Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Life in Relief

 A Life in Relief

By Tom Wachunas

   “…Disjointed scenes of a life lived in nighttime dreams. Memory holders of what? Wood, ink, paper – stuff of another age. Like me. Not perfect. Film noir. Cuz I never dreamed in Technicolor. Poetry, not prose. My biography.”  - from William Bogdan’s Artist Statement

   “Art teaches nothing except the significance of life.” – Henry Miller

   EXHIBIT: Xylographic – Biographic, woodcut prints by William Bogdan / THROUGH JULY 15, 2017, at The Little Art Gallery / located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio / 330.499.7356 /

   After only a few seconds and footsteps into The Little Art Gallery’s opening reception for William Bogdan’s solo exhibit, I was floored. I hadn’t greeted anyone yet, hadn’t even looked closely at a single piece. But I saw immediately something wholly fresh and arresting about the space.

    The walls are a spectacle of black and white starkness, at once startling and inviting. The sheer uniformity of Bogdan’s presentation – each piece matted in white and set in a simple, elegant black frame – is spot-on. And curator Elizabeth Blakemore has done a superlative job in sensitively spacing the works with a keen attention to not only their variable subject matter (including landscape, architectural, and figural content), but also in setting up a variety of visual rhythms that can keep your eye engaged and moving throughout the gallery. We would expect nothing less from a show that featured electrifying works with a strong color dynamic. But interestingly enough, while there is no such dynamic here to excite our senses, the room still pulses with a strong heartbeat.
   Could you describe your world without actual color? Could you envision a lifetime of experiences engraved into your memory as a panorama of only black lines and shapes, all intertwined against the white sky of existence? To put it another way, can you see your past simply as symbolic black marks on paper?  In his artist statement, Mr. Bogdan likens this collection of his woodcut prints, made over the last seven years, to “…photo snapshots kept in an album…keepsakes that preserve a moment in time, but with a story before and aft that is meaningful to me.” Bogdan’s personal story is the ‘Biographic’ (or more accurately, autobiographic) component of this exhibit. 

   So, “photo snapshots kept in an album”? While there’s a certain intimacy to the idea of flipping through a photo album to fondly remember the past, I think this exhibit is more akin to reading pages, indeed chapters from a book you can’t put down. A book of remembered people, places, and sensations, of moments poignant and mysterious, or painful or comforting or…  Books. Remember those? Organizations of white papers inscribed with marks made from ink. You’ll notice one of those here, “Bill’s Hill,” made in 2010, visible in one of the gallery’s glass showcases. 
   Then there’s Bogdan’s ‘Xylographic’ component. We don’t hear the word xylography too much these days in reference to the printmaking process of making woodcut images. It’s from the Greek ξύλο (xylo), for wood, and γραφή  (graphé), for writing. The English term arrived in 1816, translated from the French, recalling the Japanese and Chinese techniques (from the 8th and 9th centuries) of carving text or patterns in relief on a wooden block, which was then inked for applying to paper. Wood-block printing as a fine art form emerged in Europe during the 14th century, and the process would ultimately inspire Gutenberg’s method of printing from movable type in 1439. Voila, books.

   I offer this nutshell history if only as a kind of lyrical appreciation of Bogdan’s methodology. Sourcing a technique originated in the very distant past – making a connection to time-honored art history - the act of carving away at a piece of wood (itself a holder of history) to make a picture can in many ways be seen as a poetic metaphor for cutting through the present to reveal, or uncover something of the past. To remember is to actively make the past present. Right now. At any point in time, what is our right -now if not an accumulation of assimilated back-whens?

   Look at the haunting way Bogdan takes us to a back-when in his piece called “4”, depicting the legendary New York Yankee, Lou Gehrig (who wore number 4), showing us his heartrending gratitude and mortality. In another back-when, “The Picture on the Gallery Wall,” a few folks appear oblivious to Bogdan’s art on the wall, as if imprisoned and isolated by their own passivity. And here we are in our right-now, looking at a picture of them not looking at a picture. Intriguing.

   Bogdan’s representational drawing (or should I say cutting?) style can vary from the relatively tight and crisp, to the loose and spontaneous, sometimes giving way to amorphous passages of generalized or abstract markings amid spatial ambiguities – a tentative yet fascinating conflation of the primitive and the refined. For example, the bright, crisp clarity of detail that we see in such pieces as “1604” has the marvelous effect of beckoning from a distance as you enter the gallery, calling you to perhaps  frolic with the children in the front yard of the house with the 1604 address. On the other hand, the skewed perspective and dramatic figure-ground contrasts in “Man, Bed, Cat” might make you wonder who is dreaming here – the sleeping man, the cat, or that ghostly figure off to the right side, floating in a white void?

   In the 20 works exhibited, there are only two occurrences of color. Miniscule as they are, they function as exclamatory punctuation marks within their respective narratives. In “Simon 23, 26” (a reference to the gospel of Luke, 23: 26, wherein Simon of Cyrene briefly carried the cross for Jesus), one of Simon’s fingertips is covered in blood. That splotch of red is echoed by a red fingerprint at the bottom of the image – a deeply loaded signature, to be sure. There’s a religiosity, too, about “The Orange Chair,” though I’m not convinced that the the two bright orange stickers – one a circle (eternal cycle of life?), the other a triangle (Holy Trinity?) – are successfully integrated with the intricate imagery. Like a storyboard for a time-lapse film, seven continuous panels comprise a sequential view of a house interior showing the woman who lived and died there, her favorite chair empty and dotted orange, and in the last panel, a young girl standing in a doorway, the orange triangle hovering above her.

   Despite my reservations about the indelicacy of its orange intrusions, the piece is nonetheless exemplary of Bogdan’s capacity for conveying an uncanny, fragile harmony between timidity and fearlessness. His visceral images feel searched out and sifted through,  often as if quickly excavated and recorded before they can fall back into the dusty piles of more peripheral memories. To varying degrees, each one suggests an illustrated transition from the scenic to the psychic, the physical to the spiritual.

    Bogdan’s Book. He draws like a writer.

   PHOTOS, from top: 4 /  The Picture on the Gallery Wall / 1604 / Simon 23,26 / Man, Bed, Cat / detail from The Orange Chair  / The doe lay dead in a field of asters

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