Featured image: Eric Wolf, Mooselookmeguntic Lake, 2016, ink on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Pamela Salisbury Gallery
July 11, 2022 by Etty Yaniv
Eric Wolf’s landscape paintings are made with ink on paper and reference nature—water, sky, trees. In their sharp light and dark shapes they resemble woodcut, linoleum prints or even highly contrasted black and white photographs, but the more you look at them, the immediacy of the painted ink comes through—from the artist’s direct observation of nature, through his mind, to his hand—in a magical transformation ink flowing on paper fibers becomes river and white floating shapes become clouds.
Your art education includes both painting and photography. Looking at your ink drawings, I can see how both disciplines inform your work. What are your thoughts on that?
Black and White photography was my primary medium from 1975, when I first learned to print in the darkroom of a friend, until my last year of RISD, as a photo major in 1982. In Rome during my last year of school, I developed an increasing interest in painting. There was so much old work to see that was new to me, and all of it came across as powerful, earth shaking. I had first developed an interest in abstraction, as a kid, and the immersion in Rome’s art treasures and experiences opened up new imaginings for me. It took years of life in New York before things sorted themselves out, creatively.
Eventually, works in charcoal replaced the tonal richness of black and white paper photographs I loved to make. I can now see how the aesthetic connections make sense, in retrospect, and the early and continuing preoccupation with formal issues guided aspects of both projects similarly. But at the time I could not make sense of the progression.
It seems like you have chosen to work with the same medium from early on: ink on paper, the most basic tools. Why ink and paper?
I was excited about the idea of trying to make an interesting artwork with the most limited and efficient possible means, during my time in grad school. While at first my work continued in charcoal, my teacher, the artist Jay Milder suggested that I switch to ink, so I did. I decided to use one brush, black ink, and a sheet of watercolor paper, as the basis for making paintings. They were all abstract at first. While at Skowhegan in 1989, I began to work from observation out in nature. The goal was to extract representation out of this entirely unforgiving medium, without the use of color or tone, and bring a painting to life. It was satisfying to set out on a project that seemed so challenging.
I was fascinated by Matisse’s ability to give form its full impact with line. I love how Van Gogh pen and ink drawings used discreet simple marks to describe everything complex and organic. I was intrigued with the evolution of Mondrian’s landscape paintings of trees, and how they became his revolutionary abstract neo-plasticism, what we think of as Mondrian.
Ink, and black and white per se, are the essence of representation, from writing to printing, and the medium of the ancient Chinese painters and scholars. Also, I grew up with a black and white TV, only. While representation has certainly now changed, I remain stubbornly devoted to this austere approach, as it has not been fully explored. I like the idea of working in a specific area of the discipline of painting, that is both rich and austere, hoping to join its estimable dialogue.
When I look at your work, I keep thinking: “painting” (though traditionally they would be probably considered “drawing”), and often they also remind me of woodcuts or linoleumcuts because of the bold edges and graphic sensibility. Do you see them as “drawings” and is this distinction is at all important in your view?
Because of the use of ink and a brush, I consider these paper works to be paintings. Over the years, I’ve made oil on canvas paintings in black and white, as well, and these are very different on the surface, but made on site, painted from life, just the same way. In the spirit of our age, I am ok with people calling works on paper “drawings” or “paintings” as they prefer.
The choice to carry on with paper was as much about efficiency as it was devotion to paper. The reference to woodcuts and linoleum prints stems from my negative space approach to representation, which itself is an abstracting method of seeing. The discreet brush markings of my earlier more digit-y works do look very much like the carved-out markings of a wood chiseled inked print.
In some of your work you use the minimal bold shapes, or lines and in others you add subtle values. It is as if you are playing — how minimal can I get? What makes you go one way or another?
There is a deliberate effort, as you suggest, to play “how minimal can I get?” You are right to ask what makes me go one way or another. As I stand lakeside at my painting table, in the wilderness preserve, all the subjects are there at once, from complex spreads of stones, to a vast plain of undulating water, mountains near and far across the lake, a giant sky with an ever-evolving display of clouds, sky and light. The subject and the weather conditions together will suggest which way the work is heading, from day to day.
When there is a solid fog on the lake, complex choices are swiftly narrowed to one choice: the fog itself, over the water. The similarity between the fog and the thinned out ink I’m using to portray it is intriguing. I love the way the medium and the subject have so much in common.
Your work can be defined as “landscape”. How do you see it in that context?
Since my summer at Skowhegan, 1989, I have worked outdoors, observing and painting the landscape, as in “plein-air painting.” This tradition carries a lot of baggage, as well as numerous masterpieces of the centuries past and present. Nonetheless, at the time, I believed that I could “stay modern” while tackling a genre subject from a new angle. I thought that I could bring my desire for abstraction to interact with the subject “in a new way.”
Once I’d launched into the landscape painting project, connections about nature from my childhood began to emerge. Here I will spare you the details about the youthful adventures in nature, but they were abundant. It turned out that combining art making with being out in nature had a special quality to it, that captured my attention, and took over my painting practice by 1990. Working with the landscape as subject was as much a means to a desired experience, as it was to a desired painting outcome. It took a few years before I realized that, but I remain happily engaged in the project now decades later, somehow.
Looking closely at your work since early on I start seeing repetitive patterns that associate for me with language: these curvy parallel lines are “waves”. These black and why shapes are “boulders.” Do you have in mind developing visual building blocks, like letters you can combine in endless possibilities?
My work uses a notational approach to representation, and with the continuous focus on landscape, there has indeed been repetition over time, in the use of visual elements. I get so much pleasure out of the process of refining and perfecting particular elements, like the hypnotic waves of water that have absorbed my attention in many works, for example. While I think that I do rely on a set of mark-making conventions I’ve established for myself, I hope that the work will continue to evolve.
I understand that you are also engaged with the Shaker Museum and design work. Tell me a bit about these aspects in your practice and if / how they impact your artwork?
At the Shaker Museum, I’m a member of the exhibitions and collections committee, representing the artists’ perspective, as the museum plans its’ future new Museum building in Chatham, NY. Currently, I’ve curated an exhibition of contemporary Shaker Inspired artworks at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, adjacent to the Museum site. The goal of my involvement is to bring artists into contact with the extraordinary collection, and the amazing site, on Mount Lebanon, nearby. The Shaker Inspired exhibition did just that, with artists creating works inspired by the Museum’s objects, and its North Family 1787 site and buildings.
My design work has been part of my long-running personal creative project. It also tied in with my work as a construction project manager and designer in NYC for many years. The largest, and most notable among these efforts was a ten year long project, the headquarters of The Endeavor Foundation, Inc, a family foundation in NYC. This effort included designing all spaces, lighting, furniture, everything, and can be seen in part, in a March 2020 video interview on the artist website Gorky’s Granddaughter. I’ve designed and built my own spaces as well, including my studio, which can be seen in an interview for Two Coats of Paint.
You have had a lot of shows recently. What would you like to share about them?
It has been great to have several shows in Hudson and the area, recently, and a chance to share some of the recent works I’ve done. An April 2022 solo show with Pamela Salisbury was the most extensive show I have had since 2000. It was gratifying to see 25 works spread through the carriage house space, covering a range of approaches from the last few years. Several works have gone to great collections, and this is always exciting.
The March 2022 Show at Private Public was a group show of large scale abstract paintings, and my own largest ink landscape paintings. With my creative origins in abstract painting, this was a fascinating pairing, which made sense visually. I like to think of my work as “going either way.” It’s both abstract and representational, and in this context that quality was fluid, and active.
A recent group show at the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s gallery curated by Sue Muskat and Phil Knoll was a cornucopia of beautiful nature subject creations, and was warmly reviewed in the Times Union of Albany. Sue and Phil are wonderful freelance curators and artists themselves. Their shows are always dynamic, and full of the surprises that make our upstate art scene so refreshing and inspiring.