Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Bilingual Utterances

Bilingual Utterances

By Tom Wachunas

   “It's really absurd to make... a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it... But then all of a sudden, it was even more absurd not to do it.”  -Willem de Kooning
   “I think there has to be an interesting transformative process between your perception of reality and making the paintings. If you are just trying to render what you see you are not entering into a transformative process. And that's what makes a good painting: the process of transforming and the willingness to leave reality behind.”   -Susan Rothenberg

   EXHIBIT:  Paintings and Drawings by John W. Carlson,  Studio M exhibition at the Massillon Museum ON VIEW THROUGH JUNE 25, 2017 / The Massillon Museum is located at 121 Lincoln Way East (Ohio Route 172) in the heart of downtown Massillon.  Free and convenient street parking is available on adjacent streets.  A visit to the Massillon Museum is always free.

   There’s a dichotomous, sensate tension that saturates just about all of John W. Carlson’s pieces here. It’s as persistent as the ripe, visceral oil paint that sits on and within his canvas surfaces in much the same way some mysteries and riddles can chronically tease or vex the mind.  So maybe the best introduction to his work would be for you to click on this link and read his statement, which is a beautiful poem by Joe Psarto:
   The aforementioned tension comes initially in the way Carlson marries his representational figures, or “characters,” to his abstract grounds.  Stylistically, there’s no bravado of illusionism or superficial preciousness in the way he draws the heavily contoured people we see. They exist in dense, truncated spaces -  ambiguous, nonobjective fields that seethe with painterly activity. Ironically, in many of Carlson’s pieces, the almost generic simplicity of figural rendering can push our attention to the intense gestural energy of paint around them, giving the backgrounds a dramatic life and personality all their own.  
    I keep coming back to Carlson’s statement - the Psarto poem - and a few particularly resonant lines: ‘battles and tranquilities,’ and ‘intervals of violence and peace, as in a man’s history.’  History… though not in any conventionally narrative sense. 

   The paintings aren’t illustrations of stories as such, though you certainly wouldn’t be wrong to think that they somehow hint at the aritst’s personal psychology, a narrative of emotional states, or perhaps cathartic circumstances of his life. In general, they exude a sense of arrested flux. While many specific visual clues and cues appear to have been obliterated, some remnants seem to still lurk under layers of thickly brushed, scuffled, and rubbed paint. Carlson may be at once erasing memories and creating new ones, yet what consistently remains after all his surface action - whether frantic and quick, or nervous and tentative - is always a human figuration. If there are conflicts and tensions to be remembered or resolved here as laid down by the artist’s hand, we the viewers have just as much a hand in deciphering them. Fill in the dense painterly blanks and blotches with your own history, because you’re already a part of the implied drama simply by virtue of looking at them.

   This art is a compelling reminder that painting is a truly unique language comprised of many dialects, many of which conceived to formulate what might otherwise be impossible to manifest or communicate. Carlson speaks in tongues, as it were, and his fluency is very well suited to explaining the inexplicable…if that be possible.

   PHOTOS, from top:  Cinderella Sleeping It Off (2017) / Doubt (2014) / Visitation (2009) / Struggle (2009) / Car (2015) / From Here In (2016)   

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Articulated Timelessness

Articulated Timelessness

By Tom Wachunas

   EXHIBIT: AVATARS – Relics from the Future / art by Gary Spinosa, at the Canton Museum of Art / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / THROUGH JULY 23, 2017 / 330-453-7666 / 

   “When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.”   - Agnes Martin 

  “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.   ― Albert Einstein

    With its voluptuous and spectacular materiality, craftsmanship of the highest order, and deeply spiritual iconography, Gary Spinosa’s AVATARS is a truly astonishing experience. Among the many marvelous exhibits I’ve seen at the Canton Museum of Art during the past 25 years, I haven’t encountered such a profoundly inspired and breathtaking aesthetic vision from one man since Itchiku Kubota’s Kimono As Art exhibit in 2009.

   Breathtaking? Breath-giving might be more to the point. Spinosa hints as much when he writes, “The most important quality in a work of art does not come from the idea alone, but from the innate communicating power contained and emitted through the object itself. Being charged with emotion, there can exist within an object a radiating energy. This reflects man’s sacred capacity to merge spirit into matter and make seemingly intangible tangible…”  Operative terms here: “sacred capacity” and “radiating energy.” 

   Our word ‘avatar’ is from the Sanskrit avatāra, from ava, ‘down,’ and tarati, ‘he goes down’ or ‘he passes beyond.’ The term originally described the Hindu concept of a god’s appearance on earth in the form of a human or animal, i.e., an embodiment, or incarnation. Our most ancient art was at its core a response to living in a world at once awesome in its sensual fecundity, terrifying and baffling in its dangerous natural forces. Utilizing our ‘sacred capacity’ to imagine and create, we made commemorative things from the primal stuff of the earth - stone, clay, wood, metal - transforming these raw materials provided by nature into images, temples, totems, utilitarian vessels, and statues.  Through the ‘radiating energy’ of these materials - the magic, if you will – we sought to remember  our avatars, our spirit guides, as declaring their presence, perhaps even dwelling in our midst, and always commanding our attentions.

   It is abundantly evident in the sculptures we see here, made over the course of more than 50 years, that Gary Spinosa has been inexorably drawn to let those same primal materials continue speaking, emanating many of the same essences that inspired the ancients. You could call him a modern-day shaman, baptizing clay with fire, recalling those seasons and places in human history when an artist was held as a conjurer of both mysteries and truths. 

   That said, Spinosa is neither an idol maker nor a builder of temples and tombs for dead kings. His eloquent renderings of humans, animals, and otherworldly combinations thereof, aren’t enthronements of implacable pagan deities demanding our abject worship, blood sacrifices, or burned offerings. They aren’t threatening sentinels so much as they seem on the verge of imparting wisdom. And even at their most austere or solemn, their visages exude a welcoming spirit in an air of contemplative, benevolent quietude.
   So yes, there is intrigue and mystique here. And in equal measure there is an instantaneous familiarity about Spinosa’s works – a kinship to, or illustrative suggestion of archaeology from various cultures throughout history, yet without being directly representational of any specific societies, religions, or belief systems. In all of their beautifully detailed execution and their tactile monumentality, these objects are far more than simply hybridized reminders of ancient structures, rituals, or artifacts. Think of them collectively as the transcendent archaeology of the human soul. Stories live here. Spinosa’s and ours. In symbolically sourcing civilizations from across time and planet, this astoundingly prolific artist has – in extraordinary mythopoetic fashion - articulated the eternal narrative of…us. It is indeed the story of our ceaseless endeavors to pursue and apprehend the source and reason for our existence. 

   I recently read a passage in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy which I think is particularly resonant with appreciating the high caliber of art shown here, and more importantly, why the making and viewing of great art such as this  is a necessary and proper response to being alive. Chesterton was assessing the spiritual state of his world at the dawn of the 20th century when he wrote, “…We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that, for certain dead levels of our life, we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant, we remember that we forget.” 

   In the end, after investing sufficient time – an adequate duration of ‘awful instants’ - to examine Spinosa’s wondrous creations, you may well find an unexpected portal to possibility, or a connective relic, as it were, of something heretofore undiscovered or forgotten. An entryway to epiphany. Think of this art as an invitation to embrace why and what you are in the continuum of humanity.

    In that sense alone this exhibit is, in its entirety… an avatar.

   PHOTOS, from top: Tower; Wall Shrine; Tockolosh; Life Force of the Fields; Container of Knowledge II; Divine Transport

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Seeworthy Vessel of Enchantment

A Seeworthy Vessel of Enchantment

By Tom Wachunas

    Translating a classic cartoon into a live stage production, such as Disney’s The Little Mermaid, can be a particularly daunting endeavor for any director, if only due to certain (inviolable?) expectations on the part of the audience. Understandably enough, we might look to be immersed in all the splashy special effects presumed to be necessary for evoking the experience of pure enchantment remembered from watching the animated film.

   In this case, however, director Jonathan Tisevich and his production team (including scenic design by Joshua Erichsen, lighting and sound by Scott Sutton, and costumes by Stephen Ostertag) have opted for a relatively more reductive approach. Call it an understated if not raw abstraction of a fantasy water world. An aesthetic gamble to be sure, the ocean kingdom is largely symbolized by wooden sculptures -  curved ramp-like structures that sweep vertically upwards to subtly suggest both big waves and sailing ships. Yet for the most part, the gamble pays off.  Including the use of simple, unimposing mechanical hand puppets for some of the characters (designed and created by Kevin Anderson) rather than elaborate full-body costumes to imitate the film, the overall minimization of expected dazzling visuals becomes a curiously special framing effect in itself. It’s a directorial decision that maximizes our focus on the story and the flesh-and-blood characters as played out by the cast members, all thoroughly captivating and indeed delightfully real in their own right.

    With a deftly soaring voice that cuts to the heart, Kaelin Curran is mesmerizing in her role Ariel, the mermaid who yearns to be human. Her singing is an intense, wholly believable embodiment of longing to be with the man, Eric. As Eric, the charming earthly prince who feels out of place in the royal trappings of his own world, Zach Stark turns in an equally compelling performance. Late in Act II, for the song “If Only,” Curran and Stark are joined by the marvelously sonorous Mark Dillard (playing Ariel’s father, King Triton) and Matthew Horning, who holds his authentic Jamaican accent very well throughout the evening as he plays Sebastian, the lovable crab who’s as skittish as he is watchful. The quartet’s stirring emotive harmonies take on a particularly spiritual dimensionality. 
   Meanwhile, Stanley Niekamp is notably endearing as he brings delicious flavor to the youthful Flounder, who clearly has a schoolboy crush on Ariel.  As the frenetic seagull, Scuttle, Bobby Severns is a jubilant purveyor of goofy malapropisms, declaring a salvaged fork to be a “dinglehopper” for combing Ariel’s tresses, and a tobacco pipe a “banded, bulbous snarfblatt,” to be blown as a horn. And gut-splitting hilarity ensues when cleaver-wielding Tyler Ferrebee, as Chef Louis, cavorts about the stage during “Les Poissons,” singing his praises of all the seafood he’s preparing (including a nearly boiled-alive Sebastian) for a royal dinner.   
   Especially memorable is Loralee Myers in her role of the diabolical Ursula - a large, electrifying presence in every way. With her snaky, sycophantic attendants (Flotsam and Jetsam, played by Matti-Lynn Chrisman and Justin James Ollis) in constant tow, she’s a tentacled, luminous wonder whose every word, giggle, and guffaw is delivered with show-stopping bravura. Her powerful renditions of “Daddy’s Little Angel” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” are gripping moments, infused with equal parts dark sarcasm and palpable menace.

   The live orchestra under the direction of Steve Parsons is consistently excellent in navigating the score’s sparkling mélange of musical genres. Similarly, the choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers is performed with infectious abandon, including the ensemble tap dancing choreographed by Molly Weidig for “Positoovity,” a giddy number led by Scuttle. When not dancing, ensemble members still often convey a sense of moving through water via the gentle, waving motions of their hands and arms as they traverse the stage.  
    After all was said, sung, danced, and done on opening night, I looked to my wife and our accompanying grandchildren. Standing in ovation, we smiled at each other and nodded our agreement that this evening was positoovely enthrallimizing.

 Disney's The Little Mermaid /  Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / through May 28 / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday TICKETS: $27 adults, $19 ages 17 and younger, $24 seniors, at  www.playersguildtheatre.com   and 330-453-7617.

   PHOTOs, by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Kaelin Curran as Ariel and Zach Stark as Eric; Kaelin Curran; Loralee Meyers as Ursula; Matthew Horning as Sebastian; pencil drawing by me

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Spreading the Wealth: McWhorter in New York

Spreading the Wealth: McWhorter in New York

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: SLOW FORMATIONS, recent oil paintings by Jack McWhorter, at 
THE PAINTING CENTER, 547 WEST 27TH STREET, SUITE 500, NEW YORK, NY 10001 / Exhibition dates: MAY 23 – JUNE 17, 2017 / GALLERY HOURS: TUESDAY - SATURDAY, 11:00 AM - 6:00 PM  / (212) 343 – 1060

   Over the past several years I’ve written here about my ever-deepening appreciation of Jack McWhorter’s work. The following is the catalog essay which I was thrilled and honored to write for his upcoming exhibit in New York.


   Here are enthralling new episodes in Jack McWhorter’s ongoing development of what he has called “…snapshots of structures in flux or becoming.” These structures can be considered as metaphorical suggestions, or models, of entities simultaneously earthbound and cosmological. You could call them arrivals, laden with ample evidence, at once logical and still evolving, of the serpentine paths that led to their current destination, their “look.” That logic and evolution springs from McWhorter’s rudimentary questioning of how to paint, indeed how to see, and often seems to invoke a Cezannesque spirit of painted surface dynamics. His operational methodology weaves together myriad procedures and terrains into discrete paint-on-canvas formations.

   How many ways can paint rest on, or underneath, or be moved across the surface? Classical ideas of gesture and touch come into play. Cognizant of the fluidity and weight of his hand, the differing pressures and motions of his brush to canvas, and the variable viscosity of the paint, McWhorter establishes sets of marks, lines, and washes, often layered – zigzags, diamond shapes, or lozenge units amid ghostly grids – all separate yet inseparable. And essential to the impact of these images is the exhilarating expressivity of color. Call it chromatic drama. McWhorter describes it this way: “My central narrative is to make color come into its own through response to other colors. The paintings start with the stratification of color and paint and the idea you can keep things organized through movement and repetition…”

   These integrated systems of gestural and chromatic configurations can allow all manner of associations. They might indicate tangible, scientific phenomena and structures in the natural world, or signal the subtler workings of life on less visible planes. In any case, McWhorter continues to construct a painterly calligraphy of poetic singularities. In his paintings, the mysterious and the mundane are conflated into elegant coexistence. Here is a harmonious convergence of processes conscious and intuitive, processes both known and on the ephemeral cusp of coming into being.

   (Bio - reprinted from The Painting Center catalog)

   Jack McWhorter received an M.F.A. from Kent State University in 1983. McWhorter was awarded fellowships to attend the Blossom Studio Art Program to study with Elmer Bischoff, Lynda Benglis, Adja Yunkers, Janet Fish, Walter Darby Bannard and Alex Katz. He has been a visiting artist at St. Luca School of Art & Architecture, Brussels, Belgium, The Walworth Barbour American International School in Tel Aviv, and for the Ohio Arts Council. His paintings and works on paper have been exhibited widely including solo and group exhibitions in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Chicago, Flagstaff, New York, Ventura, New Orleans, Beijing, Chengdu, Shijiazhuang, St. Louis, Brussels, Leuven, Overijse, Paris, Glasgow, Tel Aviv and Siena. Since 2000, McWhorter has been Associate Professor of Painting and Coordinator of the Art Department at Kent State University at Stark. He lives and works in Akron with his wife and 2 sons.

   PHOTOS, from top (oil paintings on canvas, 2017): Witch of Atlas; Surveyor’s Map; Serpent Lightning