Xylography exhibition examines trauma in urban settings

The exhibition “Tongues in Trees: Xylography and the Uses of Adversity” is curated by Art Librarian Thomas Hill. The exhibit is part of a larger series emphasizing woodblock printing. Photo By: Alec Ferretti
The exhibition “Tongues in Trees: Xylography and the Uses of Adversity” is curated by Art Librarian Thomas Hill. The exhibit is part of a larger series emphasizing woodblock printing. Photo By: Alec Ferretti
The exhibition “Tongues in Trees: Xylography and the Uses of Adversity” is curated by Art Librarian Thomas Hill. The exhibit is part of a larger series emphasizing woodblock printing. Photo By: Alec Ferretti

If you make your way to the second floor of the Art Library, you will see a central glass display case with black and white images carefully arranged inside. Tongues in Trees: Xylography and the Uses of Adversity is a small exhibition currently on display in the Art Library conceived as a special memorial for the 13-year anniversary of 9/11.

It is presented as a modern and contemporary complement to two exhibitions concurrently hosted this semester at Vassar featuring early modern wood block printing: Never Before Has Your Like Been Printed, the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, on view in the library and Imperial Augsburg at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

The exhibition explores the way three artists, Frans Masereel, Werner Pfeiffer, and Stanley Donwwood, employ the medium of xylography—the making of printed images from carved wooden or linoleum blocks—to represent urban experience, and particularly traumatic events of urban history.

Highlights include Masereel’s wordless novel and masterpiece La Ville, Werner Pfeiffer’s five-foot-high artist’s book commemorating the events of September 11, 2001, Out of the Sky: Remembering 9/11, and Stanley Donwood’s “Lost Angeles,” a multiple printed on laser-cut board as a jigsaw puzzle, a copy of which can be borrowed for in-house use at the Art Library circulation desk.

Noticing a tension between texts and woodblock illustrations in the Chronicle on display at the main library, Thomas Hill, the Art Library librarian who curated the show, seeks to provide a different narrative of time with contemporary imageries in Tongues in Trees.

“The fact that the self-same images of cities, events and people are often repeated for different subjects throughout the book undermines the historical claim for the uniqueness of the places, events and individuals represented,” Hill said.

He continued, “These are images that rather express a sense of recurrence, of the cyclical succession of seasons ingrained in the material they are carved from, impeding and unraveling the linearity, lineage, beginnings, and endings they are supposed to illustrate. They provide, perhaps, an alternative to the singular constraints and catastrophes of scripted history by suggesting a denser, more enduring sense of the presence of the past borne in the medium itself.” Hill wrote in the show’s catalog.

Moreover, Hill seeks to convey a sense of the pastoral described in a play by Shakespeare, As You Like It, with these images of urban life and adversities.

“The ‘Tongues in Trees’ is a phrase from the second act of As You Like It,” Hill explained. “And it’s about the notion of the pastoral. It’s almost a genre in western literature about a counterculture in the natural world. Also it’s an important metaphor for Shakespeare and many renaissance artists in that it represents the world of art. Also it has some reference to adversity. In Shakespeare’s work, it’s adversity of the harsh weather and things like that. But it can always be understood as the falsity and harshness of urban life as well.”

Materials and works on display include Vassar archives and collections, and Hill’s personal processions. And the idea and theme of this exhibition gradually took shape as he was looking for and putting together various pieces.

“Looking at the materials I had available, I finally decided to do something about how woodblock artists depict urban life, because I had three artists who do that, and especially depictions of tragedy and trauma. ” Hill reflected on his experiences to curate and organize the show.

As the librarian, Hill spends much time in the space where the exhibition is on display. And he notices that people don’t seem to pay as much close attention to the exhibit as a curator would like his/her viewers to.

“You can’t work in the library and not see it at all. Students come to the library because they want a space to work. So books and things around them aren’t necessarily calling their attention.On the other hand, you do want them to engage with the materials.”

A student assistant working right near the display case confirmed this observation.

“I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it closely. I guess it’s kind of scarce and it doesn’t take much space within the glass. And it looks like blending into the space because there are books and we are in a library.” Said Isabel Schnake ’18.

An Art History senior who frequents the second floor of the Art Library had similar experiences with the exhibition and found it easy to pass by.

Megna Da ‘15 a recent viewer of the exhibition, reacted by saying, “It was so much smaller than I expected. And there are usually books or illustrations on display here just like at the main library. But if you’re not paying attention, you might not know that it is an exhibition. You might think that it’s a decoration or things like that.”

However, Hill notes that a display of images could have important effects on viewers subconsciously even if they aren’t paying careful attention, and hopes that this exhibition has done such a job.

“I hope that it at least communicates subconscious things by virtue of the exhibition being there. From it I hope people get the sense that a book on the shelf book is a book, something you study from, but it’s also a work of art. Ideally the show also communicates that books are physical things and they are doing something physical,” said Hill.

Furthermore, he thinks that a display of artworks in a library could have desirable and special functions to the specific space.

Hill talked about what he sees as the goal of library exhibitions. “Any work of art activates space in a way. Even if when you’re in an Art Library, you’re not looking at the works at all except for peripherally. You know they are there; you know they are art. And it does something to the whole space: it brings in a sense of life and light with something happening,” he explained.

And maybe this is why art plays a bigger role in our lives than we might have thought.

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