What a Relief!

Emil OrlickVisit In Relief: A Small History of the Woodcut at the Institute Library on Chapel Street, and you are entering a world in which not only a print medium, but the city of New Haven and its artists will never appear quite the same.

Much more than a reminder that bigger isn’t always better, the exhibition offers an intimate opportunity to view some of printmaking’s greatest masters alongside Connecticut’s burgeoning creative community. 

In Relief’s success is driven by a distinct rhythm, a clean and manageable whir of innovation that shrugs pretension for informed visual pleasure. Credit is due to the show’s curator James Reed, whose choice of woodcut, used for the first printed books, was driven by the venue of the exhibition.

Form fits function: arranged chronologically, each of the exhibition’s 36 prints lend new and exciting insight into the complex legacy of the medium, creating a comprehensive journey that begins with masters such as Michel Wolgemut (Historia Mundi, 1493), Albrecht Dürer (Ship of Fools, 1498; pictured), and Virgil Solis (The Luther Bible, 1561), travels through Belle Époque France and a bitterly war-torn expressionist Germany, and ends in present-day Connecticut.

Audiences are greeted with Caitlin Reuter’s Malik, a shirtless man thumbing through a text with great intensity: contemporary woodcut speaks to being present while honoring the past, and Malik (or rather, Reuter) does both.

Reed (pictured) has done very right by the space. He can be described in many ways – artist, master printer collector, curator, mentor – and approaches all of these with modesty. While his work appears nowhere in the show (“I don’t like that,” Reed explained matter-of-factly when asked about curators who add their own work to exhibitions), his hand and eye are very much present, hanging over the arrangement with a seasoned, grandfatherly quality. Trained in lithography at the prestigious Tamarind Institute in New Mexico and etching at Atelier 17, he is a master in the truest sense: his work has been exhibited and is owned widely at institutions including The Museum of Modern Art San Francisco, the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. While his first love is stone lithography, rarely practiced in the nascent 21st century, he has a special affection for woodcut borne out of seeing the German expressionists’ prints – twisted, angular bodies, firm, fixed jaws, strained smiles, aquiline noses and sharp, jutting appendages – as a young man. His long-held dedication to them is reflected in a section of the show that features work by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Ernest Luwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and other members of Die Brücke, a group that profoundly changed the face of European modernism.

To these myriad credits, there is inevitably one more: a creative core for Connecticut’s printmaking community, and a forcible preventer of brain drain in the state. His current studio, Milestone Graphics in Bridgeport, is a Mecca for young and promising printmakers, many of whom appear in the exhibition. He has been instrumental in local initiatives, including helping found the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk and augmenting the printmaking curriculum at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts. When I asked Reed if he saw himself as a mentor, he paused, and cited the Zen proverb “When the student is ready the teacher appears.” He added: “I mentor and help people out, I guess…but what you owe, you owe the next person behind you. You owe them your knowledge. [It’s an] obligation to give your knowledge to them.”

The show, which ends with woodcuts by several of Reed’s mentees and assistants at Milestone Graphics, is a testament to his philosophy. Perry Obee, who met Reed as his teaching assistant in graduate school and whose inquisitive and punchy Self-Portrait appears toward the end of the show, explained: “He’s been a huge mentor to me, a huge friend, helped me with my career in a lot of ways. He’s a master printer at every kind of printing…anything you think he can do, he can do. And he likes helping the people who have helped him out.” Obee’s statement rings particularly true this month: his solo show opens this week, and there’s little doubt that Reed will be there to support him at the February 5th reception.

Great respect for Reed stirred under the surface of each of these statements, captured as another of his students joked that he was “born on the wings of eagles.”

It very well may be true.

In Relief: A Small History of the Woodcut is on view at the Institute Library, 847 Chapel St., through Feb. 8.

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