Friday, October 27, 2017



By Tom Wachunas

      Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  - Genesis 32:26

   Yet another commentary on a very recent work of mine.

   I was a senior in high school when I first saw a picture of Paul Gauguin’s 1888 painting, “Vision After the Sermon.”  To this day, and far beyond the importance of the work as a pivotal and innovative aesthetic development in Gauguin’s oeuvre, the painting still fascinates me. More than ever before. 

  There’s something timeless about that intense red ground upon which two figures are locked in hand-to-hand combat. Historical analyses of the painting invariably tell us that Gauguin depicted Christian congregants meditating on a sermon about Jacob’s encounter with an angel. I’m not sure how and when folks began to embrace the notion that Jacob ever wrestled with an angel as such. The Genesis author made very clear that it was a man who grappled with Jacob all night long. Read the account for yourself in Genesis 32:24-39.  In any case, I’ve always seen both figures in the painting as immersed in the searing aura of spiritual struggle and catharsis. A baptism by fire. 

   As a Christian, I’ve come to understand that Jacob’s opponent was most probably the pre-incarnate Jesus, who is both God and a man like no other, and that Jacob did indeed receive his blessing, but not without cost. He was thenceforth left with a limp - a sort of permanent spiritual tattoo.

   And so it is that  reflecting on how deeply Gauguin’s dramatic imagery has remained imprinted  for so long on my consciousness, I had originally named my work – a relief painting made from found clothing and feathers, all stiffened with several coats of latex acrylic - “Gauguin’s Tattoo.” I struggled with making the piece sporadically for nearly a year – my own nightlong wrestling match, if you will. In the end, however, I called it simply enough, “After the Sermon.”

   What sermon? Nothing less than the totality of Scripture. 

   “After the Sermon” is a symbol of an outcome, a consequence, an aftermath. On one level it’s a processing of that contentious, selfish, and ultimately dangerous state of mind and heart wherein we humans so easily indulge in inventing and reinventing God as we would like him to be. We think we find peace in conforming him to our own image and desires. We can certainly be a proud lot, yes? Armed with all manner of philosophies and intellectual probity, it is in the end only a sinister sort of joy that we take in our arrogance, our pride in thinking that our idea of God must in fact be the indisputable reality of God. But God isn’t an idea.  

   On a more personal and important level, “After the Sermon” is about calm after the storm, stillness after the arguments, the surrender that heals the limp. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving. Resting on and in the only reality there is, Christ, there is what the Apostle Paul called in Philippians 4:7 the “peace of God which transcends all understanding.”

   That’s His story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Ravishing Virtuosity and Power from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

 Ravishing Virtuosity and Power from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   In his program comments celebrating the 80th season of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann wrote, “Why do I love conducting this wonderful orchestra?...The CSO is that rare gem of orchestras that conductors seek to make music with. Their playing is committed, heartfelt, powerful, and above all, exciting.”

   For the season-opening concert on October 14, that rare gem dazzled with exceptional brilliance, beginning with Samuel Barber’s Essay For Orchestra No. 2, composed in 1942. It’s a marvelous, single movement work of interwoven, contrasting themes and developments, and exemplary of Barber’s passionately lyrical aesthetic. Here the ensemble perfectly captured the work’s changing moods – like painting an expansive landscape of emotions in sumptuous orchestral colors - with compelling precision and dramatic sonority. The briefly tranquil opening theme gave way to darker passages of churning drama and foreboding. Those in turn transitioned to more light-hearted, pastoral interludes, with melodic counterpoints that eventually morphed into the majestic and triumphal solemnity of the explosive conclusion, all clearly thrilling the audience. 

    Lauren Roth, a former CSO concertmaster and now concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, returned to Canton to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ lavish Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Orchestra. What made this homecoming all the more exciting was that this was the first time Roth performed the concerto with an orchestra, though you’d never guess it from her virtuosic playing, delivered with astonishing fluidity and authority.

   Roth’s demeanor was mesmerizing, at once gently measured and aggressive, evident in both her impassioned facial expressions and stance. She was communing with not only the ensemble, but also with her instrument, making it sing in a marvelous range of tonalities, and at times seeming to demand its submission to the many technical challenges of the music. Her playing was especially poignant during the second movement, wherein the graceful violin melody engaged in a delicate dance with the woodwinds. Throughout the work, she articulated Saint-Saëns’ lush cadenzas – ravishing in their fast arpeggios and scales, double stops, and flawless ascensions into incredibly high-pitched harmonics – with stunning bravura.

   Respighi’s Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome), and Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) comprised the second half of the evening. The orchestrally rich score for the latter work called for a massive orchestra. Consequently, for this concert, the CSO ensemble was 92 members strong – a substantially larger group than usual, providing an unprecedented aural depth to the proceedings.

   While the performance of The Fountains of Rome was utterly enchanting, it was in the final movement of The Pines of Rome – “the pines of the Appian Way”- where the orchestra became an unforgettably unified embodiment, delightful in its unabashed flamboyance, of the composer’s intent. Respighi described it as the “…unceasing rhythm of numberless footsteps. A vision of ancient glories appears to the poet’s fantasy: trumpets blare, and a consular army bursts forth in the brilliance of the newly-risen sun…”

   A low, rumbling, relentless cadence, suggesting an army on the march, reverberated through the entire concert hall in ever-loudening layers, enough to rattle bones and make the heart race. We were engulfed in plangent waves of brassy martial trudging, augmented by the extra brass players standing in the side aisles. Maestro Zimmermann was particularly animated, turning this way and that, like a general rallying his troops. The final jubilant chord was a piercing blast, raising a collective shout of amazement from the audience. It was as if all of Roman history had just passed before us in a protracted sonic boom.

Saturday, October 14, 2017



By Tom Wachunas

   It’s still hurricane season. It will remain hurricane season long after its official meteorological end. Volatile storms of ideological conflicts will continue to afflict us, leaving us powerless and floundering in the vast, ever growing debris fields of our spiritual malaise.

    Questions blowin’ in the wind. A rare urge, or surge, this – to share with you, on this platform of ARTWACH, some considerations of my art for a change.

   Above, you see three paintings. At the top, “The Untied State of America,” made just a few weeks ago. Next, “Broken English Readymade,” from 2016. And at the bottom, “The United State of McMerica,” from 2010. Seems I’ve been developing a series. Maybe. “Political” art? That’s too easy and convenient a descriptor. Try ‘spiritual exercises,’ or ‘meditations,’ or even prayers.  The pleas, the please, of a wounded heart. An S.O.S. – Save Our Soul.

   …One nation, under God?

   The American flag, abstracted on grocery bags. Grocery bags – containers of consumables, sustenance, nutrients, sanitation necessities. Grocery bags – containers for disposables, things unwanted, trash. White stripes scratched with letters. Detached syllables. Words and phrases once familiar, now fragmented, foreign, fraught. 

   What do we stand for, and when? In whose presence? Untied, we kneel. The American Scream. Forgive us, Father, for we know not what we do.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Solid Air, Liquid Earth

Solid Air, Liquid Earth

By Tom Wachunas

   “To a nonpainter, oil paint is uninteresting and faintly unpleasant. To a painter, it is the life's blood: a substance so utterly entrancing, infuriating, and ravishingly beautiful that it makes it worthwhile to go back into the studio every morning, year after year, for an entire lifetime.” – James Elkins

 “The secrets of alchemy exist to transform mortals from a state of suffering and ignorance to a state of enlightenment and bliss.”
― Deepak Chopra
   EXHIBIT: in the whisper of silence / paintings by Mona Brody, on view THROUGH OCTOBER 27, 2017, at Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / viewing hours Monday-Friday, Noon-5 P.M. 

   Early in her gallery talk at Main Hall Art Gallery on October 6, visiting painter Mona Brody - currently Professor of Art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York - described her methodology. Several times she used the term alchemy in an overarching way. It’s a wonderfully loaded term in this context, useful as both a practical and philosophical descriptor. Without traveling too far into painting arcana, suffice it to say that Brody is an alchemist extraordinaire.

   Start with regarding alchemy in the sense of transmuting common, ordinary materials into uncommon ones, or a process of changing one thing into another. Here I’m not talking about using paint to make merely prosaic illusions of plastic realities. Yes, there are certainly indications of terrestrial or celestial metaphors to be seen in Brody’s paintings, such as animal forms and aerial views of landscapes, or volatile skies. But in her process of altering pigments and oil to transport us beyond their innate materiality, Brody constructs altogether discrete sensory experiences, independent of recognizable nature, and stunning on their own terms. 

   In considering alchemy as it might be applied to making abstract imagery, think of it as the practice of reconciling dualities or opposites: temporality and timelessness; permanence and ephemerality; the apparent and the implied; the literal and the metaphorical. Brody’s paintings are on one level really about the paint and, paradoxically enough, the paint transcending its paint-ness in the same way poetry employs words.

   The linear elements in such works as the magnificent diptych, “Keep Out,” might be seen as bleeding, or crying, or simply an overflowing, like rivulets  of emotive energy. They’re a drawing out, which is to say an identification, memory, or preservation of pathways - an intuitive sort of cartography to navigate through all those surrounding organic forms. Some of those forms  are in turn indeterminate, cloudy and vaporous, while others are relatively more substantive and defined. 

   As in many of the other paintings here (15 in all), these amorphous structures bloom toward us and also fade away simultaneously, all the while hovering or perhaps incubating, as if waiting in our present moment. The intimate scrutiny that they invite reveals a subtly mesmerizing depth of entities both veiled and exposed – a layered history of gestures and responses, of diaphanous things emerging and changing, or hiding in plain sight. 

   Throughout her paintings, Brody has incorporated a product called “interference paint.” This remarkable product’s name seems somewhat antithetical to its purpose of causing certain colors to change right before your eyes - with varying degrees of opalescence, iridescence, or otherwise translucent shimmering - depending on your proximity and viewing angle to the work. Maybe it should be called something more relevant to its effect, such as ‘augmentation paint’ or ‘enhancement paint.’  In any case, there’s often the delightfully uncanny sense that parts of the canvas surfaces are being illuminated from the inside. Brody uses the effect judiciously.  It’s most apparent in those hints of warmer and more verdant colors, or little flashes of metallic accents, that seem to lurk underneath a palette dominated by off-whites, muted greys, browns, and intermediate earth tones.

   So as the title of this exhibit tells us, Brody is not shouting. The sensations evoked here are not exclaimed via hyperbolic hues or heavy impasto, but uttered, even sung, quietly. Gazing at all the paintings, especially “Keep Out,” I went in. And what I heard when I got there was the exquisite sound of my looking. That’s alchemy.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Keep Out  2. Indistinguishable  3.  Leaning Into the Wind  4. In There  5. Layered Soil and Bone  6. Artist talking, photo by Jack McWhorter