Though few seem to make the effort, it’s relatively easy to get a bird’s eye view of Ithaca’s visual arts topography. There are the campus show spaces on the hills, the downtown galleries—clustered on and around State Street—and scattered outliers with reputations for showing quality work. But then one finds the occasional surprise: casual or non-traditional art venues rising above the usual indifferent mediocrity.
Through the end of November, local painter Selima Guirey is showing her black ink intaglio prints at Alternatives Federal Credit Union as their “Artist of the Month.” Guirey, who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, is an imaginative, complex image-maker. She has shown paintings and drawings occasionally in group shows in recent years but this is a rare opportunity to see a substantial grouping of her works in public.
Pressed-in where printed, her sheets are hung, unframed with wires and clips. Such casual presentation doesn’t always come off but given the work and the venue, it does so well-enough here.
Intaglio printmaking involves making indentations on a metal plate—most typically copper—which is then inked and run through a press. Guirey’s main technique here is etching, in which a needle is used to draw the design, scraping through a waxy resist coating. The plate is then bathed in acid before being inked and wiped. The etched areas hold the design, which can be re-inked and printed numerous times.
Many prints here also use aquatint, in which powdered rosin (resin) is applied to the plate to create ink wash-like tones. As well, several use plate tone, wherein the unetched surface of the plate is not wiped entirely clean.
The bulk of Guirey’s pieces here date from her art school days of the early-to-mid 1990s. They reveal a printmaker of uneven technical accomplishment whose work nonetheless draws you in with an experimental approach to process and a questing, sometimes dark imagery.
A tiny wide-format piece, “Sagat’s Tea Party,” recalls the graphic work of the late Belgian Symbolist painter James Ensor at his most caricatural and raw. A multi-racial group, mostly mothers with their babies, gathers around a table stocked with teapots and cups as well as sweets. To the right, a woman in elaborate hat and dress looks down intently at the table, upon which she is carving what appears to be a roast with a serrated knife. Her grim focus contrasts with the easygoing character of her guests.
“Islam,” is Guirey’s most richly imagined image here. Using loose, expressive etched outlines and carefully gradated aquatint areas, it develops an elaborate fantasy of arches, domes, and minarets. It’s the sort of thing that the politically astute might dismiss as cheap exoticism but it is difficult to deny the layered aesthetic intelligence in play.
Outside the colleges, Ithaca area print art is dominated by the Ink Shop Printmaking Center downtown. As a result, it’s rare to find an entirely unaffiliated printmaker. Guirey’s two small mezzotints here were done under the instruction of Judy Barringer: a founding member at the Shop and an expert in the technique.
In mezzotint, a fine-toothed tool called a rocker is used to achieve tonal effects without the acid bath. “Mask” and “Vines at Dan’s House,” both from last year, both use the technique. Recalling the “primitive” iconography of Picasso and other early twentieth-century modernists, the former piece portrays an African mask from the artist’s collection. The angular, roughly rendered form appears emerging from a dark, vulva-like opening—he/she/it trails, in miniature scale, what appears to be a backbone and below, a tiny skull. The latter piece confuses and conflates indoors and out with a half-open doorway standing between us and a wild tangle of foliage.
One encounters exhibits like this one through serendipity or word of mouth rather than earnest intentions (ones having to do with art, anyhow). For those of us attuned to art that is surprising and different, it is a pleasure to find work like this in an unexpected venue. It also says something about the depth and range of local talent to be able to see what usually falls through the cracks.