March 14, 2014

Whaling Art

        Last weekend we went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum and saw there two types of art that are not block printing, but are somewhat related to block printing.
        First, this piece by Peter Michael Martin.  At first glance from across the room I thought it was a linoleum block print, but in fact it’s cut from a sheet of black tyvek.  It occurred to me that although the medium is quite different after all, still the process has much in common with block printing:  it’s subtractive, starting from black and cutting out everything that’s to end up white.  Like block prints, it works best with a balance of black and white, and there can be different textures, but no actual midtones.  (I always say “ink or no ink,” but in this case “tyvek or no tyvek.”)  The picture is of Herman Melville, his shadow cast on the street of New Bedford by “the brilliance of both the moonlight and Moby Dick.”  I always like night scenes.  (I keep meaning to do more of them myself.)  I like the different treatment of the roofs on the two sides of the street.
        The other almost-block-printing art is scrimshaw.  In fact you can think of scrimshaw as engraving that’s never printed.  The “blocks,” like this whale tooth by William Sizer, aren’t flat enough to put through a press, but if you could print them, it would be intaglio not relief printing.  Like intaglio engraving (and the opposite of 
relief block printing), the ink is forced down into the carved areas and wiped off the surface.  Unlike the subtractive process of block printing (and tyvek cutting), in scrimshaw the lines you carve are the lines that make up your black picture on an ivory background.  Still, I feel a certain kinship with those sailors carving away at their hard blocks to make pictures of the things they saw and imagined, to give pleasure to themselves and their loved ones.  It certainly proves once again that the human urge to create is not confined to some Artsy elite, but flourishes everywhere.

[Pictures: Melville the Man #2, black on white tyvek by Peter Michael Martin, 2013;
L.C. Richmond on her Maiden Voyage, scrimshaw on tooth by William Sizer, c1834-7.  (Photos by AEGN at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.)]

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