The first art you see when going to the Brinton Museum is the place itself.
Tucked into a valley and hidden back in the foothills of the Big Horn mountains, the location is stunning. The placement and history of the ranch on which it sits drives, in part, the mission of the museum, which is focused on western and Native themes. The original ranch buildings are still there, along with the museum itself, a super modern building that somehow also fades into the landscape. It’s built into a hill and feels like it has always been there. The views could distract from the art if it wasn’t so enticing.
Linework to Linen: The Prints and Paintings of Joel Ostlind fits perfectly with the setting. Ostlind’s focus is on the everyday West of ranches, cowboys, horses and cattle around him.
On first glance, it seems that Ostlind is not concerned with light overmuch. Perhaps that’s because the prints which dominate the exhibit, mostly etchings, are direct, line-oriented images.
In “Chickadee,” the bird sits on a single, bare branch. Its wings and tail are colored, as is the top of its head and the shadow under its beak. The belly is only suggested by a broken line — and the eye doesn’t notice the break at first. Ostlind uses line sparingly as a building block: the viewer’s mind fills in the rest. Chickadee is extraordinary in its simplicity.
Ostlind clearly knows printer’s tricks, though. On some prints, he uses aquatinting (a printmaking process similar to etching which gives gradations of gray) to suggest shadows. Sheepwagon Chalet is a good example of his skill.
I also enjoyed the gentle humor in some of the titles. “You Get Hooked” depicts fishermen in an almost cartoonish manner. The finely drawn fishing lines move your eye around the piece and connect the men together. They almost seem to be reeling each other ever deeper into this shared enjoyment.
A slightly more sobering but still humorous piece is “For Rent: No Deposit.” This small gouache and watercolor painting shows an abandoned house and barn, land brown, under a starkly blue sky. It’s one of several that show these decaying landmarks.
Ostlind’s landscape paintings depict both the massive landscape and the secret and tender spots that make us at home on the land. “Darlington Dawn” captures a bend in a creek, rimmed with snow, and the palest pink of the just dawning winter light. Of the paintings on exhibit this one best captures the artist’s mastery with light. The exquisite attention to this tiny piece of our landscape clutches at the heart, just as the larger views remind us of how small we are among them.
On first look, the show felt like a throwback to a time and place in the West that might be more mythical than real. Yet these pieces feel very much like a person capturing the world he lives in with delicacy of line and a keen eye. Ostlind is a self-taught artist native to Wyoming and spent many years as a cowboy.
Upstairs, “The Spiritual Nature of Earth, Hide and Metal” offers a very different western view. Four artists participate in this exhibit, which seems to perhaps be built around James F. Jackson, a leather carver in the tradition of the Sheridan saddlemakers. He collaborates with three Native American artists in various pieces, but all four artists have their own pieces as well.
Two of the Native artists are from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, Judy Folwell and Susan Folwell. They are mother and daughter, both potters honoring the tradition they come from by continuing to experiment with form and surface design styles and imagery. Both use Santa Clara clay, and, frequently, traditional firing techniques.
The collaborations are very subtle. “Tan and Black Micaceous Urn with Lid” by Judy Folwell and James Jackson is a good case in point. The urn itself is beautifully shaped, topped by a lid enhanced with leather. One wouldn’t know the lid was leather, so well do the browns of the leather and the pot blend. The urn is set on a leather mat, intricately carved. The simplicity of the brown and black on the urn is set off by the floral carving of the mat in a seamless collaboration.
Jackson teams up with Susan Folwell in “Via Vidal, Large Water Jar.” This pot is a water jar angled for ease of carrying and dipping. It is painted, almost as though it were a canvas, with the landscape of the Southwest, inhabited by wildlife, in mostly neutrals with brighter green and yellow accents. The carved leather, with clouds on it, forms the sky and the handle of the piece.
Jackson’s collaboration with JhonDuane Goes In Center, a Lakota silversmith, is also a vessel, but this time the vessel itself is made of leather, perfectly formed using multiple colors of materials and carved. Set into it are finely detailed silver bison carefully crafted to appear to be bounding over the field of leather. Each is incised with traditional symbols. Goes In Center also displays jewelry and a Lakota breastplate, a mixed media piece featuring, among other things, porcupine quills, hide, bone, earth paint and hand-engraved silver and vintage beads.
The Spiritual Nature of Earth, Hide and Metal provides a strong contemporary counterpoint to the Museum’s fine collection of traditional Native American artwork, demonstrating that these traditions are living and continuing to expand, shift and grow. The collaborations remind us, for all the tensions between people, we can also work together to create beauty and to push our art forms into the future.
To my mind the Brinton missed an opportunity with Jim Jereb’s “Working the Process: A Sampling of Printmaking Techniques.” It is clearly a teaching show with excellent examples of a variety of printmaking techniques. Combined with Joel Ostlind’s work, the public could learn a great deal about printmaking. And yet, there is not one scrap of interpretative or teaching material in it: no explanation of how the different processes work, no plates showing how images are carved in reverse. I was saddened to hear people trying to figure out what the differences were, with no information beyond the name of the process. In fact, I felt that all three of the exhibits discussed here would have benefited from further information. Curatorial statements, contextualizing the Spiritual Nature of Earth Hide and Metal and Joel Ostlind’s shows, and why they are important right now in this time and place, would have been helpful. I didn’t look at their permanent collection exhibition this time, but last year, there was a similar lack of contextual information. I hope the Brinton will take advantage of the opportunity to offer more information in the future.
That said, no one should be surprised that this master printmaker has put together a show of such diversity and caliber. A long-time professor of printmaking at Truman University in Missouri, Jereb has retired to Laramie, Wyoming. He grew up in Wyoming and has stayed connected, including being involved with the Brinton over the years. The work on display shows a wide range of imagery from buildings to nature, including humans and also pieces that fall into abstraction or even the letterpress broadside.
The first print the viewer sees is “Dark Inside,” a linoleum print. This process gives a very graphic, almost flat affect to prints, which Jereb has managed to overcome to some extent by clever use of lines and perspective. We are left to wonder if the building is dark inside because the windows are covered, because it is empty, or because there are simply no lights on. The building appears too well cared for to be abandoned, with its blue and pink paint and outside lamps. Lino cuts allow for a lot of line detail, a fact Jereb takes advantage of to create the sense of tiles or maybe glass block around the door, and shingled window overhangs.
“Wall Shadow”, a serigraph print on strongly grained plywood, makes clever use of the wood grain to suggest either ripples in water or sunset behind the stark black lines of the trees.
“Displace” is a relief print, which is a fairly vague term. Another piece that uses black and white to stark effect, it suggests a yin/yang or reflection, or perhaps an eclipse — the dark of the sun or moon over a city. Jereb uses the black ink to suggest the curve of the earth. In the background is printed a faint map of a city, perhaps, or maybe an oil refinery’s mess of pipes. The piece offers the viewer many possible interpretations. In purchasing art, this is a good quality to look for, because it means it will remain fresh for a long time to come as the viewer’s mind continues to find new connections.
My favorite piece in the show is “Monica”, a combination of letterpress and lithograph. This piece relies absolutely on only the simplest of lines, which barely outline a press, with one line stretching up — Monica’s leg or maybe the line or her dress, dancing on the press. The letterpressed words are printed on a separate piece of paper, carefully torn and cut to fit perfectly, and collaged on. More than any other, this piece reminds an artist that less can definitely be more — and that one can rely on the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks of a very interesting story.
Working the Process also includes wood cuts, wood engravings, lithographs, dry point and etchings. Some of these include more traditional representational imagery, such as a cow at a watering hole, a gathering of people, or a truck in the snow. He misses few methods — perhaps just mezzotint, monoprint and collagraph — in his exploration of printmaking.
Another addition I think would have extended the experience of this show is one or two lines on each label about why that particular printmaking process was the right choice for the piece. The lack of written material aside, the prints stand alone as a lovely exhibition illustrating the sheer range that printmaking can offer in the hands of a master.
These three temporary exhibitions can be seen at the Brinton Museum in Big Horn, Wyoming. Working the Process: A Sampling of Printmaking Techniques was on display through July 2. For a sense of some of Jim Jereb’s prints, check out his website. Linework to Linen: The Prints and Paintings of Joel Ostlind are on display through August 4. The Spiritual Nature of Earth, Hide and Metal is on display through September 2.