Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gustave Baumann (Still Life of Toys)

In addition to award-winning color woodcuts, Gustave Baumann made toys. Specifically, hand-carved marionettes. Marionettes have a sort of haunting quality. Quite often they fall into the uncanny valley, especially when their stiff, naturalistically-represented bodies start to move around. And so looking at this image I find myself wondering if Baumann had an interest in where childlike fantasy and nightmares intersect. I stare at it, and my brain tells me that these are toys. A large, black wooden duck over a nest of smaller, yellow ducks. A sheep made of looped yarn. A stuffed monkey propped up at a toy piano. This is some sort of child's room or toy store. It should feel whimsical and cheery, right? But my gut says, no. Like a frozen-faced marionette tip toeing across a tiny stage, that creepy monkey is lifting his hands to play whatever maniacal music might come out of that dwarfed instrument. The beady black-eyed skull-faced sheep appears like some sort of bad joke, its loops and braids suggesting (through their color and texture) bones, and yet also suggesting (with their flopping) bonelessness. And of course the star of the scene, a colossal raven gaping over a mess of ducklings who move uncertainly in a slithering puddle of rope. And yet, as much as my imagination turns a still life of toys into a bad acid trip, I am captivated. I am drawn to this image and its creatures ever more for their monster-like qualities. There is some gritty reality there, some dramatization of dark, natural truth. The monsters of our imagination do not come from nowhere. They are what has come of shadows in our monkey brain. Shadows that know where we come from and what we really are.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Rolling Tabby"

Four color reduction
11" x 16"(image) 12.5" x 18.5" (paper)
Oil-based inks on Kozo paper
Edition of 4 plus one AP in a slightly different color scheme

Sasquatch is my most beautiful cat, but no one would ever know because he always hides when they enter my home. He's the most beautiful because of his stripes of all thicknesses and lengths, similar to woodgrain. As if they were living beings in their own right, Sasquatch's stripes stretch and retract, flex and loosen as he runs away. It is hard to say what color his coat is. Salt and Pepper? Silver and black with hints of caramel? The darkest parts glisten in the light. The thick fur on his tummy (rarely seen) is certainly lighter, tan perhaps, because the purest white is reserved only for his chin and feet. I cannot coax Sasquatch out from under the bed to show him off to guests, but at least I can carve his likeness out of wood. I can print his ghost-like image on fine, handmade paper, and I can even have him posed rolling on his back shyly exposing his soft underbelly.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Astral Bouquet" by Joshua Norton

Image posted with the permission of the artist. More of Joshua Norton's work can be viewed and purchased here.

Black orb hurled across
Unfathomable distance.
Blue flowers bubble up
Toward flecks of light, encircling
A peach pit of a star.
Blue roses (real ones, not dyed or
Genetic modifications.)
Why this unnatural desire,
Fantastic hope of receiving an
Astral bouquet?
I've traveled the galaxy
In search of something impossible.
I've suffered loss of bone density,
Risked exposure to cosmic rays and
Never seeing my mother's face again
All in service of this most romantic quest.
I've ripped this Dragon's Eye
Out of its otherworldly soil
For you.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"The Fuju River on the Tokaido" by Shotei Hokuju

I love Hokuju's work primarily because of the bright, clean use of color and simplified geometry of his landscapes. This scene almost appears like a toy model. The hills jut up from the ground like a Rubik's snake toy in contrast to Mount Fuju, which is flat and white, like a paper cut out. Puffy, cartoonish clouds arise from the blue on the horizon, creating a cheery backdrop. All this brings me to see the tiny figures as plastic figurines, an impression that is only reinforced by the disproportionate largeness of many of the trees. The swift-flowing river gives the image some movement; I imagine the boatmen fighting the movement as they struggle to simply cross the river rather than get caught in its tide. Just as the overall image strikes me as toy-like, the lord and his entourage seem puny when set within such a whimsical and overwhelming landscape. With so many of the Edo period Japanese printmakers I find a subtle reverence for nature and its power over mankind, but only with Hokuju's prints do I come to this interpretation in such a happy manner.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Night Runner"

Night Runner
4 layer reduction using 6 colors
5.5" x 7"(image) 7.5" x 11.5" (paper)
Oil-based inks on Rives BFK
Edition of 4

This is a study of a horse I created for a friend. It is the second study where I bring out the grain over the whole block (using a wire brush), and I think I'll do more. The composition of the grain in this block successfully suggests a rolling landscape and windy sky, both of which emphasize swift movement of the horse. Some of the light blue areas and dark brown shadows on the horse's body cause it to slip into the background, resulting in a ghostly appearance. I imagine myself standing in a sparse landscape at night, lit only by the moon and its reflection on thinning, swirling clouds. A cool wind chills the bare skin on my arms, raising goosebumps. Suddenly there is movement in my peripheral vision, and I glance to see the horse gallop by. Its hooves make no sound against the grassy ground. I turn my gaze to the place from where the horse emerged, a dark forest perhaps, then return for a doubletake to make sure, but the horse is already gone, leaving me to wonder if my mind is playing tricks.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Brothers" by Alison Nastasi

I acquired this gorgeous little reduction woodcut (image is 6" x 8") in a trade. Its creator, Alison Nastasi, attended graduate school at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with me. Since receiving her MFA in 2006 she's exhibited widely, mostly in independent art spaces, and she's also a prolific film reviewer for Moviefone/Cinematical.

This woodcut reminds me a bit of Gauguin's with its use of nautral yellows and browns and sophisticated use of primitive mark-making to create expressive figures. They are so abstract, and yet convincingly real; many marks suggestive of details, yet without firm commitment. Reminds me of when I recall the face of someone I know well, how the face at first seems photographic in my mind, and yet if I try to focus on specifics everything falls apart. The two "brothers" (who I assume are monks given their bald heads, dark robes, and hands clasp in prayer) emerge from a wooden background. The one on the right turns his head toward the other. I imagine him whispering something about whatever they are both standing in attention toward. The one of the left is hunched over, head turned in a solemn gesture, but one eye focused out. What is behind his focused gaze? Inner peace? Judgment? Guilt? Certainly something profound. For years this work has hung on my wall, and I never tire of examining that eye with wonder.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tribute to Stephen Huneck

January 7 marked a year since the passing of my favorite woodcut artist, Stephen Huneck. Huneck was best known for his woodcuts and wood carvings of dogs and his series of children's books featuring his black lab Sally. So great was his love for dogs that he even built a whimsical chapel for pet owners to mourn their lost critters on Dog Mountain in Vermont. Learn all about Huneck, his life and work, and view and/or purchase artwork on his official website, maintained by his widow Gwen.

I discovered Huneck's work five years ago when I took my cat to a new veterinarian. In the waiting room a large children's book titled Sally Goes to the Vet sat on a low table. Intrigued by the cover image, I picked it up and looked inside. The illustrations engaged my eye in the way Matisse's cutouts and Jessie Oonark's screenprints do: colorful, flat shapes, many with delightfully naive textures, arranged in the most direct manner for telling the story and without regard to realistic perspective or physics. My excitement peaked as I reached the double page spread with the text "First I chase Bingo. Then Bingo chases me." To depict the this game between Sally the dog and Bingo the cat, Huneck simply created a spiral of the animals' repeated images, decreasing in size toward the center and arranged over a plain green backdrop. Beyond being decoratively quite beautiful, this way of telling these minutes in the story felt so fresh and true. In such a chase, neither character would notice furniture or other environmental details, nor would they notice time. They would be in the moment, everything happening furiously and joyfully at once.

As I enjoyed these images for the first time, I suddenly noticed the subtle woodgrain in the green backdrop. It hadn't occurred to me that the illustrations could be woodcuts since I know what a laborious process that is, but here was the proof! What's more, in the double page spread of Sally and Bingo chasing each other, there were slight differences in the grain and positions of the figures. Instead of using a mirror image of a single image, Huneck had made an entirely new print of the animals spiraling in the opposite direction. Now that's dedication to one's craft!

This past holiday season my husband's brother gave me all of Huneck's published books. I've rarely been more grateful for a gift. While my daughter is still too young to enjoy them, I have been enthralled for weeks just leafing through the images. In the years ahead I look forward to reading them to her, as well as the many other children in my life.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"Wood Nymph"

Wood Nymph
Woodcut (5 color reduction)
5" x 8"(image) 7.5" x 11.5" (paper)

This is another drawing done at the Allens Lane Art Center figure drawing sessions. (First and third Tuesdays, more info here.) I had this piece of scrap wood sitting around so I took it with me and drew directly on the block. The block itself was sort of a mess. It had a tough knot and another area of tight, hard-to-carve grain, as well as an area with a smattering of nicks. After putting the drawing on the surface I decided to go with the flaws by emphasizing them and carving the figure in a way that she seems somewhat embedded in the block. I like the way the curved lines of grain echo the curves of her figure and the darkest area to the left of her shoulder imitates the shadows and folds in her body. The other dark area that runs vertical behind her arches neatly around her head as if she has recently emerged from some mysterious crevice beyond the curtain of woodgrain. At first I worried a little about the one hand that I cropped right out of the composition, but as I worked, that area of the grain eroded more easily under the wire brush, and so in the final product the woman's forearm is distinctly translucent as if she is reaching behind the curtain.

One thing I find that I enjoy about woodcuts that emphasize the grain is that they capture some of the beauty of the block itself. The drawing on the block, both before and after it is carved, is a uniquely beautiful image. But the print on the paper is the finished work. Whenever the grain of the block is brought out in the image it gives it an added sense of depth. Of course it also visually connects the onlooker to the artist's process, but it really works best when the grain works in harmony with the imagery, opposed to being just another texture present. Perhaps the greatest challenge I feel in including the woodgrain is the insecurity I feel when my drawings are integrated with such subtle, natural beauty. It puts on a lot of pressure to make a truly beautiful drawing.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Snow Goddess" by Julie Zahn

Julie Zahn is an artist based in Philadelphia. More about her and her work can be viewed at her website here.

What delight I feel when the snow falls. Gentle tufts floating down at rapid speeds. Puffy white pours down, as if some god had shattered the clouds, and softens the points of the bare tree branches. Sharp angles on buildings and cars turn cushiony. White messengers beautify any landscape, even the most run-down, littered city street. Before the shovels and salt come out, before the ploughs emerge, we all end up under the cold and lovely face of snow.

Monday, January 3, 2011

"The Monongahela" by Blanche Lazzell

A curved road at the bottom of the composition, and strange arch at the top (a transdimensional bridge or muddy rainbow perhaps?) form a great oval turned on its side, which bulges way out of the picture frame. These two borders form a giant's eye, within which we see icy blue mountains, loopy bridges, sagging houses, and a river occupied by strange yellow lanterns that bob on the surface. Round and round the eye is caught in a fast roller coaster ride. Thankfully the sharp, hard branches of a purple tree are present to slow the ride down, lest our gazes fly right out of the scene. More yellow lights dot the base of the hills and lights in the window of houses; it's dark and cold outside and people are busy doing what people do. We can see from the glow on the horizon that the sun is either rising or setting, or perhaps that is simply the ambient light from the urban center penetrating the night sky. Light pollution (what muddied the rainbow?) some would say. One more way diurnal humans impose ourselves on the universe. Then again, in the season of darkness who's to enjoy all this cool blue without illumination of the hue?