Monday, June 25, 2018

Foretelling the Past

Foretelling the Past

By Tom Wachunas

   “Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God.” –Gerhardt Richter

   UPCOMING EXHIBIT – SAVE THE DATE PLEASE !! – Altared States, a solo exhibit of my work at The Little Art Gallery, on view July 19 – August 19, 2018 / located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio / Opening reception on Thursday, July 19, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

   In May, I posted some thoughts about a recent 3D piece of mine that had made it into the annual May Show at The Little Art Gallery (LAG). Here’s the link in case you’d like to refresh your memory:

   That work, “Demise,” will be one of the five new pieces made this year (the other four have never been previously exhibited) which will be included in my upcoming LAG solo exhibit, opening on July 19. The show is also a retrospective, with art made in Canton over the past 18 years, and a selection of small works made when I lived in Miami (1975-1977) and New York City (1977-1991).

   Therein rests the reason for this post, and maybe a second as well. Here then is a sneak-peek at some Miami and New York stuff never previously shown in these parts. 

   I honestly can’t remember if these pieces were ever titled when I made them. This is curious if only because I’ve always believed that titles can be a vital cue to viewers in how to consider a work, as well as indicating the artist’s state of mind. A title can establish a context wherein the work can better breathe and speak. My experience of uncovering these modest experiments after their decades of being stored away out of sight (though not completely out mind) has certainly been an invigorating one.

     So for this exhibit, I gave each of these old pictures – in a way once lost and now found - a new name, hoping to somehow make a link, if only conceptually, between the past and present. Think of it as tracking genealogy to reveal a family lineage. While physical traits vary widely, works old and new in this exhibit share the same spiritual DNA.

   Pictured above, in order from top down (under the two Pickles cartoons by Brian Crane)), are acrylic paintings on corrugated cardboard panels: Corrugated Dreams # 2 (Miami) / Corrugated Dreams #4 (Miami) / Blocked Signals (New York) / and Signal Waves (New York).

   At the time these were made, I was working full-time in the pre-recorded music industry, at times a warehouseman, at times a wholesale buyer.  Vinyl discs reigned supreme in those days. Music albums were shipped in corrugated cardboard boxes, often stuffed with extra, pre-cut 12” x 12” corrugated panels used to fill any leftover space in the boxes. The sheer abundance and availability of this free material seemed perfectly suited to my aesthetic musings about altering the functionality of ordinary, found substances of workaday life to give them an intimate new purpose and presence… to literally live outside the box.  

   Or outside the book. Maybe someday I will make a novel, given my ardor for the written word. Meanwhile, you could still consider my upcoming exhibit as chapters if not characters in an ongoing story.

Monday, June 18, 2018

X Marks the Spot

X Marks the Spot
By Tom Wachunas

   “Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn’t bore.”  - Jean Dubuffet

   “…Every generation must feel some version of wanting to correct the story, and to extricate painting from the narrows and constrictions of theory…” – David Salle, from “How To See” 

    If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear.  – Puck’s epilogue from Shakespeare’s play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

EXHIBIT: My Ex Suite and Other Explorations – recent mixed-media works by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, in the second floor gallery at John Strauss Furniture, THROUGH JULY 30, 2018 / 236 Walnut Ave. NE in downtown Canton / hours:  Monday-Friday 9 – 5, Sat. 10 – 4

    Patricia Zinsmeister Parker continues to be a prolific mischief-maker.  The unmitigated quirkiness of her current show at John Strauss Furniture has a mesmerizing, childlike abandon about it. It must have cast some sort of a spell on me, because it induced a curious thought. It’s this: Parker may be a modern-day Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow). He was that unforgettable imp from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream – shrewd sprite, wandering jester, wise knave. If Puck could paint, he’d likely make pictures like Parker’s.

  There are several series – or, as Parker calls them, ‘suites’ - of works represented here. One is an arresting group of portraits, “Women Who Have Inspired Me Suite.” Their contemplative countenances and sketchy bodies are quickly captured apparitions, hovering in a painterly ether of gestural marks and luminous colors that vibrate between solidity and transparency.

   “My Ex Suite” is a particularly beguiling and boisterous collection of small (12” x 12”) mixed-media works, many clearly configured around an ‘X’. Ex what? Of course the notion of ex-spouse or boyfriend comes to mind, and all its implications. Is Parker recalling with fondness, or regretting? Is she relieved, rejoicing, or rueful? Maybe all of the above, maybe not. Half the fun here is in formulating your own subjective connections. 

   Meanwhile, consider some larger associations with X, such as, say, a mark on a map, a target, a goal. Or a blotting out, a deletion, a denial. These pieces are blocked together into a grid-like formation on the wall, suggesting perhaps a puzzle. Together they constitute a veritable treasure trove of intriguing symbols, codified messages, and/or personal remembrances. Many of the surfaces bristle with various textures, including adhered objects such as little figurines or game pieces. Some paintings are generously sprinkled with glitter. Others are lathered with so much paint (and whatever other thickening agents Parker uses) that they look like cakes piled high with icing, or sparkling holiday cookies. Whatever gravitas may be lurking here, it’s often garishly colored and sugar-coated. 

   Some of Parker’s “Other Explorations” include heady juxtapositions of text and imagery embedded in frenetically brushed, rough-edged color fields. Commentaries on cultural memes? Who’s behind those miniature masks in Artificial Intelligence, or Emoji ? What or who are they hiding? What’s more important – the disguise or the disguised? 

   I’m reminded of those surprising moments that can emerge when a child savagely rips the commercial giftwrap off the box holding a dearly desired, precious plaything made in a factory. Something unexpected happens. After the predictable squeals of delight have quieted down, the child’s imagination might wander in and take center stage. Suddenly the empty box itself seems more fascinating than what was in it, and somehow much more fun. It becomes the real object of attention. Forget playtime protocol. The possibilities are endless. The contained has been upstaged by the container, now made anew. Art can be like that.  

   This exhibit is bountiful evidence of the painter at play. Here she is, a flippant deconstructor, articulating the instantly familiar side-by-side with the enigmatic. Parker’s exquisitely refined unrefinement can invade our aesthetic comfort zones and rattle our predisposition for more conventional painting practices. 

   Back to Puck for a moment.  In Shakespeare’s fantasy play, he’s neither all darkness nor all light. Imagine him as an artist happily straddling both worlds. He’s equal parts dream weaver and reality shaper. The art of Patricia Zinsmeister Parker does as much, and in a similarly delightful spirit of naughty glee.  

PHOTOS, from top: 1. Frieda / 2. 2017 Was a Good Year / 3. My Mom Was Crazy Irish / 4. My Ex / 5. Unrequited Love / 6. Artificial Intelligence / 7. Emoji

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Old Vessels, Robust New Wine

Old Vessels, Robust New Wine

By Tom Wachunas

   “The aesthetic rationale for using appropriation, as distinct from a political one (though it may come to the same thing), is to insert a tiny wedge between the name and the named, to search out a crack in the wall built of habit and certainty, and work into that small fissure a measure of existential rebellion…Change the context, and meaning is made anew.” – David Salle, from his book, “How To See”

   “For many, even those who have not read the Odyssey, Odysseus’ adventures are part of our cultural knowledge. Given this familiarity, I have chosen to depict his journey within the mythological time period. In contrast, I have chosen to align Penelope’s heroic journey within the present context of female struggle and empowerment.”
- Kari Halker-Saathoff

   EXHIBIT: Odysseus and Penelope – The Long Journey, by Kari Halker-Saathoff / at the Canton Museum of Art THROUGH JULY 22, 2018
 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / Information: 330-453-7666,

   As physical entities in time and space, we are all vessels. Containers and transporters of our stories. Likewise, our art. 

   One way to think of art – whether spoken or sung, played or performed,  drawn, painted, printed or sculpted – is as a societal self-portrait; a tangible, formalized declaration and sharing of our collective soul. Our art can let us see who we were once, are now, and could yet become. 

   With this exhibit, Kari Halker-Saathoff has employed the historically potent art practice of bringing attention to a now by re-presenting a then. Parallel messages separated by centuries if not millennia.

   There are many significant precedents, among them the Neoclassical oil masterpiece by French painter Jacques- Louis David, Oath of the Horatii. The painting was inspired by an ancient story of early Roman soldiers pledging their lives to a cause before going to war, and here was intended to inspire French citizenry in 1784 to embrace the classical values of civic duty and sacrifice amidst the fervor of the impending French Revolution. Another compelling example is a series of magnificent oil paintings by Italian Baroque-era painter Artemesia Gentileschi, a brilliant advancer of Caravaggio’s tenebrism. The series began in about 1620 with Judith Beheading Holofernes. All the ensuing paintings in the series were variations on a story from the Biblical book of Judith, preserved in the Catholic Old Testament, but designated in the Protestant canon as apocryphal.  In any case, Judith was a Hebrew widow who saved her city from destruction by killing the enemy Assyrian General Holofernes. Judith’s actions in such an adversarial context resonated with Gentileschi as a symbol of her own struggle to be acknowledged not just as an accomplished painter in a male-dominated art world, but also respected as a strong, relevant woman in an oppressively patriarchal society. 

   And so it is that in this remarkable body of work - a combination of 12 graphite drawings on paper and 12 ceramic vessels - Kari Halker-Saathoff has appropriated Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, composed near the end of the 8th century BCE. In text placards that accompany the artworks, the artist gives us an episodic synopsis of this iconic narrative, wherein we learn of Odysseus’ arduous 10-year journey to return to his homeland after the Trojan War. He battles mythical beasts and wrathful deities. Meanwhile, his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, bravely resist cruel and conniving suitors who compete to marry Penelope in a doomed attempt to claim the kingdom of Ithaca.

   The intricately composed graphite drawings exude a graceful theatricality, as if constructed by a scenic designer for a stage play. All those beautifully blended grey tones and ornate linear details against white grounds are actually cut-outs in part, placed in turn against solid black backdrops. It’s an arresting effect, lending a sculpted, bas-relief air to the compositions. Additionally, there are ovoid portraits floating in the corners of each drawing, looking like jeweled pendants or medallions. For the most part, these visages seem to be too…today to be characters from an ancient epic. Perhaps they’re important contemporaries, personal to the artist’s own journey. 

   And therein lies a fascinating turn of perspective, most apparent in Kari’s 12 ceramic vessels. The clay was formed by potter Joshua Ausman according to her specifications, and the shapes of the pots are reminiscent of classical Greek amphoras. Each is trimmed with low fire red accents and adorned with bold, illustrative images in black. 

   You could call these images dramas-in-the-round. They require you to circle them on your own journey to take in all their visual and thematic content, which was inspired by the Women’s March of 2017, and the concomitant concerns of the #MeToo movement. In recognizing the elements of dignity and valor and bravery and heroism threaded through The Odyssey, Kari identifies most deeply with Penelope - not only her anxieties and sufferings, but her fortitude, faithfulness, ingenuity and intelligence as well. Notice how the story progresses from one vessel to the next. The years march on as Penelope waits. Accordingly, the vessels’ necks, ringed with red lines (somewhat suggestive of tree rings), grow progressively taller. Vessels holding more and more…hope?

  A rising up. Slowly but surely, these engaging artworks transcend their rootedness in dusty old myth to become a tangible connection to our present. As such, they’re immediately, indeed urgently relevant to our current milieu of volatile social confrontation and ideological reckoning. “Change the context, and meaning is made anew.”   

   PHOTOS, from top:  1. Clay vessels by  Kari Halker-Saathoff  (with Joshua Ausman)  - image courtesy of the artist) / 2. She Resisted / 3. She Was Warned / 4. Suitors Sued For Harrasment / 5. Breathless Dead / 6. Who Receives Him Kindly / 7. Heartsick On The Open Sea – He Made His Name By Sailing There