Hands On, An Exhibition of Hand-Pulled, Non-Digital Prints

by Dr Glenn F Benge

Exquisite printmaking craft and an array of imagery that sustains a respectful awareness of historical precedent, while opening new doors of personal perception, mark this exhibition mounted by artists of the venerable SAGA. For nearly a century its printmakers have held meetings at their address on Union Square, in New York City. Indeed, many SAGA members are classic New Yorkers, folks from far-off places drawn to the rich art culture of the Big Apple, its inspiration and its art market. A brief look at several works will sketch their stories.

Landscape engages certain printmakers. The vast, brooding skies above far reaches of a dark ocean mark the Romantic, "Journey of Three", a small mezzotint by Michael Hew Wing, an image redolent of the powerful cloud-portraits of Constable and Stieglitz. Its turbulent clouds, roiling above slanting shafts of light, dwarf the three tiny sails, and evoke a rhythm of almighty anger. His Pillar and Face present a sky of broken clouds that masks a half-hidden moon, with all the mystery of a seascape by Caspar David Friedrich. "‘Round the Town", by William Behnken, a native New Yorker, presents a bird’s-eye vista of skyscraper-studded Manhattan, in a large and meticulously crafted, aquatint etching. The soft evening glow hovering over Manhattan’s tower-tops is elegantly captured, as are certain stage-set, spotlight-effects of lighting around Columbus Circle. Lithographs of the 1930s are recalled in this stylized subject matter, but Behnken replaces the transparencies of those historic lithos with his own, personal textures of a densely layered and granular, etching-ink. A long-time member, and a past president of SAGA, Behnken will be honored by the group later this year with a dinner ceremony. A surreal close-up of a little urban nook, named "Scepter", marks an aquatint etching by Barbara Minton. A humble, stony baluster supporting an iron fence at the sidewalk, becomes the dream-like, phallic, magically alive, scepter-and-orb of some giant, mythical figure, a conflation that Max Ernst would enjoy.

Craft sings out its perfect practice in a few prints, such as, say, the astonishing range of qualities in a lyrical city-scene, "Marcy Avenue", etched by Joe Essig, where three realms are contrasted -- the dark railroad tracks of the foreground, where the heavy stench of axle grease and creosote seems to hang in the air, only to play against the bubble-like lightness of a church dome reaching skyward, though it is metaphorically dwarfed by two skeletal steel-truss towers. Above all these human constructs soars the lightest sweep of feather-like clouds, Nature triumphant. An intimate still-life arrangement of opened gardening books, "Cherries and Blue Ribbon", by Marion Lerner-Levine, is an aquatint etching à la poupée, where elegant traces of transparent color are inserted into the open areas wiped clean on the plate by a doll-like clutch of starched gauze. Each impression is unique, though the shared design of the edition contrasts a dark background area of wide ribbon bordered in blossoms, with the uniquely inserted, delicately transparent color veils. "Hand to Mouth", a large print by Shelley Thorstensen, is an image that dreamily evokes and superimposes both male and female frontal torsos, with a surreal sensuousness, to achieve a musical, contrapuntal play of smoky hazes of color and crisp accents of line, through a masterful melding of several technical procedures, etching, relief, and mezzotint. A chalice, in very faint silhouette, levitates in bright light where the heart might lie, echoes the vase-form of the torso itself, and thus seizes the sacral. This suggests traditional prints of the somatic chakras of India and the glowing, sacred heart of Jesus.

A starkly simple, color-lithograph by Tomomi Ono, "Day and Night Sky", frames an empty, infinitely deep space, a cosmic enormity where myriad planets seem the size of mere raindrops, caught by a gust of wind upon a windowpane. Dark and light fields mirror each other, side by side, where these pale orbs fade into invisibility against the light ground, but gleam brilliantly against the darkness, perhaps a metaphor as to where hope lies. The open vastness of her vista contrasts utterly with the teeming, choked elaborateness of the mythic phantasmagoria, "Drowning Saturn", a pullulating, intricately drawn anti-war statement, rendered in stone-lithograph, by Amir Hariri, his exercise in a nightmarish horror vacui. Starkly different as well, is the uninhabitable, claustrophobic space trapped between sleek, blade-like pointed leaves and twisting ribbons, in a silk-screen print by Masaaki Noda, "Forefront". This might seem the tiny realm of insects among grass-blades in an anime film, or recall the spiraling sheets of steel shaped by Antoine Pevsner or Max Bill. Even Noda’s symbolic colors have the hard sheen of anodized metal. Space is curved, as though by a fish-eye camera lens, in a bald-surfaced architectural interior that speaks of the 1920s of LeCorbusier and his followers, "Almost There", a technically complex print, in both intaglio, soft-ground etching, and mezzotint, by Merle Perlmutter. The sweep of her bending walls suggests that a metamorphosis is underway, as though a catalogue of architectural motifs -- hallways, cabinets, doorways -- their surfaces delicately toned and smoothly textured, were being flexed by enormous uncontrolled forces.

Some prints illustrate little stories. The universal sight of a woman resting, is shown in "At the Window", a small color woodcut made with multiple blocks, by Ellen Nathan Singer. Dominant in the design is an orange-colored handrail, its vertical spindles cutting across the steps of a 19th-century brownstone. Opposing, horizontal color-rhythms are built by the flight of green, tread-worn steps. Above this parade of bright, contrasting and rhythmical color is the image of a reticent woman, her half-length figure, flattened and framed in the open window. Color here is otherwise subdued, redolent of the prints of Vuillard, in their earth-tones and grays. Pattern rather than psychology speaks here. Two of Singer’s tall slender prints recall the New York Scene photography of Stieglitz, one a lush aquatint etching of snow falling on buildings that are compressed into a very shallow space, as though by a long camera lens, the other a color woodcut of a five-story tenement that leans as its sides bulge. Florence Putterman offers the mock-heroic story, "Captain Caleb Loses His Hat" -- who reposes the while in a life-boat at sea. Her simply made lino-cut suggests, and comically plays with, the idea of a great drama at sea, a parody on the situation of an 18th-century sea-captain who may or may not have existed. We take a bird’s eye view of him, as he lounges against the coaming of his little boat, across from his companion who, oddly, wears a spherical glass helmet of more recent date, while a vortex swirls the sea all about them into a maelstrom, with little but comic-book menace. Her second print, "Encounter at Sea", shows a lone woman diver plunging headlong into wavy waters crowded with four colossal fish and two large rodent-like creatures, one clinging to a bit of flotsam. Have the rats deserted a sinking ship? Do the fish witness a catastrophe? Whose ship is sinking? As though we didn’t know. Putterman’s design has a brute power that recalls the giant fish and diving man of Max Beckman. The story told by "Composition in Red and Blue", by Steven Walker -- a large print in the etching, aquatint, and woodcut processes -- is one of homage to the conflations of appropriated images by Robert Rauschenberg, and perhaps to the historical chronicles of Anselm Kiefer, albeit with a radically brighter palette, rather in the mode of Hans Hoffman. Its densely overprinted surface has received multiple passes of the press, registering dramatic fragments of faces and lettering, in a lush visual tapestry. Repeated woodcuts of two glamour girls’ masks, two cuts of a man in a fedora, some five imprints of the Marlboro logo, and two of the open-truss towers of a Manhattan bridge, all share an evocative function.

In sum, their variety of conceptual approach and their sheer technical mastery place these prints as work at the pinnacle of the SAGA endeavor, truly a pleasure to behold.

Glenn F. Benge
Professor Emeritus of Art History
Temple University

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