I recently attended the Rittenhouse Square Fine Arts Annual, a delightful outdoor art fair that has been happening in Philadelphia’s jewel of a city park for 75 years. I’ve been going to the show since I was a teenager, and I think of it as marking the beginning of the Summer. (Last year they added a Fall version as well.)
In spite of some rain, this year’s show, as always, made for a great afternoon’s walk through greenery, cityscape and art. There are lots of familiar faces and works, but often some standouts. This year I was struck with the work of Dave Bruner, a printmaker from Florida who does wood engravings and linoleum “reduction cuts”.
Wood engraving is not a popular medium these days. In addition to artistic skill and manual dexterity, it is demanding in terms of physical stamina. You have to push the engraver or burin repeatedly through the wood with enough force to inscribe the lines, but you also have to monitor your stroke carefully; too strong and the line is to thick, too little force and it’s too faint. If you slip an entire piece can be ruined in an instant.
Wood engraving is done on blocks of the end grain of hardwood, rather than the side grain of softer wood as is the practice for regular woodcuts (not to imply that woodcuts are not also a demanding medium). In spite of the term “engraving”, the image is printed from the raised surface that remains, not from ink in the engraved lines as is the case in regular metal plate engraving. The use of the term comes from the use of similar tools.
Wood engraving was a medium of choice for M. C. Escher, but it is most often associated with older works. It is one of the oldest forms of printmaking. Bruner’s wood engravings, however, have a decidedly modern feeling. He often portrays landscapes, street scenes, interiors and animals (top image) in compositions that have a fresh and immediate graphic sensibility. He works with very deliberate patterns and textures that simultaneously give his black and white images tone and atmosphere and also exist on their own as graphic statements.
Bruner also combines the monochromatic tones of his prints with color in hand-colored editions (middle image) in which he paints into the wood engraving block prints with acrylic. I feel some of these are more successful than others, but when the work well, they work very well, combining a uniquely graphic texture with subtle color and producing an effect that is particularly appealing.
Also fascinating are his “reduction cuts” (bottom image). This is another demanding process in which a block is cut away in designs that are a sequence of color layers for an image. Each round of cutting and printing uses less area of the total block as parts of the image are cut away, hence the term reduction cuts.
This is a difficult process to grasp. I had a little trouble getting a clear picture of it even while Bruner was explaining it to me, and once I began to grasp the process I realized it combined the kind of logistical planning necessary for multi-block printing with the color planning associated with dark-over-light watercolor into a kind of mental puzzle. The rewards, though, are a unique and striking graphic style.
Bruner does his reduction cuts in linoleum block. You can see the commonality with his black and white and color wood engravings, but the color is more of an integral element in the composition than in the hand-colored wood engravings.
All three approaches are a great combination of lines and colors.