Sometimes all the details in the world can't capture the spirit better than a few simple strokes. I'm normally not a few-simple-strokes kind of artist, so perhaps that's why I was particularly proud of myself for my block print of the catball. I'd been idly sketching our cat Nightshade with some frequency, mostly when she's asleep and therefore holding still. (Except the tip of her tail, which never holds still unless she's lying on it. Even then it may be twitching away beneath her, giving her ticklish dreams for all I know.) Anyway, I began to experiment with drawing her with the fewest, simplest lines, and the eventual result was this rubber block print. For me it was confirmation that you can't get to simplicity until you've gotten a lot of practice with your subject. Simple is not the basic step. Sometimes it's the highest.
Inevitably the sleeping cat piece reminded me of Matisse's linoleum block prints, in which he carves only a few lines on his block. It must have taken only a matter of minutes to do the actual carving, but who knows how many years of preparatory sketches. I wish I knew whether Matisse drew a design first or just sat down and put blade to block. In any case, Matisse's aren't my favorite prints - in some ways I think they're a waste of the print medium, as they could just as well have been done with a brush or a pencil. On the other hand, it's fascinating to see just how far the medium can be pushed toward simplicity.
When I started looking around for block prints that express a whole idea with a minimum of fussiness, I ran into the work of Lee Chul Soo, a Korean artist born in 1954. (Go to Davidson Galleries for a biography and lots of other pictures. Thank you, Davidson Galleries! I especially like Shopping from 2003, but it isn't simple enough to qualify for this blog entry.) Lee Chul Soo does with block prints the sort of image that I often associate with Chinese calligraphy - those few simple strokes suggesting a whole world.
The simplest images can sometimes prompt the "I could have done that" response, but I know that for me, at least, it was a great and rare achievement to produce this sort of piece. Maybe that's why I admire the purity of vision that can translate our complicated world int0 its simplest essence.
[Pictures: Cat Asleep, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999;
fronstpiece for Drawings - Themes and Variations, linoleum block print by Henri Matisse, 1943 (image from Denis Bloch Fine Art);
Birds Flying Up, wood block print by Lee Chul Soo, 1998;
As You Sow, wood block print by Lee Chul Soo, 2003;
Your Way, wood block print by Lee Chul Soo, 2004 (images from Davidson Galleries).]
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