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A cut above: Allen Grindle’s Hands.

How Rare, How Pure
By David Brickman

Recent Prints and Sculpture by Allen Grindle

Firlefanz Gallery, through Nov. 5

A solo show by Allen Grindle is a rare treat—his last one was in 1999—so the fact that Firlefanz Gallery in Albany has extended his Recent Prints and Sculpture exhibition through Nov. 5 is good news all around.

Why be excited? Grindle is a regional treasure with an international reputation for his graphic art—but, locally, he might be better known as a master picture framer than as an artist. To those who do know him, he’s famously shy—hence the dearth of spotlight exhibitions—so Firlefanz’s owners must have twisted his arm pretty hard to get him to agree to this show.

And what a show it is. Featuring a handsome selection of mostly very recent works in the somewhat unusual medium of woodcut, this collection grabs you and shakes you the minute you walk in the door.

Countless adjectives could be used to describe Grindle’s prints: direct, transformative, allegorical, textural, personal, universal, gentle, stark, disturbing—all these come to mind rather readily. But the aspect of his work that moves me most is its purity. This is partly a function of the medium and how he handles it, producing deep blacks in a field of snow-white paper, but it is also the result of his approach and his imagery.

Grindle largely creates variations on a theme. The dominant motif here is the human head and torso—always represented in a simplified manner that harks to African “primitive” style as a source—along with other simplified forms from nature and geometry. While repetition can be tedious, and many artists mistakenly think that working and reworking a vein is by definition a good idea, in Grindle’s case it is a decided strength.

With each masklike face and hulking body, the variations in texture, patterning, shape, juxtaposition and augmentation become more and more fascinating. Again, technique plays a part—if his skill were less, the simplicity and directness of the images could seem heavyhanded. But Grindle’s control is great (the images are literally carved into the wood before being inked and printed, all by hand) allowing for the subtlety necessary to hold your attention in the details.

And that imagery is riveting. Men bound and cut; figures with roots going through them, with hands or heads or birds in their chests; torsos trapped by foliage; and the many dark, threatening faces that can only mean one thing—our everpresent adversary, death.

Scale plays a role as well. Pieces from 2004 with one-word titles such as Tree, Root, Plant, and Hands all feature life-size torsos or busts, each with a second head included. In the case of Bound, the faceless figure has white straps wrapped around it; it is upside-down and rests upon a staring, stonelike face. The piece titled Plant has mesmerizing texture where Grindle’s gouge has traced an organic, overall pattern of tracks upon two figures; it also includes delicate botanical elements within them.

Other pieces make strong juxtapositions, among them three 2005 pieces that have blood-red shapes silkscreened onto the woodbock print. Two feature floating red squares with a flat, black mask, while Red Cross uses the international symbol of emergency help instead. Two more strong pieces that also date from 2005 are House and Three Profiles. The former takes advantage of the universality of the house shape, here providing a dense network of roots that descend from the black house to enclose a full male figure, while the latter presents a totem of very simplified faces—one is adorned with the cross form, another with foliage, and the last is left pure white.

Other, slightly earlier pieces cut a little closer to the bone. Cut and Polliwog suggest disease and disfigurement; so does Branch, where a figure covered in dark spots has sprouted tree branches where its arms should be. But this also suggests rebirth, strength, and the potential for magical transformation.

Though Grindle’s work could be characterized as gloomy, even morbid, his preoccupation with vulnerability and mortality has a decidedly spiritual quality to it and, at times, even a sense of humor. And there is a gentleness to much of the work that shows an optimistic side.

But, mostly, there is honesty—and, while in our society to be honest about death is no way to win a popularity contest, this commitment imbues Grindle’s art with power, heft, undeniability. For me, his message is uplifting. We are very lucky to have such an artist among us.


PERIPHERAL VISION

-no peripheral vision this week-

 


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