkness – Cain slaying Abel, or Apocalyptic Horsemen dispensing death, for example. In all, there’s a gripping sense of mystical convergence of flesh and spirit.
    That sense of convergence is particularly compelling in the oil paintings. The gestural intensity of Laub-Novak’s rhythmic brushwork infuses her surfaces with palpable, even electrified energy. And in their explosive chromatic splendor, there’s a frenetic majesty at work. Moses takes its visual cues from Exodus 19:4, wherein God tells Moses and his people, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” We see the eagle’s talons firmly gripping the shoulders of God’s appointed leader. Capturer and captured are one. Likewise, in Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, rather than describing the throes of writhing struggle between the physical and supernatural, the painter presents two similar anatomies on the cusp of mutual embrace, floating and nearly fused together in a radiant vortex of color.
    The painting is beautifully emblematic of the exhibit’s provocative spirituality, articulating the potent drama of seeking and discovery, of calling out and being heard, of grasping and being grasped. Laub-Novak’s art is an arresting reminder that human history is most purely discerned as our desire to be integrated in the pleroma.

    PHOTOS, from top: Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse – Death, lithograph, 1963-4; Moses, oil on canvas, 1990-98; Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, oil on canvas, 1990-98

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Remembering A Loveless Future?

Remembering A Loveless Future?

By Tom Wachunas 

    The program notes by director Jonathan Tisevich for the current Players Guild production of The Giver are, like the story, Spartan and foreboding. “The GIVER is a warning shot across the bow to America 2015,” Tisevich writes at one point. True enough. Yet, this cautionary parable describes a hypothetical societal ethos far darker and more disturbing than merely “American” in nature.
    Spartan, too, is the scenic design by Joshua Erichsen. The stage looks like a towering warehouse of neutral- toned walls that eerily underscore a cold homogeneity, a literally colorless reality. It’s a reality governed by stringent regulations of human expressivity and behavior. Devoid of cultural memory and diversity, it’s a reality built upon correcting “The Ruin” of a history remembered by only a single individual, the revered “Receiver of Memory,” an advisor to the Council of Elders. The controlling mantra for all  communication in this dystopia is “precision of language.” Undesired individuals, from babies to the elderly, are summarily “released” – a numbing euphemism, of course, for killed.
    Precision of language? In terms of compelling literature for the stage, Eric Coble’s adaptation of the Lois Lowry book (which I didn’t read) often seems ambivalent and underdeveloped.  Still, the cast manages to invest their portrayals of brainwashed citizens with some memorable if not always likeable affect. 
   The character of Jonas, played by the Dominic Martello with riveting urgency, is the only one in his community who authentically feels the tragic emptiness of his world. We are as much repulsed as fascinated by Jonas’s parents (Tom Bryant as the father, Cheryl Henderson as the mother) and delightfully impish little sister (Elise Pakiela) and their formulaic language which has been mostly emptied of sincerity or real meaning, and likewise Anne Rematt’s robot-like, martial rendering of the Chief Elder. While Jonas’s friends, the endearingly clumsy Asher (Zach Blake) and the sweet, reserved Fiona (Katie Remark) “graduate” to their assigned jobs in the community, ironically enough Jonas is assigned to begin his training to be the next Receiver.
    It’s an educational process both ecstatic and excruciating for both Jonas and his teacher, the aging Giver. In that role, Donald Jones is a poignant and compassionate presence, his demeanor a combination of gentle authority and wearied, even sad resolve as he begins to transmit the unimaginable weight of his collected remembrances to his youthful charge. As Jonas acquires those memories – including the horrors of war and his first inkling of real love - sections of books in the Giver’s massive library on the drab rear wall of the set progressively light up in rainbow hues. Thus Jonas’s  gift for “seeing beyond”  is intensely illuminated and he realizes he must journey outside his community to mysterious “Elsewhere” if there is any hope of changing the world. And so he escapes with an infant named Gabriel, who was scheduled for release.        
    We’re never told how, exactly, Jonas plans to bring his desires to fruition. We’re left, arguably too much, to our own imaginative devices. As it is, his arduous wintry journey ends at the house of a family celebrating Christmas. Jonas exclaims, “Gabriel, we’re home!”  Is it so unreasonable to make a connection between baby Gabriel and the angel of the same name, the messenger of true Hope and Joy, whom we associate with The Holy Family?
    In the end, maybe what’s missing from this play is…precision of vision.

   The Giver, THROUGH March 8, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, at Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1101 Market Ave. N, Canton. TICKETS: $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $17 for ages 17 and younger. On sale at 330-453-7617 and www.playersguildtheatre.com.