Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Respecting the Art

Respecting the Art

By Tom Wachunas

   First, consider the following statement from Robert Smithson, a highly seminal influence in the proliferation of, among other 1970s art forms, Earthworks. Here’s the beginning of his 1972 essay, “Cultural Confinement,” originally published in Artforum magazine:

   “Cultural confinement takes place when a curator imposes his own limits on an art exhibition, rather than asking an artist to set his limits. Artists are expected to fit into fraudulent categories. Some artists imagine they've got a hold on this apparatus, which in fact has got a hold of them. As a result, they end up supporting a cultural prison that is out of their control. Artists themselves are not confined, but their output is. Museums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells- in other words, neutral rooms called "galleries." A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world. A vacant white room with lights is still a submission to the neutral. Works of art seen in such spaces seem to be going through a kind of esthetic convalescence. They are looked upon as so many inanimate invalids, waiting for critics to pronounce them curable or incurable. The function of the warden-curator is to separate art from the rest of society. Next comes integration. Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized it is ready to be consumed by society. All is reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise. Innovations are allowed only if they support this kind of confinement.”

    On one level, Smithson’s fraught words read like a manifesto sounding the potential death knell of a long-standing exhibition system, woefully declaring the impotence of white-walled art galleries. He paints a picture, as it were, of artists as powerless victims, indeed prisoners, of a stifling paradigm that in turn renders their art powerless, “…reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise.”  I sense also a veiled insult to the viewing public, as if we’re merely a herd of unscrupulous shoppers, incapable of discerning relevance and meaning in the art we encounter in a gallery.

   Say what you will about the state of contemporary art in a blatantly consumerist culture such as ours, the fortunate fact of the matter is that real art galleries are still very much with us…just not so much in the general Canton area. With the exception of The Canton Museum of Art, The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, along with Ikon Images Gallery and The Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography in downtown Canton, the venues regularly promoted as displaying visual art in Canton’s so-called arts district aren’t actual, dedicated galleries at all. For the most part they’re retail stores wherein an honest experience of art can be all but completely smothered by the frenetic clutter of diversionary commodities and entertainments surrounding it. I’ve always preferred undistracted encounters with genuinely engaging artworks, in a clean setting designed solely for that purpose. If that sounds too much like cultural snobbery, so be it. 

   In any case, I’m elated to tell you of the recently opened William J. and Pearl F. Lemmon Visiting Artist Gallery, located in the Fine Arts Building on the Kent State University at Stark campus. Whew. That’s a mouthful. Henceforth in future ARTWACH posts, I’ll be referring to the space simply as The Lemmon Gallery.

   Thanks to the thoughtful design specifications by Jack McWhorter, Associate Professor of Painting and Coordinator of the Kent Stark Art Department, here is a new, pure space, stunning in its simplicity, its airiness, its pristine and elegant neutrality. It’s a superb example of what a true art gallery should be and, Mr. Smithson’s perceptions notwithstanding, certainly not where exhibited works would lose their charge or become ineffective.

  On the contrary, this is precisely where viewers can and should disengage from the corruptions and distractions of their outside world long enough to really see and savor the art on its own terms. Welcome, then, to a place where art is presented not as incidental visual fodder but rather a wholly satisfying feast for the eyes and mind. 

   The art visible in the photos above is that of visiting artist Carol Diamond, on view through September 21. Gallery viewing hours are Monday – Friday, 12:00 to 5:00 p.m. Look for my review of the exhibit here in a few days.    

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

On the Fluid Edges of Possibility

On the Fluid Edges of Possibility

By Tom Wachunas

   “ …It is remarkable the type of weight people have to carry with them. This thinking allows me to examine my own baggage and ask questions to others. So, how would carrying your personal baggage look?”  - Darius Steward 

   “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”  - Zora Neale Hurston

   EXHIBIT: Our Separated Selves – Watercolors by Darius Steward / at The Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio, THROUGH OCTOBER 28, 2018 / 330.453.7666 / 

   Among the many compelling aspects of the watercolor paintings by Cleveland artist Darius Steward is the scarcity of overall mark-making throughout the picture plane. The sheer starkness of the figure-ground dynamic makes these pictures feel somewhat empty. But that initial, fleeting sensation, induced by an apparent deficiency of an illustrative background, gives way to a more purposeful incompleteness. There’s eloquence in the emptiness here, a meaning to the unfinishedness. Sometimes what’s not specifically described can be an impactful narrative in itself. 

   Steward writes in his statement that, “Life, life would have to be my biggest inspiration…I want (my art) to talk about hope, progress, and things that can come…and what’s happening today.” In this paucity of overall visual context (these paintings aren’t elaborate “scenes” in the traditional sense), gravity hasn’t fully taken hold yet. The figures and faces from Steward’s family and urban community life - seemingly afloat in vast, nondescript white spaces - have the look of individuals who are not only present and immediate, but also still… becoming.

   You might think of them as on their way to an unseen or undetermined destination. There’s a soulful probity in the way these individuals are presented, as if they’re still in the process of being constructed on a field of potentiality, alive in the milieu of possibility. 

    In one series of four portraits of Steward’s children, each painting is titled with a single alphabet letter. The whole sequence spells out “MORE”, with an additional portrait having a literal question mark as its title, all implying the daunting uncertainties about what the future might hold for these children. Two other paintings under the title of “Venting” are of boys holding blank signs – messages not yet written or received, stories not yet told, lives in waiting. 

   Another series of three paintings is a poignant remembrance of Steward’s late mother. In “Grin and Bear It, Part 2” she stands, or walks, with her back to us, weighted down with each hand clutching a bunch of handbags -  symbols of all she held to be precious in life, and the heavy responsibility she carried in selfless nurturing of her children. In “My Inheritance,” an especially arresting self-portrait, Steward clearly identifies with that responsibility. He’s surrounded by the bags holding what his mother possessed. He stands, looking up at us, or at the task laying before him, perhaps- that of carrying on his mother’s legacy.

   Steward’s watercolors aren’t painted on conventional watercolor paper, which can tend to soak up pigments in a way similar to how fabric absorbs dyes. His paintings are on Yupo paper - a matte-smooth, bright white, waterproof and pulp-free synthetic material. Consequently, these painterly configurations appear to sit on top of and remain separated from the support material. The surface effect is striking. Every fluid stroke of the brush, every push or pull of color, tenuous or bold, retains its watery, translucent character, giving the painted forms a somewhat reflective patina that enhances the luminosity of their hues.

   Interestingly, that luminosity is the result of a compositional reversal of sorts. All that featureless expanse of white background in these paintings ceases to be merely a “negative space” or a silent surround. It becomes instead a showing through, a discrete entity, itself a metaphorical figure which can dwell to varying degrees inside the human figures we see.

    Here, white is neither a color nor a void, but a light. Indeed, an act of hope.

   PHOTOS from top: 1.  “ O “ / 2. “ R “ / 3. “Venting” /  4. “Grin and Bear It, Part 2” / 5. “My Inheritance”

Monday, August 13, 2018

Bootyful Dreamers

Bootyful Dreamers

By Tom Wachunas

ecdysiast (n.) - H.L. Mencken's invented proper word for "strip-tease artist," 1940, from Greek ekdysis "a stripping or casting off" 

   The nerve. The verve. The ghastly giggles and writhing wiggles. The Players Guild Theatre  production of The Full Monty is a sizzling, sassy foray into the ecdysiastic fantastic.

   Jonathan Tisevich directs this American musical adaptation (which opened on Broadway in 2000) of the eponymous British film from 1997. He’s more than casually familiar with the material, as he was in the musical’s national touring company in 2003, and later directed a notably successful production in 2010 on the Players Guild’s airy mainstage.  This time around, the action unfolds in the much tighter surrounds of the Guild’s downstairs arena theater, effectively injecting a very bold and daring story with even more rip-roaring, in-your-face intensity. 

   Not only directing a thoroughly electrifying group of 18 performers, Tisevich is a cast member himself, playing a key role. Fittingly enough, it’s the character of Jerry Lukowski, who in turn directs a raucous show within the show. He does so with infectious energy, infused with a physical panache and fierce emotionality mirrored by the entire cast.

    Here is the story of six steelworkers in Buffalo, New York, whose already vexed personal lives are further, uhm… upended when they become  unemployed. Jerry is desperate to find enough money for the child support payments to his ex-wife, Pam (played by Olivia Wimberly), else he’ll lose shared custody of his beloved son, Nathan (Joey Anderson). Intrigued by the popularity of a Chippendales act at the local night club, he masterminds a plan to form an unlikely male stripper troupe with his five equally desperate cohorts.

    Brian O’Jackson plays Dave, a large guy feeling helpless to revive his  troubled marriage to Georgie (Ashley Berman). Harold, played by Jay Sigler, is a factory manager afraid to tell his wife, Vicki (Meg Hopp) he can’t afford her lifestyle because he’s been fired. Kyle Burnett is Malcolm, a friendless introvert living with his mother. Ethan, played by Allen Cruz, is irrepressibly outgoing; and ‘Horse’, played by Darryl Robinson, longs for his younger days as a ladies’ man. The troupe’s plan is to do one show only and share a hefty paycheck. But very late in their rehearsals, they realize that simply cavorting about in their shiny red G-strings won’t fill the house. So they promise all those would-be ticket buyers “the full Monty” (British slang for going all the way, “the whole ball of wax”). 

   In coming to grips with their dire circumstances, all of these male characters share honest anger and exasperation. It can be downright painful to hear their insecurities about body image, dignity, their emotional and psychological vulnerabilities, their ill-founded pride or doubt about what makes a man…manly. Baring the body becomes a prickly metaphor for baring the soul, a difficult drop-your–pants-drop-your-defenses proposition.

    When they, as well as the women in the cast sing, it’s a disarmingly expressive rawness that takes over, making all these individuals so utterly credible. They’re completely genuine and endearing, whether navigating through crisis or romping in unfettered silliness. Though some might reckon these proceedings as some sort of sensationalistic assault on proper morality, I think the overarching thrust of the narrative is about the love and commitment that binds and heals amidst gritty turmoil.  

   This salty tale is generously peppered with songs (music and lyrics by David Yazbek), some tender and poignant, as in the heartrending “Breeze Off the River,” when Jerry sings to his sleeping son; and some rowdy to the point of whipping the audience into a frenzy of piercing shrieks and whistles, as in “Big Black Man,” when Darryl Robinson, reprising his role of Horse from the 2010 production, auditions for a spot in the stripper line by delivering a whirlwind of comically  smooth moves. Teresa Houston, also reprising her 2010 role, brings gut-splitting gusto to her rendering of Jeanette, the schmoozy, sardonic, seen-it-all show biz piano accompanist during the troupe’s rehearsals.

    All of the music – a crackling mix of contemporary pop, rock and R&B – is driven along by the excellent live offstage orchestra led by Steve Parsons.   And the madcap choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers is a narrative unto itself. It’s a deft sort of protracted morphing that we see, from the hilariously wonky, bump-and-grind stomping of less-than-ideal physiques into the confident, steelyard swagger of blue collar chic. When the promised big finale does arrive, a blinding flash of light signals that this troupe’s  collective cup, as it were, runneth over.    
   The Full Monty / THROUGH SEPTEMBER 2, 2018, at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional show on Sept. 2 at 8 p.m.)
TICKETS: $32 adults, $29 seniors, at   and 330-453-7617.

   PLAYERS GUILD PHOTO (left to right): Brian O’Jackson, Jon Tisevich, Daryl Robinson, Allen Cruz (seated), Kyle Burnett (standing), Jay Sigler (seated)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Real Eyezations

Real Eyezations

By Tom Wachunas

   EXHIBIT: Landscapes of the Other Realms /  Encounter new worlds from the minds of contemporary sci/fi visionaries as they transport you to other-worldly realms, with works by nationally and internationally known artists including Jody Fallon, Allen Panakal, Matt Mrowka, Steve Ehret, Armand Cabrera, Bob Eggleton, and Kristin Kest / at IKON IMAGES: The Illustration Gallery, 221 Fifth Street NW in downtown Canton, Ohio, THROUGH OCTOBER 12, 2018 /  

Click on this link to see works in the exhibit: 

    Here in 2018, determining what is most excellent or compelling in the art of painting can be a downright quixotic endeavor. Think of this postmodern  era’s aesthetics as a vast ideological landscape dotted – or littered, depending upon your perspective – with theories, philosophies, -isms and trends that can either command  lasting affections or be as fleeting as smoke from a dying fire. I think it fair to say that all of them are driven by an often desperate yearning to identify relevant meaning and purpose in art.

   These days, for better or worse, more and more folks seem to want the artful products of their yearning to be entertaining in the same way a blockbuster film might convincingly transport us to otherworldly times and places. Ahh, the eternal allure of illusion. Or delusion? 

   Contexts, subtexts, and pretexts in the realm of contemporary painting can be like so many windmills, some spinning smoothly in the friendly zephyrs of sleek representational imagery, others spasmodic in the rarefied air of painterly abstraction. I’ve tilted at both – finding that the former can be really beautiful, the latter really sublime. 

    In boldly going where many have gone before, this exhibit at Ikon Images is nevertheless a very entertaining pastiche of fantasy art and sci-fi illustration. That said, the paintings I find most enthralling – particularly those by Matt Mrowka, Aaron Miller, Steve Ehret, and Armand Cabrera - are those which don’t disguise their paintedness.  In varying degrees they breathe with presence of the artist’s hand, the physicality of pigments, the tactile traces of the moving brush, the choreography of colors thick and thin, pushed and pulled. Their iconography may be ‘otherwordly’ but their materiality is of the moment, our here and now. Two worlds, conjoined.  

   And so it is that in the spirit of different-strokes-for-different- folks, I leave you with the following quotes. You may or may not agree with the perspectives they offer. In any case, as you tilt with this exhibit, consider them as grist to the mill of your looking.

   “Realism and abstractionism are not enemies. They eat out of the same dish, but their digestive systems are different.”  - Leo Stein

“Realistic work can be just as abstract as the 'abstract' work... It's just covered by camouflage.”   -Janet Toney

  “Interesting is when one can produce a picture that is pretty, but with undercurrents. The metaphor that comes to mind is in the poems of Robert Frost.”  - Jamie Wyeth

  “realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.”  - Ambrose Bierce 

   “Photo-realistic painting is to impressionism what a ballroom waltz is to Argentine tango. Once you've done tango, the waltz seems stilted, controlled and oh so dull. Give me the passion, the sexiness and the bravura of the tango, thank you very much.”   - Brenda Behr

   “Any number of holier-than-thou honorable realists walk around in the belief that they have accomplished something, simply because they tell you for the hundredth time that a field is green and a red-painted house is painted red.”  - Edvard Munch

   “Representational painting doesn't need a social or political subtext to be important or to be appreciated.”   - Jeremy Lipking

   “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”  ― J.R.R. Tolkien

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Dragon of Red Rock Canyon, by Aaron Miller, oil on board / 2. The Adventurers, by Armand Cabrera, oil on board / 3. Galway Road, by Matt Mrowka, oil on Masonite / 4. Thaw the Scarecrows, by Matt Mrowka, oil on Masonite / 5. Wild, by Steve Ehret, oil on canvas / 6. Grey Matters, by Steve Ehret, oil on canvas