The Persistent Appeal of Tradition
By Tom Wachunas
“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” ― T.S. Eliot, from The Sacred Wood
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” ― Gustav Mahler
EXHIBIT: ALLIED ARTISTS OF AMERICA – 100 YEARS, at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, THROUGH JULY 19, 2015
As a student of both art history and studio painting in the early 1970s, I was intrigued to learn that somewhere along the labyrinthine journey of 20th century Modernism, the subject matter of visual art had become liberated (some would say rudely so) from representations of the visible or natural world. My studio classes had become increasingly less instructional in the actual craft or technique of painting as our critique sessions had morphed into heady discussions (at times diatribes) about aesthetics.
One significant result of my collegiate painting experience was not so much learning how to paint per se, but rather how to see, which in turn evolved into my own explorations of non-objective abstraction. Along the way, I confess to “going through a phase” of real disdain for the formal conventions of rendering “irrelevant” subjects such as landscape, still life, and portraiture. Mea culpa. But time wounds all heels, and my youthful disparagements of “old fashioned” art were eventually quelled by a renaissance of favorable attitude regarding traditional contents and techniques. Suffice to say I can appreciate a Rothko and a Rembrandt, a Pollock and a Poussin, a de Kooning and a da Vinci with equal fervor.
I tell you this not as part of a critical “review” as such, but rather as a subjective backdrop to my deep appreciation of the overall scope of this stunningly mounted CMA offering. It was conceived by Gary Erbe (see my review of his concurrent show posted here on May 5), president emeritus of Allied Artists of America, among this nation’s most prestigious visual art societies now celebrating its 100th year. While appropriately subtitled “A Dazzling Celebration of Contemporary American Art,” it would be a mistake for viewers to expect a comprehensive state-of-the-American- visual arts survey. There are simply too many trends and bold, complex experiments (many of dubious worth) afoot in today’s art milieu to make that claim.
I do find it interesting that of the more than 60 member artists represented here from around the country, there’s nary a piece that could be called wholly non-objective, though there are works in varying stylistic degrees of abstraction. That said, the reigning spirit in this impressive gathering of paintings, drawings and sculpture is one of sublime, even jubilant homage to accessible (i.e. recognizable) realities. Think of it as a spectacular tribute to representational imagery by a group of eminently accomplished artists. They’re clearly engaged in an elevated remembrance of, and dialogue with, historic – indeed precious - values of superior craft, exquisite formal and compositional sensibilities and, yes, remarkable beauty.
Allied Artists of America. Here’s to their next 100 years of upholding such traditions.
PHOTOS, from top: Absolutely Free, pastel by Peter Seltzer; Portrait of Autumn, graphite, by Yuka Imata; Vases and Vessels, pastel by Leslie Lillien Levy; Last Light of Day, oil by Thomas Valenti; Mixed Emotions, watercolor by James Toogood