Against the Grain 

Printmaker offers sobering insights into human mortality

Printmaker offers sobering insights into human mortality

Works by Rosemary Feit Covey

Through Feb. 10 at American Pop Culture Gallery, Wesley Place, 2055 Scarritt Pl.

For information, call 327-1977

Wood engraving is not frequently practiced by most modern printmakers. It had its heyday in the 19th century, when the printing industry favored the technique for its ability to produce realistic illustrations. Using a deft touch with extremely sharp tools—some with such wonderful names as spitstickers, scorpers, and burins—the artist could create an image with three-dimensional qualities by turning an endgrain block of maple or poplar in any direction as he carved his design.

Once photography gained favor with newspapers and other publishers, wood engraving fell by the way, becoming a throwback to a ”simpler“ time. But there’s nothing simple about wood engraving. It takes years of practice to refine the technique, to control the tools so adeptly that they serve as an extension of the engraver’s hand.

Rosemary Feit Covey has accomplished this. Working in the medium for over 20 years, the D.C.-area artist, who emigrated to the United States from South Africa when she was 8 years old, has built a reputation in the field—despite early warnings from skeptics that she couldn’t make a living as a wood engraver. She disproves them spectacularly in her current show at American Pop Culture Gallery, which hangs through Feb. 10. Covey composes each print using the human figure or portrait as her central image, frequently incorporating symbols from South African and European folklore. Then she continually revises each block until she gets the precise image she wants; it takes months to complete an edition.

Most of the images in Covey’s show at American Pop Culture Gallery are rather disturbing. James E. Sale, in the Washington Print Club Quarterly, says of her work, ”one might call it Gothic in its overall impression,“ and he hits the nail on the head. The artist takes as her theme life’s ephemerality in a time when so many pursue bodily perfection. She finds it ironic that in an age when so many medical advancements prolong and improve life, there is an increasing number of real and perceived threats to existence.

To this end, she often uses images of bacteria or viruses in the composition. Sometimes they appear as surface decorations on clothing, as they do in ”Nkonde.“ In another print, ”Antigenic Shift,“ they are symbolized by birds—an appropriate icon, since birds are carriers of flu viruses that have made the shift from animals to humans, causing worldwide epidemics and pandemics. (The latest such example occurred in a headline story just last year, when a teenage girl died of a virus previously found only in poultry. As a result, most of the chickens in Hong Kong were destroyed.)

In ”Ring Around the Rosie,“ Covey ties the children’s nursery rhyme to its origin: the plagues that swept Europe in the Middle Ages. The print is packed with symbols: flowers, the black X’s that indicated houses where the plague had struck, a border composed of boxes like a game board, fleas, the evil eye, the modern biohazard symbol.

The layering of so many symbols is both frightening and overwhelming, but this too is in keeping with Covey’s theme: These are not ”pretty“ pictures meant to allay our fears. Rather, they lay out the truth in graphic, sometimes discomforting imagery. Covey says about the print ”Nkonde“ that ”even the young and the beautiful dance with Death, and modern science is no more effective than magic in keeping Death at bay.“ In these days of managed health care, this is not necessarily what we want to hear.

If the images can be scary, they are all superbly done and well worth seeing. Nashville is lucky to have had the work of two master wood engravers within the past year. Fritz Eichenberg’s strongly symbolic prints showed at Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Gallery last fall, and Covey’s work, though different, is no less impressive. Robert Kurtz, curator of exhibitions at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, commented upon mounting a Covey exhibit in 1997, ”My original idea was to form a show highlighting a broad selection of America’s master wood engravers, but I have since modified that plan to display [her] work alone, as I have found no other wood engravers whose work I feel is near the equal [of hers].“ Strong words to describe strong work.

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