The small linoleum cut prints of forest scenes by Fort Worth-based artist David Conn are intriguing.
The black-and-white patterning of sun-dappled underbrush and massive tree trunks vibrate between abstraction and realism, but more than their surface interest is the sense of memory they invoke. They seem to be dream scenes, a place one has been before, but always from the safety of the perimeter, never from within the tangle of branches.
In their tiniest incarnations, the small patterns of light that Conn is able to render across tree trunks and through the dense foliage play a game of gray scale across his paper. There appears to be more than black ink on cream-colored paper.
As his prints enlarge -- and he makes them in all sizes from smaller than 5 by 7 inches to a wood-block print almost 6 feet tall -- the gray tones gradually disappear until in their largest iteration, they are basically binary. Only positive and negative shapes careen across his paper. From a distance, the prints look like high-contrast photographs; up close they are an animated swirl of amorphous shapes and squiggles.
The attraction of carving forests into linoleum blocks and, of late, wood blocks, has been entertaining Conn for more than a decade.
"I wanted to get back to work with my hands," he says. "I had been doing a lot of photo-generated work, doing them in lithographs, but I wanted to get back to drawing. So I did this linocut and I really liked it. I thought it was fascinating. I liked the marks. I decided to use one paper, one intense black ink and one tool."
The tool is a tiny gouge, and he uses if for the fine lines, the palette-shaped highlights and the massive tree trunks.
"This one tool creates all the marks that are found throughout the whole piece," Conn says. "... I started learning to draw when I was in high school. I went to art school and I acquired all this wonderful knowledge, and I decided to use the most minimum of experience to see how far I can go and how long I can stay within it."
He has been beguiled for 12 years.
Conn's studio near Victory Arts Center in Fort Worth is an artist's dream space -- an old building with tall ceilings, cement floors, spacious rooms and an industrial sink, and unlike most artists' studios, it's eerily tidy. In the week before his show "Return: Paintings and Prints" opens at Artspace111, his prints are all framed, wrapped and neatly stacked against the wall.
But there aren't only prints among the numerous printing presses -- huge paintings are also finished and ready to be transported across town. They mirror his prints but are so large that they fill the walls from floor to ceiling. One will have only an inch of clearance when it is installed in the gallery.
Conn has gone large.
The shift in scale happened at the European Art Academy in Trier, Germany, two years ago, the same year he retired from the art department at TCU. Conn was invited over as a guest artist and given an enormous gallery to fill with whatever he pleased. He hung his prints and created a rustling floor installation of crumpled sheets of paper printed with quotes from famous naturalists, such as John Muir. Then he decided to try painting large what he had previously printed small.
"I did a mural; it was 14 feet long by 12 feet high. I realized I really wanted to work big."
After returning from Germany and no longer having a day job, Conn began painting his dense landscapes in black acrylic paint on a cream-colored ground. He tried stark white, but he felt there was too much contrast, so he tinted the ground on his canvases to match the color of his Japanese printing paper. He uses three brushes, all tiny sables, smaller than an eyeliner brush. One, his detail brush, has so few hairs, you wonder if it holds a discernable amount of paint. With these he paints canvases more than 8 feet tall. He'll have 12 paintings, his output from the past two years, plus a 10-year retrospective of his prints on exhibit in a show that opened Friday.
But whether it is a print the size of a computer screen or a canvas that could cover a doorway, Conn insists it's the image, not the medium, that pulls people in.
"The image is really what's been important the last 12 years," he says. "When people look at a print, they don't know if it is a forest in Colorado or a garden in Versailles. The narrative starts with the person. They bring the narrative to the piece. The piece is just a stage to bring about something in them -- a sense of air, of wonder, a sense of gardening, whatever may appear. Sometimes its fear. But the narrative is inside the person."
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113