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Someday My Prints Will Come
By David Brickman

Denise Saint-Onge: Ephemera
Yates Gallery, Siena College, through Dec. 17

Looks great on paper: Denise Saint-Onge’s #7 Interior-Exterior.

For many artists, getting that first solo exhibition is the hardest thing, especially in an area like the Capital Region, where fledgling galleries are few and far between, and well-established galleries, naturally, are unlikely to give first-timers a show.

That’s why Siena College’s Yates Gallery is an important resource: Tucked away in an upstairs reading room of the Standish Library on the school’s Loudonville campus, the Yates hosts only solos. At the steady rate of about four shows a year, this venue is building a nice legacy of excellent, medium-sized exhibitions by area artists, many of whom have not had the chance to show a developed body of work elsewhere in the region.

The current offering at the Yates is by printmaker Denise Saint-Onge, a recipient of an MFA from the University at Albany in 2000 and a francophone native of Quebec. Saint-Onge presents 18 monotypes, 10 of them selected from an extended series titled Interior-Exterior, and the rest comprising a closely related second body of work.

For those who may not be up on the technical aspects of printmaking, a monotype (or monoprint) is created by transferring the painted or inked surface of a plate (usually metal or glass) onto paper by rubbing it or passing it through a press. The resulting imprint is the image. Unlike other printmaking techniques, such as etching, lithography and block printing, monotypes cannot be produced as editions, hence each one is unique.

Saint-Onge’s fondness for the monotype is reflected in the title of her show: Not only is the image on the plate ephemeral (but then made permanent by printing it), the materials she sometimes uses to create the image (leaves and twigs most prominently) are also short-lived, as are her primary subject matters: nature, memories and ever-changing qualities of light.

With a background in painting and ongoing experience in the more traditional printmaking media, including mezzotint, Saint-Onge brings a strong and delicate sensibility to the process of putting ink on a plate and then transferring it to a piece of paper. Her color sense ranges from nearly monochromatic (favoring texture) to bordering on the psychedelic—yet there is still a consistency to the work.

This is achieved through two main techniques: scale and abstraction. The Interior-Exterior series involves very small, square images floating in a black field 15 inches by 11 inches (the background is lithographed onto the paper first). Some have clearly recognizable nature forms in them, others are almost completely abstract. Either way, they function as microcosms—of the artist’s world, her thoughts, her palette.

As a series, they are like cells, each communicating perhaps with the couple nearest; as the theme is passed along, it metamorphoses little by little. In this way, a subtle meditation on morning mist can coexist with a jangling, contrasty collage of bright leaves without creating a conflict.

The rest of the work in the show is larger, ranging up to 22 inches by 30 inches. Some of it also exploits the contrasts of a black background, but most of these pieces deviate from the hard edge, either with a softly contoured outline or with an eccentrically shaped image within the dark ground.

One of these, titled Extinction, depicts an earthy landscape, possibly seen from underground, with what appear to be steep mountains in the background. Its overall composition is in the shape of a huge animal’s footprint. The cumulative effect calls up a fragrance of decaying plant matter in a landscape far more primitive than our own. Our distant past—or a vision of our future?

In this and most of the other larger pieces, whether abstract or representational, Saint-Onge uses a pattern of crude crosshatching (possibly the striping of corrugated cardboard employed in making the plates), which becomes almost a signature through repetition. These hatched areas are used in patches to build up an overall composition, sometimes with overlapping colors, as in the piece titled Fragmentation, sometimes far more muted, as in two 1998 pieces titled October and Acre of Diamonds.

To my eye, this texture is less successful than the etching-like black outlines employed with layered leaf forms in many of the Interior-Exterior pieces. There, the freer-form color is enhanced by being layered with the almost photographic black, playing velvety off of rough.

Another print that exploits this seductive game of textures (and little else) is the show’s title piece, Ephemera. Its rendering of ice and frost in a bronzy monochrome is a beautiful expression of Saint-Onge’s idea that nothing can be captured, that all we have is the ever-changing present, and our memories.

Indeed, this is the essential spirit of her work. Though the quiet nature of Saint-Onge’s prints invites contemplation, there remains the question of whether she fully engages her themes of reverence for nature and the passing of time. Further work may lead to greater clarity. For now, this show makes for a promising debut.

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