Wednesday, January 31, 2018

From Impeccable Bach to Sensational Mahler

From Impeccable Bach to Sensational Mahler

By Tom Wachunas

   One way to appreciate the program selections for the January 27 concert from the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), titled “German Genius,” is as a thrilling homage to the Austro-German tradition of classical music. While the program certainly wasn’t a comprehensive survey, it was nonetheless an astute, two-point perspective on that tradition, spanning nearly 200 years, from the Baroque-era seeds that took root and blossomed in the marvelous compositions of J.S. Bach, to the monumental, verdant pinnacles articulated by Gustav Mahler in the early 20th century.

   On this occasion, beginning with Bach’s much beloved Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor, what was old seemed new again. The impeccable virtuosity of the featured soloists – Vivek Jayaraman, who served as CSO concertmaster for the 2016-2017 season, and current CSO principal second violinist, Solomon Liang – imbued the work with intense expressivity. 

   Here was a partnership of two distinct musical presences engaged in an extended conversation built on intricate contrapuntal themes. Jayaraman’s demeanor seemed for the most part stately and authoritative in a gentle sort of way. Liang’s stance was no less authoritative, and he was also especially animated in his youthful panache, looking at times like he was about to break into a dance.  Together, they brought a palpably joyous energy to the music, which fluctuates between passages of pastoral calm and aggressive solemnity. The blending of these individual voices was particularly remarkable during the achingly poignant Largo movement, as if the two had magically become one tender voice. Throughout, the crisp precision and warm tonality of their playing was beautifully balanced with the steady flow of harmonies and rhythmic coloring from the string ensemble.

   Hearing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is to embark on an arduous existential trek, a daunting trudge through both the darkest and brightest realms of being alive. Making the journey is ultimately a rewarding endeavor, like climbing a mountain. I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to perform it. I can report only that Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann and his 87 accomplished climbers, so to speak, rose to this complex, episodic occasion with astonishing resolve and thunderous sonority. They successfully brought the audience to its feet, standing in adulation of a sensationally triumphant musical summit. 

   Long before getting there, we first heard a doleful trumpet lead us on a lumbering funereal march. It was an inconsolable outcry of grief ending with a grim, muted thump from the low strings, only to give way to more savage turbulence of the second movement. The orchestra was a startling maelstrom, or ravaged landscape of conflicting psychological and emotional states, interrupted by an all too brief moment of soaring nobility from the brass. A very long silence ensued before the vigorous, lilting third movement. The wondrous clarity of the horns here evoked a spirit of innocence, nostalgia, and hope.

   And then there was the famous Adagietto movement, long regarded as Mahler’s encoded love letter to his wife, Alma. Here was an inspiring, contemplative portal to serenity, delicately carved out by the strings, like a quiet, sunlit stream, shimmering with gentle strums from the harp.
   The radiant, soul-stirring optimism of the Rondo-Finale concluded not with a protracted chordal crescendo, but rather with accumulating rushes of abundantly textured phrases ascending to a single crackling note, like a lightning strike. It was a bold-faced final period in an epic essay. This was not really an ending so much as an ebullient arrival.

    Mahler said once, “When I have reached a summit, I leave it with great reluctance, unless it is to reach for another, higher one.” That statement resonates all the more when considering how consistently the CSO arrives at ever more formidable artistic peaks with enthralling power and grace.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Can the past have a future in the present?

Can the past have a future in the present?

By Tom Wachunas

    “Painting is by nature a luminous language.”  - Robert Delaunay

   Here’s a brief hiatus from writing about other people and their art. Now that I look at what I just wrote, I’m thinking that whenever I write about other people and their art, I’m basically saying as much about myself as I am about them. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together… and thank you John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But I digress… 

  I want to report an epiphany. A sort of resurrection. I’ve been infected by a polychromatic palette. Who knows…it may be terminal. Kindly let me explain.

   With the notable exception of my annual 8 ½” x 11” Christmas  paintings on heavy cardboard (reproduced as  limited-edition, signed digital prints serving as  Christmas cards), the vast majority of my studio output over the past seven or eight years  has been either monochromatic in nature, or built largely on a black-and-white dynamic. During much of 2017, I experienced increasingly debilitating fits of dissatisfaction with the trajectory of my work. I had only a terribly nagging feeling that it was time to somehow alter my aesthetic. Analysis paralysis was beginning to set in. While a big decision seemed to loom ever closer in the cluttered corners of my mind, I remained for the most part frustrated, lethargic, uninspired.

   Flashback. The last time I was haunted by such an impasse was in 1999 or so. By that point, though I had been writing reviews for a few regional magazines, I hadn’t made a single visual artwork for about eight years. Exasperated, I remember purchasing, of all things, and inexplicably enough,  a plastic model of a dinosaur skeleton at a hobby shop, which I assembled, painted in muddy enamel earth tones, and mounted on a raggedy-edged,  pockmarked foamcore panel. Maybe it was the textures, the smell of the paint, the act of gluing little 3D forms on to a surface…but that eerie relief image of a floating dinosaur skeleton was just the spark I needed to begin making new original work in earnest.

   Several months ago, in preparation for an upcoming exhibit of my work slated for this July at The Little Art Gallery (which will be something of a mini-retrospective combined with some new works), I rummaged through the layered contents a large trunk I hadn’t opened since 1992 (the year I returned to Ohio after living in NYC for 14 years). Therein was a series of small (9” x 11”) unframed gouaches from around 1982 (two of them posted here in the top photo). They took hold of me the moment I saw them. They haven’t let go since. These were originally studies for larger oil paintings that no longer exist. So now I gazed at modest remnants, almost totally forgotten memories, abstracted and translated into gouache, of traveling and camping in the enchanting landscapes of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.  Yet the structural simplicity of my painted picture planes, the implied narrative of the imagery, and those dreamlike colors…resonated, intrigued, spoke.

   I heard. Something - dormant too long, nearly extinct - woke up and beckoned me. So call it a nod, an affirmation, an homage, this new bas-relief mixed media painting, 18” x 18”, finished yesterday, and which I’m calling “Homecoming” (bottom photo). A bright inroad through the belly of the beast (I incorporated that hobby shop Tyrannosaurus Rex from 1999) to…where?

   Destination undetermined. Only, let there be color. More to come.

Impassioned Ambiguities

Impassioned Ambiguities  

By Tom Wachunas

   “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time. ”
― John Patrick Shanley, author of Doubt

   John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt, is a 90-minute drama with no intermission. On one level, this riveting work could be called an unresolved cerebral and emotional thriller.

    The story unfolds in 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx. The school principal, Sister Aloysius, accuses Father Flynn of sexual misconduct with 12 year-old Donald Muller, the school’s sole black student. Seemingly convinced that her allegations are provable, Sister Aloysius embarks on a campaign to expose and oust Father Flynn. In the process she attempts to rally support from the boy’s teacher, Sister James, and the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller, who has her own very compelling reasons for resisting Sister Aloysius’ efforts.   

   In a recent Canton Repository article (January 4) about the current Players Guild production of the play, director Craig Joseph said, “The idea is to create a production that itself creates doubt. It fails if people walk out thinking, ‘He’s guilty’ or ‘He’s not guilty.’ It’s fun figuring out ways to shift and change the audience’s sympathies.” 

    Joseph has indeed figured out how to shift our sympathies in powerful fashion, thanks to the altogether gripping articulations from his cast of four. These articulations spring from the sharpness and depth of Shanley’s writing and its many forays into wily ambiguity. What’s written, however, could never come fully to light and life but for the prowess required to speak a language without words. Here in the intimate surrounds of the Guild’s arena space we’re able to clearly see that the cast has mastered the potency of nuanced physical expression – furrowed brows, eyes frightened or narrowed, snarling lips, heaving or stiffened shoulders, arched backs. In this tense he-said–she-said game of cat and mouse, queries and allegations are wielded like swords, parried with responses at once eloquent and terse, and all to the point, as it were, of stunning uncertainty. Even the silences that punctuate the fast-moving dialogue are voluminous with myriad unspoken questions. 

    Meg Hopp is a relentlessly commanding presence as Sister Aloysius. She perfectly embodies her character’s wry and rigid world-view, steeped as it is  in the self-righteousness and pernicious judgementalism that fuels her strident refusal to grant the possibility of Father Flynn’s innocence. She renders a complex portrait, colored with debilitating pessimism and real exasperation with what she considers to be the inept pastoral leadership in her community. She sees Sister James as too impressionable, lacking in wisdom and real-world experience - a potential ally who needs to be molded. In that role, Lana Sugarman is wholly endearing in her obsequious way, exuding a sweet vulnerability and bubbly optimism. At first not believing the report of Father Flynn’s sinful actions, as the play progresses she struggles mightily to grasp the darker implications of the circumstances emerging around her.

   Ryan C. Nehlen’s magnetic portrayal of Father Flynn makes it easy to understand Sister James' initial incredulity. He’s gentle and confident, erudite, and indisputably charismatic. And yet from the play’s outset, when he delivers an intriguing sermon that extols the spiritual value of being “stricken by private calamity,” Nehlen’s delivery - alternately poker-faced and impassioned -  has the uncanny effect of presaging trouble ahead and his more acerbic exchanges with Sister Aloysius.

   A startling surprise ensues when Sister Aloysius has a short conference with Mrs. Muller, played by Joy A. Ellis. For all of that scene’s brevity, Ellis packs it with an authentic and heartrending emotional intensity – a shift that significantly enlarges the philosophical dimensions of the story.

   There’s good reason to call this play “a parable.”  On the surface, its words might suggest an 
indictment of corrupted Catholic patriarchy and priestly pedophilia. In the end, though, I think the apparent religious context is somewhat cosmetic in nature, and arguably better regarded as symbolic of a larger societal malaise. 

   Is it still reasonable to want our words to describe or report reality in absolute, unarguable terms?  In this troubled age of moral and philosophical relativism, words can be especially convenient weapons, too easily abused, leading to tragic judgements. If nothing else, Doubt presents us with the capacity of words to veil as much as they reveal, to incite and justify uncertainties rather than declare unassailable truths. Playwright Shanley’s sobering, arresting words are woven together into a gray tapestry of innuendo, of assumptions acted upon as fact, of accusations without proof. Think of his play as a compelling allegory of the doubtful practices rampant on so many of our current social media platforms, the “…chatter of our time.” 
   Doubt – A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley / Directed by Craig Joseph, at Players Guild William G. Frye Theatre,  Cultural Center for the Arts, 1101 Market Ave. N., Canton / THROUGH JANUARY 28, 2018 / shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.
TICKETS: $20 adults, $17 seniors, $13 ages 17 and younger. Order at 330-453-7617 and 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Euphoric Palimpsests

Euphoric Palimpsests  

By Tom Wachunas

   “…My paintings undertake a topoanalysis of spaces that have invited us to come out of ourselves. The paintings can be seen as contemporary impressions of the constructed world and its impact on or relationship with natural spaces, underscoring our persistent need to understand ourselves through space…”  - Jack McWhorter

   EXHIBIT: ENGRAVED FIELDS, recent paintings by Jack McWhorter / curated by Tom Wachunas / at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 4, 2018 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio 

   Palimpsest -  noun,  pa·limp·sest \ ˈpa-ləm(p)-ˌsest , pə-ˈlim(p)- sest  
1 : A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.
2 : Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface
3: Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

     My first encounter with the art of Jack McWhorter – Associate Professor of Painting and Art Department Coordinator, Kent State University at Stark -  was in 2010 at his Malone University solo exhibit of paintings, called “Forces Constant.” It was immediately clear to me then, and continues to be today, that he’s a painter’s painter - a masterful colorist who revels in the materiality of oil paint, the physicality of the brushed line or shape, the fluidity of intuitive, vigorous markmaking.

   Since that 2010 exhibit, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the evolving trajectory of his aesthetic, and very grateful for the opportunity to curate this collection of 15 new works on view at the Canton Museum of Art. The exhibit is luscious evidence (like thick icing on a cake) of his ongoing pursuit of what he calls in his statement “a topoanalysis of spaces that have invited us to come out of ourselves.” In his 1958 book, The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), defined topoanalysis as “the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives.” 

   McWhorter refers to this group of paintings as ‘engraved fields.’ The  reference is an apt one if you think of fields in the sense of being tactile expanses of forms occupying a structured space or environment, as well as regions of ideological or emotional activity. His fields, then, are both physical and conceptual arrangements, inscribed or otherwise articulated via layers of abstract calligraphy describing poetic singularities.

    Each layer of these painterly palimpsests represents a moment in time, either brief or protracted. There’s a remarkable feeling of constancy, at once fast and slow, between the painter’s hand and eye engaged in a give-and-take dialogue. One prompts a response from the other as compositional decisions are made and allowed to evolve and morph within ghostly structural grids that seem to simultaneously emerge and fade from view. 

   Give yourself permission to be drawn in. Take the time to be caught up in the sheer immediacy of the imagery. You just might get the uncanny sensation that the painted surfaces are still arriving, still moving, still coming into being. These…objects…breathe.

   Jack McWhorter has not set out to imitate or improve upon the look of nature. He doesn’t woo us with cosmetic, representational illusionism. Instead, his integrated systems of gestural and chromatic configurations are first and foremost true to themselves – ongoing revelations of what I recently heard him describe as his “personal archaeology.” While they might variably suggest things of private significance such as landscapes or architectures, or fascinating ontological phenomena in the realms of biology or chemistry, their meaning is far from exclusive. Think of them as metaphors for how we as viewers might navigate and process “…the sites of our intimate lives.” McWhorter’s personal archaeology in effect invites us to re-discover our own.
    Surely the most electrifying impact of these images rests in their compelling expressivity of color. Call it chromatic euphoria. McWhorter’s palette is so radiant, so exquisitely lambent, that it becomes an illuminating force – a memorable form in itself.

   Looking at these exuberant paintings is to encounter sights, indeed sites, wherein  the mysterious, the metaphorical, and the mundane are conflated into elegant coexistence. Welcome to the abstract sublime.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Ptolemy Diagram, 60” x 54” / 2. Ptolemy Diagram (detail) / 3. Path of Yellow Sand, 40” x 34” / 4.  Formation, 42.5” x 51” / 5. Engraved Field, 54” x 60” / 6. Signal Tree, 40” x 34” / 7. Sky Map, 48” x 40”