“Krishna” by master printmaker Art Werger may not directly relate to Labor Day, but Werger’s cover art, named, he says, for the pattern of multiple arms extended and reflected in the sunlit water, bold-colored florals that swirl upward from representation to abstraction, could be said to suggest the evanescent goal of the American Dream.
Although Werger has done many such shimmering, colorful intaglio prints, he is also known for creating moody, top-down angular views of city and sea and land in tonal black and white. Scenes of lone and edgy night moments, these narrative noir prints pay tribute to cinematic techniques associated, for example, with Hitchcock. Yet all of Werger’s work, he says, “involves a level of voyeurism or intrusion.” He wants his prints “to create a tension based on phobic response, whether fear of falling or drowning.” He would “challenge preconceptions,” which the 36” x 24” “Krishna” certainly does. Daylight summer scenes “open up the palette more . . . .and startle us “from our sleepwalker dreams.”
Last month you were awarded the Gran Prix at the International Mezzotint Festival in Russia for “Wave At Night,” and in May you won the 2015 Guanlan International Print Biennial Prize from the People’s Republic of China. What do you think the selection committees saw in your work that, as the Guanlan jurors said, promoted “creative and individual work style?”
I’ve always thought of myself as a very American artist in that my imagery directly reflects my somewhat limited experiences in a representational manner. But I tend to think of my work functioning not so much as realism, which implies a casual, matter-of-factness as metaphor. When it works, the representational subject becomes a universal human metaphor and perhaps that goal is reflected in the international recognition that my work has received. I might add that a lot of my images are anchored in my New Jersey childhood, lyrical suburban scenes that are evocative of boyhood summer evenings. I also summered a lot in my teens in Montauk, and a few years ago I inherited my uncle’s house there.
You teach printmaking at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where you were Chair of The Fine Arts division. What is it that draws you particularly to intaglio prints, mezzotints and etchings?
I teach most kinds of printmaking. Ohio University has a highly regarded program in this area including relief printing and monotype. Decades ago, printmaking was a dead medium, and in earlier centuries primarily only a reproductive medium—portraits made from paintings, for example. Then in the 1980s, printmaking saw a huge revival, affected, perhaps, by a do-it-yourself movement, so that representational work, previously delegated to photography, took on a new life. Innovative printmakers also nodded to abstraction and to the floating world of Japanese printmaking, prompting exploration of aerial and underwater scenes. I thrive in the technical complexities of print media. During each of the many stages in making an intaglio print, I carefully refine the image to reflect the intense precision of the process.
You’ve mentioned Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” as an influence. How so?
It showed me a way to bridge abstraction and representation by looking at things differently, specifically by viewing the city from an aerial vantage point.
Speaking of “Boogie Woogie,” what band is playing that cool jazz standard on your website video of your printmaking process?
I play jazz guitar in a band in Athens, Ohio. Coolville Hot Club is our name.
Art Werger’s works can be seen in numerous permanent collections, including the Fogg Art Museum in Boston, The Corcoran in Washington, D.C. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Brooklyn Museum. He shows regularly in many galleries, such as The Print Shop in New York, the Hostetler Gallery in Nantucket, the Garver in Madison, WI and the Davidson in Seattle, as well as online at artwerger.com.