Monday, May 23, 2011

Born to Endless Night

Born to Endless Night
Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame
March 12, 2011-June 20, 2011
Works on Paper Room, Huntington Art Gallery

Huntington library boasts a large collection of William Blake's etchings and prints, a sample of which are on display in a new exhibit.These prints and drawings were put together by contemporary artist, John Frame. These selected works include illustrations of the Book of Job. These powerful etchings show a mastery of detail and ability to convey the power of God and the power of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. John Frame is greatly inspired by Blake's portrayal of the Human condition and quest to explain our frailty. It is this essence of Blake that John Frame explores.
The new Blake exhibit runs concurrent with an exhibit of Frames work. It is intriguing to experience an artist body of work displayed along side the artist which inspired him.

The door opens up and you are immediately engulfed in the world of Frame. It takes a moment to acclimate to the surroundings as the lights have been dimmed and the “stage” is lit. His pieces are odd puppet like creatures, meticulously crafted by the artist and his wife. The fine details of every object suggest his thought in the attention he has given to the carefully chosen objects. All his pieces hold an old world appeal as if handed down through the generations.

The meticulous nature of William Blake's work is mirrored in the work of John Frame.
The puppet creatures of his dioramas have perfect working parts down to the smallest 1 cm movable fingers. The eyes are made to portray realism. There is a sense that at any moment the tiny creatures would move when not on view.

Frame's work is a visual as well as sensory experience, the dimly lit room with the lighted figurines help to create this mood. It is as if you wander from sequence to sequence, in a dream like state, focusing and refocusing your vision.
The main “stage” displays an array of figures and tiny scenes taken from Frame’s own dream, in which he crafted the figures and world in which the creatures exist.
There is a definite foreground, middle ground, and background. The stage is mechanical, filled with clock works and metal trinkets and doll heads all specifically lit or unlit.
The works of William Blake hand chosen by John Frame, on view are a mere demonstration of the talents Blake possesses, as seen in his series of the Book of Job.
Frame writes, “He [William Blake] grappled always with the basic questions of human life. “Prayer is the study of art. Praise is the practice of art,” he said [Blake], and, pursuing this dictum, he fashioned a world that was wholly his own and yet reached beyond himself toward God.

The small engravings describe the scenes of Job’s life. It is in these scenes that the questions of man and his belief in the higher power of God as faced through tragedy are portrayed. The engravings contain text of bible which aids in the contemplation of the scene. The scenes are small yet captivating and draw you in towards your own contemplation. The engravings of the Book Of Job use only line quality to illustrate the scene. His use of line and tonal values are a clear distinction of an understanding of the engraving.

The Upright Man is Laughed to Scorn - Illustration 10 to the Book of Job Engravings

Then a Spirit Passed Before My Face the Hair on My Face Stood Up - 1825 llustration 9 to the Book of Job Engraving

Equally compelling were the small engravings of "Song of Innocence" and "The Sick Rose". These two plates were displayed side by side. They seemed to carry an air of innocence yet loaded with all the essence of the human soul. These works were illustrations that Blake and his wife hand colored for editions of books that he had written.

The Sick Rose
By William Blake 1757–1827

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

T. Dana

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Art and Magic at the Skirball Cultural Center

Art, magic, and Jewish history at the Skirball Center. Currently there is an exhibition highlighting Jewish magicians of the Golden Age, and especially Houdini.

"Masters of Illusion," Jewish magicians from 1875-1948 and the poster art that advertised their talent and enticed their audiences. Displayed among the memorabilia, the posters were revolutionary examples of the advantages of stone lithography. These color lithographs were amazingly detailed and usually poly chrome. The majority featured a common composition of a portrait of the magician, skulls, smoke, full skeletons, and women. Also popular were devils and small red or green devilish imps, crawling around the magician and whispering in his ear. These imps seemed comical, but they alluded to magics early association with witchcraft. A beautiful example of these litho posters is 'Rosini Napoleon of Mystery,' New York City, 1930. Here, the magician is the center of the composition, along with the portrait of his wife/assistant. Her head is floating above a cauldron and surrounded by smoke. At the base of the cauldron are red roses, and the entire scene is embedded in a grayed cobalt blue background. Interestingly, in all the posters, the magicians eyes do not look out at the viewer, but it is always the women as assistants who make eye contact. Unfortunately, pictures inside the exhibit were not permitted.

The jewel of the show was the artwork inside the "Houdini, Art and Magic," exhibit. This art was by artists who were inspired by the man and legend of Houdini. These artists portrayed Houdini as a symbol of strength, rebirth and innovation. Among the most famous devices Houdini used for his stunts, were paintings and drawings from various fans of the magician, educating the public of Houdini's craft of showmanship, innovative thinking in terms of technological advances and the constant renewal of his image. A lot of drawings included text. One of the most revealing was a pen, ink and gouash drawing on paper by Raymond Pettibon, 'No Title (The Desire To)' 2009. Pettibon made a dynamic composition of three male figures, possibly Houdini, falling out of a window and gradually breaking free of chains. Primarily thick and gestural lines formed the figures, and the text around them read, "The desire to seize and grasp all that was nearest, bound him to Earth, and caused his sympathies to revolve within a narrowing circle. Yet in that very power of adhesion to outward things, might be discerned the strength of a spirit destined to live beyond them." So insightful into the vision and human spirit inside Houdini.

There was one other drawing there that was significant to the connection between art making and magic. Whitney Bedford captured a life size portrait of the back of Houdini, hanging upside down and at the moment when he outstretched his arms after releasing the strait jacket he untangled himself out of. 'Houdini (Upside Down), 2007, featured a nostalgic palette reminiscent of the black and white film of historical photographs. She highlighted the span of his arms with a single pale yellow oil brush stroke, otherwise the figure is drawn in ink on unprimed paper. The medium is what parallels the tricks of artists to the tricks of magicians. Eventually the image will fade as the medium sinks into the unprimed paper. Mostly a contour drawing, this image speaks beyond what is visible. It conjures emotion and thought, that there are similarities between artists of all kinds.

The few images that were available for photographs were inside the permanent collection, featuring four thousand years of Jewish history. Always eye catching is the infamous Andy Warhol, and here he has on display pieces from a series, "Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century," New York, 1980. There were three from this series of screen prints on Lenox museum board, featuring the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, and Albert Einstein. The first two have large blocks of color on a black and white portrait, with nervous yet confidently drawn color contour lines. Albert Einstein is in similar composition, but entirely black and white. Such an appropriate tribute to genius, art and showmanship.

Corey King

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Class Assignment: Found Objects

When doling out topical assignments to my printmaking classes, I attempt to make them interesting enough that I might become utterly transfixed to tackle them myself. Such was the case for the final assignment for my relief class this term, & my results (shown in 2 different color versions) are repro'ed here. At 2 x 3" the actual size of these Resingrave prints is somewhat smaller, as I wanted to make objects the scale of something that could be intentionally ingested. That brings me to the photo of the fellow in the impressive hat below, Mary Cappello, & Barry Moser.

#1. The man proudly displaying his vast collection (now housed in Philadephia's Mutter Museum - road trip!) is one Dr. Chevalier Jackson, who extracted these "found objects" from various Victorian human hosts where they had been placed keeping? Perhaps as souvenirs or protective amulets? From this remove, one can only speculate.

#2. Mary Cappello, who has a keen interest in objects of "disruptive beauty" currently teaches at the University of Rhode Island & recently was awarded a coveted 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship. She wrote a non-fiction book about Dr. Jackson titled: Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration & the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them. I have placed it at the top of my "must read" list, following in the steps of other scientifically macabre books I can highly recommend.
(Heather Pringle's The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession & the Everlasting Dead, & Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers followed by her book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife)
Reading reviews of her book suggested the theme of the project - to use not only a found object as the basis of the image, but to make it an object so compelling, so darn tasty, that for whatever reason, one might wish to secret it inside of one's own private Idaho.

#3. That brings me to Barry Moser, Supreme Master of Wood-Engraving. Back in the 1970's I worked with Kim Merker at the Windhover Press in Iowa City, creating (sort of) wood-engravings (sort of) on Turkish box-wood end-grain for a book translated by W.S. Merwin. Kim had worked on a previous project with Barry Moser, & still had his INCREDIBLE blocks knocking about the shop. When he showed them to me, I realized that what I had been doing seriously paled in comparison, & I really should just hang up my gravers, hang my head & return to my gouges & planks. I did this for many years, but after seeing Moser's prints for the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, I was itching to give the medium another go. Imagine my surprise to find that the end-grain box-wood blocks were a thing of the past. Trees grow ever so slowly. I then read that all 229 illustrations Mr. Moser had engraved were done on a newly developed synthetic substitute of hardened epoxy resin called "Resingrave." Yippee. It's swell stuff, available at McClain's.

#4. Finally, a plea. Would the knave who "liberated" my high magnification swing arm lamp & all my wood-engraving tools (housed in a very ancient Yardley soap box) please return them to the shop. I am bereft & bereaved, especially of my tools!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Drawing on Stones

I like to think that Robert Rauschenberg was thinking of the medium of lithography when he once said "You begin with the possibilities of the material." Towards that end, here are images of my students doing just that, with the materials of lithographic crayons, rubbing crayon, gum arabic, tusche wash, spray paint & scraping with razor blades.

In the image at top, Taylor ("Dusty") Guerra is drawing an image of a fecund "Lady Madonna" on a medium sized stone. We indicate the sizes of the various stones with the colors of blue, green & red painted around their sides.

Miranda Conway split her image into a diptych via the use of a gum arabic border. To make these borders on the stones, we use "spent" amounts of gum that had been used for etching the stones. We collect them together in a large plastic jug, thus assuring that as little as possible goes to waste in the shop.

Ali Azimi sacrificed his antique VCR to create a whimsical drawing of its various component parts.

The brownish-red color on the stone in the flayed human/rabbit hybrid image is where Jonanthan Torres utilized prepared red iron-oxide paper to transfer his drawing. As you can see, the numbers he indicated are backwards, as they needed to be drawn in reverse to print correctly the right way around. He drew with the hardest litho crayons (Korn's #'s 4 & 5), which contain smaller amounts of grease, as he wanted his finished print to appear as sensitively drawn as his sketch.

Pai Chu Li began drawing on her stone using a wooden bridge, in order that the grease from her hands not adversely affect her architectural image. I often think she's channeling the spirit of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, in her equally fantastic & complex images. Because she has more experience with the medium, she's also using various mixtures of tusche to create washes. Tusche is akin to watercolor but is actually a very greasy liquid ink.

As for the # 23 written on the side of her stone...Once upon a time, we named all the stones in our shop (we had the trios of "Faith, Hope & Charity," along with "Porthos, Athos & Aramis"...the 3 Musketeers) but it became a nightmare to keep track of who was using what. We switched to the rather boring numerical system, which has been great for tracking, but not at all imaginative or literary.

The generous gum arabic border around the stone's edges allows for a place for the scraper bar on the press to start & stop. It also is the area where the "T & bar" marks are made by cutting into the stone with a razor blade to insure for correct paper registration & borders.