Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Slowed, but not Silent

Slowed, but not Silent

By Tom Wachunas

So now you come with open hands, mirrors in your eyes, to lead him from this foreign land, so once again he tries. And each day’s passing cuts another string, like snow atop the mountain, melting into Spring.  – lyrics from “Each Day’s Passing,” a song I wrote in 1975

   In her 1970 song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” a distressed Joni Mitchell sang, “Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?” Paradise paved indeed. Thanks to Covid 911, ARTWACH has been quarantined (or imprisoned?) - sentenced to remain disconnected from our local galleries and museums, theaters, and concert halls. They’re empty. Lights out, doors shut. OK, not ‘gone’ completely - just on indefinite vacation. Still, in this protracted viral moment, I’m feeling somewhat bound by the exceptionally taut strings of sheer anxiety.

   So what’s this critic to do? Of course I’m still making visual art in my studio, albeit rather slowly. That said, my state of mind has been nevertheless paved with unsatisfied longing – call it a benevolent obsession – to celebrate and wonder, or to speculate, or doubt, or reconsider. I greatly miss the actual going to a place, to be in the physical, real-time presence of, to look at, to hear, to think and feel and write about other artists’ works. I miss the connecting, the solidarity, the fulfilling of a purpose - the sharing of things discovered.

   And isn’t that the function of a critic? But enough about me and my introspection already. Do you find any of the following, randomly selected musings from various thinkers, writers, and artists useful, entertaining, or at least mildly interesting? Can we talk here? 
Don't be an art critic. Paint. There lies salvation.  - Paul Cezanne

One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture: it's like being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don't have any control over the action going on upstairs. - Robert Hughes

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means. - Susan Sontag

Art criticism, I would say, is about the most ungrateful form of 'elevated' writing I know of. It may also be one of the most challenging.. if only because so few people have done it well enough to be remembered.. but I'm not sure the challenge is worth it. - Clement Greenberg

Art criticism everywhere is now at a low ebb, intellectually corrupt, swamped in meaningless jargon, distorted by political correctitudes, anxiously addressed only to other critics and their ilk. - Brian Sewell

Criticism talks a good deal of nonsense, but even its nonsense is a useful force. It keeps the question of art before the world, insists upon its importance. - Henry James

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.  George Orwell

Modern art always projects itself into a twilight zone where no values are fixed. It is always born in anxiety, at least since Cézanne. And Picasso once said that what matters most to us in Cézanne, more than his pictures, is his anxiety. It seems to me a function of modern art to transmit this anxiety to the spectator, so that his encounter with the work is--at least while the work is new-- a genuine existential predicament. .. the picture seems arbitrary, cruel, irrational, demanding your faith, while it makes no promise of future rewards. In other words, it is in the nature of original contemporary art to present itself as a bad risk. And we the public, artists included, should be proud of being in this predicament, because nothing else would seem to us quite true to life; and art, after all, is supposed to be a mirror of life.   – Leo Steinberg

Good art-writers break conventions, hold a few sacrosanct, innovate their own. They measure their limits by instinct, not by rote. Mostly they learn by seeing miles of art, and reading good literature in bulk. There is no substitute, for a writer, for possessing a natural ear for language; a rich vocabulary; a flair for varied sentence structures; an original opinion; some arresting ideas to share… - Gilda Williams

I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panoply of the art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: “What would I like about this if I liked it?” I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like?  Peter Schjeldahl

When art is made new, we are made new with it. We have a sense of solidarity with our own time, and of psychic energies shared and redoubled, which is just about the most satisfying thing that life has to offer…This being so, it is a great exasperation to come face to face with new art and not make anything of it. Stared down by something that we don't like, don't understand and can't believe in, we feel personally affronted, as if our identity as reasonably alert and responsive human beings had been called into question. We ought to be having a good time, and we aren't. More than that, an important part of life is being withheld from us; for if any one thing is certain in this world it is that art is there to help us live, and for no other reason.   – John Russell

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Revisiting SUPPLICATION - Prayers for ALL OF YOU

Supplication (2016), by Tom Wachunas

supplicate \ ˈsə-plə-ˌkāt -  to make a humble entreaty, to pray to God

   I made this work, Supplication, in 2016. Some of you have seen it in a few past local juried exhibits. I am grateful.

   Lately the piece has become louder, more urgent. More 2020. MORE VITAL. The piece is still being completed.

   Consider these words. Please pray them back to God, their author:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed… - 2 Corinthians 4: 8-9

…Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus… - Philippians 4:6-7

…For I am convinced that neither life nor death, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8: 38-39

  Jesus, the reason for my hope, my peace, my joy. May He be yours too. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

One Language, Two Dialects

One Language, Two Dialects

Pale Dawn, by Jeffrey Hull

So Easy, by Jeffrey Hull

His Very Last Thoughts Lie Here, by Jeffrey Hull

6-1-2013, by Jo Ann Rothschild

Little Surprise, by Jo Ann Rothschild

July 8, 2019, by Jo Ann Rothschild

By Tom Wachunas

   “Form itself, even if completely abstract ... has its own inner sound.”  Wassily Kandinsky

  “… Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.”  Arshile Gorky

EXHIBIT:  Parallel Tracks: Paintings by Jo Ann Rothschild & Jeffrey Hull / at THE WILLIAM J. AND PEARL F. LEMMON VISITING ARTIST GALLERY at Kent State University at Stark,  Fine Arts Building / 6000 FRANK AVENUE NW, NORTH CANTON, OH 44720

PLEASE NOTE: I’m saddened that the Covid-19 situation has shut down Kent Stark campus and thus access to this exhibit. I simply want to remember and document here that the exhibit was yet more remarkable evidence of this elegant gallery’s cultural importance to our region. I’m extremely grateful for the continuing curatorial endeavors by Professor Jack McWhorter (Kent Stark Fine Arts Dept. Coordinator) and the impeccable work by Jeff Leadbetter (Kent Stark Fine Arts Equipment Laboratory Technician) in installing all these exhibits.

   Most of the works featured in this captivating exhibit –  by Boston-based Jo Ann Rothschild, and Jeffrey Hull, who lived and worked in Boston’s South End from 1979 until his death in 2017 - are abstract paintings. Rothschild and Hull speak the same language, which is to say they’ve consciously applied moistened pigments to a flat surface - a two-dimensional picture plane. They employ the same rudimentary vocabulary elements of color, shape, and line. But beyond their basic “grammar,” their style of syntax as well as ostensible subject matter make for very divergent dialects. Talk about different strokes… 

   In some ways, Jeffrey Hull’s paintings recall the transcendence, or  spirituality, resonant in the 20th century Modernist landscapes by American painters such as Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and, more recently, the boldly-colored visions of Gregory Amenoff.  Hull’s iconography, however, while at times suggestive of strange terrains dense with with tangled natural forms, is a bit more enigmatic and surreal, exuding an intensely personal sort of mysticism.

   Pale Dawn and So Easy (both acrylic on canvas) are loosely painted clusters of biomorphic and angular shapes that look like they’re bundled together. Or pulled apart?  Hard to tell which, actually. It’s a chimeric ambiguity that draws you in and keeps you looking.

    Some configurations in these mindscapes look like multicellular organisms undergoing mitosis, or mutation. In these works, one passage – whether  doodled gesture, defined pattern, or contoured form – can often seem to be an automatic reply to an adjacent passage of a wholly different character. One mark or shape or color can call its immediate neighbor into being. Ses dernières pensées se trouvent ici (His very last thoughts lie here) #10 (oil on canvas) employs a more rigid linearity in how the varying shapes are joined. Additionally, Hull’s dazzling color acuity, and the carved texture of his sumptuous impasto surface, give the painting a sculpted, even architectural presence.

   The notion of painterly intuition - allowing one visual element to bring another into being (mentioned above in reference to Hull) - is a call-and-response dynamic also evident in the paintings by Jo Ann Rothschild. That said, her pictorial motifs are decidedly more diffuse and nondescript than we see in Hull’s paintings.

   Paintings such as 6-1-2013 (oil on canvas, named for the date of its completion), and Little Surprise (oil on linen), seem at first to have been made quickly, all at once. But look deeper through the veils of brushy, energetic paint movement, both visceral and gentle.  Belying that appearance of instant spontaneity is a history, a sense of flux. Actions and reactions. Colors, shapes, and marks have been altered, their rhythms re-arranged and re-ordered over time. You could think of Rothschild’s picture planes as evolving improvisatory melodies, with some passages sung softly, like distant echoes, others with real gusto, embellished with bright staccato accents. Songs about old things fading away and new things emerging.

   Some of her oil paintings here are very small (9 x 12 inches), such as July 8, 2019. “Small paintings surprise and interest me,” she wrote in her statement. “In a time of big lies. I want modest truth.” Despite their modesty of physical scale, they still sing in a big way.  
   Overall, the exhibit reminded me once again that my deep appreciation of abstract painting, in all its dialects, is rooted in willingness to look long and look slowly. That very act is its own reward. I can assure you that in the future, Kent Stark’s Lemmon Gallery will continue offering vigorous journeys to perceptual thresholds beyond the ordinary.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Nun but the Best in this Rousing Revival

 Nun but the Best in this Rousing Revival 

Joy Ellis

Meg Hopp

Sarah Marie Young (center)

Sarah Marie Young

Allen Cruz (center)

By Tom Wachunas

“…If you feel it, why conceal it, Let your soul rejoice! Raise the stakes! Raise your game! Raise your voice!..”  - Sister Act lyrics by Glenn Slater, from the song “Raise Your Voice”

    I raise my voice once more, as I did in response to the spectacular 2017 Players Guild mainstage production of Sister Act. The musical comedy, superbly directed by Jonathan Tisevich, was a grand success for the Guild. If you need a reminder, here’s a link to my synopsis and review:

   And thus a bar had been set, a bold standard met. Could, then, a revival of this show match that level of excellence?

   Yes, and then some. Talk about raising your game. In this iteration, exactly three years later, Tisevich has again directed a stunning cast, some reprising their 2017 roles, and all gifted with superlative talent.

   Joy Ellis reprises her role of Deloris Cartier, a wannabe disco diva, disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, hiding in a convent from her murderous, boogie-oogie club-owner boyfriend, Curtis (Mark Dillard). Radiant as ever, Ellis is a wondrously facile singer who exudes both muscular sensuality and compelling emotionality. Her voice saturates the very air with an electricity  that clearly charges the convent’s choir of nuns. In this wild narrative, Sister Mary Clarence teaches these tone-deaf sisters how to turn their bilious braying into beatific praying that soars to heights of heavenly harmonies, drawing not only new congregants to their floundering church, but the attention of the Pope himself.

   Meg Hopp has also returned, playing the wry and introspective Mother Superior. Here she gives us an even more poignant and sobering look at her character’s vexing questions and frustrations. Yet in the soulful weariness that seems to color the unique sonority of her voice, there’s remains a sense of strength and resolve. It’s simply intriguing to watch her.

   Likewise, Sarah Marie Young is commanding in her reprised portrayal of the convent’s shy, nervous postulant, Sister Mary Robert.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard Young sing – and I’ve heard her sing in many Guild productions - with more riveting fervor than in her heartfelt solo here, “The Life I Never Led.”

    Allen Cruz plays Eddie, the cop with a crush on Deloris. He’s a delightful combination of sincere ardor and lovable awkwardness.  In the show-stopping number “I Could Be That Guy” - featuring Cruz’s hilariously quick peel-away costume changes - he morphs from being a self-deprecating dreamer into a suave, hip-swaying crooner, imagining himself to be a star of stage and…life.

   Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of gut-splitting laughs when watching  Curtis’s bumbling trio of daffy thugs (Todd Cooper, Anthony Woods-Mitchell, Drake Harbert), especially when they perform an over-the-top parody of lascivious seduction in “Lady In The Long Black Dress.”

    Another endearing element of the production is the performative intensity of the nuns. Each individual is fully invested in, and enveloped by, her character, articulating a distinctive personality within the community.

   In the stirring song, “Bless Our Show,” we hear all of them joyously intone with infectious exuberance, “Bless each note, and each lyric, help us try to stay on key. Bless the lights and the soundboard, bless our choreography. From the top of the downbeat 'till the final curtain call - Bless the day, bless our show, bless it all!”

   And so, additional kudos to choreographer Lauren Dangelo, music director and conductor Steve Parsons, scenic designer Joshua Erichsen, lighting designer Frankie Castrovillari, sound designer Jake Brent, and costume designer Suwatana Rockland for their impeccable work.

   I don’t think it necessary or even accurate to call this event an outright “improvement” on the 2017 production so much as an augmentation and amplification of an already immensely entertaining enterprise. Forgive the pun, but offering consistently electrifying, artful entertainment has long been  a very admirable habit of the Players Guild.

   So here we are in 2020, blessed yet again. You could rightly call it a jubilant sensation of…déjà new.

PHOTOS: Thanks to Players Guild / Jonathan Tisevich
Sister Act, at Players Guild Theatre,  THROUGH March 15, 2020 / 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / Shows Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. / 2:00 and 8:00 on Sat. March 14 / Tickets: Single tickets - $34 ; 17 and younger - $27; Seniors -  $31 / Order at www.playersguildtheatre.com    or call 330. 493.7617