For those who haven’t yet read Max-Karl Winkler‘s critical essay for our current exhibition, Two Artists, Many Journeys it follows below. If you are able, I encourage you to come and see the show in person. It is up through January 2–making it a perfect post-Christmas activity for you and visiting family members!
Every work of art is in some sense a journey, both for the artist and for the viewer. With this exhibition, Carole Nelson and Margaret Adams Parker have made journeys, both actual and symbolic, that invite our participation, our response, and our interpretation.
These two artists, with their striking contrasts in medium, technique, and vision, are particularly suited to provide a spectrum of approaches to the concept of the journey. Parker has produced a series of intaglio prints, while Nelson works in relief; Parker’s prints are largely monochrome, while Nelson’s are multicolored; Parker works out of the long tradition of drawing from observation, and Nelson from a tradition that gives primacy to design. With these disparate ways of seeing and making, they provide a veritable classroom for the student of printmaking.
Margaret Adams Parker, after a decade or more of concentration on woodcut, has in recent years turned—or returned—to the exploration of etching and drypoint. This marks a change from relief to intaglio, from hard edges to tonal subtlety, and from a concern with line and shape to a concern for value and volume. She is a sculptor as well as a printmaker—a recent sculpture, Esau ran to meet him, is included in this exhibition—and this increasing regard for the form-revealing quality of light could be a development that brings her two-dimensional work into closer relation to the sculpture.
Parker’s work here falls into five broad categories of subject: landscapes and
large natural forms, small natural forms, figures at rest and in motion, images of birth and death, and images from travels. What unites these subjects is, essentially, drawing: etching with line and cross-hatching, roulette, drypoint. These are means of description, and Parker is always concerned with recording the object; but they are also means of composing the picture, of heightening its drama and of establishing mood, and Parker’s work demonstrates her attention to these aspects as well. She wants to describe volumes: objects large and small, dark interior and bright exterior spaces, figures slumped and stocky and in motion.
One of the values of seeing a large number of works by any artist is the opportunity to discern themes and patterns that escape notice when the works are seen individually. One such pattern in Parker’s work is the long narrow format, whether horizontal as in Otter Creek and Whitesands Bay – Pembrokeshire, Wales, or vertical as in Dark Hollow Falls. A format of this kind is arresting in itself, yet it is so well suited to the subject that one hardly notices the print’s shape.
Parker seems to delight, too, in describing complicated and interlocking forms, like the writhing and intertwined Roots, in the Light and Ancient Hawthorn. In some of the prints the complication occurs not in objects but in spaces: Out through the Arches, for instance, describes a steep street or alley that curves and angles down into a valley; buildings closing in on either side and connected by upper-story arched passageways; stepped walls and stairs leading to upper doorways—an almost Piranesi-like setting, but this one, exterior and bright, flooded with Italian sun.
Another aspect of Parker’s interest in complication is her fondness for serial presentation, which takes a number of forms. At its simplest, as in Three Views of a Shell, the subject is shown from three points of view; in Refugees in Winter the subject is treated as a diptych; and Toward the Duomo, Tuscan Light is exhibited in three states, a kind of progression that is always of interest to the student of printmaking. Even “The measure of our lives” portfolio exhibits a kind of progression, with images of the newborn child, the pregnant woman, the nursing mother, and the grieving elder.
If Margaret Adams Parker is a recorder (with the reminder that the root of “record” is the Latin word for“heart”), Carole Nelson’s prints appear to come from a form of recollection that begins with the object or the experience, which then undergoes a process of distillation, experimentation, and design. She works in woodcut, which lends itself to strong shapes and patterns, but her use of multiple colors in small editions results in works that are unusually colorful and painterly.
Nelson’s works in this exhibition fall into three groups which she has termed the “Legendary Fruit Series,” the “Ruya Series,” and the “Iran Series.” The
“Legendary Fruit Series,” the most recent of the works shown here, developed into two versions, with an early set of three images which, in Nelson’s own words, “were strangely reminiscent of miniature paintings or religious handbills.” These images, whose subjects are a pear, a peach, and a plum, were reinterpreted for a collaborative book project; the resulting book is exhibited here for the first time. In both versions there is a multiplication of borders, with the fruit at the center of a nest of rectangles, a design technique reminiscent of medieval Persian painting and book illustration.
This connection with Persian art is not accidental. Nelson spent some significant years (and, one presumes, artistically formative ones) in Iran, and the influences of Middle Eastern culture are visible in many aspects of her work.
The “Ruya Series,” indeed, is named for a character—Ruya, whose name means “dream”—in Orhan Pamuk’s novel “The Black Book.” These are recent works of which Nelson has written, “. . .I searched in a series of dreamlike prints with images strangely reminiscent of amusement parks.” These are monoprints, and the artist was therefore able to achieve gradations of color with the brayer that would have been impossible in an edition. Some of the prints in this series embody an unusual characteristic of Nelson’s woodcuts: they frequently employ recognizable images—a figure, a window, a minaret—with otherwise abstract elements. There are suggestions of architecture and of atmosphere that are not so discernible in the other series.
The “Iran Series” began after the artist’s 2004 return to Iran following a 35-year
absence; it is her attempt to express her respect for that country and its culture. These five works, named for sites the artist visited in central Iran, are united by their strong black and blue and blue-black shapes contrasting with pale blue-greens and small strong red-oranges; the latest of the series, Tehran and Natanz, more somber in tone and more geometric in composition, were produced in response to the political upheaval in Iran in 2009. The “Iran Series” are complicated, dynamic compositions, with little of the quiet stability of the “Journey of Legendary Fruit” prints.
It often seems that the only quality any two artists have in common is the making of pictures. Carole Nelson and Margaret Adams Parker represent nearly opposite approaches to picture-making. Parker’s works are firmly rooted in the observed world; she is one of those artists who find in the environment subjects or compositions that provide a visual (and often a spiritual) meaning that goes beyond the objects themselves. Nelson, by contrast, seems to respond to more abstract impulses—dreams, memories, fantasies—whose images and themes become abstract or semiabstract works that nevertheless refer back to those observed or experienced origins.
What these artists share, however, is of more significance than their very obvious differences. They are responding in their individual ways to meaningful experiences, observations, and events. It is not often that artists of such different visions exhibit together; we are the beneficiaries of their decision to do so.