Thursday, December 27, 2018

A Liquid Symphony of Luminescence

Age of Aquariums

The Blue Egg

Nanu's Rubaiyat

Girl from Ipanema

Wood Sprite

Ginger Jars
A Liquid Symphony of Luminescence

By Tom Wachunas

   “With color one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft.”   - Henri Matisse

EXHIBIT: Walk on the Wild Side - work by Nancy Stewart Matin / at The Little Art Gallery, in the North Canton Public Library, through January 20, 2019, /  185 North Main Street, North Canton, OH / Monday – Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

   Back in 2011, local self-taught watercolor wizard Nancy Stewart Matin said in an About magazine article that she was enmeshed enough in art history to think of painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) as “…a personal friend.” So it is that even the title of her retrospective exhibit of 30 paintings spanning about 25 years, called Walk on the Wild Side, evokes the temperament of Matisse and some of his Paris cohorts. For a short period of several years very early in the 20th century, they were known collectively as les Fauves, French for “the wild beasts.”

   These avant-garde innovators were significant engineers in advancing a type of abstraction initiated by Post-Impressionist painters including, among others, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. Walking on the wild side indeed, the Fauves went a step or two farther. In augmenting the chromatic intensity of paint to unprecedented levels, they boldly liberated color from the confines of imitating the visible world.  

   This is not to say that Matin’s stylized configurations are strictly Fauvist in nature. But to the extent that her remarkably radiant palette allows arbitrary  color to establish its own pictorial space, independent of merely retinal descriptions of mundane realities, she’s certainly a kindred spirit.

   Her subjects are diverse – floral, animal, figurative, still-life, and landscape – and impeccably mounted here by curator Elizabeth Blakemore with all the skill of an attentive orchestral arranger. This show is a virtual symphony for the eyes, with the gallery itself becoming a luminous composition, replete with mesmerizing harmonies, arresting tonal contrasts, and dazzling rhythmic accents that prance about the room with invigorating energy.

   The instruments of this symphony – Matin’s watercolors – present a world-view, a perceptual gestalt that straddles the empirical and the magical, the robust and the delicate, the seen and the felt. Here’s to painting with the soul fully bared, the eyes wide open, the hand given to childlike abandon.

   Childlike, but never childish. Matin is fully cognizant and in control of her medium’s daunting 
tendencies to run too wild, to get too wet, or too muddy. Her sense of abandon is a judicious one.  An aura of delightfully disciplined ebullience emanates from her work, springing from a clarity of purpose.

   That purpose is as simple as it is profound – an unabashedly vigorous and joyful embrace of being alive. Matisse, I think, would approve.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Then, Now, and Forever

"Follow" by Tom Wachunas, 2018

Then, Now, and Forever...

“…And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…”
- 2 Peter 1:19


Friday, December 14, 2018

our betweened selves

"divide and dissolve #1 and #2"

"not there"

"the gentle collapsing of every surface"

"a momentary impulse"

"some may have gotten halfway there, and then changed their minds"

"that he might, by force of will"
our betweened selves

By Tom Wachunas

  “Referencing the history of portraiture-as-social-mirror, I am fascinated with the connection between early photographic portraits and modern selfies. With the advent of tintypes in the 1860s we entered into a world in which, for the first time, images of the “self” were widely distributed for mass consumption. Collected, carried and viewed at any time, tintypes became a method to have a physical connection to loved ones near and far, and to imagine the lives of famous people by looking into their faces.” – from the exhibit statement by Greg Martin

EXHIBIT: seen and not seen, photography by Greg Martin / at Studio M in  the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way, East (Ohio 172) in downtown Massillon. A visit to the Massillon Museum is always free.  Call the Massillon Museum at 330-833-4061 or visit  for more information. Exhibit open through December 31 during regular Museum hours, Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday 2:00 to 5:00 p.m.

    Somewhere between reading “…my work speaks to our individually curated and constructed realities in the digital world,” from Greg Martin’s artist statement, and the fascinating titles of his photographs, I got lost in thinking about the functions, instrumentality, and validity of photography as a dependable arbiter or definer of visible reality. Philosophical questions abound. After all, any photograph is an abstraction, a reduction, an illusion.

    Here, portraiture is only a beginning – a symbolic jumping off point into the betweened world we’ve made for ourselves. The faces that do appear in Martin’s pieces aren’t an end unto themselves. They seem rather to hover as marginal elements within larger, more ambiguous and frangible realms  between seeing and knowing, between the tangible and the tenuous, between intimacy and alienation.

   By employing the highly meticulous wet plate collodion method of making a one-of-a-kind photograph (a process invented in the 1850s), Martin implies an arresting contrast with the immediacy of digital image-cloning that saturates today’s social media. And so it is that his photographs (several of them being mixed-media, 3D shallow-relief objects, in a way) do exude something of an antique aura. But that aura is often juxtaposed with modernity via abstract configurations or superimposed obstructions – multiple transparencies, shadowy layers, or ghostly planes that can include painted geometric shapes integrated with patterns both regular and pixilated.

    Those abstract components are effectively metaphorical proxies for digital photo-technology’s capacity to obfuscate the corporeal world. As if to push the point further, Martin encourages viewers to engage his pieces from up close and far away with their cell phone cameras – those indispensable tools for selectively “curating” and miniaturizing complex dimensionalities into so many compressed imitations.

   In the earliest days of photography, tintype photographs must have surely seemed to be innocent, even magical totems of connecting with and memorializing the familiar and yes, the beginnings of commodifying celebrities of the day – “portraiture-as-social-mirror,” Martin calls it. I’m reminded that photography’s ubiquitous presence in today’s social mirroring increasingly morphs simple memorializing into elaborate facades of marketing and advertising. 

   Troll the internet, meet the memes, wander the web, cruise the cloud. See all those selves, those faces floating somewhere between fact and fiction.     

Monday, December 3, 2018

Seizing the Fugitive Moment

"Open Door" by Sue Collier

"Woman in the Hallway" by Sue Collier

"Couple on a Bench" by Sue Collier

"Couple on a Swing" by Sue Collier

"Odyssey" by Sarah Schuster

"Shallow Waters" by Sarah Schuster

"The Lovliest of What I Left Behind" by Sarah Schuster

"Below the Surface" by Sarah Schuster
Seizing the Fugitive Moment

By Tom Wachunas

“To see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.”
- Claude Monet

EXHIBIT: RECENT WORK by Sue Collier and Sarah Schuster, at The Lemmon Gallery, located inside the Kent Stark Fine Arts Building, 6000 Frank Avenue, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH Dec. 7, 2018 / Gallery viewing hours are Monday – Thursday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Friday 11 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  

   Mea maxima culpa. With just four days remaining to see this superb exhibit, I can only offer yet another abject apology for such a late posting. It is nonetheless very worth your time to plan a visit before 5 p.m. on December 7. 

   Most of Sue Collier’s oil paintings in this exhibit were painted en plain air – on site, outdoors. A few others are scenes of interiors. With all of them, I had the sensation of being present in an intensely personal moment - hers and mine. At times I felt like I was standing right next to her as she labored to grasp something fleeting, to make the ephemeral somehow permanent and solid. Her memories of, or encounters with, her subjects, whether foliate or figurative, became my now.

   There’s a tangible vitality and intimacy to all her images. They aren’t polished and static, but rather dynamic. The images pulse and breathe, appearing to actually move through the picture plane with a visceral, all-at-once immediacy. The brush strokes have a heartbeat. Suffused as they are with the sensual tactility of generously applied paint, there’s the uncanny sense that it’s not Collier’s eyes alone that are doing the seeing. Her act of looking is a concordance, a concert of responses to perceived relationships. Eyes, hand, and brush are caught up in a beautiful, seemingly still-evolving dialogue - an intuitive harmony of staccato and lusciously protracted markings. Most of the works are imbued with singularly enchanting tonalities of light, as if spontaneously, even urgently painted before something changes, or departs altogether.

    While Collier’s expressive, ornate abstractions maintain substantial connections to the recognizable, natural world, most of Sarah Schuster’s entries here are comparatively non-objective and enigmatic in nature. That said, they’re a collectively intriguing complement to Collier’s specificity. And they’re no less compelling or real in their palpable sensation (especially in her very large-scale canvases) of motion either imminent or indefinitely suspended. Her palette is bold to the point of being electric, giving the works a wildly decorative and celebratory spirit.

   What’s being celebrated? Spatial ambiguity, evanescence, explosive transience. The anti-gravitational architecture of uncertainty. Patterns and organic forms are in flux, floating on tenuous grounds both liquid and atmospheric. In one series of smaller paintings, color fields comprised of accumulated wispy lines and specks of paint reach a central crescendo, clustered into a gorgeous, flickering luminescence. 
    In the really big paintings, those hair-thin lines have become tangles of thicker squiggles and swoops, looping back and forth as if they were a map of  meandering roads that lead to nowhere in particular. After all, the moment of looking is its own destination. Carpe diem.    

Monday, November 26, 2018

From Gershwin Swagger to Sublime Swan Lake

 From Gershwin Swagger to Sublime Swan Lake

By Tom Wachunas

   “Music of the People” was the theme of the November 18 Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) program, with works by George Gershwin and Pytor Tchaikovsky. As stated in the press release for the concert, “..the two composers… wrote music to touch the souls of the people of their respective countries.”

   What could be more “of the people” these days than national politics? Commenting on the evening’s opening selection - Gershwin’s overture to his 1931 satirical Broadway musical, Of Thee I Sing – a mischievously grinning Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann explained that he intentionally pre-scheduled the work to be performed on the heels of this country’s recent,  highly contentious midterm elections.

   Gershwin regarded Of Thee I Sing not so much as a traditional musical as a topical operetta. It was a grand lampooning of Depression-era political shenanigans, incompetency, and the democratic process itself. The absurd story centered on the presidential campaign, election, and comically troubled administration of a character named John P. Wintergreen.

   The majority of Broadway musical overtures prior to this one were generally medleys of the show’s most memorable tunes. But for this production, which was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932, Gershwin composed an overture relatively more “classical” in nature and what could fairly be called a finely developed fantasia for orchestra. There are echoes of his 1928 An American in Paris as well as a foretaste of piquant moments from his 1935 masterpiece, Porgy and Bess. In embracing the work’s audacious spirit, the CSO delivered a delightfully bright romp, replete with crackling percussion accents and lavish, swaying orchestral harmonies. 

   The next piece on the program was even more adventurous - Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. The work is an intricate orchestral pastiche brimming with multiple themes and disparate moods infused with lush romanticism along with the pulsing swagger of urban jazz. As a central percussive and melodic element, the performance by guest soloist Spencer Meyer was commanding and vivacious from beginning to end. Especially during the Adagio movement, in playful dialogue with the electrifying ensemble, he articulated all of Gershwin’s bluesy savoir faire with captivating finesse. One of the most colorful sentences in that dialogue was the muted trumpet solo from Justin Kohan. His deliciously sensual, bent notes conjured a somewhat naughty image of drunken wandering along empty streets after a late night in the jazz clubs.  

   At several points during the performance of the evening’s final selection, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite, I marveled yet again at how the CSO can keep doing what it does with such consistent unity of purpose and power. What exactly is the ineffable chemistry that can make this orchestra become greater than the sum of its parts to produce a sound so sumptuous and completely immersive? Does it not begin with the conductor connecting with the soul of the music? In assessing the role of the conductor, Charles Munch, Music Director of the Boston Symphony from 1949 to 1962, once noted, “The conductor must breathe life into the score. It is you and you alone who must expose it to the understanding, reveal the hidden jewel to the sun at the most flattering angles.”

  Throughout much the performance, Maestro Zimmermann had the look of a man mesmerized, smitten by the sheer beauty of the music. His commitment to this monument of ballet led him to expand the suite - traditionally an arrangement of between six and eight of the ballet’s most popular scenes - with several additional excerpts, including the magnificent finale in its entirety. Zimmermann’s unique arrangement significantly augmented the sublime emotional agency of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic vision.

   A memorably crystalline, dreamlike moment came in “Dance of the Swans” from Act II, wonderfully rendered by CSO violinist Christian Zimmerman, harpist Nancy Peterson, and cellist Brian Klickman. But this was just one of many similarly astonishing passages that grace this work. Through it all, it was indeed an impassioned conductor and equally smitten ensemble who shed dazzling light on this most magical of Tchaikovsky gems.    

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

At the Site of Seeing

At the Site of Seeing / photos by Aimee Lambes

l. to r. - Abraham Adams, Natalie Sander Kern, Brian Newberg

Natalie Sander Kern as Molly Sweeney

Abraham Adams as Frank Sweeney

Brian Newberg as Mr. Rice

By Tom Wachunas

“…they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding,…”  - Mark 4:12

"Learning to see is not like learning a new language. It's like learning language for the first time."  - Denis Diderot

   What assumptions do we make about someone’s well-being or world- view? What perceptions inform those assumptions? Do they justify our judgments on the circumstances of that person’s life? How do those judgements motivate our actions toward that person? Living, and loving, can be complicated, mysterious, and hurtful.

   With his 1994 play, Molly Sweeney, Irish playwright Brian Friel gave us a deeply probative and eloquent examination of these considerations. It’s an utterly intriguing parable, generously laden with humor and pathos, about the vexing gap between seeing and understanding. The play visits an ideological crash site at the daunting crossroads of philosophy, psychology, science, and spirituality - all colliding with life-altering force.

   Three fascinating characters speak to the audience directly through intertwined monologues that address their divergent perspectives on the same story. Here’s the tale, directed by Craig Joseph, of 41 year-old Molly Sweeney (Natalie Sander Kern), blind since early infancy; her well-meaning dreamer of a husband, Frank (Abraham Adams); and Mr. Rice (Brian Newberg), a once famous opthamologist, now driven out of seclusion by his whiskey-soaked obsession to restore Molly’s sight.

   There’s something exquisitely appropriate about Craig Joseph’s choice of venue for this production – the 50-seat Dietz Theater in Akron’s Weathervane Playhouse. The performance space itself could be taken as a metaphor for how sighted people might assume that for a blind person, living must indeed be a sad condition - boxed in, it would seem, by blackness. The intimate darkness of the room gives way to an uncanny if not ironic effect of magnifying and illuminating even the smallest of emotive gestures and facial expressions articulated by the actors who are, in a word, astonishing.

   A thrilling element throughout the evening, thanks to dialect coach Chuck Richie, is the actors’ command of their enchanting Irish accents, particularly from Kern and Adams. It’s much less present in Newberg’s speech, though still authentic when considering that the Irish-born character of Mr. Rice spent years forging a career while living in America (before his marriage fell apart), thus becoming more Yankee-ized, as the character of Frank so eagerly reminds us at several points.

   Through a large portion of the play comprised of flashbacks on the characters’ lives, Natalie Sander Kern renders the character of Molly with a palpably luminous countenance. Kern makes Molly Sweeney an effervescent embodiment of charisma, a positively contagious presence, and anything but morose – that is, at least until the cathartic eye operation. Her consistently riveting gaze isn’t the vacant look of someone groping about the world tentatively (she doesn’t use a cane), but rather someone whose eyes sparkle with the shimmer of pure, wonderful apprehension. In one of the play’s richest passages, she speaks of a favorite life activity – being immersed in the sea, swimming. Her voice bubbles with joy, tinged with sorrow for sighted folk, when she recalls, “…Just offering yourself to the experience—every pore open and eager for that world of pure sensation, of sensation alone—sensation that could not be enhanced by sight—experience that existed only by touch and feel; and moving swiftly and rhythmically through that enfolding world; and the sense of such assurance, such concordance with it.” Molly doesn’t see her blindness, so to speak, as a tragic abnormality to be pitied or remedied.

   Equally captivating and intense are the performances by Abraham Adams and Brian Newberg in their roles of Frank and Mr. Rice, respectively.  Adams is a dizzying amalgam of boyish bravado, self-doubt, tenderness, mournful frustration, and righteous anger as he recalls his big-hearted but quixotic career pursuits. They include his hilarious story about making cheese from Iranian goats afflicted with chronic jetlag. And though all his support for the successful outcome of Molly’s surgery is genuinely ebullient, he doesn’t much like Mr. Rice.

   No wonder, perhaps. Maybe he sees too much of his own flawed motivations in the alcoholic doctor. In that role, Brian Newberg gives us a punctilious philosopher who quite effectively draws us into the angst-riddled disaster that his life had become, and the desperate hope to restore his internationally acclaimed reputation by performing a miracle on Molly.

   Molly’s partially restored vision initially leaves her in a short-lived period of giddy hope. But amid Frank and Mr. Rice’s incessant pressures to educate her in correctly connecting to what she can see, it dawns on Molly, and us, that to the men in her life, she’s become an agenda, a project, not a person. No miracle at all, the cure has forced her out of the ecstatic sensory completeness she once knew, becoming instead an infection that progressively thrusts her into a state of heartbreaking withdrawal and confusion.

   This work of truly great theatre may well leave you longing for the same assurance and concordance with the experience of being alive that Molly savored when swimming. In the end, more than a little heartbroken yourself, you’ll simply want to hug her.

   Molly Sweeney, in The Dietz Theater at Weathervane Playhouse, 1301 Weathervane Lane, Akron, Ohio / Friday, November 16 & Saturday November, 17 at 8 PM, Sunday November 18 at 2 PM / produced and presented by Seat of the Pants Productions and presented through special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc. / tickets $20 - available ONLINE at  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Elaborated Lives

Elaborated Lives

Photos courtesy Jonathan Tisevich

Sarah Marie Young

Brandon Michael and Joy Ellis

By Tom Wachunas

…Too many choices tear us apart / I don't want to live like that / Too many choices tear us apart / I don't want to love like that / I just want to touch your heart / May this confession be the start

- lyrics from “Elaborate Lives” by Tim Rice, from AIDA
  In the beginning of the Players Guild production of Aida, the Tony Award-winning musical by Elton John and Tim Rice, several people are strolling about the beautiful set designed by Joshua Erichsen in a convincing evocation of visiting an ancient Egypt exhibit in a museum. Emerging from a display niche, a statue of Amneris (Sarah Marie Young), daughter of a Pharoah, comes to life and intones the song, “Every Story is a Love Story.” It’s a richly sung summary of what will soon unfold, wherein we hear the solemn reminder, “…This is the story of a love that flourished in a time of hate.”

   In this highly moving chronicle of forbidden love, divided loyalties, and treachery in an era of tyranny and war, we meet Aida (Joy Ellis), a Nubian princess stolen from her country and enslaved in Egypt. There she struggles mightily to reconcile her growing love for Radames (Brandon Michael) – a imposing Egyptian soldier already betrothed (for nine years!) to Amneris – with the pressing burden of remaining a faithful leader to her own beleaguered people.  

   As he has done for so many past productions, director Jonathan Tisevich has assembled a wondrously gifted group of performers. Amid the ethereal lighting designed by Scott Sutton, the sonic magic from the live, 11-piece orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons, and further energized by Michael Lawrence Akers’ exotic, often sensual choreography, this 27-member cast effectively morphs the smallness of the Guild’s arena theater into a place of epic dimensionality.

    Tisevich has always been a thoughtful minister to his performers’ agency for articulating emotional and psychological authenticity in their characters. And nowhere does that agency have more depth than in the portrayals of Aida, Radames, and Amneris.

  In expressing, indeed exclaiming, all of Aida’s tortured heart and crisis of conscience, Joy Ellis is a thoroughly riveting presence. Her singing is a mesmerizing force in itself – plaintive and wounded when she sings the bitterly ironic “Easy as Life”; alternately fierce, plaintive, and tender elsewhere. Among of the evening’s most touching and powerful passages are her duets with Radames, such as “Enchantment Passing Through,” and the soaring “Elaborate Lives.” 
   It’s fascinating to watch Brandon Michael, a wholly compelling singer in his own right, as he navigates the changing tides in the heart of Ramades. The conquering soldier is conquered by Aida’s nobility and courage. He falls inexorably in love with a slave, though not without a price.  

   Speaking of changing hearts, an equally fascinating catharsis transpires as you watch Sarah Marie Young’s stunning portrayal of Amneris. Through half  of the story she’s a feckless, self-possessed, swaggering imp with an inflated sense of entitlement. In the hilarious “My Strongest Suit,” she and her women-in-waiting strut about the palace like so many fashionistas sporting ridiculously bizarre outfits and headwear (marvelous costumes by Stephen Ostertag). But as Ramades grows more distant and cold, the reality of her plight becomes all too clear. Now humbled and resolute, she pours out her woundedness, her surrender, in one of the show’s most heartrending songs, “I Know the Truth.”

   The evening flows fairly consistently with other memorable characters and interludes. David Everett plays Zoser, the stern and sinister father of Ramades, and who is slowly poisoning the Pharoah (Corey Paulus). Jeremy Clarke plays Mereb, a clever and tender-hearted Nubian servant who knows his way around the royal bureaucracy. He sings with palpable urgency in “How I Know You.” Aida pleaded with him to not reveal her true identity to the rest of the Nubians, but doesn’t keep her secret for very long. Destiny was calling.

   An electrifying choral high point comes at the end of Act I with “The Gods Love Nubia” – a thunderous cry for release from suffering, sung by Aida, her friend Nehebka (played by Sunayna Smith), and the Nubian captives. That anthemic single moment, replete with gravitas and grace, with its stratospheric harmonies gripping and soulful, embodied the entire spirit of this production. Call it a prayer of longing, love, and hope, and hauntingly relevant to our own time and circumstances. 
AIDA, in the Canton Players Guild W.G. Fry Theater, 1001 Market Ave., N. Canton, Ohio /  THROUGH NOVEMBER 18, 2018 / Shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. / additional performance at 8 p.m. on Nov. 18 /Single tickets $32, 17 an younger $25, Seniors $29 / / Box Office at 330.453.7617

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Alchemy Lives in The Canton Symphony Orchestra

Alchemy Lives in The Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

Alchemy: (from Miriam-Webster Dictionary)
1 : a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life
2 : a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way
3 : an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting

   After hearing the very eclectic program offered by the Canton Symphony Orchestra at Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall on October 27, I was finally convinced of something I had suspected on numerous previous occasions: Every member of this ensemble, including Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, is an alchemist. What else could explain the transmutation of the instruments they play and the scores they read into vessels of such profound spirituality? Alchemy.  

   This uncanny phenomenon was wondrously evident in the evening’s first selection, Cantos in Memory of Benjamin Britten, composed for string orchestra by Arvo Pärt in 1977 as a memorial to the leading British composer of the mid-20th century who died in 1976. Pärt was greatly moved by what he called the “unusual purity” of Britten’s music.

    This work is so stunning in its hypnotic simplicity that the players themselves seemed mesmerized as they articulated an utterly ethereal reality. At the beginning, a solitary tubular bell rang out three times, followed by the whispered entry of very high violins that introduced the haunting melodic idea. Like a rolling mist, that single motif descended progressively into lower registers from violins to violas, then to cellos, then to the basses, and all against the ceaseless tolling of the bell. Most intriguing is how gradually through time the tempo slowed while the volume of sound increased to a roar until, at its loudest point, it suddenly stopped. We were left with just the sound of one more bell softly ringing and fading away into breathtaking, mystical quiet. It was silence with a pulse - an achingly poignant arrival at reverential, even tearful introspection.

   That was the calm before the stormy opening of the next work on the program, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia Da Requiem, composed in 1940. Britten, an avowed pacifist, was commissioned by the Japanese government (at that time engaged in war with China) to write a work commemorating 2,600 years of Japan’s ruling Mikado dynasty. Perhaps the Japanese didn’t fully comprehend the implications of the work when they initially approved the title. After it was played through during a rehearsal in Tokyo, the score was rejected. The angry Japanese foreign ministry found the work’s Christian liturgical references disturbing and otherwise culturally inappropriate. The work has no references to the Japanese dynastic anniversary, and the titles of its three movements have no liturgical specificity as such, but rather speak to the intense emotional trajectory of the work – Britten’s feelings about war.

   It is a trajectory replete with alternately thunderous, writhing, and lush melodies voiced in layers by every section of the orchestra, all executed here with electrifying aplomb. The first movement, “Lacrymosa,” began with the startling ferocity of timpani blows, sounding like cannon fire, followed by a slow lament from the brooding cellos. The frenzied second movement, “Dies Irae,” ranks among Britten’s greatest feats of orchestral writing. With remarkable fervor, the orchestra conjured the full outbreak of war, symbolized by piercing flutes, snarling rapid-fire triplet figures from the trumpets, and explosive syncopations from the brass. In the third movement, “Requiem Aeternam,” all that grim tumult was left behind to impart a spirit of peace that concluded with a sustained, consoling note from the clarinet.

   For the next two program selections, the world-class artistry of the CSO was all the more augmented by guest soloist Mark Kosower, principal cellist of The Cleveland Orchestra. His performance here of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concert No.2 was a transcendent musical magnet, riveting in how it gripped and drew us progressively deeper into the work’s dramatic mood shifts. From the plaintive opening melody of the first movement, seeming to leap from the churning textures crisply described by the ensemble, then into the wistful, heartrending melodic journey of the second movement, and throughout the lyrical aggressiveness of the final movement with all its daunting passages of rapid sixteenth notes, Kosower’s mellow tonality was a constant, clearly sensual presence, and always in perfect aural balance with the ensemble.

   The soloist’s virtuosity was equally compelling throughout Dvořák’s Rondo for Cello and Orchestra. Kosower is an artist whose prowess rests not only in his dazzling, unfaltering technical precision, but more importantly, in giving palpable form to unmitigated passion. He transforms the cello into a sublimely emotive force.

   Speaking of emotive forces, the evening ended with a titillating rendition of George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1, composed in 1901. Rhapsodic indeed, this vivacious medley of Romanian- flavored folk songs and dances was delivered with infectious abandon. While medieval alchemists failed in their attempts to concoct a universal potion to cure all disease, the CSO alchemists were eminently successful in brewing up a delicious elixir of pure jubilation.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Poetic Journeys Home

"Brown House" by Shari Wilkins

"Winifred's House" by Shari Wilkins

"Ivy House" by Shari Wilikins

"4499R" by Laura Ruth Bidwell

"6564U" by Laura Ruth Bidwell

By Tom Wachunas

   “… Reality has always been interpreted through layers of manipulation, abstraction, and intervention… Every photograph has many truths and none. Photographs are ambiguous, no matter how seemingly scientific they appear to be. They are always subject to an uncontrollable context…”  - Taryn Simon

   “You come to the photograph as an aesthetic object with no context... Then you step in and read the text and then out again to revisit the image in a completely different way. I'm interested in that space between text and image. The piece becomes the negative space between the two.”   - Taryn Simon

   EXHIBIT: Art as Journal: Laura Ruth Bidwell and Shari Wilkins / THROUGH NOVEMBER 4, 2018, at STUDIO M in the Massillon Museum / 121 Lincoln Way East in downtown Massillon / Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am - 5:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm - 5:00pm / Phone: 330-833-4061 /

  Please note: I apologize for being so late with this post on the fascinating inaugural exhibit at Massillon Museum’s beautiful new STUDIO M Gallery. Last day for viewing this show is Sunday, November 4.

   Of all the myriad forms that a work of art can be, now more than ever photography remains the most challenging if not problematic to me. What makes a photograph a work of art? What distinguishes it from the plethora of photographic images that seemingly assault our daily lives? What separates it, for example, from all those terribly ordinary snapshots stuffed into social media? One unfortunate by-product of the photosaturated culture we’ve created for ourselves is the sheer ease with which we can sate our gluttonous appetites for the mundane. Fast-food for the eyes.

  Ansel Adams’ dictum comes to mind: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” The notion of a photograph being an intentionally creative act on the part of the photographer is a prickly proposition, arguably implying that reckoning a photograph as art is simply a matter of determining how effectively its visual components adhere to certain aesthetic principles of formalistic excellence. But it’s rarely that simple.

   I included the above quotes from contemporary multimedia artist Taryn Simon because I think they offer an avenue to appreciating the photojournalistic or documentary character of the pictures in this exhibit. As discrete two-dimensional images, their essentially quotidian subjects are captured in a straight-on fashion, which is to say they’re unembellished by any really fancy special effects. But as Simon reminds us, embracing context is key. To that I would add the vital importance of presentation. So read the artist’s statements posted on the wall to better grasp their motivations and meanings. Therein you learn this about Laura Ruth Bidwell’s “The Great Tangle” series:

   “When we moved from Peninsula to Cleveland, the one thing I truly grieved for was the great abundance of forest and tangles surrounding our property and in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Once I started walking around my urban neighborhood with camera in hand I could see how much lush foliage and tangles existed among the houses and buildings around me. This show has given me the opportunity to pair up what I call The Great Tangles from my rural and urban lives.”

And of her works here, the “Promised Land” series, Shari Wilkins has written: "Shot primarily on miniature instant film, this project portrays images of homes built in my father's hometown of Cairo, Illinois… It is a mythological place in my family's collective memory… After a twenty year absence, I visited Cairo and was struck by the abandoned town that I visited often as a child. I set out to find my grandmother's home as my first step in documenting some of the remaining homes, some abandoned, some not…”

   The fronts of every house in Wilkins’ miniature pictures are seen from enough of a distance so that no matter how close you come to the actual picture, the details remain slightly blurred and fuzzy, though still clear enough to show varying degrees of decrepitude or abandonment. Especially interesting is how the photos are uniformly presented, all seeming to float under glass on wide-margined matts framed with very plain (pine?) wood. Like so many preserved museum specimens of extinct life, or fossils, the pictures have become objects - reliquaries of urban entropy. There’s something distinctly poetic in how they exude a saddening narrative about the historic diminishment and shrunken dimensionality of a once promising place. It’s a story certainly not unique to Cairo, Illinois.

   Though not so overtly mournful in scope, the narrative contained in Laura Ruth Bidwell’s photos is no less engaging than Wilkins’, and equally well-presented. In the journey of leaving her home in a richly sylvan environment to live in a more urban setting, Bidwell tells us how her missing the natural richness surrounding her former home was relieved by finding ample enough evidence of the same around her new one. Consequently her unframed photos, most of them capturing various densities of lush foliate textures, shapes and colors, and each uniformly mounted on a white birch panel, are presented in pairs, suggesting a before-and- after scenario. Interestingly, though, the pictures have no titles. They’re coded only with strange numbers, so we don’t know which home is which. Her memory of the first beloved locale has become intermingled and ‘tangled’ with her connection to  the second. Whatever anxieties Bidwell may have initially experienced in her moving from one place to another, her handsome photos represent the discovery of a comforting kinship between the two.  

  Returning for a moment to the idea of photographs as fast food for the eyes: If a more gourmet cuisine, as it were, is what you seek, be thankful for real art galleries. In this case, the featured entrees at Studio M are particularly savory.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

In a New York State of Mind, Part 2

Sauntering, by Randi Reiss-McCormack

Bush with Sky, by Robert Solomon

RED HERRING, by Gerri Rachins

Domain, by Thomas Berding

A Darlington Square, by Anthony Cuneo

Recollection No. 94 (Los Angeles)
In a New York State of Mind (Part 2)

By Tom Wachunas

   "Quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean 'love' in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” — Joan Didion

   EXHIBIT: Mutual Aid – a group exhibition at The Lemmon Gallery, Located inside the Kent Stark Fine Arts Building, 6000 Frank Avenue, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH OCTOBER 26, 2018 / Gallery viewing hours are Monday – Thursday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m, and Friday 11 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  RECEPTION on Thursday Oct. 18, 5 – 7 p.m. /  Contact: Professor Jack McWhorter,   / Office: 330 244-3356

   Since resettling in Stark County in 1992 with a vague hope of connecting with a thriving contemporary painting and gallery milieu, I still often miss breathing in the crackling atmosphere of painters regularly engaged in bold experimentation, and experiencing the scope and depth of their probative visions that made my life in New York for 14 years so inspiring and enlivening.  In these parts, while there is certainly a noteworthy contingent of such adventurous painters, they’re a relative minority. A majority of local artists exhibit a comparatively constricted aesthetic identity, with a propensity for the pretty, the already tried and true, the tepid and the quiet,…stuff safely ensconced in the more predictable, quotidian conventionalities of traditional artmaking.

   With this visitation from city that never sleeps, Mutual Aid is another gratifying example of how the gallery exhibitions at Kent Stark are so consistently compelling in drawing a bead on the rich and sprawling vista of contemporary art beyond our immediate region. If you’ve not yet read the background / thematic statement for this show, posted here on October 3 (Part 1), I think it important you do so. Here’s a link:

    Also, another key to appreciating the artists’ motivations here can be found by reading their statements in the exhibition’s excellent digital catalogue, so here’s that link:

   In appreciating the thematic parameters for this show as laid out in the exhibition statement, I found one application of the ‘mutual aid’ concept to be particularly resonant when appreciating the sheer diversity of the artists’ approaches. It’s the idea that mutual aid “…is an acknowledgement that paintings create a relationship between two things or situations that suggest ‘multi-directional conversations.’”

   Think of conversation here as a call-and-response dynamic. Painters can be great conversationalists, which is to say they’re initiators of, as well as respondents to not only ideas, feelings, chosen models, or memories, but also the process itself of manipulating paint. A mark, a brushstroke, a shape, or a color can activate, or ‘call’ another into being, and another, and another, and so forth. The painting itself becomes a codified map or journal of protracted thinking, actions, and reactions through time. The entire exhibit is a wholly engaging dialectic on the often complicated relationships between intuition and intention, conscious design and chance occurrence, harmony and dissonance, mimesis and deconstruction.

   Here’s just some of the many works I found especially arresting: The frenetic flirtation with intricacy and chaos in Randi Reiss-McCormack’s Sauntering; the runic simplicity and indeterminate space of Robert Solomon’s Bush with Sky; the enigmatic playfulness of Gerri Rachins’ RED HERRING; the sumptuous textures and motion in Thomas Berding’s Domain; the ghosts under the geometry in Anthony Cuneo’s A Darlington Square; the reductive, monolithic flatness of that looming black shape in Barbara Marks’  Reflection No. 94 (Los Angeles). What is that thing anyway? A tree? An alien vessel landing? A tornado touching down? Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Canton anymore.

   Levity aside, it’s in that challenging place of not always knowing precisely what we’re looking at - of allowing for the intrigue of unanswered (or unanswerable) questions - where much of the allure of this show is to be found. There’s meaning in the mysteries if we can grasp that paintings, and the processes of making them, are essentially metaphors for not just the celebration of the familiar and the understood, but for navigating all manner of existential conditions, including life’s most vexing conundrums.

   So if a painter can let a painting emerge and simply be on its own terms,  we as viewers, in the spirit of mutual aid, can often return the favor by not overthinking it. Then maybe Descartes’ classic philosophical tenet of Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) could give way to the much more scintillating Miror, ergo vivo -  I wonder, therefore I live.