recommended: Eric Gill, Iconographer, at USF

Eric Gill is the man behind the sublimely timeless Gill Sans. He’s also one of the 20th century’s notable wood-engraving artists, handling line and form in geometrically-stylized, gorgeous English Arts and Crafts way. He was a bit of a fanatic and nutter (what the gracious might call an eccentric, or what the unpretentious might call a freak).

The University of San Francisco (where I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in for E., a faculty member) holds a broad collection of Gill’s prints, books, bookplates, blocks and even a little sculpture. They’re on display in the Thatcher Gallery in the USF library through December 20. If you can make it through the imposing swipe-card turnstiles (hope the desk aides look your way, so you can inform them that you’d like to see the exhibition), you’ll find dozens of fine, detailed prints to peruse.

It’s a pleasure. I’m not one to warm to religious art easily — like Howard Belsey in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, my tastes in art are secular — but Gill’s prints are winsome. He employs the Arts and Craft’s simplicity and elegance of line with a rudimentary, stylized geometry echoing Byzantine icons, yet Gill’s resolutely-embodied figures are lithe, muscular, and slightly Medieval in appearance. The result is a mythological aura, suiting fables, moralism, the life of someone seeking transcendence.

The artwork veers between deeply religious to sensual to erotic. I found the bookplates and illuminated letterpress blocks to be the most delicate, whimsical and endearing. These, according to a didactic banner, were considered by the artist to be mere decorations, “flowers of the graphic designer” or some such utterance of regret. Yes, they are illustrative, but one in particular, with a large, well-balanced drop-cap “O,” featured a captivating illustration of a subterranean skeleton pulling at roots while a man tugged at leaves of the same plant. Free of its movable body text, the image perplexes, and its message, however unspoken, is still communicated confidently and clearly.

I also enjoyed two prints, with the texts, “THEN” and “JESUS,” in which figures populate a landscape formed by the handsome roman capitals (his Perpetua typeface, perhaps). After leading a typography crash-course in my Sketchbook class at ASUC last night, it was a treat to see top-notch text and image compositions.

On view are also a number of intaglio prints, as well as Gill’s carved blocks. These are finely detailed, and bring, even in their reversed, inky pitch-blackness, Gill’s precision and craftsmanship to life.

The exhibition was produced with the help of a number of USF departments. Upon exit, do browse the interactive design on a computer near the entrance — it’s thorough and nicely designed (and unfortunately, it’s not online). In contrast, I found the installation — even accounting for the architectural limitations — to be wanting; I’m just tall enough to study the tiny prints hanging on what seemed to be 59″ or 60″ centers. Still, it’s too high for such modestly scaled works. Yet Iconographer creates a great dialogue with the papercuts of Nikki McClure, and, across town at the Wattis Institute, the wood-engravings by Gill’s coeval, the American Rockwell Kent.


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