Monday, January 15, 2018


Peter M. Jogo, Paisley Mac
Went to the International Mezzotint Invitational show at the Davidson Gallery in Pioneer Square this weekend.  I loved it.  I loved it so much that I don’t know that I have anything interesting or insightful to say about it.  It was that kind of a show.  I just stared at the pictures and lost myself in their dark and luxurious beauty.  One could, of course, check out this exhibition at the Davidson Gallery’s website (and after January 27th that will be the only way to view them), but these prints should be seen in person to appreciate their power. 

Judith Rothchild, Araignée
The mezzotint process itself goes back to the 17th-century but fell out of favor with the advent of photography.  Nonetheless over the past few decades it has undergone something of a renaissance.  This show features works of forty different contemporary artists from thirty different countries and has a wide variety of styles and subjects.  There are portraits of people and animals, cityscapes, abstract images, landscapes, etc.  But the still lifes are my favorites.  The larger, more complex and photographic prints are testaments to the artists’ skill, true, but I find that the simpler ones are richer and more powerful.  There's a haunting quality to the mezzotint images; they are often precise, highly detailed, the gaze of the artist intense, the object (such as the apple in Peter M. Jogo’s Paisley Mac above) viewed with an almost hallucinatory vividness.  Judith Rothchild’s Araignée is another good example of this quality.  At first glance it seems like a plate pulled from a 19th-century science book on sea shells.  Every crevice is drawn with meticulous care and anatomical precision; but the more one examines the shells, the eerier they become.  The sweeping ridges of the top shell are forceful and muscular, as if there were bone underneath, as if the shell itself were some strange sea creature.  Unavoidably, the work of H.R. Giger comes to mind.  In Nan Mulder's Metamophoses (below) the leaves seem as mobile and alive as the caterpillars surrounding them.  

It helps to understand the appeal of mezzotints if you know how they are made.  You take a copper plate and grade it multiple times using a device called a rocker; this creates thousands of little pits in the plate.  If you were to ink and print the plate at this point it would be pitch black.  To create the image you use a series of metal tools to scrape away the pits on the plate.  Or you can press down the pitted areas entirely using a burnisher.  The burnished areas will appear white when printed; the other scraped areas will be in between the white and the black.  Hence the name “mezzotint”, which is Italian for “halftone”.  This is a painstaking method; a large plate may take dozens of hours just to grade and once you start scraping and burnishing there’s no room for error.  I don't think it's a surprise that mezzotints bring out the strange and surreal in the artist.  They spend hours and hours creating utter darkness, then they etch light into it.  There is something primal about the process.

Nan Mulder, Metamorphoses

Of course not everything in the show is weird and surreal and looks like something from a David Lynch movie or a Nine Inch Nails video.  My favorite pieces in the whole exhibit are Seiichi Hiroshima's Always Hungry series, which are simply drawings of fish.  In Always Hungry I (bottom) we see a fish (sorry, I don't know the species) swimming in a sea of darkness.  The creature's eye is what impressed me; it makes the fish seem alert, keenly intelligent even, and yet at the same time it has the cold and alien quality of a fish eye.  

Seiichi Hiroshima, Always Hungry I

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