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From his woodcuts, now on exhibit at the Paul Schuster Art Gallery (24 Palmer St.), Irving Amen might be diagnosed as an artistic schizoid. One can imagine a sweet Amen dominating the show, who produces pretty pictures of little children, prophets and other homey subjects; but occasionally one also finds a bitter Amen, whose work is more profound as well as more pessimistic.
In either aspect, however, the artist nearly always proves himself master of his media. He imparts to his line the freedom one would expect of an ink drawing, while still retaining that rugged quality essential to a woodcut. His style, usually a decorative realism, varies with the mood and subject matter; but in almost every print Amen succeeds in evoking his desired effect, whether it be that of power or of mere cuteness.
Typical of Amen's more genial work is To Wonder At, a color print depicting a pony-tailed little girl gazing in awe at a large bouquet. The flowers, which take up two-thirds of the picture, would make a tasteful composition standing by themselves. One's attention, however, is drawn to the pouting face which, well done though it is, reminds one of something from a comic strip. Eyes of Wonder portrays a very similar little girl, this time showing her in full face and emphasizing her large, dark and somewhat watery eyes. As one prospective customer remarked, the effect is "too precious for words."
Less saccharine, but equally banal, The Prophet attempts to please the more pious Christmas shopper by recreating that familiar image of a Serene Sage and His Book. The tone, while respectably sacred, is unexciting enough to fit well in the most conservative of living rooms.
Amen's other self, the darker and deeper one, is best revealed by the large, dramatic print of Adam. In contrast to Michelangelo's noble idealization, this First Man is conceived as a brute. Above his diminutive head, which is dominated by a circle of teeth and a single, piggish eye, he raises a jagged sword. His free hand, meanwhile, hangs ape-like to his knees. Defined in bold line against a blank background, Adam makes a powerful and impressive figure.
In Mother and Child, Amen departs sharply from the traditional Madonna ideal. While the plump infant grasps for her breast, the mother appears gaunt; and the multitude of lines evoking the forms of her collar-bone, neck and face seem to suggest a network of veins to her breast. The hint of despair in her eye reinforces the impression that she is being sucked dry by her thoughtless, greedy child. In its bitter message, stated with subtlety and thoughtfulness, this work provides a revealing antithesis to the view of children implicit in Amen's prettified prints like To Wonder At.
The mingling of these two attitudes arouses one's curiosity as to the dates of particular woodcuts. The Schuster Gallery, however, supplies none of this information. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the show is minimized by a careless arrangement that breaks up obvious sets, such as Adam and Eve, and ignores considerations of size and color. But what remains the most regrettable artistic defect of this exhibit is the burial of some works of artistic worth in a mass of readily salable trivia.
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