The visitor to the still new and stately exhibition space at the Kala Art Institute will encounter a large picture of an octopus on the right wall. The artist, Harry Clewans had read about the mollusks with their eight arms, their unusual intelligence, memory and ability to hide from their predators, and he made this picture of a large scary animal, which looks almost alive in its leafy habitat.
The work has all the appearances of a painting, but it’s much more complicated: Octopus (2006) is a large, 56-by-60-inch woodcut collage of ink and gold leaf on paper mounted on a wood panel.
As in all his pieces in the exhibition, the artist first made a drawing directly onto wooden blocks, then hand-carved and printed the images. He would then, working like a jigsaw puzzle, assemble them and collage them into a large composition, which consists of a multitude of found components. For Octopus he used an earlier drawing of a seedpod, which he also employed in the context of other pictures. In Octopus it serves as the mottled and puckered skin of the animal’s arms.
He used the same detail for different functions. In the large Fireplace (2007), it serves as part of the wall decoration. This woodcut shows an elaborate and luxurious interior with a golden Baroque mantelpiece that rises to a gold crown and enfolds a mirror that reflects part of the salon’s interior.
Clewans’ way of working requires a laborious, almost obsessive process. It can take six months to complete a finished woodcut, and all the pieces are unique—no editions. There are a total of eight works—the product of three years work in the show. Pile of Grief (2006) shows a large accumulation of debris, arranged in the form of a pyramid with a head that appears like a gas mask on top. It was motivated by the death of his mother and like other works, it shows a preoccupation with dying. What We Know (2005), depicts a prone figure of a man (Clewans’s self portrait), stretched out horizontally, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of the dead Christ. Waiting is a memorable image of a man’s bust with an elaborate structure of bones of his skull and a raven sitting on his shoulder. The richly colored surface against its gray background creates an ominous feeling. The work was inspired by a portrait of Bruce Conner, an artist greatly admired by Harry Clewans.
Clewans is almost entirely self-taught. He studied briefly with Gordon Cook and Joan Brown, but not for long. He is by no means unknown, however; he has been in numerous exhibitions not only in the Bay Area but also in Los Angeles, Seattle, Minnesota and in venues as far removed as Belarus and Uzbeckistan. The latter was a show curated by Kala, and Clewans was also a recipient of a Kala Fellowship. The present show, which Clewans shares with the photographer Maizie Gilbert, constitutes this year’s James D. Phelan Award, for which each artist received a $5,000 cash prize. It was juried by Larry Rinder, director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.