Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Insidious Misdirections






Insidious Misdirections

By Tom Wachunas 

    “…Against those who insist that an object’s status as forged is irrelevant to its artistic merit, I would hold that when we learn that the kind of achievement an art object involves has been radically misrepresented to us, it is not as though we have learned a new fact about some familiar object of aesthetic attention. To the contrary, insofar as its position as a work of art is concerned, it is no longer the same object.” – Dennis Dutton, from “Artistic Crimes,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, 1979 

    Highly recommended reading: http://www.denisdutton.com/artistic_crimes.htm

    EXHIBIT: Intent To Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., THROUGH OCTOBER 26
330.453.7666  www.cantonart.org

    Once again, many thanks and praises to the Canton Museum of Art for bringing us a high-caliber show, this one being the Midwest premiere an important travelling exhibit (the first two stops were in Massachusetts and Florida) that fascinates on all levels. Curated by Colette Loll, founder and director of Art Fraud Insights (here’s a link: http://www.artfraudinsights.com/ ), the exhibit has been featured on the CBS Evening News as well as in The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
    Here, original works by Honore Daumier, Amedeo Modigliani, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others, are interspersed with some 50 pieces by five of the world’s most infamous art forgers in modern times: Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947), Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976), Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), John Myatt (b. 1945), and Mark Landis (b. 1955).
    One common element among these con men is that none was able to forge, as it were, a livelihood from producing work in his own style. This is not to say that they were wholly incompetent artists in their own right. Far from it. And at the very least, they were masterful imitators. Look at Elmyr de Hory’s Portrait of a Woman and it’s certainly plausible that he could pass it off as an authentic Modigliani. Similarly, experts in 1941 were certain that Han van Meegeren’s  eerie Head of Christ was convincing evidence of Vermeer’s so-called “lost religious period.”
    But for four of these artists (Mark Landis being the exception, since he donated his pieces to museums and no money was ever exchanged), the frustrations and anxieties that came with not being recognized for their talents led to their seeking lucrative commercial success by duping curators, connoisseurs and other experts of the day with their outright fakes (duplications) or forgeries (falsely accredited works done in the style of the original artist).
    For all the intriguing and disturbing facts that are so well organized and presented here as to the biographies, motivations and ingeniously deceptive practices of these con men, it seems to me that the exhibit raises just as many  thorny considerations  about art world practices, motivations and values in general. These considerations take on even more depth particularly if you choose to delve into two excellently written books relevant to this exhibit - both available for purchase at the museum: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures, by Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team; and The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist, by Mark Forgy.
    While Forgy’s account of his years with his mentor Elmyr de Hory often smacks of misplaced hero worship, both books shine a glaring light on the intricate (and maddeningly arbitrary) wheeling and dealing within the art world. It is at times a corruptible and complicated world that insouciantly operates in a whatever- the- market- will- bear milieu. It is a world wherein objects of unquestionable artistic merit as well as contemporary objects of dubious worth can be equally regarded as negotiable commodities available to the highest bidder. To the uninitiated, it would often seem to be a world whose stock-in-trade isn’t really the savoring and protecting of true art so much as the pure hype of celebrity, profitability and the allure of ownership.
    I believe that the actions of the individuals spotlighted in this exhibit (again, with the exception of Mark Landis, whose activities were apparently driven by deep compulsion to be regarded as a philanthropist) demonstrate unmitigated hubris. Aside from a lust for financial profit, their activities are wholly indefensible despite any rationales built upon flimsy moralizing (such as in Eric Hebborn’s statement, “Only the experts are worth fooling. The greater the expert, the greater the satisfaction in deceiving him”), and regardless of any perceived aesthetic merit to their forged works. The deliberately fictionalized provenances (origins and ownership histories) of their works corrupted our grasp of authentic cultural realities. Of the more than 1,000 forgeries thought to be foisted on to the world market by Elmyr de Hory, for example, many are still in museums and have yet to be exposed.
    But I also think one could make a fairly good argument that if “fakery” in this context can be defined as dressing shallow artifice in the guise of significant fine art (and reaping ridiculously hefty monetary reward), then the art world at large has succeeded more than once in pulling the wool over our eyes. Think of it as the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome. Case in point: In 2013, Jeff Koons’ kitschy, mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture, Balloon Dog (Orange), became the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold at Christie’s for $58.4 million.  
    Who’s fooling whom?


    PHOTOS, courtesy http://www.intenttodeceive.org/ , from top: Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976), Portrait of a Woman, in the style of Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884-1920), 1956-1957, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Scott and Pamela Richter / Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), Head of Christ, in the style of Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675), 1940-41, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / Mark Landis (b. 1955), Women Seated on Lawn, in the style of Charles Courtney Curran (American, 1861-1942), ca. 2000, oil on pressed board. Courtesy of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum / Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), Standing Young Man Leaning on a Plinth, in the style of Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 -1721), 1970s, black and red chalk on laid paper. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Gift of Dian Woodner, 2008.38.6. / John Myatt (b. 1945), Charing Cross Railway taken from the Savoy, in the style of Claude Monet (French, 1840 – 1926), 2011, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Clive and Shyamali Fenton, UK. Photo: Washington Green Fine Art.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Seeing the Elephant






Seeing the Elephant

By Tom Wachunas


    “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”  -Dante Alighieri

    “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

    “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
-Matthew 13:49-50

    EXHIBIT: INFERNO: Ten Artists Recreate Dante's Masterpiece, THROUGH SEPT. 27 at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. PARTICIPATING ARTISTS: Erin Mulligan-Brayton, Bobby Rosenstock, Rich Pellegrino, Kari Halker-Saathoff, Marcy Axelband, David McDowell, Margene May, Marti Jones Dixon, Gabriel Mejia, Steve Ehret.  www.translationsart.com


    Whether seen as the divinely ordained final home of the hopelessly wicked, or a human construct to describe earthly cruelty and suffering, Hell has always been a hot-button topic. I suspect that for some (many, actually), the proposition of facing an eternal fiery punishment – either metaphorically or literally - for a life ill-lived is simply too complex, large or seemingly impossible to grasp. It's the ultimate elephant in the living room.
    I’ve often encountered the moral relativism espoused by individuals who are either ambivalent toward the notion of Hell or outright dismissive of it. Such folks might couch their attitudes in cavalier witticisms like Mark Twain’s “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company,” or Aldous Huxley’s “Maybe this world is another planet’s Hell.” Or there’s always this nifty observation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”
    For the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Hell was the subject of Inferno, the first part of his iconic masterwork written between 1308 and 1321, The Divine Comedy (part two being Purgatorio, and part three, Paradiso). [The work is anything but “funny.” ‘Comedy’ here refers essentially to the classical literature term for a narrative without tragic ending.] This epic poem (14,233 lines!) is an allegorical vision of the journey toward God from the perspective of medieval-era Christian theology. Inferno tells of Dante embracing the reality of sin and its consequences for sinners as he’s guided by the Roman poet Virgil in a descent through Hell’s nine circles of suffering. The farther they descend – the more distant from God – the more egregious the sins.
    Translations curator Craig Joseph invited ten artists to recreate this literary classic by making triptychs (a three- panel format of continuous narratives once commonly made for churches) to be mounted alongside his written synopses of the 33 cantos that comprise Inferno. This show is a companion to the exhibit of lithograph illustrations by Amos Nattini, organized by the Canton Museum of Art, on view at Walsh University’s Birk Center for the Arts through December 1.   http://www.walsh.edu/the-illustrations-of-amos-nattini-fall-2014
   There is much to recommend the wholly spectacular Translations exhibit. In terms of diversity of media, and the technical/formal levels of excellence in individual works, it’s one helluva show (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). But I think the real significance of “the art experience” here is in how the participating artists, without necessarily communicating their own views about Hell, nonetheless collectively draw us, as individual viewers, inward to a transcendent probing of the compelling subject matter.
   Say what you will about roads paved with good intentions. I can tell you only that I have absolutely no desire to ever know what Hell really looks and feels like. That said, I’m deeply gratified by what the powerful visual interpretations offered here bring to my mind and heart. And for that, I leave you with these words from the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, from his 1945 work, The Great Divorce – itself an allegory in the spirit of Dante’s Divine Comedy:   
 “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”


    PHOTOS, from top: “Crossing the River”, mixed media on paper by Rich Pellegrino; Canto XIV, mixed media by Kari Halker-Saathoff; Cantos XVI & XVII, acrylic and graphite on canvas by Marcy Axelband; “The Devil”, mixed media fiber by Margene May; “Inferno II”, oil on board by Marti Jones Dixon

Monday, September 8, 2014

Theatre On Fire





Theatre On Fire

By Tom Wachunas 

    You’d think that a musical with all the towering anger and darkness of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street would naturally demand a venue of sufficiently large dimensions to vent its blistering intensity. So if the decision by the Canton Players Guild to eschew a mainstage spectacle and mount the work in the intimacy of its downstairs arena theater may seem counterintuitive, in retrospect it was also a stroke of creative genius. This production is magnificently realized in every way by a wonderful, gifted 21-member cast under the inspired directing by Jonathan Tisevich.
   The blunt simplicity of the angular wooden platforms and ramps (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen), along with the expressive lighting (designed by Scott Sutton) perfectly conjure 19th century London’s gloomy side streets. Herein the grizzly story of Sweeney Todd unfolds like a raging wildfire, beginning with the straitjacketed character of Tobias (Matthew Heppe) at center stage, corpses strewn about the periphery. With swollen, sad eyes and quivering voice, he intones the opening words of the doleful Ballad of Sweeney Todd, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” and the ensemble joins in, “he served a dark and angry god…”
    With the constancy of a death knell, pieces of that anthem are threaded throughout the performance. Much of the complex musical score is colored by a tonal dissonance that casts haunting aural shadows on the proceedings. It’s an understandably daunting challenge for singers, and one very well met by the entire cast – lead players and ensemble alike – as well as the excellent nine-member off-stage orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons.  
    Once a happily married barber with a beautiful wife and baby girl, Sweeney Todd (Micah Harvey) was unjustly convicted by the malicious and covetous Judge Turpin (David Everett). After fifteen years Todd escapes his prison in Australia, returns to London, and is soon told that his wife is gone and his teenage daughter, Johanna (Rachel Balko), has become a ward of the lascivious Turpin. Driven to wreak vengeance on Turpin and his cruel right-hand man, Beadle (Greg Emanuelson), Todd hatches a monstrous plan with his newfound partner, the conniving Mrs. Lovett (Heidi Swinford), owner of a bake shop that sells pies filled with cat meat. She reveals Todd’s precious barber’s implements that she’s been keeping during his prison exile, further sharpening his steely resolve as he addresses his razors in the chilling My Friends.
    Whether together or separately, Micah Harvey’s Sweeney and Heidi Swinford’s Mrs. Lovett are deliciously animated. He with his sonorous voice like thunder and menacing eyes like caves, and she with her indefatigably naughty, impish manner, provide remarkable operatic thrust to the production. The raucous punning in A Little Priest at the end of Act I is a hilarious showstopper wherein the pair proposes to make meat pies out of citizens in various professions. Sweeney vows to give them all the closest – and last – shaves they’ll ever have.
    Others among the many memorable passages here include Rachel Balko’s sweet soprano rendering of Green Finch and Linnet Bird, wherein the confined Johanna identifies with caged songbirds and muses, “…teach me how to sing. If I cannot fly, let me sing.” Soon after, Jimmy Ferko, in his role of Anthony, who is deeply smitten with and vows to rescue Johanna, sings the charming ballad Johanna with touching urgency. Equally moving is Matthew Heppe’s portrayal of the endearingly nervous street boy, Tobias, as he pledges his undying loyalty to Mrs. Lovett in Not While I’m Around. Daryl Robinson is delightfully eccentric as Adolfo Pirelli, a con man and blackmailer who pushes Sweeney a bit too far. And as the beggar woman, Stephanie Cargill is a riveting, frenzied presence. She’s a spying banshee haunting the shadows, prone to sexual solicitation – seeing, hearing and knowing too much.       
    When did this 1979 Sondheim masterwork ever stop speaking to the horrific predicaments of humans in too many places across our world? The turbulent, gripping finale of the story is a sobering reminder that Sweeney Todd’s “dark and angry god” is his own prideful invention - an impotent response to the searing pain of stolen dreams. He doesn’t “serve” such a god so much as surrender to it, and to no good purpose. Yet still, somewhere beyond the cacophonous, bloody end, it’s the back story of Johanna and Anthony, deceptively na├»ve on its surface, that hopefully continues to sing. Attend the tale…      

    Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton. Suggested for mature audiences. Shows THROUGH SEPTEMBER 21, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets $18. Order at (330) 453-7617 or at www.playersguildtheatre.com 

   PHOTOS, by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Micah Harvey; Micah Harvey and Heidi Swinford; Jimmy Ferko and Rachel Balko; Matthew Heppe

Friday, September 5, 2014

Homage To A Living Legacy






Homage To A Living Legacy

By Tom Wachunas 
 

    "…always present the spectator with a transfigured view of visible reality." –Jan Van Eyck


    EXHIBIT: The Great Masters As Teachers – oil paintings in the Flemish technique by Frank Dale and his students, in the Wilkof Courtyard of the Canton Museum of Art. Opening tonight, Sept. 5 and on view through tomorrow, Sept. 6. THE SHOW WILL BE RE-INSTALLED ON SEPTEMBER 16 and REMAIN ON VIEW THROUGH SEPTEBER 21.

    www.cantonart.org  330-453-7666


    In one way you may call this entry ‘confessions of a flummoxed judge.’ When artist and teacher Frank Dale asked me a few months ago to judge this exhibit of 50 works by 23 of his students (from 10 to 81 years old), I was flattered, gratified and eager to oblige. Little did I appreciate then what a thorny gauntlet he had thrown down. The endeavor became the most daunting assessment task I’ve ever undertaken.
    At one point during my second extended look at the show, I was exasperated and otherwise reduced to being a victim of analysis paralysis. I  couldn’t decide on an order of first, second and third place. Determining the Honorable Mentions proved equally elusive – the show is, on the whole, simply that superb. All of the participants here should be rightfully proud of their achievements. A vast majority of the works demonstrate both an astonishing level of technical excellence and breathtaking beauty.
    Frank Dale’s field of award-winning expertise is in the ‘Old Masters’ Flemish method. The technique of layering translucent oil color glazes imbues the painted subjects with extraordinary luminosity and vitality. All of the paintings here are modeled after works by historic masters spanning roughly five centuries.
    Copying the masters in this context necessitated working from photos. Photographs of paintings can vary widely in terms of their overall clarity, and aren’t always dependably accurate records of the original works. So I think it fair to say that in a number of cases here, the artists needed to exercise some interpretive freedom in approximating certain nuances of detailing and color. But keep in mind that I think the goal for the artists isn’t so much perfect replication as it is to embrace the overarching vision of the chosen master and in turn learn more of how that vision was accomplished. In other words, what are the skills and mechanics needed to deliver the essence of a subject (especially in portraiture)?
    Ultimately my difficult choices for awards (all pictured above, with the exception of an Honorable Mention for Kris Wyler’s The Girl with the Red Hat from the original by Jan Vermeer) were delicate matters of balancing head with heart. It’s a process that can’t be translated into a rigid, pedagogical formula. The works I chose, and for that matter many others here to varying degrees, transcend the demands of physical rendering to present not just pristine surfaces, but ‘places’ or even ‘events’ where poetry meets practicality, where the spiritual and cerebral resonate in harmony. These highly gifted artists have effectively captured the uncanny sense of palpable life – the exquisite anima – of the original works that inspired them.
    I commend Frank Dale and his student artists for their courage in carrying forward an aspect of art that I think is often all too lacking in contemporary painting. Call it the enchanting aura of unabashed nobility.

    PHOTOS, from top: Child At Bath, by Kathy Israel, First Place, from the original by William Bouguereau; Madonna of the Lillies, by Dan Wilkey, Second Place, from the original by William Bouguereau; La Donna Velata, by Nicole Hill, Third Place, from the original by Raphael; The Book of Fables, by Sujata Mukerji, Honorable Mention, from the original by William Bouguereau; Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Frank Dale, “Teacher’s Best” certificate, from the original by Jan Vermeer      

Monday, August 25, 2014

Welcome To These Hallowed Halls


Welcome To These Hallowed Halls

By Tom Wachunas
 

    “It has been said that art is a tryst; for in the joy of it, maker and beholder meet.” – Kojiro Tomita

    "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time."  - T.S. Eliot 

    As I will soon begin my seventh year of teaching at Kent State University Stark campus, I’ve been once again considering my gratitude for engaging, this time around, 80 students currently registered to take a course called “Art as a World Phenomenon.” It never gets old, this gratitude. Beyond making art, I regard what I get to do academically with my passion for art in general as a real blessing, and certainly one that has yet to feel like a stale job. It is in fact an extraordinary calling that I continue to answer joyfully.
    This particular course falls more under the rubric of “art appreciation” than outright art history, though there is a strong (and essential) history component. In this setting, it is certainly important to consider a viable definition of art. So for starters, I offer this: Art is the intentional structuring of ideas, and/or the manipulation of physical materials, to create a meaningful response to being alive.
    I think it equally important to clarify “appreciation” in the pedagogical sense. This is not a course in how to “like” art. There are no claims that all works of great art are (or should be) universally “pleasing to the eye,” or that they can be intellectually assessed by a single formula of understanding. (Indeed, depending upon one’s cultural predispositions and subjective tastes, I fully realize that many of the artworks encountered here are neither likeable nor easily decipherable.)
    Still, think of art appreciation as a process, like learning a complicated language such as English. And like our spoken/written language, visual art is not an immutable, fixed entity but rather an ever-evolving method of communication. The vocabulary, grammar and syntax of art can change with sometimes maddening regularity.
   So my role has always been, and continues to be that of eager facilitator, informed encourager, and enthused tour guide. Imagine the art world as a vast network of halls – some magnificently illuminated and ornate, some less elaborate, still others in varying degrees of ruin – or intersecting corridors, where rationality and intuition mix to chronicle the human milieu. Some of these corridors are familiar and easily navigated, others more daunting and mystical. As always, I invite you to consider art appreciation itself as a creative enterprise. To the extent that you are willing to practice really seeing, with mind and heart, you can enter into a symbiotic relationship with the art you behold. While determining the meaning or relevance of either a single artwork or an entire genre can often be a deeply personal matter, it can nonetheless complete the artist’s message and creative process, thus assuring the continued resonance of the work through time.  
   History tells us that this activity, or behavior, if you will, of making and appreciating art is unique to the human spirit, emerging more than 40,000 years ago. In the largest sense, art appreciation is a particularly enthralling tool for grasping the nature and significance of who we are both individually and collectively. Hence, a “world phenomenon” of discovering…us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Vivian Maier's Compelling Fixations






Vivian Maier’s Compelling Fixations

By Tom Wachunas


    “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”  -Diane Arbus

    “When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.” – Weegee


EXHIBIT: Vivian Maier: Photography’s Secret Master, THROUGH DECEMBER, 2014, at the Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton Arts District / gallery hours Wed.-Sat. Noon to 5 p.m. / www.josephsaxton.com/


    For starters, very special thanks are in order. First to John Maloof, who is primarily responsible for bringing to world attention the life and work – indeed the phenomenon – of photographer Vivian Maier. After his 2007 acquisition in Chicago of boxes containing some 100,000 negatives, he proceeded to embark upon an amazing labor of archiving the images, and ultimately became the dedicated custodian and chief curator of Maier’s oeuvre. In the process he was inspired to become a photographer himself, as well as co-direct, with Charlie Siskel, the acclaimed 2013 documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier.
    Additional deep thanks to Tim Belden, owner of the Saxton Gallery of Photography in downtown Canton. His astute recognizing of the importance of Maier’s astonishing photographic legacy prompted him to mount a stunning, thoughtfully selected exhibit of 30 of her black and white photographs.
    Lastly, I thank you, my readers, in advance, for your time in reading  about Maier’s life and work by clicking on the links provided above. I think that by doing so you will surely better appreciate the circumstances and trajectory of her story.
   The official Vivian Maier web site bio tells us, among many other things, that by all accounts from the people who knew her, Maier was, “… eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride… An unabashed and unapologetic original.” But what all the intriguing details about her life and work ultimately don’t tell us is exactly why a well-travelled nanny who never left her home without her camera – a woman who was a clearly gifted, wildly prolific (and apparently obsessive) photographer - was so secretive about her pictures of the urban street milieu around her. She never showed her pictures to anyone.
    Many of Maier’s images seem born of an insatiable curiosity and empathy. They exude an ineffable aura of living in the now, suggesting a desire to vicariously connect, however briefly, with the citizens she encountered – children, the old, the busy and bored, the scruffy and refined, the poor and marginalized. Call it a passionate, authentic abiding in human evanescence.
    There’s no vapid, manipulated artifice here. The views of urban life in Maier’s images aren’t pre-planned, euphoric or idealized constructions steeped in romantic hyperbole. Nor are they dystopian. They are quite simply an honest surrender to reality as she found it.
   Many of her crisply composed pictures are moments populated by individuals wholly oblivious to her presence - the photographer as gentle stalker or spy. But there is also a substantial presence of straightforward shots of camera-aware people. Their reactions to being photographed were richly varied. These arresting scenarios, such as the first of the five I’ve posted here at the top, sometimes convey a strange awkwardness if not ambiguity, inviting us to wonder about possible narratives. In the photo just below it, the woman in the center, clutching her purse and looking directly at us, might feel uncomfortable, perplexed or even upset by the camera’s intrusion. Has Maier interrupted the amorous attentions of the man with his arm around her shoulder?
    In a New York Times review on January 19, 2012, critic Roberta Smith hailed Vivian Maier as “…a new candidate for the pantheon of great 20th century street photographers” who could be seen as contributing to the history of the genre “…by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction…”  I wholeheartedly agree.
     Did Maier simply think it not all that important to present herself as an artist? Is it completely unreasonable to think that her privacy about her photographs was an uncanny exercise in humility? Or was her compulsion fueled by needs we’ll never know? A mystery, and a compelling mystique.
    Still, as easy as it sounds now to say, I can’t escape the sense that her work was somehow ultimately missional in nature, making us as viewers the grateful recipients of a remarkable blessing.


    PHOTOS, from top, from www.vivianmaier.com : untitled, August, 1954, New York City / untitled, no date, New York City / Armenian woman fighting on East 86th Street, September, 1956, New York City/ untitled, 1959, Grenoble, France / November 4, 1955, San Francisco, CA.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Warp and Woof of Meaningful Ornamentation






The Warp and Woof of Meaningful Ornamentation

By Tom Wachunas
 

    “He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers – all of them master craftsmen and designers.”   (Exodus 35:35)

    EXHIBIT: Attack of the Fiber Artists, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH AUGUST 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / viewing hours Wed.-Sat., Noon to 5 p.m.  www.translationsart.com

    First, here’s an excerpt from the brief history of the Textile Art Alliance, as found on the group’s website at  http://www.taacleveland.org/history.html

     The Textile Art Alliance (TAA), an affiliate group of the Cleveland Museum of Art, is an active organization of artists, designers, craftspeople, educators, and collectors with a common interest in the textile and fiber arts. Formed in 1934, TAA’s purpose is to promote the fiber arts through exhibitions, educational programs and purchases to enlarge the textile collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art…”

    Second, there’s the title of this exhibit: “Attack of the Fiber Artists.” Attack? Sounds a bit radical, as if the show were an assault on our aesthetic sensibilities. So while I’m certain the title is meant in good fun, I can assure you there’s nothing malicious, subversive or even mildly revolutionary about the 46 works on view. That said, it is a thoroughly electrifying and eclectic presentation of contemporary works in fiber.
    When I looked at Elizabeth Mather’s Portrait of Mollie – a quietly stunning, tightly textured representation of a woman’s face in shadow - I was intrigued by the description of the medium: “Handwoven Twill, Double-weave Pick-Up with Layer Blending (Cotton and Wool).” Now, “oil on board” or “acrylic on canvas” I can fully appreciate. But “double-weave pick-up” and “layer-blending?” I was all agoogle. I felt prompted to better grasp what I always sensed, even if unfairly, to be the more cloistered aspects of fiber arts methodologies. And after an admittedly perfunctory web search, I still can’t tell you all that much about warp and weft, shaft and shed, basting and bearding.
     Suffice to say that the world of fiber art and artists is just that – a world - replete with its own demanding techniques, tools, and disciplines to be seriously embraced, not to mention daunting vocabulary. I imagined cryptic conversations between fiber artists looking at each others’ works with comments like, “I love how that selvage works on the trapunto,” or, “Your tatting and broderie perse work really well together.”  Yikes.
    In any case, beyond the clear, consistent mastery of pure craft that is in abundance here, there is an equal attention to compelling visual design and engaging ideological content. Many of the works exhibit a spirit of exuberant spectacle and elaborate ornamentation, such as the large (42”x78”) abstract Stormy Night at Blue Lake by Helen Murrell, alive with staccato rhythms of alternating cool and hot colored rectangles, all embedded with myriad patterns of swirling thread; the wildly celebratory and playful Petroglyphs I have Known and Loved by Rosalind Kvet; and Primordial Slime, by Mary Ann Weber, with its layers of textures in relief (beads, feathers and sea shells). The unfettered joy implied by the vibrant rainbow motif in Diane K. Bird’s I’m Losing My Memory, I’m Losing Me actually becomes a tragic irony when you read the incorporated text penciled across the raised bands of color.
    In other works, the tactile physicality and dimensionality of mixed textures is downplayed, evoking more contemplative, even primal moods. The three intimately scaled (each 18”x6”) Snake Pictograms by Jennifer Whitten, featuring intricately varied thread patterns and earthen colors, are somewhat reminiscent of Native American ritual sand paintings. And there’s a distinctly painterly feel to Peggy Cox’s small (18”x12”) abstract Icelandic Journals -  flat overlapping swatches of fabric in muted tones with ghostly snippets of faded writing, suggest perhaps ancient parchments.
    One other thing that my aforementioned web search yielded was a glossary of humorous acronyms reportedly common among quilters and other textile artists. A few examples: FART – Fabric Acquisition Road Trip; PhD – Projects half Done; UFO – Unfinished Object; WHIMM – Works Hidden In My Mind. And my favorite, WOMBAT – Waste Of Money, Batting And Time.
    Relax and enjoy. You won’t find any WOMBATs here.


    PHOTOS (from top): Portrait of Mollie by Elizabeth Mather; Stormy Night on Blue Lake by Helen Murrell; Petroglyphs I Have Known and Loved by Rosalind Kvet; I’m Losing My Mind, I’m Losing Me by Diane K. Bird; Primordial Slime by Mary Ann Weber