Visitors seeking color and pop might peek in to Andrew Raftery’s exhibit in the Fleming Museum of Art’s East Gallery … and decide to give it a pass. (After all, there is plenty of pizzazz to be found in the African paintings of Wosene Worke Kosrof across the Marble Court.) But that would be a shame. Because, even if Raftery favors austere black and white, and his show extols a centuries-old medium — copperplate engraving — viewers who take the time to really look will find themselves captivated. There is a lot more than meets the cursory glance in the five-part print series called “Open House.” These are quietly astonishing achievements of technique, social observation and, not least, patience.
Raftery’s vision is utterly unique. The professor of printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design uses an exacting, ancient process, and nods to genre-scene artists of the 17th and 18th centuries, while expressing fully contemporary concepts — in this case narratives based on that staple of real estate, the open house. In a slide lecture at the museum last week, Raftery explained that the inspiration for this series, completed in 2008, was taking his mother house hunting. Art historian Jonathan Weinberg, in his essay for the exhibition catalog, notes “an enormous gulf between the intensity of effort expended on the process and the banality of the subject matter.”
And yet, this quotidian activity is inherently laden with richer meanings: the mind-sets of buyers, sellers and real estate agents; the material goods in the houses that tell stories about consumerism, values, taste and status (an Alessi teapot here, a Sub-Zero fridge there); the concept of home itself. For that matter, there are layers of connotation in the word “open.” There is voyeurism. And there is the temporal backdrop of the housing market — at a zenith when Raftery worked on this series, at a nadir now.
Moreover, the artist wonders about the relationships of the figures he places in his scenes. Who among these men and women are married to each other? Is there tension between them? Do the two pairs of different-sized men’s shoes in the bedroom imply a gay couple? Whose baby is that? How do these individuals view each other?
The artist had plenty of time to muse on all these considerations; “Open House” was two years in conceptualization, four years in the making. Along the way, Raftery created architectural and figure models — small, nude maquettes of wax, gessoed white — and numerous, increasingly elaborate drawings of his scenes before even setting burin to copperplate. Fleming curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan’s decision to include these meticulous preparatory steps in the exhibit was brilliant. Raftery admitted at his talk last week that he had not thought of his models and studies as “art.” His mother, who is also an artist, disagreed. So did DeGalan. Each of these stages reveals a gifted hand, and each is starkly beautiful. They are also educational, providing a rare glimpse into an artist’s mind and methods. That’s of value at an academic museum.
Bearing witness to Raftery’s painstaking process has a more elemental advantage: It helps one truly appreciate his masterful engravings, to think about “how” as well as “what.” Today’s viewers might need reminding that, in engraving, every single line is made by hand, and each bears the heavy responsibility of precision. The relative weight and placement of lines creates patterns, forms, light, shadow, expression — meaning. And, imagine it: There is no delete button for mistakes.
In his essay Weinberg notes that Raftery’s process is an excavation of Old Master prints, layer by layer, deconstructed and reassembled. But this, he suggests, “has as much to do with post-modern modes of conceptualism and appropriation as it does with the history of engraving.” It also has to do with the artist’s predilections. Raftery said he is capable of focusing on one thing for a long time without growing tired of it. “I really like making things with my hands and making objects that are very highly wrought,” he explained. “That is why I am so drawn to engraving.”
In an age of throwaway printed materials and instant reproducibility, that alone is worth slowing down to admire.
Andrew Raftery, “Open House,” Fleming Museum, UVM, Burlington. Through December 16. flemingmuseum.org