December 10, 2015
(++++) THE ART OF WISHING
Holiday Cards 2015: Ohara Shōson—Japanese Prints; Craig Shuttlewood—Trees and Robin; Mike Wilks—Eclipse. Pomegranate. $15 (Prints); $12 each (Trees; Eclipse).
Whatever judgment history will eventually render on the year 2015, it will certainly not be that this was a year of peace. In ways both great and small, far-reaching and (all too often) individual, it has been a year of concentrated and widespread violence of many types. The feeling of helplessness, of “the center cannot hold,” has been exacerbated by the instantaneous transmission of information and pictures from one scene of horror after another. Whether there have been more such scenes in 2015 than in times past will be one matter for history to judge: perhaps we are only more aware of the depth and breadth of violence and its effects. Or perhaps – history will judge this, too – the recurring scenes of 2015 will be harbingers of a world in which such material becomes commonplace, even expected, with people’s sensibilities eventually becoming dismally inured to what the transmissions show, much as happened with the many, many graphic images of the Vietnam War, which was the first major conflict to be fought in a visually focused age.
Certainly people of good will, to whom homilies, Christmas carols and prayers are repeatedly addressed, can hope that the violence of 2015 was an aberration that will diminish, hopefully markedly, in 2016 and beyond. An unrealistic hope, perhaps, but festivals that celebrate winter – Christmas being an especially poignant one, since that is scarcely all that it celebrates – have for thousands of years acknowledged darkness, cold and barrenness, while at the same time offering hope that the Earth and its inhabitants will endure and be revitalized in springtime. Hence the many ancient spring festivals – with, again, Easter being one that celebrates more than vegetative renewal.
From a close-in vantage point, without the benefit of historical perspective, 2015 certainly seems like a year in which small gestures of peace, as well as large ones, are even more to be desired than usual. This makes one’s choice of holiday cards an especially apt way to make a statement of caring, concern and hope this year. And this in turn means that cards produced by Pomegranate, a company that consistently brings fine art and fine production values to everyday items such as calendars and greeting cards of all sorts, seem an especially worthwhile choice. Pomegranate makes so many gentle, warm and subtly peacefulness-reinforcing cards that people of any orientation (religious and otherwise) can easily find ones that express their personal feelings and attitudes.
Four distinctive woodblock prints of Ohara Shōson (1877-1945), for example, grace a set of 20 cards featuring four scenes of birds in the poised elegance so familiar from Japanese and other Oriental art. “Grace” is the right verb: not grace in a religious sense, at least not overtly, and certainly not in a Christian sense – but the gracefulness of these four card designs will communicate itself immediately to anyone who receives one. Although each card has the neutral “Season’s Greetings” inside, two of the four are actually not even seasonal in terms of being artistically attached to winter. “Herons in Reeds” (1926) and “Pomegranate and Parrot” (1927) could relate to any season or no particular season at all – and they are very different from each other, the herons’ background featuring a crepuscular blue sky with crescent moon, the parrot’s being solid black, the better to showcase the white bird and the red fruit beside it. The other two designs are more overtly wintry: “Mandarin Ducks and Snow” (1935) and, to an even greater degree, “Nanten Bush and Fly Catchers in Snow” (1929). The ducks swim placidly in almost-still water, the only indication of cold being the snow that lightly coats the reeds nearby; the fly catchers, on the other hand, are very much involved with the snow that hangs thickly on the berries on the bush where they perch. All four card designs show scenes of nature and tranquility, and never mind that nature itself is very rarely tranquil – art like Ohara’s captures the moments when it is, or could be, and that makes this very special set of cards particularly appropriate for a year in which the best humans can say is that there are moments when we are, or could be, at peace.
Well-wishers who prefer more-contemporary art, and works more directly tied to the Christmas season, can also find a plethora of Pomegranate cards from which to choose, such as those by British artists Craig Shuttlewood (born 1964) and Mike Wilks (born 1947). Each package of these cards contains a dozen of them, of a single design, with “Season’s Greetings” inside – but these artists’ work is very different (although interestingly complementary). Shuttlewood, who especially enjoys creating art for toddlers and other young children, offers a highly stylized forest in which the trees look like paper cutouts and, although they are recognizable as evergreens, are mostly anything but green, being purple, yellow, blue and sometimes polka-dotted (or snow-dotted). The scene is dominated by snow, which is still falling, and right smack in the foreground, an amusingly cartoonish little robin stands at the tip-top of a yellow evergreen, looking toward the left side of the card as if just about to head for whatever it spots there. For those seeking to keep hearts light and uplift them this year, at this time of year, the Shuttlewood cards can be a fine choice.
Wilks’ art is deeper, stranger and less cartoonish – and subject to interpretation. These are cards for people trying to puzzle out what the events of this year have meant, to them and the world at large, and focusing on the small uncertainties of Wilks’ fantasy while thinking about the larger ones all about. What Wilks shows is a building, or set of buildings, or perhaps candles: most of the buildings are topped with what could be a minaret but actually looks more like a swirl of multicolored soft ice cream (gold and red, gold and green, and other colors). The tallest building must be a candle: it is topped by a teardrop-shaped yellow flame. Or perhaps that is a trick of the light? For the card does indeed show an eclipse, a total one, at the upper left – perhaps that is what makes the building seem to be a slowly melting candle? And just where are all these buildings situated? The rounded green objects in which they nestle look a bit like artichokes – but they could be immature trees, or perhaps immature buildings, which will eventually grow into the swirl-topped, colorful shape of the others. The point here is not mystery, or not scary mystery, at any rate: this is art that draws the viewer in, pulling him or her into an imagined world whose circumstances we of this Earth can only guess, perhaps hoping against hope that if there is so little peace at year’s end in our real world, there may be some in the gently contemplative scene of this unreal one.