Thursday, 1 May 2014

Into the Woods with George Raab

Feelings of plenty, a sense of awe, and mimetic replacement for what we love and need in our lives are a few of the standard functions provided by art. You can probably find “mimetic replacement” in your house. It can be seen in wallpaper, carpets, household objects, bed spreads, teenage posters, paintings, and your curtains.
     Take curtains for example. Are yours depicting fruit or leaves or trees or butterflies or birds? These curtains help to block the view of five months of winter while simultaneously providing imagery that reminds you that spring and summer will return. This kind of imagery can also give you feelings of plenty; similar to the feelings you get when you view a fridge or pantry full of food.
     So it is no surprise that Sharon Godwin, the director of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, got the response she did from a patron when asked what she thought of the work of George Raab. The patron loved the show, but even with all the artistry involved, she didn’t like the few images of snow.
     The patron’s reaction may have involved more than simply being tired of seeing snow. George Raab’s work reveals a personal love for the peaceful and somber moments one can have standing alone in a forest. We share his view of real places, places we rarely visit, bogs, marshes, and lonely landscapes that are subtly interpreted to create a sense of mystery and awe, yet can make a big impression. For all its beauty, being alone in a forest is not for everyone. The sense of awe and depth in a world with no paths or footprints can also illicit worries and fear. It can depend on your personal experience and imagination as well.
     Unlike a lot of art that is deliberately flat, the perspective depth in George’s work is a powerful quality, furthering the duality of beauty and the unknown. The mix of drawing, painting, etching, aquatint and the photographic process that Raab employs make it difficult to know how much interpretation was involved, so the places become both real and imaginary, further creating a sense of wonder.
     It’s also nice that after five months of winter you can go to a gallery and get a little “mimetic replacement.” Visiting the gallery a bit like going for a walk in the woods.  
     George Raab employs both traditional techniques, the kind Rembrandt used and modern photography. Raab might start by drawing an image on a clear film using pen and ink as opposed to drawing directly on a plate with etching tools. The photo itself might be altered on a computer using Photoshop, employing a program to create a softness he enjoys. The photographs are always his own.
     Raab commented during his talk last week that digital art wasn’t taken seriously as an art form for the longest time. “But now, digital art is as perfectly a valid form of self-expression as painting is.”
     Far from digital, yet very detailed is the Intaglio process. Intaglio is a traditional process where the basic image is burnt or drawn into a zinc or copper plate. Ink is rubbed into the areas of the plate bitten by the acids, allowed to do so by either the drawing or the photo emulsion. The plate goes through a press with wet paper on its surface forcing the ink and paper to combine. Peeling away the paper from the plate results in a negative image that becomes the art, reproducible, generally 15 to 25 images for an edition, sometimes up to 50 images, which explains the numbering system you see penciled beneath the images.
     Raab spent a couple years working with the process searching for a personal style, something he says, “has atmosphere with stillness and peace.” He wasn’t looking for spectacular landscapes and drama. “Some of the images are ethereal, not morose. There’s something very evocative about some of them.”
     George Raab is also a rare bird in that he’s been a full time artist for forty years, managing his own career without relying on the gallery system and managing to represent himself, occasionally spending months away from his art to do the office work required to make sales and organize shows. “It’s a big schlep,” he says, “but it’s worth it.”
     He also commented that he was tired of subsidizing galleries. Galleries generally take 50% commission along with charging for the framing services. Raab hosts his own art shows to sell his work and does his own picture framing, which is excellent, by the way. As for the art, he obsesses over the images, and the images are so detailed and the process so finicky that he produces only about eight new images a year.
     Raab says submitting his work to public galleries is a bit of a crapshoot because there are juries involved. But he’s been very successful at showing his work despite the representational nature of the work, less contemporary in approach and more popular. Although he does play with contemporary approaches as with the hanging Mylar piece in which patrons can make themselves disappear.
     “I thought it would be nice to have something other than another flat object on the wall,” he says. However, Raab’s imagery is far from flat. There’s a lot of depth to be seen in his work.
     George Raab’s show, Into the Woods, is at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery till June 15.

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