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Cut to order: April Vollmer’s Japanese wood-cut print, Cherry.

New Kids on the Block
By David Brickman

Moku Hanga at Union
Arts Atrium Gallery, through Feb. 14

The centuries-old tradition of Japanese woodblock printing (or moku hanga) is well-known in the West, and it is frequently noted that, back in the 19th century, these ethereal and colorful prints were a major influence on the developing work of French impressionists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh.

Probably far less well-known is the fact that there is a strong, contemporary movement in this painstakingly slow medium; but a show titled Moku Hanga at Union, with five prints each by eight North American artists, goes a long way toward revealing the quality and range of that movement for those of us lucky enough to get to see it.

Organized by printmaking artist-in-residence Sandra Wimer, Moku Hanga at Union fills the Arts Atrium space with bright colors and sublime subtlety. Though it’s possible to gain a sense of the images from a natural viewing distance (and a number of the prints are large and/or graphic enough to encourage that), this is work that really demands—and rewards—up-close inspection.

This degree of intimacy comes from two factors specific to the medium: the very delicate texture of the mulberry paper used for all the prints; and the grain of the wood that often transfers from the blocks, and is visible in many of the prints here. Additionally, as woodblock printing typically builds up layers of color with as many as 40 separate ink transfers (each done by hand, rubbing through the back of the paper against the inked block), there are very slight shifts and shimmers of the colors, giving much of the work done in this style a meditative quality.

The eight artists in the show come from a diverse geography, including Philadelphia, New York, Connecticut, Montreal and Missouri; but the classical training they all share has its roots in Kyoto, Japan, where one of the artists, Keiji Shinohara, recently returned as a visiting professor and where another, Bill Paden, lived from 1963 to ’68. There’s a consistency in all this, especially when one thinks of the hundreds of Buddhist temples in Kyoto, and the famous Zen gardens there.

But this is neither Kyoto, nor the land of Buddhism, nor the time of Hiroshige. It is North America in the 21st century, and much of the work reflects that—at the same time, though, some of it does not. In the end, neither formula works best: I found that the strongest work in the show was simply that, pretty much regardless of context or references.

For example, Suezan Aikins, an Anglo-French Canadian, produces some of the most traditional (or Japanese-looking) work presented here. Using a long horizontal or vertical format, Aikins creates scenes inhabited by birds, plants, water and air. A pair of prints titled Rainwillow (1993) and Moonfishing (1988) work beautifully together, as each is nearly filled with water, the first by being streaked with wind-whipped rain (and with two swallows fluttering through it) and the second by being entirely a reflection on water by moonlight (as a silhouetted heron lifts off from the surface).

Another Aikins print includes many birds, each in a different attitude of flight; its title, Sound of Wings, is almost a Zen koan in itself. But the print is rather concrete—so much so, in fact, that it verges on illustration. This should not be taken, however, as a negative remark: The fact is, an argument could be made that all the work in this medium, and all its glorious past, consists of illustration in a highly refined form.

Bill Paden, Takuji Hamanaka, Yasu Shibata and Keiji Shinohara have taken moku hanga in the direction of abstraction, to varying degrees. Paden and Shinohara tread the line between abstract expressionism and landscape; each uses strong colors and color relationships along with potent shapes—but I was drawn to Paden’s quietest work, where texture was more greatly emphasized, and Shinohara’s more traditional, misty Anodyne and Pianissimo, similar compositions that bookended his other prints.

Shibata, on the other hand, shouts his colors—and their relationships—in exuberantly large images that are flatly geometric and printed right to the edges of their double sheets. Following quite another tradition—that of modernism—Shibata uses literal titles (Pink/Yellow for one big print; R.B.R. Small for a smaller print with a series of red, blue and red ovals; and my favorite, Green/Green) and shapes more reminiscent of Miró and Klee than anything else. Yet the wood grain and beautiful mulberry paper are as apparent in these prints as anything else here, too.

Hamanaka’s geometric and biomorphic forms also do a lot to reveal the paper underneath and around them; but their colors are soft, almost timid, suggesting a sweetness or naiveté to their maker.

The others in the show—Daniel Heyman, Mike Lyon and April Vollmer—are anything but naive, and their subjects have more sting. They come across as the art-smart Americans—Lyon with his frontal nudity and exaggerated scale; Heyman with his clever, messy irreverence; and Vollmer with her facile, insectified mandalas. They’re fun, sassy, postmodern, even a little bit camp—and their inclusion makes this a better show—but they feel a bit too smug, too in-your-face for the medium, and I doubt that their work will greatly stand the test of time.

A talk by moku hanga artist April Vollmer will be at the Arts Atrium Gallery at 11 AM on Thursday, Feb. 10. Also, an exhibition by Union painting professor Walter Hatke opened last week and will be on view at the college’s Mandeville Gallery through March 13.


Reality Show

The Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Feb. 27

Arts Center curator Gina Oc chiogrosso has put together a fairly diverse group of eight artists who “study, capture and comment on the real world.” Not surprisingly, photography is a significant presence, but painting dominates this selection.

In usual ACCR fashion, there is a combination of artists from near and far (including Chicago and Los Angeles)—and, as usual, the hometown team more than holds its own. Hudson Valley painters Deborah Zlotsky (Delmar), James Dustin (Coxsackie) and Phyllis Palmer (Tivoli) each apply sound thinking and consummate technique to their respective series of a child’s drawings; architectural space and light; and back-view portraits. All three are first-rate bodies of work.

Also in usual ACCR fashion, there are pedantic exhibit notes written by the curator that attempt to instruct the viewer in how to interpret the art. I suspect I am not the only one to find this practice particularly annoying.

Yet another fine local painter, Dave Austin, is represented in a sidebar solo exhibition in the President’s Gallery as 2003’s selected Fence Show artist. Austin’s prodigious 2004 output shows he’s growing into an intriguing and skilled interpreter of paranoia and alienation in contemporary America. Definitely one to watch.

—David Brickman

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