Cut to order: April Vollmer’s Japanese
wood-cut print, Cherry.
Kids on the Block
Hanga at Union
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.
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
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
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.
Arts Center of the Capital Region, through Feb.
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.