written by Ellen Heck
Julia Lucey’s current show at Wally Workman, Forest for the Trees, is a series of windows into a world of interwoven wildlife. Looking at nature through multiple lenses, Lucey reveals layers of meaning with an almost ecclesiastical sense of wonder. Like the natural world, she uses color and contrast both to highlight and hide elements in her compositions, generously allowing us to see one image in multiple ways at the same time.
While Lucey has overlapped hand-rendered etchings of California plants and animals on paper for more than eight years now, her process has changed significantly. Lucey’s current methods for creating intersections between creatures, colors, shapes, and plates are in some ways a complete reversal of her process eight years ago, though her voice and message have remained consistent and clear. With each new way of combining imagery, her work studies the roles of part and whole: a living thing’s place within nature, nature’s composition of living things. She shows us the forest and the trees.
Many of Lucey’s early prints are vignettes created from accumulated plants and animals. Species are isolated against the tinted backgrounds of their own card-sized rectangles of copper, and are clustered stamp-like into a scene. The process examines natural history conventions—dividing, isolating, and naming parts of nature. Lucey worked at the press from a library of copper etchings to create these composite monoprints. She would place a selection of inked plates etched with plants and animals together on the press bed and roll the paper through. Then, she would rearrange the plates or add new ones passing the paper back and forth through the press until an image was complete. In these prints, new shapes and meanings arise from the straight-edges of the plate-toned backgrounds intersecting each other. In Where I Thought I Was (2012), these become a rainbow aura around the silhouette of an absent coyote. In Raven Flock (2011), gray squares surrounding black birds merge into a singular, bending, triangular flight form. In this body of work, the natural images dictate the placement of plates within the overall composition, and the halo-like plate shapes are corollaries defining the shifting boundaries of the world.
Like the natural world, she uses color and contrast both to highlight and hide elements in her compositions, generously allowing us to see one image in multiple ways at the same time.
Later, Lucey flips this dynamic. The boundaries of the plates dictate the placement of overlapping images, not their content. Starting in 2012 and characterizing most of her prints through 2014, she places plates within a composition as geometric objects. In Grizzly Grid Sixteen (2014), a grizzly bear on a single rectangle overlaps itself in a four-by-four grid. Feet and backs merge to create the darkest darks, while the rectangular plate tones weave rainbow plaid across the background. In Trout Squared (2014), realistic trout and their disembodied, stylized scales swim counterclockwise in a forced, tank-like square defined by plate boundaries. While the effect of the vignette prints was to show the hidden geometry of natural arrangements, the geometric prints look like charts of change over time, or maps documenting wildlife management.
Julia Lucey’s work rewards us for moving close and stepping back…
At this point, Lucey began to use larger plates. While her final prints have always been fairly large compared to most hand-pulled intaglios, their individual components had resembled a card catalog in copper. Lucey’s images transitioned from the natural history tradition of isolating specimens in the center of a blank area toward the considered placement of more complex scenes within the larger plate. Lucey started fully aquatinting the background and negative space of these plates to create velvety areas of darkness, reversing the contrast and allowing light flowers or a white wolf to emerge. This gives the prints a less scientific and more narrative aesthetic. Her palette, reminiscent of a Victorian study, is already hovering between the scientific and Romantic. Prints like Fragrant Fritillary (2018) call to mind still life sepia photographs like Adolphe Braun’s Rose of Sharon (c1854)—part educational, part narrative.
Individually, these larger-scale prints would make a breathtaking field guide, in the way that Audubon managed to merge study with expression, but another level of meaning lies in Lucey’s persistent recombination of imagery. In her most recent large-scale works on panel, she cuts components from these prints to assemble complex, interwoven narratives. While collage most often combines images from disparate sources, Lucey’s work recombines versions of the same image. Using traditional intaglio printmaking to create a range of colored prints from one plate, she slices circles, arches, and other geometric forms from one print and relocates them on another like a puzzle piece that fits compositionally, but not chromatically. Other times, she cuts plants and animals from different prints that combine in a harmonious tangle. These images might not have originated from the same plate, but they come from the same place.
By merging multiple versions of the same image into one, Lucey’s work often allows us to see through, behind, and into a scene. Perfect circles, which read as suns, moons, or the passing cycles of time act as lenses allowing us to see the colors of night plants or the stark outlines of leaves that blend into the night sky. A subtle change in the temperature of the undergrowth reveals hidden, warm-bodied animals, most of which are already looking straight into the eyes of the viewer.
In Forest for the Trees, we are reminded that the truest version of a story is multiple versions of that story. Through her multi-stage process, in which each composition is carefully constructed of carefully constructed parts, Julia Lucey’s work rewards us for moving close and stepping back, for examining both pieces and patterns, and for dwelling on the intersections between objects. The fact that her work has always done this in significantly different ways makes me believe that what she is showing is not only beautiful, but true.
Forest for the Trees is on view at Wally Workman Gallery through February 10th.