Ryan Arenson, Book of Ruth

16 October – 10 November 2008

In his first sustained engagement with printmaking, Ryan Arenson has created a body of work at DKW that will be included in a solo show at David Krut Projects. Drawing on two seminal works by Dürer and Picasso, Arenson has translated a series of his own exquisitely detailed drawings into etchings, linocuts and montypes taht reflect on Dürer’s bold use of line and the circular forms of Picasso’s 1901 painting Child with a Dove.


By way of an epigraph I have inserted this hyperlink to one of John Cage’s one-minute stories, many of which were published in his books Silence and A Year from Monday. Ryan Arenson was doing some research on John Cage when he came across Picasso’s 1901 painting Child with a Dove. He asserts that this coalescence of things is interesting but not meaningful…

I am not a believer in fate – or things that are “meant to be” – but I do celebrate serendipity, which, I suspect, is at the root of much of the post-modern quotation, parsing, allusion and fragmentation that passes for serious and intellectual art these days. The title of Ryan Arenson’s first show at David Krut Projects is one instance of the serendipitous that seems to have enlivened the period Arenson has spent working closely with the printers at DKW. Failing to find a T in the box of wooden letters used with the letterpress, printer Jillian Ross and Arenson settled for Book of Ruth as the title for one of the prints (now the title of the show) rather than the weightier Book of Truth. This frees us all from a certain seriousness that might have weighed down the exhibition from the outset. It also gives us a range of allusions – biblical, historical, etymological – in which to situate our consideration of Arenson’s first major printmaking outing. But perhaps most importantly, Arenson’s willingness to switch his title points to the combination of the serious and the playful that has characterised this period of his work at DKW.

Certainly he began seriously, bringing to the workshop Willi Kurth’s The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer from which he had selected the 1510 woodcut The Penitent and the 1511 Cain Kills Abel as references for a series of prints. He also wanted to cite a small painting from Picasso’s Blue Period called Child with a Dove in which a small girl standing beside a brightly coloured beach ball clutches a dove to her breast. When I asked Arenson about his reference to these works (both of which he has reproduced in various ways in the etchings, linocuts and monotypes included in the exhibition), he remarked that it was not the meanings contained in the images that drew him to them but rather the use of line (in Dürer) and the anchoring technical device of the circle (in Picasso) that set off a series of drawing exercises committed to the creamy pages of a small Moleskin notebook. These drawings, which he later translated into motifs in variations of the two pivotal images, suggest an almost ascetic commitment to the unencumbered clarity of a single pencil line and the purity of the circular form. But rather than confine himself to the inherent solipsism of the circle, Arenson allowed his hand to lift off the paper, in order to create a break in the drawing motion, or trail off the edge of the paper to suggest a slip of the hand (deliberate or accidental).

As he immersed himself in this Zen-like activity, Arenson began to cross the lines of the circle to create a wave-interference pattern not unlike the patterning of lines he had observed and admired in Dürer’s etchings. What he sought was a way to interpret this activity through printmaking to which, he told me in conversation, he was attracted because it gave the artist the opportunity to dispense with all superfluity and focus energy on the making of a pure line. In two intense consultation sessions with DKW’s Jillian Ross and Mlungisi Khongisa and then in further discussions with Ross, Khongisa and visiting New York printmaker Phil Sanders, Arenson considered the various technical means available to him that would allow him to print a series of intersecting circles and lines. The printmakers suggested a combination of techniques: this would lend this body of work a level of technical complexity reflected in subtle variations in its tones and range of mark making. In further collaboration with the DKW printers, Arenson worked with Lungi Khongisa on the workshop’s letterpress and with Niall Bingham on the etching of a series of small circle prints called Void. In particular, Arenson’s final version of Man with Sword combines the sharpness of etching and engraving with the density of black allowed by linocut. It is a startling tribute to Dürer and a sustained, dazzling display of the results of painstaking cutting and gouging into various matrices.

Arenson’s quotation of the master, however, is undercut or tempered by a number of innovations and explorations. In the first instance, the axe wielded by Cain in Dürer’s woodcut is replaced by a Japanese sword that slices across the top of the image, its haft echoing the dominant circles that suggest weight and volume in the two struggling figures. In Arenson’s print, the sword is the only negative space through which the white of the paper shines through uninterrupted. I am not sure if Arenson had considered another Dürer image, the 1508 engraving The Betrayal of Christ in which a bearded Peter slices off the ear of the cowering servant Malchus, but what startled me when I compared the three works was the fact that the terrified Malchus, trying desperately to escape Peter’s swinging sword, is lying on top of a circular keg, the front of which is engraved with a series of curved lines. Certainly Dürer would have been familiar with the extraordinary musculature of early Greek sculpture immortalised in such works as the Laocoön and indeed his work, and in turn Arenson’s, echoes the masculine aggression and drama of that image. Willi Kurth notes that Dürer had reused the figure of Malchus (he appears in another woodcut on the same subject in 1510), but this time as the naked Abel lying prone beneath the swinging arm of his equally naked and traitorous brother Cain. Arenson is clearly fascinated by Dürer’s almost schematic, pared-down representation of the biblical narrative (in contrast to other works made around the same time that are thick with line and detail) and his masterful rendering of the human body. But at the same it, it is the archetype of Cain to which Arenson wishes to make reference, rather than to characters, such as one might find in, say, Gustave Doré’s moving 1865 engraving of the slaying of Abel in which Cain hangs his head in shame and exhaustion (though Doré is an important influence). In the Dürer, all excess is gone and the image is as lean as its two protagonists. It is, for Arenson, a “pure expression of love”, an emotion generated as much by the artist’s study of betrayal as by the enactment of betrayal represented in the image.

The second major image in this body of work is Arenson’s quotation of Picasso’s Child with a Dove (1901). Once again, Arenson applied himself to a series of exquisitely detailed circles to create the head and body of the girl as well as the other elements in the painting: the big bow on the back of the girl’s dress, the dove, the beach ball. Arenson saw these circles as being embedded in Picasso’s work and it was this that prompted his appropriation of the image and that helped him to translate his own obsessive circle-making into figuration. What is striking about the method applied to the figure of the girl is Arenson’s parsing of the image, his breaking it down into constituent parts, not in the cubist way that Picasso himself was to do in his own work after this period of strong realism, but nonetheless in a gesture that aims at interpretation through technique and at investing the image with meaning that is quite different to any meaning that Picasso’s girl, rendered in thick blue and grey impasto, seems to contain.

Once the girl, now Ruth (whose name, appropriately, means “compassion”) had been meticulously constructed through a combination of etching, drypoint and pochoir she seemed to carry some of the weight of her history and the artist’s technique on her frail shoulders. It was at this point in the working process that Arenson, quite literally, began to take her apart, circle by circle, until her head lay beside her. This series, called “Resurrection”, can be viewed from right to left or left to right, which means that the viewer can either decapitate the girl or put her back together again. The surprise of this invests the series and, by extension, all of the works in the exhibition, with a delightful self-reflexivity so that the art-historical seriousness of the founding impulse of the work is turned on its head (so to speak). What is not lost, however – and this is most surprising of all – is the compassion that Picasso seemed to pour into this image. What Arenson has succeeded in doing is to draw attention to the way in which line and form harbour emotion. In stripping the image of colour, in other words, and in rendering it in a series of circling shapes, he has shown us not only Picasso’s achievement but also the secret work of a line on paper.

Other works in this exhibition extend this exploration. A small series of etchings shows the progression of the circle drawing and functions as a study of a method. The etchings comment on the making of an image but also suggest the larger philosophical meanings attached to the circle as a geometric figure and a symbol (in many religions, cultures and traditions) both of emptiness and completion. And finally, the Moleskin notebook serves as a key to the works on paper. It is both fetish and footnote, central but subject, at any moment, to disintegration.

Arenson remarked to me in conversation that he too is not a believer in fate and that he selects images not so much because he is hunting for any particular meaning in a work but rather because he is searching for some point of entry, which could be technical or emotional. Similarly, when he names his works or even creates a body of work that might comprise an exhibition, it is in hindsight only – when the work or series is complete – that he understands the internal resonances that images (his own or those he has borrowed) have set in motion. Great works of art are, for him, like the found objects a sculptor might use – they turn up under the hand leafing through a book. He does, however, concede the importance of dreams and the subconscious, two forces in the brain that give serendipity its sweet taste.

16 October 2008
10 November 2008
Thursday, 1 January 1970, 12:00AM
DK Projects on Jan Smuts, JHB