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Return of the prints: Dan Mehlman’s Morning.

Block On
By David Brickman

Dan Mehlman: Prints and Collages
Union College, through Feb. 9

There’s art, and then there’s graphic art. Put simply, the former expresses, inspires, maybe even enlightens, while the latter communicates—clearly, concisely and, often, cleverly.

Dan Mehlman’s show of linocut prints and collages at Union College’s Arts Atrium Gallery is a tour de force of graphic art and, in many instances, embodies the timeless qualities of fine art as well.

I had never seen this exhibition space before venturing there for this show. Half-expecting a cramped hallway or dim cranny, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a spacious, well-lit gallery that occupies the central space of a building otherwise filled with art and performance studios, faculty offices and classrooms.

In the entry-level gallery, two long, gray-carpeted panels are augmented by two cozy, white-walled alcoves, providing ample space for the 40 or so pieces now on view. Coordinated by printmaking professor Sandy Wimer, the show is one of a series selected in rotation by her and the other Union faculty in painting, sculpture and photography.

Mehlman is something of a discovery himself, having exhibited only a couple of times before at Bethlehem Library and in last year’s Mohawk-Hudson Regional. But, with degrees in art from Rhode Island School of Design and California State University, he is hardly a novice.

What this exhibition represents for Mehlman is an assessment of the return to his first-love—printmaking—after a 20-year sojourn in ceramics that he ultimately found frustrating. Though it’s hard to say what might have been had he never left printmaking, I suspect the time away has brought a freshness to this work that might otherwise have been long gone in a middle-aged artist.

Throughout the show, one is impressed by a combination of easy mastery and innocent openness. The prints, which are produced by carving into a flat piece of linoleum and then transferring ink from the block to a piece of paper, span the years 1995 to 2002. All but a few are pure black-and-white, while some have handcoloring added and two or three are printed in multiple colors.

A number of the earlier prints are academic in nature: figure studies and interiors that appear to have been done in a studio, maybe even during a class. Even so, they transcend their mundane subjects through potent use of graphic design (as in Grumpy Sarah, whose flowing hair and piqued expression suggest one of Gauguin’s Tahitians) and mastery of line (as in Raven, a nude seen from the back).

There is also a trio of 1995 prints that follows the tradition of humorous illustration, brilliantly. In Damn Raccoons, a stream of cartoon expletives spirals out from a man’s mouth to join a similar spiral of bones and garbage in a circle that entraps the offending ’coon in the center of the print. The Geometry of Lawnmowing cleverly depicts a universal suburban experience. And Winter Barbecue With Orion turns one man’s stubborn quest for grilled steak into a missed opportunity for mystical enlightenment, as he ignores the cosmic display in the sky above his hungry form.

Other images are more pictorial. Desert Highway and Hudson River Train, both delicately handcolored, evoke the meditative state of a traveler while showing the landscape he contemplates. Railroad Crossing celebrates the geometry of roadside power lines and poles.

A few, such as Montauk Light from 1996 and Florida from 1999, are almost like snapshots, depicting people’s expressions and casual poses. But Mehlman’s observations are sharp—just looking at the way he has rendered the texture of a fur collar, using nothing but the pure white-on-black of the linocut, takes the breath away.

This brings us to the core of Mehlman’s genius: his ability to enchant with the pure black-and-white that linoleum block prints do best. In Morning, a 2002 print that accomplishes this most succinctly, a mug of coffee and pair of glasses sit side by side on a table, raked by the sun streaming in from a nearby window. Their shadows and the dark spaces around the table complete the composition, a perfect crystallization of a moment that happens daily to millions, and yet, in this modest piece of art, is shown to be nothing short of sublime.

Mehlman’s collages are another story. Described in the artist’s statement as following “the Surrealist tradition of assembling found images to generate dream-like pictures,” the best of these experiments (all dated 2002) take witty stabs at the social institutions of supermarkets and suburbia. They are colorful and clever and, for the most part, extremely well-crafted.

But the depth of feeling that Mehlman’s prints exude seems to be absent from these other graphics. It isn’t a matter of gravity—there’s a dead seriousness to certain collages, and a lightness bordering on superficiality in some of the prints—but, rather, a quality that the media themselves embody. Perhaps it’s because it’s easy to fiddle around with pieces of paper and glue; carving and printing a block, on the other hand, takes real commitment.

That said, the collages are still worthy of serious attention. Among my favorites are: Meat Department, which coyly juxtaposes the human hunter with his packaged quarry (and questions of digestion); The Dinosaurs in Produce, where a pair of T-Rexes eye a woman too distracted by a vision of enlightenment to notice; and Real Estate, a sly comment on the potential effects of global warming.

Less successful is a series of collages that incorporate poses from T’ai Chi Chuan. A martial artist, Mehlman has a personal investment in the content, but that only makes the compositions seem forced.

In all the collages there are images taken from mathematical and astrological sources. This is a vein that Mehlman taps persistently and, more often than not, it pays off. He also explores pure color (in the form of Color-Aid paper, an old art-school friend) to great advantage—an approach he would do well to pursue further.

All in all, this is as outstanding a mini-retrospective as one could hope to find, and a good cure for the winter blues.

The public is invited to attend a talk by Dan Mehlman at the Union College Art Building 210 at 11:30 AM on Feb. 4. There will also be a reception for the artist in the gallery from 4:30 to 6:30 PM on Feb. 4.

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