September 15, 2013

Daniel Kany: Postcards from the great Thomas Cornell

Thomas Cornell passed away last December after having taught in the Bowdoin College art department for 50 years.

click image to enlarge

"Wild Pig," 1960, by Thomas Cornell

Image courtesy of June Fitzpatrick Gallery

click image to enlarge

"Goat I," 1969, by Thomas Cornell

Image courtesy of June Fitzpatrick Gallery

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: June Fitzpatrick Gallery, 522 Congress St., Portland

WHEN: Through Sept. 27

HOURS: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

INFO: 699-5083;

Cornell, in fact, founded Bowdoin's fine arts program.

June Fitzpatrick Gallery's exhibition of Cornell's work, "The Priority of Nature," is a surprisingly bold show not only because of Cornell's bristling work, but because Fitzpatrick chose to reach back with a focus on his prints from the 1960s.

More recently, Cornell had been making larger paintings whose relationship to classical art was more based in narrative structure than content. And at its most powerful, Cornell's classicism always rode an indulgently subversive dark horse.

These prints are postcards from the edge -- like artifacts from expeditions into the unmappable id or broken shards of our collective memories.

What makes this work so instantly compelling is the sheer brilliance of Cornell's technique. His drawing is apt, and his mastery of print techniques seems preternatural.

His early works relating to Thomas Huxley's "History of the Manlike Apes" greet the viewer with an uncanny wallop.

Some of these were too much for me at first, so I had to come back to them. I was glad I did, however, because "Old Monkey" (1959-60) is a masterwork of texture and psychological impact. That Cornell studied with Leonard Baskin, America's greatest printmaker, is readily and impressively apparent.

Revisiting the squatting "Old Monkey," I then saw the extraordinary depth of the tonal layers, including dark punctuating marks within the print that look like ink strokes that were added later. (Although it hardly matters if they are).

"Old Monkey" is listed as a sugar lift aquatint and drypoint. (Drypoint is the basic technique of scratching directly into the metal plate with a stylus. Aquatint is a ground that doesn't cover the entire plate like most etching; a sugar lift is a richly-toning additional layer that has to be washed off before the acid bath -- hence the term "lift.")

What matters here are not the specifics of the techniques, but Cornell's tonal range and technical virtuosity. Even if you aren't familiar with print techniques, Cornell's fascination with their visual vocabularies is apparent. It appears he could do virtually anything, and that frontloads his choices with an unusual reservoir of depth.

The squatting "Old Monkey" doesn't feign verisimilitude, but it feels psychologically real. In turn, this is why the fiercely angry and aged "Monkey" (1959) was too much for me even on my second and third passes. Few artists are capable of that kind of power.

Cornell's animals -- particularly the domesticated goat and pigs -- tap into something essential and basic, but their approachability allows them to more easily offer up their virtuosity of technique and draftsmanship.

"Goat I" (1969), for example, is a lithograph (wax on a stone matrix) of extreme contrast between the white animal and the black background. Cornell's swooping lines drawn with the litho crayon and his dark-drenched swipes of the brush create a boldly clear image packed with a surprising depth of mark-making detail.

Cornell's pigs are my favorite pieces in the show. His 1960 "Wild Pig" is an engraving of extraordinary clarity and quality (it would make D? proud), while his sugar lift aquatint "Pig (also called Boar)" is a dark silhouette that reaches for a fierce, archetypal wildness. The inky surface is a smoldering marvel of texture.

Two prints of snapping turtles bookending a frog are likely to be the crowd pleasers. These not only highlight Cornell's ability to draw, but also his use of states in printing.

"Snapping Turtle, 2nd State" (1968-69) is a dark-surfaced etching and aquatint from which the swimming turtle emerges. The other is an early state relying simply on a few gracefully drawn lines.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

"Pig," 1960, by Thomas Cornell

Image courtesy of June Fitzpatrick Gallery

click image to enlarge

"Old Monkey," 1959-'60, by Thomas Cornell

Image courtesy of June Fitzpatrick Gallery


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