'Off the Edge: The Experimental Prints of Cynthia Brants'

Brants' restless exploration of printmaking has created a lush and compelling body of work

Arts Review

'Off the Edge: The Experimental Prints of Cynthia Brants'

Flatbed Gallery

through June 27

Some souls are just restless. They scarcely settle in one spot before they're scanning the horizon for another territory to light out for. They're ever on the move, driven to seek out the new.

The impression that you get from the 60 works that make up this 60-year retrospective is that Cynthia Brants was such a soul. After poring over "Off the Edge," you'll have a hard time picturing this member of the legendary Fort Worth Circle ever sitting still. Some of that feeling comes from the energy she's invested in individual prints – say, the seemingly boundless varieties of line and texture in her early engravings or the visual tension she sets up through the repeated use of diagonal lines in compositions like Arpeggio, an abstract of crisscrossing angles with the kinetic charge of a Panhandle lightning storm – one that never seems to resolve itself. But most of the restlessness comes through the totality of her work as presented here by curator Mark Smith of Flatbed Press. Brants is constantly roaming from representation to abstraction and back again, on the one hand capturing nature in all its fullness – the massive musculature of a horse, the delicate curve of a flower petal – then stripping it away into the most basic of shapes, the simplest of lines, then restoring it in even fuller fleshiness.

Moving from print to print, you can see Brants clearly pushing for new ways to express herself, not only in form but in color and technique. In the color woodcut Ghost Mining Town, the abstracted mountain landscape is layered with candy-bright pinks and violets and cerulean blues. Her wondrously lush color aquatint Dawn in the Desert captures a daybreak sky just at that instant when it's lightening from indigo to sapphire. And her color collagraph Purple Iris offers a tight view of that flower with all the thick voluptuousness of an impressionist painting – deep-twilight shades of violet against which a pair of dark orange stems glow like hot coals.

Then there's the range of processes that Brants used to make these works. The greater your knowledge of printmaking, the more you're likely to appreciate her versatility and daring in crafting these images. The text that Smith provides goes a long way toward illuminating her approach for the uninitiated. But even an untrained eye will be able to see what a rich variety of techniques she employs – engraving, soft-ground etching, woodcut, monotype, serigraph, collagraph, aquatint, photogravure – and the stunningly different effects she's able to achieve with each: how the soft-ground etching of Leaf and Maiden Hair Fern helps preserve every delicate vein in fog-gray elegance, how the color photogravure Rose heightens this bloom's fragile beauty in uncommonly luminous shadings of pink, how using a woodcut for Hood River Landscape adds rough edges and monumental mass to the mountains overlooking this Oregon waterway, how the color collagraph Summer Shower creates even more vivid contrasts between the white dots covering the surface like snowflakes and the deep blue behind them.

It's so easy to get seduced by the beauty of these images, many of which are quite conventional (especially by contemporary standards), that you lose sight of what makes them, as the exhibition's title notes, "experimental." But Brants was a pioneer, launching her career in the days when modernism was first making its way into Texas, and like many of the pioneers who settled the Lone Star State, she made her own way, often in isolation. Working in Fort Worth and, in her later years, in Granbury, Brants would play with the tools of her trade, teasing out new means of achieving specific artistic effects. According to Smith, she filled some 50 journals with accounts of her experiments; that's a testament to her hunger for knowledge, for restless exploration that all but pours off the gallery walls. At one point, Brants created a woodcut titled Caged Bird, but she was far from one herself. As this fine show reveals, Cynthia Brants flew free and far for 60 years. I'm not so sure there's a cage that could have held her.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Off the Edge: The Experimental Prints of Cynthia Brants, Flatbed Press, Mark Smith, Fort Worth Circle

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