Q: What’s so great about woodblock prints?
A: Of all the printmaking media, they are the most honest.
I say this because a woodblock (aka woodcut) doesn’t try to look like anything but a chunk of wood that the artist’s hands have carved, inked, and pressed against paper.
An alert nose can almost detect the sap, sweat, and solvent the artwork required. UW Professor of Printmaking Mark Ritchie’s gathering of equine-inspired woodblock prints on view at Western Wyoming Community College compound the viewer’s sensory imagination by also suggesting the pungent bouquet of horseflesh.
Ritchie’s artistic research is comprised of working with both domestic horses and mustangs adopted from desert populations, observing desert horses in their habitat, and practicing mounted archery. His practice is grounded not only in personal interest, but also in natural history, human history, and hands-on experience in the U.S. and abroad. Ritchie’s artist statement maps the ideas and emotions that propel his focus and effort:
“My work with horse imagery draws upon the interaction of horses with each other and an animal understanding that is possible between human and equine. These relationships both require trust, an awareness of self in a community, and most importantly an awareness of place. I have inevitably begun to consider and address in my work the complex role of the wild/feral horse populations in my home in the American West.”
HERD is the most comprehensive exhibition of Ritchie’s equine woodcuts in Wyoming to date. Several works have appeared over the last few years in group shows around the state, but this is the first opportunity for art viewers and students to see so many together. Entering the gallery, the visitor is nearly surrounded by images of standing, walking, grazing, trotting, and running horses. Some are accompanied by human figures. The effect is not just a cohesive and powerful visual investigation of a single subject. It also feels like standing amidst a herd, or at the edge of a busy corral.
The majority of works are oversized and printed on Evolon, a satiny nonwoven microfiber that receives ink in a way similar to paper, retains no plate mark, and will lay flat even after being rolled up and stored. Ranging from “Herd: Paddock,” a half-high, double-sided folding room divider, to the suite of four-foot-square “Naturalized Grazer” prints displayed across the back walls, these pieces would rate as “giant” in the printmaking world.
The large-scale compositions are dominated by dark equine forms whose scale replicates the experience of viewing the animals from about 10 to 40 feet away, depending on where you stand in the gallery. That’s pretty close if the horse doesn’t know you, or you don’t know horses. The prints are held to the gallery wall by small silver magnets, with no glass, mat or frame between the viewer and the naked print. The watchword for this exhibit is “immediacy.” The viewer is almost as close to the subject matter and art materials as the artist is.
Ritchie works mainly from life, sketching directly on wood panels brought to the field in his car. Returning to the studio, he begins carving away wood, executing countless decisions about where and how to render positive and negative form, light and dark. Wherever the wood surface remains, even in a tiny sliver, it will be inked, and that ink will touch paper. Wherever wood is removed, even in a narrow crevice, it will receive no ink, leaving the paper bare in that place. Both dramatic contrast and great tonal and textural nuance are achievable and are richly abundant in this exhibit.
In “Naturalized Grazer I,” a horse moving across the foreground right to left hovers half in and half out of a large shadow. Its body and legs are mostly white, denoted by outlines and gestural strokes across the forms. The horse’s head is mostly black and would appear flat, if not for its neck and muzzle, including chin and nostrils, which are carefully modeled by narrow white lines on the paper.
In this and other works, the horse’s legs are arranged in a position we would instantly recognize as “incorrect.” As someone who draws from life myself, I propose that “correct” tends to be what we see in carefully selected photographs and in paintings made from those photographs. Even though the camera lens does not see the way we do, we are apt to let it dictate what constitutes “correct” seeing. A horse moving across a landscape is using its legs in a way the human eye and brain can experience in a multitude of ways but cannot truly freeze the way a camera does. We might celebrate the independent human eye and brain a little more in art, if not in daily life.
All the works display unexpected marks that break the form of the animal, bearing witness to Ritchie’s direct drawing style, in which the wet brush or stick of charcoal spontaneously investigates and translates form and space upon the wood surface. The faithful translation of the drawing “hand,” including areas of mysterious doodling, makes for idiosyncratic and exciting imagery.
Another challenging example of Ritchie’s bold approach is “Naturalized Grazer IV.” A standing horse facing the viewer appears to step forward, away from another horse standing just behind it. The background horse is a rich black shape; the advancing horse is described mainly by shades of gray hinting at haunch, belly, breast, head, and arcing crest of the neck. We see the animal’s angled ears, lowered head, and slightly lifted hoof, suggesting a dilatory shuffle and less-than-chipper attitude. But this horse is also composed of lines that fly out away from its body and obscure its form. Maybe we are seeing not two horses, but one horse in multiple moments. At extreme left foreground is a fencepost wrapped in wire. Closely-spaced engraved slashes deftly capture the grain of the solid post – a “wood-be” visual pun as block portrays post.
The viewer will also notice a few horse figures subtly repeating throughout the exhibit. In a break from traditional fine art methods, and in a manner akin to collage, textile, or graphic design, Ritchie builds some of his large prints by combining separate smaller blocks, and occasionally repeats motifs by reusing blocks or sections of blocks. In a phone conversation, Ritchie tells me, “I’ve always rejected the idea that I can’t have my cake and eat it too.” By building a prolific “library” of images, Ritchie explains, he can “draw with the blocks,” layering images, stenciling out, and reassembling them at will.
Perhaps the most arresting four-foot-square woodcut in the show, and not just because of its Sweetwater County subject, is “Dead Horse: White Mountain,” composed of two vertical blocks printed side by side. Ritchie brought the bare blocks to White Mountain, near Rock Springs, to observe and record the wild horses there. The life-sized image draws the viewer into a sun-blasted desert landscape with the mummified carcass of a horse virtually at one’s feet. The carved marks appear more random and frenzied in this work and capture not just the collapse of a hide and bone form, but also the chaos and disorganization of all decomposing things. Ritchie noted from personal experience that “a dead unknown horse is much easier to look at and draw than one we know and can’t help but anthropomorphize.”
The exhibit includes smaller works in a looser, more gestural style that invite close scrutiny as well: two accordion-fold books are displayed on pedestals at eye level; and a trio of framed gum lithographs hang on the back wall, with muted tones that are shockingly colorful when surrounded by so many images in black and white. The accordion books unfold scenes of horses with humans: mounted archers sweep across both sides of “Running Lines I,” and people escort equines around an arena in “Imperfect Circle.” The gum lithographs are from Ritchie’s “Magyar Archers” series.
The relationship between humans and equines, at once needful and ambivalent, life-sustaining and potentially fatal, might be the “imperfect circle” that imbues this exhibit with such poignancy and power.
The depth and breadth of Ritchie’s printmaking techniques provide a treasure trove for WWCC art students and Wyoming artists in general. Beyond questions of display methods, process, and materials, however, is the pressing inquiry into why and how to focus on a particular subject matter, and what layers of meaning can be mined there. In Ritchie’s case, as for so many artists, emotional investment and complexity have fueled the commitment necessary to produce a consistent and dynamic body of work.
Ritchie acknowledges that the management of wild/feral horses, whether re-domesticated by humans or allowed to roam the landscape, is a difficult and multi-faceted issue. As he and I discussed the mix of human feelings, pragmatic needs, and political/spiritual fervor surrounding the European-introduced mustang in the West, Ritchie proposed key questions: “What is natural? What parts of nature do we accept and embrace, and what parts do we reject, and why?” These quandaries do not contradict his attachment to equines; they deepen his understanding of their place in our world and make his art stronger and more interesting.
For decades, the WWCC gallery has been one of the more professional and well-appointed small nonprofit art spaces in Wyoming. If I could urge any improvement to this space and others in our community college system, it would be for them to have a mandated marketing budget and staff designated to promote their exhibit schedules via email lists, social and/or print media, online public calendars, and news sites. It would benefit Wyoming citizens and visitors, better connect the Wyoming arts community, and encourage more support for these important facilities.