Thursday, July 28, 2016

Searching Urban Scrapbooks

Searching Urban Scrapbooks

By Tom Wachunas

   EXHIBIT: RUMMAGE – works by Kat Francis and Steve Ehret, THROUGH AUGUST 14, 2016, at the Little Art Gallery, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio / 330.499.4712  Ex. 312 /

    In the statement accompanying this exhibit, there is a reference to the “untidy mass” of mark making and layered imagery resulting from the artists’ rummaging through their respective personal experiences and perceptions. So, exploring the distinctly different iconographic content and stylistic approaches of Kat Francis and Steve Ehret can be like flipping through their conceptual “scrapbooks” of what I’ll call, for the moment at least, an urban  Zeitgeist.

    The display case that immediately faces visitors upon entering the gallery houses Kat Francis’ elaborate assemblage of miniature houses and other buildings made from collaged or painted corrugated board and wood, effectively evoking a ramshackle city neighborhood in decline. The piece sets a mood for many of her 2D pieces – a collection of wispy oil paintings along with mixed media works that incorporate collage and exquisite graphite drawing.

    In these, she has rendered urban landscapes, with figural elements, in varying states of unity or disarray. Her pictures aren’t seamless panoramas, but rather disjointed (some more than others) in a manner that suggests scattered or stacked puzzle pieces. Whether they’re coming together, as in being rescued and rehabbed, or falling into permanent distress, Francis’ depicted neighborhoods and environments can exude a considerable range of emotional connections - from nostalgia and affection, or sadness and mourning, to celebration and hope.

    Despite the fragmented compositional format of her imagery, Francis’ representational drawing style is nonetheless one of elegant, refined detail. In counterpoint to the tonal subtlety of her pictures, Steve Ehret’s mixed media drawings are more direct and bold in their black-and-white linearity. Predominantly figural in nature, his compositions have a spirit of impromptu theatricality, with groups of “individuals” clustered together and piled into the tight confines of shallow pictorial space. Even at their most whimsical, these aren’t warm and fuzzy creatures from a fairy tale or an enchanted forest. They are, as I see them, city dwellers of one sort or another. They’re a wildly diverse population of strange, cartoonish beings – humanoid, robotic, even monstrous, or goofy hybrids – that perhaps could be read as Ehret’s subconscious manifestations of the angst, gluttonous excesses, or darker underpinnings of city life. These denizens of dreams and nightmares are most spectacularly compelling in his surreal oil painting on wood panel, “Daydreams Often Morph into Night Terrors”.

    Interestingly, this marvelously executed piece – replete with intense, edge-to-edge saturated colors under a glossy finish - literally jumps off the wall in contrast to every other work in the exhibit. Otherwise, a highly noticeable element common to both artists’ works here is the overall airiness of their compositions, many of them with lots of empty white “negative space”.

   I’m reminded that really looking at art can often be an illuminating exercise in vicarious living. Here, it’s that white emptiness, that missing layer or picture, which serves quite effectively as an invitation for us as viewers to glue on to the scrapbook page, as it were, our own perceptions and memories. Thus we might become not merely passive observers, but active partakers of the artists’ experiences.

   PHOTOS, from top: Daydreams Often Morph into Night Terrors, oil on wood panel, by Steve Ehret; Chittenden Ave. and Grant, mixed media by Kat Francis; Tonight We Cook!, India Ink and watercolor, by Steve Ehret; Cleveland, The Flats, Part I, oil on panel, by Kat Francis        

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Steppin' Out

Steppin’ Out

By Tom Wachunas

   “To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.” - Henri Matisse

   EXHIBIT: FLOW – Abstracting Mundane Environments / recent oil paintings by Ariana Parry, at Gallery 121 / 121 Lincoln Way West, downtown Massillon / THROUGH SEPTEMBER 3, 2016 / Hours: Monday 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11a.m.-1 a.m.

    One of the more edifying perks of being an adjunct faculty member in the Art History department at Kent Stark is to witness the progress of the studio arts students, particularly in painting, under the guidance of Professor Jack McWhorter, Coordinator of the Kent Stark Art Departmnet. For some years now, I’ve seen the best of those students, Ariana Parry among them, as they’ve been amply equipped with a deep understanding of pure painting to be a constantly evolving process and a distinct language – both visual and visceral.

   Here are some of McWhorter’s thoughts on painting as he teaches it, excerpted here from an ARTWACH post on April 15 of this year:

“…students develop a body of work that explores issues of color theory, form through value and tone, and a better understanding of spatial relationships within the picture plane… students achieve a certain level of proficiency and explore their potential for personal expression in painting… Visual emphasis on physical qualities of paint and gesture can supersede recognizability of the still life source. I encourage the students to become sensitive to viscosity of paint and method of application; to be inventive, daring, innovative, and to experiment with mixing colors directly on the canvas as well as on the palette…”

      “…To be inventive, daring, innovative…” In this, her first solo exhibit - her declaration of independence, as it were - Ariana Parry shows the ripened fruits of her undergraduate labors in grand style, with vibrant works that speak with notable confidence. The stentorian intensity of her colors can be quite impish and bold at times, yet effectively tempered with a lyric subtlety and spontaneous fluency of gesture amid the playful, sensual thrum of her pictorial structures. I think that in many of her canvases, you could liken the evident motions of the brush in her hand to the rhythmic constancy articulated by a facile, improvisatory jazz drummer.

    These paintings are more than just deconstructed or abstracted “mundane environments”, or more than expressionistic “pictures” of specific or familiar locales. Mundane perhaps, but certainly not banal. Viewers could be well-served to think of the paintings’ titles - such as “Under the Bridge”, “The Studio”, or “The Woods” – not so much as final destinations, but more as the starting points of thrilling visual adventures. Parry’s canvases are indeed places unto themselves. Electrified places. Places where youthful painterly swag lives.

   Be prepared to smile.

   PHOTOS, from top: The Studio #2 / The Woods / Pathway / The Studio / Under the Bridge  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

ArtsinStark's "The Eleven": Looking Beyond the Some of its Parts

 ArtsinStark’s “The Eleven”: Looking Beyond the Some of its Parts

By Tom Wachunas

   “Sport is where an entire life can be compressed into a few hours, where the emotions of a lifetime can be felt on an acre or two of ground, where a person can suffer and die and rise again on six miles of trails through a New York City park. Sport is a theater where sinner can turn saint and a common man become an uncommon hero, where the past and the future can fuse with the present. Sport is singularly able to give us peak experiences where we feel completely one with the world and transcend all conflicts as we finally become our own potential.”   ~George A. Sheehan            

   Your mission, good readers, if you decide to accept it, is to click on the link here and read The Repository piece by Denise Sautters (from June 16). It’s about the third component of ArtsinStark’s “The Eleven” project – the ongoing installation of commissioned public artworks celebrating 11 key moments in the history of the NFL.

   The article is a well-presented report on what Colorado-based artist David Griggs had in mind when he made his monumentally scaled, abstract steel and granite sculpture called “The Merger Moment”. He clearly explains what he wanted his forms to signify. All well and good. But what of those who in the future might never be privy to his explanation? They’ll need to arrive at their own interpretations and conclusions (assuming, of course, that they really want to know) as to if, and how well, the work speaks about a specific event in the history of the NFL.

   Interestingly enough though, I think that on a purely formal level, Mr. Griggs’ sculpture is an intriguing, autonomous expression that functions remarkably well as a public art work even without knowing its contextual references to the NFL. In its asymmetrical, airy configuration of intersecting forms and its elegant balance of horizontality with verticality, it embodies a dynamic energy we could associate with purposeful  movement in space, at once graceful and muscular, soaring and grounded. That said, I’m reminded of how art critic, historian, and curator Lucy Lippard once defined “public art”, calling it, “…accessible work of any kind that cares about, challenges, involves, and consults the audience for or with whom it was made, respecting community and environment.” From that perspective, this newest installation of “The Eleven” succeeds on all fronts, involving and “consulting with” art and sport audiences alike to one degree or another.

    As to the sports audience, it’s no secret that Canton’s passionate  love affair with the game of football is one of manic proportions, garnering constant, in-depth coverage and lavish attention in local media. Why, it’s enough to stir up the resentments of those pesky elitist art purists who feel surrounded by so many Philistines. Talk about feuding factions.  

   Given the centrality and relevance of the NFL – and sports in general - to Canton’s sociocultural milieu, it’s not so surprising that ArtsinStark should want to celebrate it with a project as ambitious as “The Eleven”. Yet what is really being celebrated here, you might ask? George Sheehan’s words about sport, quoted at the beginning of this post, are quite inspiring, and in some ways I think they could just as well be perceived as addressing the pursuit of art. But they’re also haunting. I’ve often noticed how deftly contemporary professional sports (not just the NFL) – worldly industries, actually - can distance themselves from the ideals and values that those words would seem to reflect. In these scenarios, there is the troubling abandonment of philosophic ideals in favor of catering to our grosser appetites for megalomania, fame, and profit. Does this mean that the sports world is hopelessly corruptible, failing more than succeeding in its endeavors to “…transcend all conflicts as we finally become our own potential”? Not necessarily, and certainly no more or less so than in the contemporary art world, itself prone to all sorts of failed and corrupted visions.

    But not this time. For as much as Grigg’s sculpture addresses the  historic coming together of once-feuding sport factions, arguably the more fascinating and important merger being embraced here is the harmonious joining of art with sport, both being vital and, yes, noble human pursuits, if only in an ideal world.       

    And speaking of feuding sport factions, The Repository article leaves it to the public to determine which side is which in Griggs’ essentially two-sided sculpture. I’m not going to tackle the question, so to speak. I’ll leave it to more passionate fans of the NFL, of whom there is definitely no shortage in these parts. I’m opting instead to drop back and punt.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Bon Voyage, Mes Amis

Bon Voyage, Mes Amis

By Tom Wachunas

   “We lit a spark. Now the torch gets carried.”  - Todd Walburn, co-owner of 2nd April Galerie

    After I moved back to Ohio from NYC in 1992, with the exception of my “annual edition” of original Christmas cards for family and a few friends, I stopped making art altogether. I had much to say, but neither the wherewithal nor the sobriety to say it. And that’s all I’ve got to say about thaaat (thank you, Forrest Gump).

    Everything began to change by early 2000 or so, when I began making lots of small-scale, mixed-media wall pieces. Then I eagerly set about looking for a place within Canton city limits to show them. Little did I know at the time just how terribly arid the gallery scene really was. My optimism faded fast, and it finally, absolutely negatively hit me. I wasn’t in New York anymore. 

    So it is that I liken my discovery of 2nd April Galerie in 2002, located in a basement at the corner of Cleveland Avenue NW and Woodward Place, to that of a haggard desert traveler finding an oasis. This one was tended by the eminently sympathetic and pioneering souls many of us know as Brennis Booth and Todd Walburn. After they moved their gallery to a more spacious downtown storefront on Sixth St. N.W. in 2003, I fully realized that they weren’t just remarkably gracious and unpretentious gallery proprietors, but visionaries of the sincerest kind as well – the first to occupy, anchor, and nurture what would later be acclaimed as “The Arts District”.

   The top photo above is of an article I wrote back in 2007, reporting on the gallery’s move to its current location at 324 Cleveland Ave. NW. It’s something of a bittersweet if not ironic memento now. The headline reads, “A new chapter unfolds for 2nd April Galerie”.

   New chapter indeed. And so, Todd and Brennis, thank you for being my oasis way back when, and for those ensuing years when you let me plant my art in the downtown garden you have so lovingly tended. I’m sure I can speak for too many local artists to count in wishing you both great peace and success in all your future endeavors, whatever they may be.

   To my readers, what follows is a re-print of the July 6 press release from ArtsinStark regarding Todd and Brennis’ new chapter.  

 The Founders of 2nd April Galerie Are Off to Cleveland

(Space To Become New Gallery Run by ArtsinStark)

   After fourteen years, Todd Walburn and Brennis Booth, the owners of 2nd April Galerie in Downtown Canton have decided to step away from The Arts District’s very first art gallery to pursue new opportunities in Cleveland.  The gallery, which opened in 2002 with the goal of featuring and selling the work of Stark County artists, has been a mainstay of The Canton Arts District --- even before First Fridays were started.  “The gallery has been as much a part of our lives as our families and our own well-being” says Walburn, “and it was important to us that what we created with the help of so many wonderful people over the last fourteen years would continue in some way.”  To make sure that happens ArtsinStark has signed a new lease with building owner Michael Whitmore so that 324 Cleveland Avenue NW will continue operating as a gallery.  “Under the dedicated leadership of Todd and Brennis, 2nd April Galerie has become the flagship of the Canton Arts District,” says ArtsinStark CEO Robb Hankins, “and we can never thank them enough.”  ArtsinStark is going to meet with tenants to figure out what the new gallery will look like and what it will be called. 

   Ten years ago there was only one art gallery in downtown Canton.  That was 2nd April Galerie.  Today there are 26 art galleries and artist studios.  Many of those spaces are or have been associated with 2nd April or have grown out of artists who started at 2nd April.  “It has been the incubator of so many creative ideas and it has been both nurturing and demanding,” says Walburn.  “For fourteen years it has held us and we have held it.  Now it is just time for us to find out what our next chapter is.  We have always said that 2nd April will tell us what it wants to do or become if we listen to it carefully enough.  This just feels like the right thing to do at the right time.  We are sad to leave something that has meant so much to us as well as so many wonderful friends, but we are also excited about our new jobs and a new life.  This feels like our next step.” 

    As downtown living and tourism continue to grow, ArtsinStark wants to transition 2nd April into an arts gallery space that is ready for the next decade, and continue the legacy that Brennis and Todd have worked so hard to create.   “This has never just been about Brennis and me,” says Walburn.   “This has always been a collaborative effort and the continued life of 2nd April, in whatever form it takes, is a testament to this community and it’s incredibly talented, generous artists.  We lit a spark.  Now the torch gets carried.”