Pacific Lutheran University's Gallery (housed in Ingram Hall – the school's art building) just opened “Impressions,” a retrospective show of work by printmaker Craig Cornwall, a recently retired professor of art. The show covers a multiplicity of printmaking techniques: lithography, screen printing, woodcut – even the art of frottage (the technique of rubbing pencil, crayon or pastel over a textured surface or relief image to make a work of art. The method was used to dramatic effect by the pioneering surrealist artist Max Ernst).
Cornwall explains his passion for printmaking as something like a precursor to the written word (the written word also finds its way into many of Cornwall's works as well). “I love mark making. Printmaking and drawing are really about just that, the making of marks,” writes Cornwall. “Marks are abstract but become meaningful when they create a pattern of texture that are then recognized as symbols with meaning.”
The works in the show touch on a number of themes that the artist explores through multiple works: the passage of time, religious musings, social inequity and mortality. He often explores a particular theme or idea through the making of a series of images. One series, for example, explores the Biblical narrative of Joseph and his brothers. One scene of the series is also one of the most powerful images in the entire show. Called “The Pit,” the long, vertical composition shows a long strip of black. The viewer is forced to look upward toward the top of the black strip. There, up above, are Joseph's 10 jealous brothers who've tossed him into the pit and will sell him as a slave. Their attitudes range from mockery to aloofness to uncertainty.
In another series, Cornwall has attempted to depict each of the “Seven Deadly Sins.” For each, Cornwall uses a pictorial style and combination of media that help to convey the essence of each particular sin. To show “Anger,” for example, Cornwall used a propane torch to draw a face using scorch marks. The problem with this variability is that the artist is more skilled at some techniques than others and the result is that the series is qualitatively spotty and disharmonious.
Cornwall is more successful with a three-part series on the Fates from Greek mythology: Clotho the spinner, Lachesis the allotter and Atropos the unturnable. The first spins the thread of each life, the second determines its length and the third cuts it off. Cornwall uses imagery related to birds and sticks to the same technique (lithography combined with screen-print) to make them. Each is very different in composition and size, yet the bird theme and consistency of media give them a satisfying wholeness as a group.
Frottage is used in a series of larger scale works on paper. Cornwall uses graphite rubbings to make collage-like images that combine archeological artifacts, ancient carvings, fossils and other textures to suggest the passage of time on the scale of millennia.
A related group of work, collage and assemblage compositions, deals with the passage of time on a human scale. These abstract compositions (reminiscent of the some of the less busy work by the Dada artist Kurt Schwitters) feature old envelopes, stamps, faded photos of unknown persons, found sales receipts and the like.
In “A Kiss is Still a Kiss,” Cornwall combines frottage, assemblage and collage. There is sheet music from the titular song (made famous in the movie “Casa Blanca” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) as well as a small bundle of old letters – presumably love letters – tied up with a silk ribbon. There is a rustic old painting of a dead bird (once a common image of loss of innocence) and other artifacts.
Elsewhere in the show there is a series of musing on the lives of the homeless; dark, haunting portraits and images of battling skeletons that look like book illustrations. Bones and skeletons run through the show. Many of the works shown have images of ghostly backbones buried in the visual background noise of the composition. There is a woodcut print of a skeleton with scythe surrounded by sub-imagery of other skeletons. A similar boundary of a skeleton coming to collect people that are interrupted during their daily routine activities forms the frame of one of Cornwall's dim portraits. “Each tick of the clock takes something and leaves something behind,” notes the artist.
Despite some unevenness of quality, “Impressions” is an impressive retrospective of work by an artist that has granted himself plenty of latitude to explore. The show runs through March 8. For further information visit www.plu.edu/gallery or call (253) 535-7573.