November 1, 2010

Going Against the Grain

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In a world without cameras, memories were captured by lines. Light and shadow, smiles and scowls; almost any setting and emotion could be recreated by the deft engraver. His only tools were his engraving knife, skill and imagination.

The Johnson Museum’s new exhibition End Grain: A History of Wood Engraving offers a dazzling glimpse of history etched in wood. Wood engraving has its roots in painstaking 15th century European woodblock printing techniques. Securing the medium for engraving was already laborious, not to mention expensive. As the block of wood had to be cut such that the wood grains ran parallel to the block, only hardwoods like lemonwood or cherry could be used. Unsurprisingly, as printing techniques advanced, the popularity of woodblock printing waned after the 16th century.

The naturalist Thomas Bewick rescued woodblock printing in 1768 through his meticulous interpretation of nature. His fine carvings, attributed to his use of a burin that enabled finer and sharper strokes, were noted for their varied shading that gave his depictions added light and depth. Following this 18th century revival, many women commenced freelance, home-based wood engraving work as a means of earning added income since tools were inexpensive and portable. As wood engraving became increasingly mechanised and photography emerged by the mid-19th century, engraving evolved into an art form, cemented by the establishment of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920.

The mid-20th century pieces in the Johnson’s selection are diverse, ranging from meditations on domestic life to pure whimsy. British engraver Geri Waddington certainly gives the mundane its beautiful due (to use John Updike’s famous phrase). Waddington’s engravings are akin to still life photographs of everyday life. By regulating the strength and length of dashes, she masterfully carves a staircase leading up to a gentle sky in “Kitchen Steps.”  Intimacy and quietness radiate from the dimly lit “Bookshop” through Waddington’s careful shading. The recurrence of a sleeping cat in both engravings reinforces the leisurely atmosphere of a weekend afternoon.

Another stunning take on contemporary life is presented by 20th century American artist and storyteller Lynd Ward. Ward’s woodcut piece “Oil Rig” shows the interior of an oil rig from the perspective of a descending worker. His skilfully etched lines convey the rapidity of the worker’s downward movement.

Texture can also be conjured through deft engraving. British artist Hilary Paynter’s fine, dense strokes recreate the soft fur of cats, in her playfully wrought display shelf of highly as­­sorted cats.

The striking symbolism of several wood works leaves much food for thought. Paynter’s “Holding Out” features a small farm stead sitting atop a cliff. All the surrounding land has been bulldozed away, leaving a hauntingly gaping chasm that threatens to swallow up the tiny farm. The fervency (and foolishness?) of the lone farmer shines through Paynter’s deft rendering of texture and light.

The pastoral is the dominant subject of several 19th century carvings in the exhibit. American engraver Henry Wolf’s intricate knife work recreates quiet, contemplative moments in which lone subjects sit as if in meditation. A notable example would be Wolf’s 1893 wood engraving “Fox Hunt” which contains the fine texture and shading of a painting.

Dramatic, unguarded interpersonal exchanges are expertly captured by printer and landscape artist Winslow Homer. Homer’s 1869 black and white engraving “Weary and Dissatisfied with Everything” focuses on a grim, agitated young woman turning away from a young man. His impressive rendering of facial expression and body language is also evident in his other featured works.

The power of oratory is also enshrined in wood carvings. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s almost immortal words from his 1968 speach are given added force and poignancy by Stefan Martin’s engraving. Martin’s portrait of King in thunderous oratory was accompanied by an excerpt from a speech King delivered the day before his assassination, “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land!” Similarly arresting is a monumental carving of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, accompanied by his 1852 text condemning “the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave.”

For anyone who is camera-dependent, End Grain provides a fascinating way of rethinking memory and perception.

Original Author: Daveen Koh