Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Paintings" by Carol Mendenhall at MassMu

There is a long standing theory in education that teachers are born to teach, not taught how to do it. If one has ever sat though an Educational Psychology 101 class, you would agree. Teaching is not just the putting forth of information in hopes that those sitting in front of us will absorb it. I used to tell my own students that “art by osmosis” doesn’t work.  Teachers are also superb organizers, detail oriented, able to see the big picture while picking up on nuances of emotion; they are counselors, parents, wardens and wizards while still being able to have a life of their own. Carol Mendenhall is just such a lady, a veteran teacher with 35 years logged in classrooms across our area including Walsh, Malone and Akron U. on the college level and Perry and McKinley at the high school level. Needless to say, many students have been touched by her expansive knowledge of art.

Her work now occupies Studio M at the Massillon Museum through April 3rd.  Simply entitled “Paintings”, one will find that a little less than fully descriptive of the wonders to be found within each of the 19 pieces on view. 18 are in the actual gallery space and one is in the teaser spot upstairs. The posted statement explains that she does not draw out her ideas, but rather manipulates the surface searching for the write elements of “color and space, light and dark, movement and stillness”. After 35 years of seating charts and grade books, it is no wonder she embraces the joy of working without preconceived guidelines.

A recent news release called her work “non-representational” which is the big sister of “abstract” in that the former has no references to anything symbolic or pictorial, it is all wild and free, whereas the latter is more restrictive, harboring recognizable and or associative imagery. I am far from an expert on such matters, but I did find more imagery than expected so I beg to differ with the paper and call her work abstract instead. Yes, we could do a whole narrative on the definition of each but lots of books have done that already so go buy one and keep Borders out of the red if it is that big a deal.

When taking in the overall show, keep in mind that Carol is well versed in seeing the big picture. At first you may think she used whatever frames were on hand then made the art to fit. In which case, you will miss out on one of the nuances of her work. Each frame is part of the overall piece, not just encasing it, but enhancing it, repeating elements of the work therein. They lend a classical elegance to the rich surfaces; if framed in traditional metal as is most contemporary painting, the effect would be totally different not just for the work but for the vibe of the whole show.  The majority of the pieces are from 2010 and 2011 so her current voice is quite evident. On panels and canvases, under glass or heavily varnished, each work is worth time to explore. Personally, I was partial to those not under glass because I could connect with the surfaces better and enjoy the play of light against the impasto.  Her show will be a delight for the many school children that pass through the Massillon Museum because it can become an hour’s long treasure hunt for stamping, photos, scrapping, collage, staining, large strokes and small ones, added elements and printed ones, letters, numbers, animals, colors and even a hidden figure or two. 

I have couple of favorites to point out. “The Midas Touch” has toppings of gold leaf that one could equate to the snow capped mountains of a topographical map. “War” has an entanglement of red threads and so many surfaces it becomes overwhelming which is perhaps the point.  “Aviary Sanctuary” and “Super Nova” are what made me realize these are not completely non-representational when I found the first bird. “Predator” shows one how she excavates her imagery from the elements of her art, exactly as her statement explains. In an opportune twist of hanging, the painting above it entitled “Up” has a blue dagger-like form that plunges visually down into the “Predator” piece connecting them as one unit, the above water landscape and the underwater world. Intentional or not, you won’t miss it now that I’ve mentioned it. My favorite however is “Take the Plunge” that absolutely captures the disturbance of water when something plunges into it, both by light and by form, as well as by  its orientation, this work is spot on successful.

For the life of me, I could not make a successful piece of abstract or non-representational art.  In my notes I wrote down that it looks as if she took 35 years of accumulated art lesson plans, cut them into strips, pulled 10 out of a hat and had to make a piece of work which used all of them. Then I realized that no, that is what I would have to do. Carol has the instinct gene which I lack. She knows what to add and when to take away, how far to go without making a mess, what is to be emphasized and what is to be  left in a supporting role….all things which truly cannot be learned by textbook, only by experience. Which is the same way one becomes an award winning teacher like Carol, through experience and instinct, and lots of hard work so make it a point to visit the Massillon Museum (and sign the guestbook !!).

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