James D. Phelan (1861-1930), San Francisco mayor, head of the Red Cross during the 1906 earthquake, US senator, and owner of Saratoga's Villa Montalvo, was also an art collector who established awards recognizing California artists. This year's prizes in printmaking went to Harry Clewans of Berkeley for his detailed woodcut collages and to Maizie Gilbert of San Francisco for her mysterious soft-focus digital prints; an Honorable Mention goes to Sarah Newton of San Francisco for her moody intaglio urban street scenes.
Clewans employs the woodcut medium to generate ideas and imagery. Choosing motifs from natural history and daily life, Clewans prints multiple copies, cuts them up, and reassembles them into large collages on wood that depict either relatively realistic scenes (although composed of a miscellany of object fragments), or synthesized fantasies that arise from intuition and chance. Arcimboldo's symbolic portraits (e.g., a librarian composed of books) come to mind, as do the collaged engravings of Max Ernst, with their metamorphoses and alt-reality science; the congestion of the picture plane recalls such obsessive space fillers as Jess and Ivan Albright. These images suggest dark fairy tales in which inanimate matter comes to life; the golem Clewans once depicted, riffing on the silent movie's clay giant, is almost emblematic.
Gilbert finds her subjects instead in the real world, photographing simplified scenes — a sunset, a woman's shoulder, a beach — with a 1970s Polaroid Land camera and various dedicated films. Photographers will remember the soft optics and vignetting of those magically self-developing images; both features remain prominent in Gilbert's enlarged archival digital prints, which convey poetic mystery with unforced ease, hinting at cinematic storytelling. Gilbert: "These images describe pieces of a nonspecific narrative. I am thinking about a way of feeling and making a story about it out of photographs. I am looking for, or looking at, a quiet still lingering and a kind of disassociation."
Newton's etchings of quiet streets at night, simultaneously mysterious and realistic, explore the poetics of darkness as Hopper explored the poetics of sunlight. The James D. Phelan Art Award in Printmaking runs through November 28 at Kala Gallery (2990 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley). Tragically, Kala founder Yuzo Nakano was seriously burned in a recent studio fire; fortunately, he is on the mend, though he and partner Kazuko Watanabe lost much of their artwork. See the web site if you'd like to help. Kala.org or 510-841-7000.
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