Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Inspiring Mendelssohn, Transcendent Strauss from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

Inspiring Mendelssohn, Transcendent Strauss from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

    Among the many combined ingredients that make the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) the excellent ensemble that it is, arguably none is more vital than the relationship between conductor, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, and his orchestra musicians. In the past, I have often regarded Zimmermann’s readings of a given work as impassioned embodiments of his uncanny ability to draw out a particularly radiant sonority from his players. Call it the pursuit of unified intent, a one-for-all and all-for-one process. Whatever else you choose to call it (spiritual alchemy, or outright magic comes to mind), this ability to morph musical notations on paper into a very real, emotional experience of illumination for the listener was in especially fine form on January 23. Light can surely have a sound, and here it was glowing yet again at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall.

    The evening commenced with Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation Symphony.” My sense is that this symphony remains relatively under-appreciated when compared to the composer’s more “mature” works (the numerical assignation of No. 5 is chronologically misleading due to publication dates) such as No.4, the (“Italian”) or No.3, (“Scottish”). Critics of the day considered it too programmatic and melodically unsatisfying, and Mendelssohn himself seemed scornful when he commented, “I sometimes wonder that I did not make a better job of it.”

    But the CSO breathed an invigorating, new energy into the work, treating it with a palpable, deserved reverence for its stirring ethereality. Threaded through the entire performance was an astonishing, detailed attention to the layers of tonality unfolding in the strings as they navigated dramatic shifts in color and texture. Melodically unsatisfying? Hardly. By the time the entire wind section and lower strings were proudly singing Martin Luther’s majestic hymn, “Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress)” in the triumphal fourth movement, I felt immersed in something wholly, indeed holy, sublime. 

    After intermission, the program literally shifted to overdrive with John Adams’ Short Drive in a Fast Machine. Here, the orchestra’s exhilarating articulation of wildly diverse tones and textures was propelled by the steady quarter-note tapping of the woodblock. Like an incessant piston, it drove the music’s polyrhythmic exclamations, pulsing with wickedly accelerating excitement through winds, strings and brass.

   Enhancing the sonic exuberance of the orchestra was the accompanying presentation of The Earth – An HD Odyssey, featuring stunning, high-definition videos and images of Earth - compiled from NASA’s shuttle missions, the International Space Station, and orbiting satellites – projected on a large screen behind and above the orchestra. This visual component, commissioned in 2012 by the Houston Symphony, is the sequel to The Planets – an HD Odyssey, which the CSO performed to considerable acclaim in 2014, and was developed in collaboration with the celebrated documentary filmmaker, Duncan Copp.

    The meticulous synchronicity of spectacular visuals with the music had a particularly mesmerizing effect during the evening’s final selection, Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Strauss named his work after the monumental 1895 prose poem by philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, who found inspiration in the mystical teachings of the ancient Persian religious leader, Zoroaster. Of course many are familiar with the dramatic, brassy opening of Strauss’s piece, thanks to the 1968 classic sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, though perhaps less so with its episodic interpretation of Nietzche’s vision for the evolution of a godless Ubermensch (Superman).

    I don’t recall an occasion when the CSO was more powerful or finessed in balancing the challenging intricacies of conflicting tonalities and mood changes that characterize this complicated work, from brooding drama to gentler lyricism. And that same attention to aural detail that was evident in the Mendelssohn was even more pronounced here.

    So much so that something quite ironic emerged from all the Sturm und Dräng. This performance of Richard Strauss’s music was hypnotic and compelling to the point of transcending its contextual origins. Never mind Nietzche’s blustery atheism and convoluted philosophizing. In the end, what resonated most was not what Strauss called “…homage to Nietzche’s genius,” but rather something profoundly divine. The wondrous sound of the CSO can do that. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Proletarian Pieta

Proletarian Pietà

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Blue Collar: Ceramic Sculpture by Kyle and Kelly Phelps, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001Market Avenue N., THROUGH MARCH 6, 2016 / 330.453.7666

   “…A working class hero is something to be…”  - John Lennon

   BACKGROUND, excerpted from the Canton Museum of Art web site:
   “Identical twin brothers, Kelly and Kyle Phelps, present Blue Collar, an exhibition of expressive ceramic sculptures. Much of the twins' work is about the working-class and the everyday struggles of the common man and woman. The twins grew up in a blue collar environment in Indiana where they were inspired by family members and friends who worked in various manufacturing plants, steel mills, and foundries. These everyday people became working class heroes that have inspired over a decade of working class art…”

    Here is a gathering of stunning collaborative works that have cut into my consciousness with an especially spiritual intensity. They conjure an often discomfiting simultaneity of emotions, at once reverential and mournful. 

   With masterful craftsmanship, the Phelps brothers bring a gritty elegance to the expressive realism of their painted figures (clay/resin casts). Their high-relief sculptures are riveting (pun intended) conveyances of dignity and degradation, ascent and descent, heroism and haplessness, in the working-class culture. It’s a culture now too often distilled in our memories into impotent visions of vast Midwestern tracts littered with abandoned mills, factories and foundries. The artists have also effectively enhanced the context of their dramatic figures by incorporating found industrial remnants such as gears, tools, and corrugated metal.

    The recurring iconographic references to Christ’s passion and death raise some intriguing questions, both socioeconomic/political and theological in nature, as if to equate the depicted laborers and their plights with, understandably enough, martyrdom. Real, searing pathos comes through loud and clear in “Blue Collar Crucifix” – an industrial-age Pietà to be sure.

    Yet where’s the promise of ultimate renewal? In the piece called “After The Dream,” for example, against the backdrop of a grease-stained American flag, a janitor is sweeping up a pile of Obama campaign handbills emblazoned with the words ‘Hope’ and ‘Change,’ while in the trash barrel next to him we see a crumpled picture of Jesus. And in the piece called “The Communion,” the woeful figure clutching a bottle of Bud is clearly communing with the wrong remedy.

   Is there a remedy, then? The overall design of the sculptures is consistently suggestive of religious votive shrines, and rightly so, it seems to me. But these shrines require no ritualized lighting of actual candles, for it’s a powerful, ideological fire that illuminates their heart and our consciousness. In that, you might consider this exhibit as a prayerful plea for reclamation and redemption. And in their commendable labors to remember and pay homage to the blue collar milieu with such compelling renderings as these, the Phelps brothers have accomplished something urgently relevant and heroic in its own right.

    PHOTOS, from top: Kelly and Kyle Phelps at work; The Workers Altar; Blue Collar Crucifix (detail); The Communion; After The Dream

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Conversations with Mystery

Conversations with Mystery

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Moving Toward the Light: Watercolors by Joseph Raffael, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 6, 2016 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666  /

    “…It’s because the act of color and water joining together on a page can begin to enter the portal of nature’s enigmatic energy, its spiritual breadth and breath. The subject becomes spirit, and it is at oneness with all nature…My dialogue all this time, and now more consciously than ever, is between the seen and unseen. My painting is and has been a kind of conversation with mystery…”
    - Joseph Raffael, from a conversation with Betsy Dillard Stroud, in her exhibit catalogue essay, “Moving Toward the Light”

    First, I offer my joyous thanks to the Canton Museum of Art (CMA). Once again, in presenting an artist of Joseph Raffael’s stature, the CMA has asserted its place in our midst as a vital cultural entity of immeasurable worth.
    Joseph Raffael’s particularly compelling attachment to and relationship with nature (which is to say his perception and realization of the visible world) is not without historical precedent. In a 1921 article published in Mercure de France, the French painter Emile Bernard (1868-1941) recalled a marvelous conversation with Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) from 1904, who had at that time declared, “One must make an optic, one must see nature as no one has seen it before you…” Bernard then asked, “What do you mean by that word? Is it a case of our nature or nature itself?” Cezanne responded, “It is a case of both.” Bernard: “Therefore, you conceive of art as a union of the universe and the individual?” Cezanne: “I conceive it as a personal apperception. I situate this apperception in sensation, and I ask that the intelligence organize it into a work.” Bernard: “But of what sensations do you speak? Of those of your feelings, or of those of your retina?” Cezanne: “I think that there cannot be a separation between them; besides, being a painter I attach myself first of all to visual sensation.”
   What Cezanne called “personal apperception” is another way of saying that his “new optic” was a self-conscious pursuit of nature as a metaphysical experience, and something beyond concrete expression of retinal forms. Yet for all of that, he remained a concretizer, a manipulator of those forms, though an eminently innovative and influential one at that, seeking to delineate a specific pictorial rationale. In his correspondence with Bernard, he wrote at one point, “…one is more or less master of one’s model, and above all, of the means of expression.” Late in his life (1906), Cezanne offered this observation to his son, about the daunting challenges he faced in realizing his sensations: “…I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my eyes. I have not the magnificent richness of coloring that animates nature. Here on the edge of the river, the motifs are very plentiful, the same subject seen from a different angle gives a subject for study of the highest interest and so varied that I think I could be occupied for months without changing my place, simply bending a little more to the right or left.”
    Enter contemporary American painter Joseph Raffael (b.1933).  This utterly stunning exhibit is indeed prodigious, dazzling proof of the unfolding intensity and “magnificent richness of coloring” in nature that Cezanne seemed to find both so alluring and elusive. To hear Raffael tell it (evident in the wonderful essays by Lanie Goodman, Betsy Dillard Stroud, and David Pagel contained in the gorgeous book/catalogue that accompanies this show), his view of himself as a painter - responding to nature in the South of France where he’s been living for the past 30 years - is infused with equal parts unfettered awe and disarming humility in the face of nature’s infinite mysteries.
     While it’s certainly right to consider him as indisputably accomplished in watercolor, he hasn’t achieved that status by intentionally manipulating it in the same manner that, say, many oil painters would be “masters” of their materials. He has come to terms with a notoriously difficult and unforgiving medium, stipulating control to its inherently unpredictable behavior. In allowing watercolor to have its way more often than not, you could call Raffael a wise enabler, or permissive supervisor of his medium’s capacity for delivering both surprises and accidents. He doesn’t “invent” or design the finished painting in a premeditated fashion (aside from his initial “mapping” based on his photographs of the subject at hand) so much as proactively witness its evolution. In fact, Raffael has said on more than one occasion that the subjects of his paintings aren’t fish, foliage, flowers or figures, but the very act of painting. Viewing the mesmerizing video of his process that accompanies this exhibit, you get the sense that for as much as he makes paintings, they make themselves known to him.
    The results of Raffael’s methodology of ardent witnessing – his situated apperceptions, if you will - are big (measuring up to 5’ x 8’), complex, and courageous declarations of light. But his isn’t a traditional application of light as a formal device for creating an illusion of sculpted dimensionality. This is, rather, light as a constantly expanding, labyrinthine essence, expressed in myriad impossible colors, yet here they are – luminous, puddled and pulsing, and so glowing they seem to illuminate infinity, or what Raffael has called “the vaporous depths of not knowing.” These monumental paintings are inspiring embodiments of an ethereal incandescence, celebrating the marriage of the physical to the spiritual. 
    As you stand before any one of Raffael’s unabashedly beautiful watercolors, then, don’t analyze or theorize or even recall art history too much. Instead, be willing, as he is, to be baptized, immersed, surrendered.  Be there, in the sheer liquid largeness of the moment of looking. Such moments, phenomena in their own right, absorbed the artist just as surely as his paper surfaces absorbed the pigmented water he so generously lavished upon them.
   So be absorbed. Joseph Raffael offers us the possibility of really seeing what is at once outside of us and present within our entire being. Not sensing it yet? Give it time. Or perhaps try bending a bit more to the right or left.

   PHOTOS, from top, courtesy Nancy Hoffman Galleries and CMA: Crescendo, 2013; Flower Dream, 2013; La Rose D’Ariane, 2014; Solstice Light, 2013

Saturday, January 9, 2016

"To Everything There Is A Season..."

“To Everything There Is A Season…”

By Tom Wachunas

    File this one under ‘Thank You.’ One thing I didn’t mention in my last post was that the Doreen St. John show at Cyrus Custom Framing and Art Gallery (you still have until Jan. 30 to see it) is the final exhibit we’ll see under the name “Translations,” – originally a brick-and-mortar gallery in the heart of Canton’s Arts District before it went mobile. TRANSLATIONS was Craig Joseph’s remarkably vital contribution to the Canton cultural ethos of the past several years (that’s him pictured above in a portrait by Heather Bullach).
    I don’t think he’d mind my sharing with you the following communication (which I’ve edited only slightly) that he released on November 2, 2015:
    “… It has been a wonderful 6 years - both in the space downtown and in the last year of pop-up exhibits all over Stark County. I have enjoyed what I've had the opportunity to do, the people with whom I've been able to collaborate, and the art we've produced…
   BUT ... after 7 plays and 15 exhibits in just a year's time, I need a break, and the easiest way to lessen the grind is to remove the "one exhibit (or more) a month" tenet from my life. That's what TRANSLATIONS has been about since January 2010, and so it’s time to put TRANSLATIONS to bed.
   Will I still direct theatre? Will I still curate exhibits? Absolutely. But it'll just take a different form from here on out. And it'll just happen without the TRANSLATIONS' name and tradition attached to it.  After I take some time to lay on the couch, read, travel, refresh, have a social life, and come up with some new visions. Which I hope you'll check out when they occur.
   Until then,… my inarticulatable gratitude for what all of you - artists and patrons alike - have given me the privilege of doing over the last six years. I look forward to the next adventure together.”
    Craig’s breadth of vision and curatorial acumen never ceased to astonish and inspire me, and I’ll truly miss the uniquely engaging concepts and excellent content that TRANSLATIONS so consistently gifted to us -  provocative and entertaining in the deepest sense of those words. My bittersweet sentiments are those of a hooked reader, at once saddened by finishing an enthralling book, wishing the adventure wouldn’t end, yet anxiously anticipating the next one.
    So if I’m glum, it’s only because I long for more “authors” like Craig Joseph to continue nourishing the Canton arts milieu. No doubt he will in his way and his time.  In that, I offer both my thanks for past adventures and ardent prayers for the success of his future journeys.
   Meanwhile, maybe this isn’t the end of a marvelous story after all. Hopefully, it’s simply the closing of one chapter in a story still being written.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Exquisite Beckonings

Exquisite Beckonings

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Turn, Turn, Turn: Through the Seasons with Doreen St. John, oil paintings and pastels presented by TRANSLATIONS ART GALLERY at CYRUS CUSTOM FRAMING and ART GALLERY, 2645 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio, THROUGH JANUARY 30, 2016

    I do not want to only create “pretty paintings”, or for my work to be simply surface decoration, but something more.  Often that “something” is indefinable, but when I am successful the work speaks for itself.  In the words of Li Po, an 8th century Chinese philosopher, “That art is best which to the soul’s range gives no bound…Something besides the form, Something beyond the sound.”
- excerpt from the artist statement of Doreen St. John

    After reading the artist’s statement for this exhibit, then looking closely at the works, I was reminded that it is a particularly rarefied artistic soul who won’t settle for making a merely pretty landscape. In that regard, Doreen St, John is eminently accomplished. Whether with oil paint or pastels, her landscapes draw out that ineffable ‘something’ that distinguishes between a competent visual report and a reverent communing with tangible beauty.
    Think for a moment on those occasions when, walking through a woods, you felt loamy ground caressing your feet, or a breeze rustling the foliage that tickles your skin. Did you ever see a canopy of trees above you as a stage, where dappled sunlight morphs into so many sparkling dancers, darting about to the music of water whooshing over stones in a stream? Or the ghostly play of billowy clouds passing through a crystalline azure sky?
     It’s no small feat to call forth specific sensory experiences by pulling a brush across canvas, or pressing a pigment stick to paper. But that’s the uncanny giftedness of Doreen St. John, beckoning us to remember and desire an impassioned connectivity to nature. She does visually what Henry David Thoreau did with words in “The Bean Field” from his Walden Pond. Therein he described his “small Herculean” labors as attaching himself to the earth. His repeated motions of hoeing, planting, and vigilant observation were rites of passage, allowing him to discover things, to literally commune with the history of those who worked the land before him.
   Just so, St. John’s skilled methodology – her repeated rhythms of serene brushstrokes, the stunning clusters and layers of variably scaled marks, lines and shapes that pulse with breathtaking color – lets us embrace the legacy of those artists who have similarly engaged the landscape genre. Yes, there are nods to the Impressionists Claude Monet (sans the heavy impasto), Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas to be sure. And to a significant extent, there’s a Cezannesque sensitivity to the idea that the most powerful paintings or drawings from nature should somehow convey an endless accumulation of separate visual moments or discrete glimpses, like the individual strands of a weaving or tapestry.
    So here’s where Doreen St. John’s “something more” comes into play. Her art is an eloquent convergence of the literal and abstract, a kind of Transcendental Impressionism. Look at the pieces, first from a distance. Then step closer and look again. Again, closer still. Try considering that the perception of any single moment or scene from nature as depicted here carries with it a simultaneous infinity of moments, either as memories (yours as well as the artist’s), new discoveries, or both. Call them mystical, magical, or even cosmic. In any case, they’re much more profound than just pretty.

    PHOTOS, from top: Cedar Run Reflections, pastel: Beautiful Day, pastel; Andrews Road Farm, oil; Creekside Willow, pastel; Misty Morning, plein air oil