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What’new in woodcuts

Upon my arrival, Bodo Korsig led me into a large, windowless, room whose floor and walls were covered with imprinted canvases. He left me alone there for a while, allowing me time to form my own impressions of his monumental symbols, those grasping and embracing arms, those faceless bodies, those mutually attracting and repelling nondescript primordial beings. Bathed in the glow of the neutral, direct, fluorescent lighting, they took on a weird, transcendental, look: works of art, rather than real objects; animals, plants, and bodies that had just finished their metamorphoses. This eerie sensation faded during our subsequent discussion of these products of a recently completed printing. Bodo Korsig had spent the past two weeks at the European Academy of Fine Arts in Trier, working from sunup to sundown printing, not with a printing press, not manually, but with a steam roller out in the academy’s courtyard. Although that was not his first experience with this method of printing, to Bodo Korsig each printing is an adventure, since for such vastly oversize formats the final results cannot be predicted down to the finest detail. The roller could cause slight smearing during printing, grounds for a certain amount of anxiety on the part of Bodo Korsig, who will not tolerate any obvious flaws. The varying thicknesses of the canvases and differing consistencies of the printing inks also affect printing results.

Color was a major factor in this particular printing. Korsig had given his canvases a black primer coat, topped off by, more often than not, an overcoat of a second color, before concluding printing with a third operation, a final imprinting with the completed patterned block. Since this block will have become scratched as early as the second print, the underlying color will show through at various locations, resulting in additional artistic effects. The texturing that distinguishes Bodo Korsig’s woodcuts, networks of fine lines and patterns, a shimmering tapestry that blends in intriguingly with the immense, monumental, shapes during the final imprinting op-eration, will have become evident by this stage. However, Korsig does not want the second color to become overly prominent, since otherwise the work would lack the desired austerity. The black primer coat lends prints a depth suggestive of their subjects, regardless of the subject involved, while their subjects spread out over their surfaces. Shadings, plastic and three-dimensional effects, are strictly avoided.

Prints judged acceptable are stretched onto frames, and thus might be mistaken for oil paintings, a deception that is heightened by the square format frequently chosen. Korsig likes using canvas as a substrate for his prints, since this allows their being viewed at close range without need for putting them behind panes of glass. Nevertheless, he also uses the steam roller for printing on oversized sheets of paper.

By no means has he abandoned classic woodcuts imprinted in black on white paper. On the contrary, they remain his major medium. Just a few weeks ago he finished a series of prints, extremely fragile banners printed on long strips of paper, depicting monumental shapes, intertwined figures, fruits, and vessels. However, since their contours were frazzled, like skeins of angora wool, none predominated, none outweighed the others, and all were in equilibrium with one another.

Questions regarding the origins of the depicted objects arise primarily for smaller works depicting isolated shapes in black on white backgrounds. Some are clearly everyday objects, such as baby pacifiers, but most are imaginary. Viewers recognize shapes as natural or artificial objects, see plant stems or horrifying spider legs. Korsig noted that what viewers see is left entirely up to their own imaginations.

Korsig draws a lot and records his visual impressions in small sketchbooks filled with sketches of subway maps, utensils, imaginary shapes, and often with shaded contours. These sketches are then annotated, but frequently end up being cropped, estranged, more subconsciously than intentionally, while being transferred to paper.
Korsig’s annual American sojourns, which he has been undertaking since 1993, have significantly impacted his artistic development. He finds everything he sees there, from the overpopulated metropolis of New York City to the wilds of nature, fascinating, and takes a lot of photographs. Although the vast expanses of the North American continent are important to him, he focuses on the accidental, on ever-changing interplays of shapes and shadows, on trash, on chunks of scrap iron, rather than on its more imposing aspects.

Indian cave paintings have had a deep and lasting impression on him, as may be seen from his smaller, square, block prints on canvas. Here again, the canvas is primed in a dark color. Drawings on those blocks used for printing overlays are chiseled out with a shaky hand. Their surfaces are coated with bright-colored inks in order that their more deeply cut lines, those lines that take up no ink, will not mask the darkness of the background. This method has had a remarkable impact on Korsig’s prints: although the black of the outlining sketch clearly lies below the surrounding brightly colored areas, the eye is unwilling to accept this and shifts the lines of the sketch forward, from the background into the foreground. It is this visual irritation that, in turn, generates a sense of depth. Jagged contours represent the simplest shapes: a whisk, a spoon, light bulbs, house slipper, or geometric figures. Like the cave paintings, the simplicity of their imagery causes these shapes to come to life. Awkward Grace, in a 1996 appraisal of work he did in Garner Tullis’ studio in New York City, wrote: „Are the things he depicts alive? Perhaps! But if so, they are strange monsters, unlike any animal, plant, or mineral I have seen on land or at sea. What Korsig depicts, I would say, are creatures from imagined or imaginary landscapes.”

Anyone who remembers Bodo Korsig’s woodcuts from the early 1990’s will be surprised by his recent works. In those days, he counterpoised and superimposed pointed, sharp-edged, figures that both crossed one another and contacted one another. Some of those figures were funny, but many were stark and gruesome mechanical constructions. Korsig commented that back then his reflections on the East-West situation were embodied in his work.
Tempi passati. His worlds have become softer, more natural, and occasionally, a bit strange …

Beate Thurow 1997