Primal and Private
by Gerald Mead
Prints by Adele Cohen @ WNYBAC
Next month marks the one-year anniversary of the Western New York Book Arts Center, a recent, welcome addition to our region’s cultural landscape. It is home to the Western New York Book Arts Collaborative (WNYBAC), an organization committed to “promoting, encouraging and developing printing & book related arts through education and access for individual artists and underserved communities.” Its exhaustive first-year schedule of contemporary/historical exhibitions, events and workshops has impressively touched on nearly all facets of the printed word and image, including but not limited to printmaking, papermaking, illustration, graphic design, writing, and book-binding. Programming such as last year’s superb exhibition of Catherine Parker’s paintings based on the works of 16th-century poet George Herbert demonstrates how creatively WNYBAC has interpreted their cross-disciplinary mission. True to their namesake, they have collaborated broadly and often with area institutions/groups such as the University at Buffalo, Daemen College, and Hero Design Studio just to name a few. Just Buffalo Literary Center’s recent relocation of its administrative offices and performance space to the floor above them is a dynamic move that can only reinforce the future activities of both organizations.
The current exhibition at the Book Arts Center, Brought to Light: Rare Prints by Adele Cohen, is an ideal example of an exhibition at the right place and the right time. Cohen (1922-2002) was one of this area’s most gifted artists. In fact, she is one of only a few artists who had multiple solo exhibitions at the Burchfield Penney Art Center—a two-decade survey in 1981 and a full career retrospective in 2007. Since those exhibitions consisted primarily of paintings and sculptures, this exhibit assembled by Dean Brownrout of 20th Century Finest and co-sponsored by The Poetry Collection, SUNY at Buffalo, allows viewers to see how Cohen translated the distinctive visual vocabulary she developed into the medium of printmaking. Brownrout was drawn to this previous unexhibited body of Cohen’s work because he felt these prints “showcased the enigmatic overtones and superb technical finesse that were the twin hallmarks of her work.”
For those unfamiliar with her work, this exhibition is a perfect primer for the abstracted imagery and related textures she passionately investigated throughout her career. The highly personal, graphic vocabulary that she developed and explored in whatever media she worked, unapologetically echoed the dark side of life and the resulting works have been described as appealing to our desire to “examine would-be remains only to be seduced by their macabre beauty.” Cohen spoke of “looking inside and getting at the essence” when she explained her approach to a particular subject matter. Her work is as powerful as it is enigmatic, and in this selection of primarily black and white linocuts, lithographs, and serigraphs, the forms and images have been reduced to their barest essentials, thus poetically distilling the reoccurring themes in her work.
The exhibition is relatively small—there are only 15 works—but each of them is of exceptional quality and collectively they illustrate a broad range of the complex, highly articulated and richly textured shapes found in her large paintings and sculptural works. For example, the bird-like shapes and reticulated structures in her Dead Cactus prints from 1975 echo Cohen’s sculptures throughout the 1970s, most notably the installation she created at Artpark in 1970 titled Gorge Legend Arbor (illustrated in the catalog of her work in the Center’s gift shop).
In some cases, specific printing techniques were ideal vehicles for the expressive language Cohen was constructing. The simple composition of the linocut Aegean is enhanced by the distinctive irregular, wave-like line quality that is produced by the tools used to carve the block. Another work, the lithograph Stone Collage, is an extraordinary study of the multifarious textures of stone skillfully conveyed in varying compositions of gray and black. All of the prints are characterized by stark compositions and balanced forms/voids and illustrate the artist’s highly controlled and evocative use of space.
The grouping of the works—the varying “types” of imagery are intermixed—is particularly effective since it allows you to see relationships among the works and encourages viewers to coalesce the individual works to completely understand Cohen’s highly personal aesthetic. The only downside in this exhibition is the absence of labels identifying the specific printing technique(s) used in each print. Thankfully, WNYBAC founder and director Rich Kegler (who is often on site) is a valuable resource for information on print processes/methods and is very willing to discuss them with interested visitors.
—gerald meadblog comments powered by Disqus
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