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It’s in the details: Mochi at work on a nature scene.

Cutting Edges
By David Brickman

Ugo Mochi
Opalka Gallery, through Oct. 1

An extraordinary exhibit of the work of Italian-born artist- illustrator Ugo Mochi is at the Opalka Gallery by a stroke of geographic fate. All the works on view belong to the late artist’s daughter, Jeanne Mochi Tartaglia, a Capital Region resident who keeps a tight leash on the fragile, cut-paper material. Fortunately for us, the fascinating product of a life of fruitful obsession didn’t need to travel far to allow an appropriate venue to create this nicely constructed look back at a very unusual talent.

Mochi (pronounced mo’-kee) worked exclusively in cut paper, concentrating mainly on zoological themes in his more than 60-year career. Adding significant forays into equine, nautical and industrial subjects, he never varied his technique, merely getting better and better at it as the decades rolled by. (It is interesting to note that, as rare as the medium of cut paper has become in this century, Mochi’s is one of two major exhibitions currently on view in our area in that medium—the other is Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress at the Williams College Museum of Art.)

The exhibition opens with a late series of giraffes, and it is the perfect entry into appreciating both Mochi’s stupendous mastery of the medium he employed and his remarkable dedication to naturalism. The series consists of five nearly identical vertical compositions, each illustrating a different characteristic pattern of the animal’s markings (spotted, reticulated, leafy and so on).

Aside from the large figure of a lone giraffe, each panel features landscape elements with plant forms, establishing a sense of scale, context and distance (another Mochi hallmark), as well as a carefully lettered scroll identifying the type of marking depicted. While it is nothing short of astonishing to get up close and see how Mochi accomplishes all this accurate detail with a single, continuous sheet of cut paper, there’s a twist. In order to render the isolated patches of a giraffe’s markings, he had to reverse his normal habit of cutting black paper to create the image—instead, he has cut white paper and mounted it to a black background, in effect outlining the black forms in white relief.

Topping off this tour de force is a sixth panel, showing a group of giraffes running across the savannah, accompanied by a nearby herd of zebras (another Mochi favorite, for obvious reasons). As though underscoring the rarity of his own ability, Mochi has made one of the giraffes an albino—after all, the paper was white, no?—a fitting gesture that points to Mochi’s uniqueness. He was past 80 and, unbelievably, still at the top of his form.

If you think that after this the rest of the exhibition might be a letdown, think again. Not far from the giraffe series is the earliest piece in the show, a self-portrait created when the artist was in his early 20s. A profile view, decorated with an elaborate border featuring elephants, buffalo, gazelles, birds, cats and monkeys, it both looks back toward the modest source of Mochi’s technique in Victorian portraiture and foreshadows the unexpectable heights to which he would carry it.

Some of the other early works in the show are even simpler silhouettes in the traditional mode, though they also add a Mochi touch with painstakingly copied signatures of their subjects and extremely detailed cut-paper borders in gold. They’re good, but they barely hint at the greatness to come. More intriguing is a larger study from 1920 of a draft horse, its bulk, strength and harnesses all clearly apparent in the three-quarter view. Adding to the scene are two other horses in the distance; a man swinging a shovel is seen through the draft horse’s legs, dwarfed by the horse’s stolid majesty.

Mochi was primarily an illustrator, in that his work was done to tell a particular story, often on commission. In addition to books, and didactic panels created for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Mochi’s work was reproduced on an extensive line of kitchenware in the period before World War II, and he designed elaborate wrought-iron gates for the Chicago Zoo in 1930 (they were never built).

A number of series in the show represent commissioned work done in the ’50s, including a Wild West saga, and large studies of African animals. Some of these incorporate surprisingly subtle areas of shading, employing cut lines of varying breadth similar to an engraver’s gouged line. By this point in his career, it seems Mochi could handle any subject or treatment with cut paper: roiling river rapids; wispy clouds; a ship’s rigging; a stormy night sky; the hulking, watchful form of a giant horned ibex at rest; or a tiny dragonfly’s wing.

Throughout the exhibition, ably curated by Sage associate professor of illustration and graphic design Matthew McElligott, Mochi’s facility and style amaze the viewer. Whatever he chooses to represent, his sinuous line, gracious sense of composition and material mastery will hold your interest long after the subject has become routine.

A handsome catalog has been produced for the show, with an informative and well-written essay by McElligott. Also included are a film strip and slide show (both on computer) and miniature cuts Mochi produced as lantern slides, as well as pencil sketches and many of his books. Among the facts derived from the documentary footage on the computer is that Mochi was born a nobleman and that he firmly believed in enjoying each day as it comes—moment by moment, cut by cut.

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