Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Compelling Summons

A Compelling Summons

By Tom Wachunas

   “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” ― Henry David Thoreau 

   “Until he extends the circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” – Albert Schweitzer

   “…Man has been incorporated into the menagerie. He’s been summoned to this gathering of species to answer for some of his previous actions.”   - Brian Jarvi

EXHIBIT: African Menagerie: The Inquisition – work by Brian Jarvi / THROUGH JULY 22, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, OH 44702 /330- 453- 7666 / Hours: Monday: Closed; Tues - Thurs: 10am - 8pm; Fri - Sat: 10am - 5pm; Sun: 1 - 5pm

   Before reading much further, PLEASE consider taking the time to click on this link to the web site of Minnesota-based painter Brian Jarvi to see the video and read accompanying text on his African Menagerie: The Inquisition. It’s an artwork of epic proportions, 17 years in the making, consisting of seven connected oil paintings on panels – a breathtaking panorama, 32’ wide and 14’ high:

   Jarvi’s motivation for this work began during a journey to Africa in 1989, the first of 12 such trips. Of that first excursion, he has said, “The sights, the sounds, the smells – it felt like landing on another planet. It was jaw dropping. You could witness the cycle of life on a regular basis, which was intriguing to me.”

   Jaw dropping indeed. When I picked mine up from the museum floor during my first visit to this exhibit, I felt enthralled in a way I hadn’t experienced since my boyhood. I was maybe nine years old. I remember marveling at the astonishing artistry of elaborate illustrations in a sumptuous Time-Life book about dinosaurs that my parents had given me for Christmas. I also remember being somehow saddened in knowing that those life forms, depicted with such gripping immediacy and realism, were in fact no longer extant.
   As if Jarvi’s towering panels weren’t riveting enough, the exhibit also features more than forty additional drawings and paintings. Some are  studies (including pencil and/or charcoal), while many others are sublimely finished oil paintings in their own right – lavishly detailed pages, so to speak, in an ongoing saga of astute, passionate observation rendered with  wondrously masterful technique.

   One particularly arresting quality of Jarvi’s monumental centerpiece is the  sensation of immersive warmth. The African sun made palpable. It’s as if the pigments themselves have been infused with sunlight. Uncanny.

   And what of “The Inquisition” in the work’s title? Yes, the painting is certainly an imagined scenario, a theatrical fantasy of sorts, and an otherwise unlikely convening of 209 species. But notice the lone, naked human figure seated at the bottom of the panel to the right of the taller center panel. He’s a Caucasian, looking like Leonardo da Vinci, that genius purveyor of the idealized human form. You could think of him in this context as a symbol of Western culture itself, arguably the strongest hand in the disruption of natural dynamics on the so-called Dark Continent. 

   Something to think about: The stability and diversity of the animal world has been progressively and negatively impacted by the actions of one species – us. The results of our activities have grossly exceeded the kinds of natural occurrences (predictable or not) that can affect the lives and habitats of creatures in the wild. In relation to the survival of Africa’s indigenous wildlife - and for that matter the survival of too many other creatures across our planet – we are not simply a migratory species, but a vigorously, purposely invasive one as well.

   And all those meticulously painted animals? Are they a grand jury of abused citizens looking to indict? Or is the naked man there to propose to them a plan for harmony and healing?  
   The appeal of Brian Jarvi’s art goes well beyond its technical, illustrative excellence.  Jarvi is not just an illustrator (albeit a truly superb one) so much as he is a highly accomplished illuminator. He presents us with urgent questions. 

   Are we willing to step into the light he so elegantly sheds on our accountability in preserving the dwindling abundance of wildlife around us? Or will the relentless march of “civilized” humanity, all too often driven by greed, neglect, and cruelty, completely kill our capacity – our moral obligation, really - for respect, gratitude, and compassion? 

   Is it so implausible that in the next generation, some child somewhere might encounter these paintings merely as an academic remembrance – fossils of a kind – of the magnificent life forms that once graced this earth?

   PHOTOS in order from top: No.1 through No. 5African Menagerie: The Inquisition / No. 6 The Oracle / No.7 Ground Hornbill Study / No.8 Bongo Study

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Prayerful Cry from Outcasts

A Prayerful Cry from Outcasts

By Tom Wachunas

…There are some days, dark and bitter / Seems we haven't got a prayer / But a prayer for something better / Is the one thing we all share…
- from the song “Someday” by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz

   Where is it etched in stone that a work of musical theatre must always cheer up the house? The season-ending Players Guild production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the Victor Hugo novel and with songs from the 1996 animated Disney film, is a far cry from the giddy jubilance we experienced last September in the Guild’s dazzling production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. There were moments throughout Hunchback when the famous passage in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” crept into my head: “…This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”  This is the way the Guild’s season ends?

   As a theatrical work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (book by Peter Parnell) is a mercilessly contemplative story – somber, brooding, and seemingly hopeless in its complexity – and arguably flawed by an over-indulgence in expository narrative passages muttered or chanted by robed priests, choirs, and statues. Yet there’s something ineffably spectacular – even courageous - in how director Jonathan Tisevich has effectively let light shine through such a dark tale.

   It’s a light both symbolic and literal, revealed in many ways, starting with  the impressive set designed by Joshua Erichsen, in conjunction with the resplendent lighting design by Scott Sutton and offstage live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons. All of it evokes the ritualized majesty and mystery of Gothic cathedrals in 15th century Paris. Throughout the proceedings, these hallowed halls and shadowy niches often reverberate with explosive choral performances from the ensemble, capturing the glorious polyphonic pomp and solemnity associated with the High Holy Mass of old. The Latin texts and chants, peppered with Kyrie eleison ( Greek, actually, for “Lord Have Mercy”) and Dies irae (Day of Wrath), constantly portend trouble ahead.
  Archdeacon Frollo, played here by Jim Graysmith, named his bastard nephew Quasimodo (meaning ‘half-formed’) and regards him as a simpleton to be disciplined in the ways of the Church. Frollo raised him from infancy and forcibly confined him to Notre Dame’s bell tower to supposedly shield him from a morally corrupt world. Graysmith gives us a robust portrait of Frollo’s hypocricy and malevolence, beginning with his guilt-riddled lust for the alluring young gypsy woman, Esmeralda.  After being soundly rebuffed by her, he condemns her to die as a witch and embarks on a murderous campaign to purge Paris of its sinful gypsy population. While the clarity of what Graysmith is saying is often diminished when he sings in his gristly lower register, there’s no mistaking his palpably sinister intent. Chilling.

    Matthew Heppe plays Phoebus, a cathedral soldier employed by Frollo. He’s a carousing womanizer when we first meet him, but is soon drawn to Esmeralda enough to pursue her in earnest. Just how earnest, exactly, is a lingering question, as his cavalier demeanor feels a bit too tentative at times. Interestingly, one could reasonably wonder if Clopin, the energetic leader of the gypsies, might be the more sincere suitor. Or is his infectious passion more about loyalty to his community at large? In any case, Sean Flemming brings delightful ebullience to that role.

   And speaking of ebullience, there are some notable passages of mirth and magic amidst the darkness, including the gypsy joie de vivre evident in the ensemble numbers choreographed by Michael Lawrence Ayers. And a particularly enchanting scene in Act Two transpires in the song, “Flight Into Egypt,” wherein a statue of the martyr, St. Aphrodisius, played by Jake Sustersic, comes to life and directs Quasimodo to rescue Esmeralda. In a clever illusion, Sustersic appears to be holding his decapitated head in his hands as he sings.
   The undeniably brightest lights in this story are the electrifying performances by Desiree Hargrave as Esmeralda, and David Holbert as Quasimodo. What began as Esmeralda’s simple act of mercy in rescuing Quasimodo from the cruelties heaped upon him by Parisians during the annual Feast of Fools becomes a profoundly incorruptible bond of hope and love between societal outcasts. Indeed, when Hargrave sings “God Help the Outcasts,” it’s a soaring, cathartic focal point, a gripping pledge of sympathy and an otherwise bittersweet melding of selflessness, resolve, and achingly real supplication. And whenever Holbert sings, he sheds his contorted posture and slurred speech so that his voice becomes a strong, piercing presence, invested at some points with boyish wonder and joy, at others with a compelling sadness and urgency.  
  The story ends as it began, with a question: “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”  We might just as well wonder: What makes lust and what makes love?  While the end is not a happily-ever-after one by any worldly measure, it’s certainly not a whimper. It may be, for some, a dour finale, a mournful tolling of bells in an inapproachable tower. But the larger, more sobering realization here is in effect a Divine revelation – a ringing reminder that the purest love is nothing if not sacrificial. It’s not so much a matter of Dies Irae as it is one of Kyrie Eleison.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame / THROUGH June 3, 2018 / Players Guild Theatre,  1001 Market Ave N, Canton, OH /   Single tickets:  $29 / 17 and younger:  $22 / Seniors:  $26 / Order tickets : Box Office  330-453-7617, or at 

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Desiree Hargrave as Esmeralda and David Holbert as Quasimodo (courtesy Michael Lawrence Akers) / 2. David Holbert (courtesy Jon Tisevich) / 3. Desiree Holbert  (courtesy Michael Lawrence Akers) / 4. Jim Graysmith as Frollo (courtesy Jon Tisevich) / 5. Cast, courtesy Jon Tisevich

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Of Chance and Choice - A Scenario of Decisions

Of Chance and Choice – A Scenario of Decisions

By Tom Wachunas

   “…An artist is often the last to know what his or her real strengths are; doing and knowing what one has done are two different things. Which of us really knows what we’ve made? Where is the point from which one can achieve that objective viewpoint?”  - David Salle, from his 2016 book, “How to See”

    I’m feeling a bit apprehensive about my upcoming exhibit at The Little Art Gallery, which opens on July 19, and will include a talk I’ll be giving about my work, at the gallery, on August 9. The difficulty I’ve always had with formulating any kind of “artist statement” no doubt springs from my ambivalent faith in words to sufficiently address what I’ve made or why I made it.

   You see the irony in this, right? While I have a passion – maybe even a mission – for using words to elucidate the non-verbal art of others, my own works can often render me dumb. I will happily plunder my vocabulary in search of an engaging way to tell you about someone else’s art, yet be confounded in attempting the same with my own.  That’s much the case with my newest piece, Demise, a painted wood carving currently on view in the annual May Show exhibit at The Little Art Gallery.

   Still more irony. You might recall a January ARTWACH post wherein I spoke of a color epiphany in my work. Here’s a link should you wish to refresh your memory:   

   Considering my determination to “let there be color,” this new work came about just a few weeks after that enthusiastic declaration, quickly and seemingly out of nowhere. This impetuous return to a monochromatic palette was apparently a deliberate reversal, or indeed “demise” of my resolve. 

   But the story of this particular work, which in fact evolved neither quickly nor from “nowhere,” is a complex one. The truth of the matter is that the piece is a collaborative project roughly 15 years in the making. My collaborators were Serendipity, Nature, and Patience.

   A strange-looking wooden table, heavily painted in green enamel, was left outdoors by the previous owner of the property where I’ve lived since 2002. The round tabletop rested on a massive cylindrical block carved to look like an ancient totem – suggesting to me a figure from the Olmec culture of pre-Columbian Mexico, perhaps. I chose to leave the table exactly where I found it, and for several seasons it held a large planter for extra flowers to accent the garden I had made where the back yard meets a woods. Eventually the table top rotted through, the base toppled over, and I left it where it fell. 

  So there it was, to my eye something…artful.  A readymade relic of changeability. At first I never regarded it as something to be removed.  With each passing season I could still see that remnant totem peeking through its foliate surrounds, like some sort of fallen guardian at the border of tamed lawn and wild woods. Year in, year out, I watched it slowly morphed by the elements. The green paint was peeling away, cracks were getting deeper, the grain became increasingly pronounced as deepening ridges in the wood inscribed new shapes and textures. I kept wondering how or if I should cease the process to preserve a mysterious ornament.

   One day in March, trudging through my snow-covered back yard, I decided to put an end to my wondering (wandering?) and resurrect this curious object from the accumulated detritus of natural entropy. After it was dried out, I enhanced, or assisted, the readymade. I sanded a few areas, here breaking off some chunks, there chiseling only a few new shapes. Then I gave it an acrylic faux marble finish. Mind you, my trompe l’oeil technique is less than masterful. I used it here simply to suggest a memorial quality. In your act of looking at it, my past becomes your present. 

  So what do all these words about my piece really mean to you, the viewer, in the end? You choose. You decide. I can tell you one thing with certainty: Demise is itself a record of choices, a tangible history of decisions. And isn’t that the essence of any work of art?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Salon des Mentionables

Salon des Mentionables

By Tom Wachunas

…You like potato and I like potahto / You like tomato and I like tomahto/
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto /Let's call the whole thing off…
- lyrics to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George and Ira Gershwin

   EXHIBIT: 76th Annual May Show / THROUGH JUNE 2, 2018, at The Little Art Gallery, 185 North Main Street, in the North Canton Public Library, North Canton, Ohio
(I do have a new piece in this show – something I’ll be writing about in my next post. Maybe.)

   Pity the jurors. Shouldn’t it be sufficient enough that we ask them to choose artworks they deem deserving of public attention? That challenge alone can be terrifically daunting. Why, then, do we further straddle them with the unreasonable task of deciding on a hierarchy of awards? 

   Consider this exhibit of 50 works, exquisitely arranged by Elizabeth Blakemore, comprising a veritable wonderland of media, techniques, and subjects. In what universe are there standards of artistic excellence so static and unswerving, so objective and unassailable, that a single work could be credibly declared Best In Show, while several others are acknowledged (Second Place, Third Place, Honorable Mention) as close-but-not-quite-so-superior? In the context of treating art exhibits as contests or competitions, we still hold fast to our silly, outdated traditions. 

   That said, this year’s winner has achieved something truly remarkable for one so young. Alexis Greer Armentrout, a senior at Lake High School, garnered Best In Show prize for her pencil drawing, Curtains. The portrait is a technical marvel (looking, from just a few feet away, like a black-and-white photograph), unquestionably stunning in its quiet sensuality of surface, its dramatic play of light and shadow. Thinking about that tired truism, “The eyes are the window of the soul,” one of the most surprising aspects of this portrait is that while we see no eyes, it embodies nonetheless an uncanny soulfulness.

   Elsewhere in the gallery is an equally compelling self-portrait. We can see the eyes in Heather Bullach’s watercolor, Pink. And in the eminently skillful manipulation of her medium, she too delivers an alluring, soulful, indeed beautiful essence.

   Here’s a juror comment on yet another self- portrait, Artist at 57, an oil painting by Michael Nutter: “Best portrait in the exhibit; it has the most personality.” Debatable, yes? Maybe you prefer edgier personalities. In that case, there’s the wild eccentricity of Tina Meyers’ acrylic painting, Femininity. Meanwhile, here’s another juror comment regarding Nutter’s oil landscape, Tate Hill, certainly a very fine display of expressive luminosity: “Best landscape in the exhibit. The color takes it out of the ordinary.”  Debatable still, particularly when compared with Heather Bullach’s sumptuous and spectacular Embers.  Her landscape was awarded Third Place, while both Nutter paintings were given an Honorable Mention. Hmmm. Both of his were deemed ‘best’ something. But evidently not THE Best. What are we to make of such genre mincing, such apparently conflicting arbitrations? Potato potahto? 

   Among the abstract entries, the geometric precision of David Kuntzman’s glowing grids in his acrylic painting, Newton (Second Place), is a dazzling tour de force of spatial illusionism. No less arresting are the elegant rhythms of shapes and colors floating on and in Earl Iselin’s much more painterly oil and paper on canvas, Deflections in a Morrill Field.

   And speaking of elegant rhythms of shapes and colors, there’s a spirit of unfettered, even musical euphoria about Karen Bogdan’s fabric work, The Audience. Yes, it’s unabashedly ornamental and decorative. But it’s also seriously engaging – this arena of small heads seemingly singing in a big way, lined up and bobbing amidst undulating waves of… applause. 

   On a less gleeful note, there’s William Bogdan’s (Karen’s husband) woodcut print, Portrait of Pharfossa Ami. It’s not really a personality per se that radiates from this portrait so much as a stark personal-ness. Bill Bogdan has always been a storyteller with his prints, this one being of a man and his dog. It’s an airy impression, a ghostly imprint levitating in a vast white field, a remembrance infused with a sense of mourning. The man is ungrounded, seated on air, one foot shoeless, his eyes shrouded in shadow, his massive dog seeming to fade from his grasp and sight. The ink has the look of rubbed charcoal. Ashes to ashes. Powerful stuff.

   In all the visual wealth that abounds in a juried exhibit such as this one, there are simply too many mitigating factors to consider in judging the nuances of absolute good, better, or best. Such an enterprise feels somehow irreverent, not to mention meaningless. Tomato tomahto? It’s a matter of personal-ness. Let’s just call the whole… Well, you get the picture.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Curtains, by Alexis Greer Armentrout / 2. Pink, by Heather Bullach / 3. Tate Hill, by Michael Nutter / 4.  Newton, by David Kuntzman / 5. Deflections in a Morrill Field, by Earl Iselin /  6. The Audience, by Karen Bogdan / 7. Portrait of Pharfossa Ami, by William Bogdan