Friday, December 29, 2017

From the Outside In

From the Outside In

By Tom Wachunas

    “ Your life is a book, and every day is a page…”  – Elijah Pierce

    “…Elijah Pierce the artist and Elijah Pierce the citizen were one and the same. His carving bears witness to this fact. It provides us with palpable new text for the study and appreciation of art as a cultural production indelibly and dynamically marked by the singular hands of a maker…”  - Michael Hall

   EXHIBIT: Elijah Pierce: An American Journey, at the Canton Museum of Art / Curated by Timothy C. Keny, Keny Galleries, Columbus, Ohio, and Dr. John F. Moe, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio / On view THROUGH MARCH 4, 2018 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666

   Pierce biography: 


   From 1969 to 1975, pursuing my BFA and MFA degrees at The Ohio State University (OSU) was an intensely cathartic experience. I remember those years as a protracted baptism - an immersion in the paradox that was Postmodernism. In both the contemporary art world and the microcosm of the Hopkins Hall Fine Arts Dept. at OSU, it was a period of crossing boundaries or shattering them altogether, of conflating so-called high and low cultures, of re-examining traditional definitions and terminology, of embracing old materials and methods while passionately exploring and establishing new ones. 

   In 1971, caught up in this heady milieu of multimedia experimentation, along came a fascinating one-man show mounted in  Hopkins Hall Gallery – painted wood relief carvings by Elijah Pierce (b. 1892 – d.1984), then a 79 year-old African American lay minister and barber based in Columbus. The exhibit was organized by one of my former instructors, Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and OSU graduate teaching assistant who had seen Pierce’s work exhibited at a local YMCA. So thank you, Boris Gruenwald, wherever you are, for befriending Elijah Pierce and introducing him to the world at large. The rest is a matter of history (click on the biography link above).

    I still remember being mesmerized by that 1971 exhibit. The visceral simplicity and raw immediacy of Pierce’s figural compositions in bas-relief (i.e., sculptural relief in which the modeled forms’ projection from the surrounding or background surface is relatively slight or low) had an illustrative clarity and child-like boldness of palette that would affect my own art for years to come. I was favorably smitten then – as I am now - by what continues to be rightly hailed as Pierce’s uniquely visionary Folk Art.

    Viewing this beautifully assembled CMA exhibit brings to mind traditionally held notions about Folk Art and some characteristics associated with the genre, such as primitive, self-taught, untrained, and ‘low brow.’  Those same descriptors could just as well be associated with another, arguably more useful term for the kind of art we see here, namely “outsider art.  Critic Roger Cardinal originated the term in 1972 as an English equivalent to what Jean Dubuffet called “art brut” (“rough art”)art created outside the norms of established cultural systems or the mainstream art world. In any case, the directness of Pierce’s pictorial language is enthralling and otherwise unpretentious in its refined unrefinement.

    A palpable aura of agelessness surrounds many of these pieces. They often possess an intuitive harkening to stylistic elements found in ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian iconography, as well as religious imagery from European Middle Ages. They include hieratic scale, or continuous narratives, such as in “Elijah Escapes the Mob,” or twisted spatial perspectives - what historians have labeled “composite view” - as in “Jesus Calming the Storm.”

   Other visions are infused with a salt-of-the-earth charm and even a cartoonish humor. Among those are  “Straining at a Gnat, Swallowing a Camel,” a literal rendering of Jesus’s words berating the hypocrisy of Pharisees,  and the wry “Three Ways to Send a Message: Telephone, Telegram, Tell-a- Woman.”  

   Elijah Pierce – a barber, a preacher, a woodcarver, an unassuming outsider probing our innermost responses to being alive. Collectively, his works are truly significant modern aesthetic touchstones of a life carved out in loving, tangible attention to God, tempered with a concern and compassion for the sociopolitical urgencies of not only his era but, prophetically enough, our own as well. Viewing them is to be immersed in a poignant conjoining of the banal and the Biblical, a bridging of the secular and Sacred,  the human and Divine. All told… a compelling baptism by wood.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Your Life is a Book and Every Day is a Page / 2. Jesus Calming the Storm / 3. Elijah Escapes the Mob / 4. Straining at a Gnat, Swallowing a Camel / 5. Three Ways to Send a Message: Telephone, Telegram, Tell-A-Woman / 6. Watergate / 7. Barber Shop and the Fight Against Evil    

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Unto Us,,,Joyful and Triumphant

Unto Us…Joyful and Triumphant

   …Just as our Lord came into human history from outside it, He must also come into me from outside. Have I allowed my personal human life to become a ‘Bethlehem’ for the Son of God?...”
 Oswald Chambers, December 25 entry from “My Utmost For His Highest”

   Dear Readers,
   My Christmas painting this year includes my ever-abiding prayer that all of you be blessed by the light and peace that is Jesus Christ, and that your lives indeed become a Bethlehem. 

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who bring peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion,
“Your God Reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices,
Together they shout for joy…
- Isaiah 52: 7-8a

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Here's to Vigorous, Artful Eclecticism

Here’s to Vigorous, Artful Eclecticism

By Tom Wachunas

   EXHIBIT: Stark County Artists Exhibition, at The Massillon Museum, THROUGH JANUARY 31, 2018 / 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon / 

   This year’s incarnation of the annual juried Stark County Artists Exhibition – 55 works from 40 artists, chosen out of 189 entries- is flavored with some decidedly unremarkable pieces, ranging from stale and trite to just plain uninteresting. No matter what their credentials might be, jurors (and critics) are only human, and no less capable of feckless decision-making than anyone else. Over the years I’ve come to expect as much.

   Still, the good news is that this year’s roundup also happens to be among the most satisfying I’ve seen in the past 15 or so years, featuring a thoughtful confluence of highly diverse media and compelling iconographic content. And when I say ‘satisfying,’ I must add that yes, a very recent work of my own (pictured above, and written about in October, at  ) was accepted into this show. I’m certainly thrilled to be in this eclectic company of artful visions, and happy to offer here my take on a few of the more intriguing entries.
  Back in June of this year, I wrote the following about the woodcut print by William Bogdan that we see in this exhibit: “…the skewed perspective and dramatic figure-ground contrasts in “Man, Bed, Cat” might make you wonder who is dreaming here – the sleeping man, the cat, or that ghostly figure off to the right side, floating in a white void?”  But there’s a difference this time around. The original ghostly figure and the white void have been replaced (buried, or exorcized?) by a scruffy veil of blueish, grey-green paint. It’s a fascinating editorial decision on Bogdan’s part - this altering of a memory, this re-dreaming of a dream. A somber, visceral incantation of sleep.

   A likewise solemn and ritualized air of remembrance emanates from Clare Murray Adams’ “Six Degrees of Separation,” which garnered the Second Place award. It’s a mixed media collection of tiny portraits on actual tea bags pinned to the wall, rendered in varying stages of clarity or disintegration – the faces of people (both still present and perhaps departed) and connections steeped, so to speak, in the sepia tones of memory. 

   In the realm of non-objective abstract painting, “Writer’s Block,” by Pamela Glover Wadsworth, is a startling mixed media metaphor that lives up to its title and stopped me in my tracks. It’s a wondrously intense essay on purposeful accidents, on finding the right words and deleting the wrong ones. Frantic brushwork, seemingly random smudges and scribbles, and sinewy drips describe the indescribable, all constituting a suspended history of painterly decisions. 

   Emily Bartolone’s very large abstract acrylic painting, “Stellar,” is just that. A vast, immersive cloud of hot reddish orange seems to emerge from surrounding murkier hues and undulate with a gentle scattering of grainy flecks and spectral wrinkles. Not far away on the wall from this work, a similarly hypnotic experience transpired when I examined the enthralling color dynamics of Stephen Tornero’s  textile banner, “Violet X” – a masterpiece of intricate weaving.  
   I’ve seen many oil landscape paintings by Heather Bullach in the past, but none more exquisite than her entry here, “Embers.” Aglow in ethereal orange and purple light, every impasto stroke of this tactile tone poem floats like a glimmering facet embedded in a stunning jewel. Breathtaking.

   In photography, two particularly extraordinary works are Michael Barath’s “Study of Broken Glass #3” – which won Third Place – and Mark Pitocco’s “Coastal Abstraction, Schooner Gulch, CA.” Barath’s image is a mesmerizing grid, capturing the multiple perspectives and sporadic pulse of industrial decay. Pitocco’s arresting aerial view of rocky terrain, sharply detailing a microcosm of bulges, cracks, and crags is also, from a slight distance, an eerie suggestion of reptilian skin.
   From my past appeals to common sense, regular readers of ARTWACH may remember my objections to juried shows that still employ a ridiculous tiered awards format. These days, deciding on a “Best in Show” is an inherently absurd pursuit, amounting to high-minded lunacy. That said, there’s something delightfully lunatic about the jurors’ choice this year – Judith Krew’s whimsical sculpture, “I do, I doodle, I do.” So roll out the red carpet.

   It’s an impeccably well-crafted work, to be sure, in the form of a puffy white dress comprised of individual paper napkins, each bearing a simple line drawing (mostly of a sketchy or cartoonish nature) in what looks like black felt-tip pen. A giddy foray into hoot couture, Krew has done a dandy doodle indeed. Take that, Versace.  

   PHOTOS, from top: After the Sermon - by Tom Wachunas / Man, Bed, Cat – by William Bogdan / Six Degrees of Separation – by Clare Murray Adams / Writer’s Block – by Pamela Glover Wadsworth / Embers – by Heather Bullach / Study of Broken Glass #3 – by Michael Barath / I do, I doodle, I do – by Judith Krew

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Christmas Gem from Eric Benjamin and a Timeless Gift from Beethoven

A Christmas Gem from Eric Benjamin and a Timeless Gift from Beethoven

By Tom Wachunas

    In the beginning, I thought that the December 3d MasterWorks program by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), called “Gifts of Fate,” was a peculiar, even arbitrary pairing of very disparate works: The Secret Gift, a Christmas-themed symphonic poem of sorts, written in 2013 by American composer Eric Benjamin; and Ludwig van Beethoven’s iconic 1807 masterpiece, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. But by evening’s end, I heard the connective light.

   Eric Benjamin, Musical Director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic and the Alliance Symphony, named his work after a 2010 book written by Ted Gup, which chronicled the generosity of Gup’s grandfather, Sam Stone, a clothing store owner in Depression-era Canton.  In December, 1933, Mr. Stone was so moved by a church performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that he placed an ad in The Canton Repository asking for those in dire need to send him a letter describing their circumstances. Ultimately Stone, under the pseudonym “B. Virdot,” sent gifts of $5 to 150 destitute families. That’s perhaps a laughable pittance by today’s standards. But during the Great Depression, it was a Godsend.

   Conducted with amiable panache by CSO Assistant Conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz, Benjamin’s work is a remarkable achievement of poignant storytelling. Evoking a Dickensian setting, the music feels like a lavish film score leavened with variations on 19th century English Christmas carols (such as God rest ye merry, gentlemen, and Here We Come A-wassailing), as well as imaginative passages  – at times reminiscent of George Gershwin’s melodic sensibilities - describing various events and individuals related in Gup’s book. In his program notes, Benjamin wrote of some musical styles he sourced, “ …Rumanian folk music for the account of Sam’s childhood there, early jazz for his arrival in and beginnings of his career in the U.S., something vaguely like cantorial music to underline his orthodox Jewish roots and the Talmudic teaching on social justice…” The spiritual dynamic of the work was further augmented by the dramatic sonority of the Canton Symphony Chorus. 

   Vintage photographs of 1930s Canton people, places, and letters sent to Sam Stone were projected on the large screen above the orchestra. Throughout the performance, Benjamin himself was an especially warm and empathetic narrator. The work was also peppered with narrations drawn from the citizens’ letters to B. Virdot, beautifully spoken by a cast of 11 gifted actors directed by Craig Joseph. 
   While Benjamin’s music is often heartrending in its sentimentality, it’s never mawkish. Beyond a deeply emotive remembrance of Sam Stone’s philanthropic heart and the lives it graced, the potent lyricism of the score transcends its specific historical narrative to resonate as a clarion call for compassion and hope in any era or circumstance. There is indeed an aura of timelessness about this work.

   And who could possibly doubt the timelessness of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, conducted here by Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann? He reminded the audience to reflect on the enormity of Beethoven’s desperate efforts to battle through his increasing deafness, once declaring in a letter that he was determined to “…seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely.” 

   Hence the forever unforgettable opening of the work (“Thus Fate knocks at the door,” Beethoven was reported to have said) proceeds through a vast terrain of emotions in a heroic journey to arrive at the equally unforgettable and triumphant coda of the finale. Zimmermann’s reading of Beethoven was consistently brisk, translated by the ensemble into a palpable urgency, yet tempered with thrilling alacrity. Appropriately enough, the marvelous aural clarity and sheer power of the CSO throughout this phenomenal work suggested nothing so much as life’s most compelling forces.

   Beethoven’s developments from C minor to C major in his Fifth Symphony could be rightly regarded as a metaphor for darkness giving way to light. In that sense, his music is a gift for the ages, an exhilarating symbol of human spirit. Benjamin’s work proclaims a similar bent-but-not-broken message. Hearing them together on one program was an experience at once sobering and joyous.