'Barry Moser: Bookwright" at Brandywine River Museum provides an absorbing glimpse into the world of this prominent Massachusetts illustrator through 75 wood engravings and watercolors and several of the limited-edition books produced by his Pennyroyal Press.
Artists are still making wood engravings? Weren't those 18th-century offshoots of the woodcut medium eventually swallowed up by the printing industry? That's true, but creativity started coming back into wood engraving in the 20th century, both abroad and, with German emigre Fritz Eichenberg, in this country. By 1950, artists such as Leonard Baskin and Misch Kohn had begun tackling innovative ideas using wood engraving.
Moser is at the top of his form as an illustrator, having designed or illustrated more than 300 books for adults and children. And it's interesting that Baskin, also in Massachusetts, was the model for Moser's image of Moses in his 1999 Pennyroyal Caxton Bible. (Images from that Bible made up the first solo exhibit ever held by an artist in the Library of the National Gallery of Art). Moser's deep interest in scriptural themes came naturally to this Tennessee-born former Methodist minister.
Moser had formal training in painting and liked prints, but he taught himself the tremendously exacting and difficult medium of wood engraving that uses end-grain hardwood. His featured wood engravings possess great precision and fine detail as well as controlled texture, and this show unfolds seemingly outside the boundaries of time. Yet the high-quality works in it are best seen and enjoyed in their own continuum of space, time and spirit. Some images - even in his Bible - portray modern-day street people.
Brooke Schmidt likes to trip us at the threshold of our ordinary expectations. This Wyndmoor artist is one of three in Abington Art Center's current "Solo Series 2011" show. She uses antique books, vintage fabric, beeswax, and found objects to create her labor-intensive sculptures and altered books - a far cry from Barry Moser's all-around achievement as a maker of readable books. Mostly working small, Schmidt drills holes in decrepit books as if participating in sheer childish pleasures as much as commenting on what she's read in these old tomes. The work ranges from deeply affecting to deliciously quirky and includes unpretentious art of a high order. That's progress in our throwaway society.
John Holmgren, who teaches at Franklin and Marshall University, makes Arctic photos of unusual strength and resourcefulness that are among the show's most exciting works. A former coastguardsman, he sought new ways of representing remote nature during his travels on the icebreaker Polar Sea. Exceptionally fresh and compelling, these images - layered with maps and text about ice-thickness measurement and animal observations - have a rugged dignity.
Nicole Donnelly of Philadelphia is an abstract painter and hand papermaker whose work opens the door to adventure, leaving it up to us to take the ride. If we don't, it leaves without us. And there's something else: Obscurity isn't meaning.
Artists' Equity show
The 62d anniversary Members Juried Exhibit of Philadelphia/Tri-State Artists Equity Association Inc. is up and running at Wayne Art Center. It offers an overview of art being made in eastern Pennsylvania in all kinds of media, with large and small works by 155 artists, including a sprinkling from New Jersey, Delaware, and beyond. What used to be called Artists' Equity's Philadelphia chapter always had remarkable vigor on the national scene, as its strong presence here reminds us. Everything submitted to this show was hung; while that makes for a few weak spots, the show's judge, Thora Jacobson, enlivens things with her list of well-earned awards.
It leads off with a rollicking abstract painting by Sandi Newman Lovitz and continues with prizes to Ellwood Derricks, Jeanne Gunther, Henry Berkowitz, Debbie Obee, Libbie Soffer, John A. Benigno, and Deborah Leaw. Eight others won gift certificates, and Equity acquired many new memberships from artists wanting to participate in this show.