Into the Wood with the Woodcut
Dan Miller is synonymous with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as a former student, a teacher, mentor, and administrator. And synonymous with Dan Miller is printmaking, specifically the woodblock print. So it is fitting that this exhibition at Cerulean Arts that features Dan Miller’s artworks should be called “The Woodcut” and that it also presents the prints, primarily woodblock, of former students whose work he has chosen to include: Matthew Colaizzo, Diego Hiromi, Andrij Maday, Gene Shaw, Priscilla Young, and Julie Zahn.
As a master printmaker Dan Miller has explored subjects as diverse as the landscape, insects and birds, poets and painters. The exhibition is organized with examples from these bodies of work by Miller followed by various analogous samples by his students.
In all his prints there is a regard for the world as he experiences it, for art history in his way of composing, and in his application of materials and process. For example, there are two prints
of owls, one called “Golden Night, the other “Moon Awakened”. A cursory look sets a relation between the owl and the woods through the printing of a piece of wood as ground. The wood surface is further contrasted by a color that forms a pocket around the owl. The owl is printed in black and white—and although I am not sure if the white was maintained by a resist or is the paper on which the print was done, it is clear that the printing process for this piece is complicated and well thought out. Moreover, the knotholes of the wood are placed and used as important design motif. In “Moon Awakened” it is a glowing yellow of a moon; in “Golden Night” the knots are grouped as reminiscent of the owl’s face—eyes and beak. I am reminded of that feeling of the night watching me.
Julie Zahn seems to have a similar, multi-layered way with her prints of small birds. In these
works she uses both woodblock print (primarily for the bird and some of its surroundings, as well as painting and katazome, a dying method. In “Chickadee on Blueberry Bush” the page is printed all-over with shifting grays. But the area where the bird appears is saved of the gray as are the top, left corner and an area through the middle. These become areas of light—perhaps the moon, perhaps the sky, perhaps reflection. The green leaves look stamped on top of blue dots and the chickadee. The whole is a charming illustration you want to hold in your hand, or in your heart if you like Emerson’s poem of the chickadee. Her other small bird prints use both print and dying methods and print and paint.
Priscilla Young presents a 5-colored print of a woman’s head—or is it two women-- called “Revolve”. This piece seems to begin with a ground of yellow over which the other colors—black, green, blue, and white printed. (Given that her other print “Luminous”, uses trace
monoprint, I wonder if some of the lines are made that way.) It is full of details in patterns both subtle and obvious that makes me think I am seeing the inner mechanizations of this person as well as her outer appearance. There are many rounded and oval shapes to the face—some starting at the eye and branching out, others as either attached or detached items.
To further compound this idea of revolving, the yellow field resembles a silhouette of a figure—a ghost that intersects with the face. And what about those different sized jelly beans or eggs spouting from the mouth? Are they breath? Are they speech bubbles? Are they a cobblestone path into the mind of the print?
Young’s other print in this exhibition, “Luminous”, has its subject, moths, arranged along the outer portions of the page, a little off-centered. Each moth, lightly colored and ornately patterned, lays against a dark configuration that plays tricks with my eyes as far as figure-ground goes. The middle-valued yellow-green along the right side does act as a light and attaches to the bug shapes which brings the light valued areas forward. But the density and strong contour of the dark area has force. I think that perhaps these moths are eating away at the night.
Dan Miller is known for his insects—from butterflies to bees, moths to hornets. Often multicolored and richly detailed, they are placed on a surface printed by a textured piece of wood so that the viewer not only understands the anatomy of the bug but what it is doing—the path it flies, its motion in space. In “The Circle”, you can appreciate the character of a hornet as it hovers toward the top of the paper as well as the fine lines that make up its body.
In a playful way, Bottoms Up" by Andrij Maday also gives us an insect specimen against a wood-like background. Here the insect is on its back, wings slightly spread, legs protruding from its body like a multi-armed god in a dance. The intricacy of the cuts to show the membranous wings and hair on the hind legs is astonishing—and is probably inspired by Miller’s technique of cutting the recessed areas with a razor blade rather than a gouge.
Maday shows his mastery of this technique as well as the use of the wood itself and gouging in “Window”. So many surfaces and patterns needing to be delineated! The eye moves from veiny leaves to striped wall to grained wood to cracking shades to the brick and wood of the outdoors. The values here are carefully calibrated in the technique of woodcut. The eye moves from top of the page to the bottom and back again while also sensing the movement of space.
Several other artists use the contrast of values made by changing up degree of relief—that is, the amount that is carved out to make larger white areas, areas where the paper is untouched by ink, and areas where the wood is left to imprint on the paper. Gene Shaw in “Entanglement” has us looking through the gouged out thicket to see areas of the woods while in “Home at the End of the Lane” diagonals of varying grays to black surround a clapboard house complete with just enough material to form a shadow across one side.
Diego Hiromi places us in the shade, looking down the lane between fields to a silhouetted
tree and distant mountains. The sky is moving with atmosphere. Our eyes move from left where a cluster of dark leaves reaches down from the top to right where a broader leafed plant is backed by a dark form I read as a fence post. There is something about this piece and its assortment of surfaces that reminds me of van Gogh’s “Landscapes with Path”.
Hiromi’s other entry is a closeup study of light and texture as found in looking at a plaintain tree. Called “Plantanos”, I wonder if this was based on a photograph or from life. I say this because I am not exactly sure of my position in relation to the plant. Sometimes I feel below as from the curve of the fruit; sometimes I feel eye-level with the fruit. The placement on the page suggests that this is an upwardly growing plant and the small markings in the negative space suggest atmosphere. In many ways it connects closer to still life than to landscape. We are centered on examining the makeup of the plant that is anchored to the top and bottom of the page by the strong vertical lines of the trunk and to the sides of the page with the curved, striated broad leaves.
Close by to “Plantanos” is Dan Miller’s “Maya”, his only portrait in the exhibition. Miller has had previous exhibitions of portraits—“Painters and Poets” at Artist House in Philadelphia and “Drawn from Wood” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Compositionally, we understand “Maya” as a partial view of the person—shoulders up. Placed just off-center, a vine growing from the bottom to the top intersects with the face. Varigated leaves encircle the vine with one floating into the mid-upper yellow field, activating the space. Although I am not sure who “Maya” is, I am left evidence. Yellow and green that says that this may be someone from a sunny, possibly tropical, climate. A lover of nature and the exotic given the vine and the pattern on the shirt. And a little or short person because of the low placement on the page.
Placement of elements and balance of active to less active areas brings to mind Asian art as in “Sally Island Through Trees”. And even when the balance is symmetrical as in “Island Between”, the trees are slightly slanted so that they are not poles but real and leaning because of the land and cast of the sun. The color of Miller’s landscapes are subtle and slash marks can serve a variety of purposes—shaping rocks, hi-lighting trees and clouds, texturizing grass. Similarly, the wood grain can be used to denote sea or sky, color, blank page, and just a touch of color groups and separates planes. This leads to contemplation, not just of nature but of existence. For example. How can one not see “The Gateless Gate” in works such as “Remembered Trees” where two bare trees arc like cracks in the picture plane or in the aforementioned “Island Between”.
Julie Zahn’s two landscapes in this exhibition, “Stonington Clouds” and “Stonington Harbor”
have a watercolor quality and are also standouts in their minimal use of information. In both pieces of a waterfront community of houses, just enough of the shapes that make up structures, sky, water is given to invoke them. And the whiteness of the paper becomes the light. Beyond that, Zahn makes some interesting choices with the application of dark blue puddles along the upper portion of the paper. In “Stonington Clouds” they are the shadowy clouds one sees under direct sunlight at the seashore. In “Stonington Harbor” they could be landforms around the harbor and the dark clouds passing by.
Matthew Colaizzo works in monochromes, but very colorful ones. Instead of black and white and many grays in between, for “Solstice” he has chosen violet and for “Rubble Piles from I-95 Overpass” two different reds. True to the Dan Miller tradition, he allows the nature of the woodblock to become expressive parts of the scene he describes, be it sky or land, horizon-line or water. Calaizzo demonstrates skill not only in the control of the parts carved and left but in the inking as well. Both of these works have tonal qualities that remind me of acquatint. This would mean that the artist would ink the block thicker in some areas and thinner in others. Another possibility is to ink and print chosen sections until it comes to the shade wanted. The choice of color for both heightens a sense of mystery and even alienation, familiarity yet remoteness. The fingerprints left in the margins and quirks of the boards he uses (notice the multiple knotholes in “Rubble Piles from I-95 Overpass”also adds to the other-worldly quality.
The artists of “The Woodcut”— Matthew Colaizzo, Diego Hiromi, Andrij Maday, Gene Shaw, Priscella Young, Julie Zahn, and the great Dan Miller—are linked by their regard for the print, and particularly the woodcut. As with all art, artists make expressive choices that expand an artform’s tradition. As a teacher and mentor, Dan Miller has assisted his students in their journey and talented students turn into interesting artists who share their vision with the world. So take the opportunity to see this exhibition at Cerulean Arts. It will revitalize your ideas of experiencing the print and the world. You have until November 18th to see this exhibition and on November 10th at 1 pm there will be an artists’ talk. (I will insert the video of the talk later.) You can also access the artwork through Cerulean's web site at www.ceruleanarts.com.
In the meantime, below is a video by John Thornton about Dan Miller and his art:
And here is the Artists Talk led by Dan Miller at Cerulean Arts on November 10, 2018.
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