of the prints: Dan Mehlmans Morning.
By David Brickman
Mehlman: Prints and Collages
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
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
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
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.