cut above: Allen Grindle’s Hands.
Rare, How Pure
Prints and Sculpture by Allen Grindle
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
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
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
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 this week-