Sea Levels

Laine Groeneweg show runs at Martha Street Studio until April 14

Laine Groeneweg’s Sea Levels is a collection of works derived from aquatic dreams. Utilizing traditional printmaking techniques dating back centuries, Groeneweg’s work examines oceanic imagery with a storybook cadence and a fairytale sense of darkness.

Through processes like drypoint and mezzotint printmaking, Groeneweg’s work elicits a tactile feeling that seems to emit from the imagination of a time long gone. The etchings and engravings stylistically recall illustrations of old books set on the high seas, but they feel less like the images that would accompany Melville or Verne, and more like what would appear on Ahab or Nemo’s bookshelf.

The mezzotint pieces are the standout works of Sea Levels. A process that “creates tones rather than lines,” mezzotint results in a softer, smokier image than is typical in modern prints.

Through his understanding of the play between light and shadow, Groeneweg manages to get a diverse body of results through the medium. Some works (Captain’s Lookout) recall the hazy, smudgy look of M. C. Escher’s lithographs, while others (Navy Seal) have the clarity of photographs, making their surrealism all the more pointed.

Groeneweg’s drypoint pieces are more obviously concerned with the icons of nautical imagery, be they anchors, ships’ wheels or buoys. They’re simple geometric compositions, with the object placed in the centre of an otherwise blank page. But the bluish ink, softly textured against grainy paper, gives the objects an ancient feel, emphasizing that the work is more about the iconography than the object.

That emphasis on iconography, on the cultural idea of the aquatic rather than the literal, permeates Sea Levels. It's a show full of “oceanic” symbols and icons, but the show itself is not about the ocean - it's about the symbols.

The show isn't trying to examine “the ocean” in any kind of literal way. His symbols melt together into one subconscious brew, occupying the same hypnotic dreamspace as silent movies and magic lantern shows.

Adding to that silent film-style hypnosis is the fact that the work in Sea Levels is largely monochromatic. There’s also a wonderful embrace of silent movie artifice. While the images all ostensibly take place underwater, there’s almost no water to be seen. Instead, the images resemble the dry-for-wet photography of the underwater scene in Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, which is all the more wonderful for its obvious falseness.

The best moments in Sea Levels come when Groeneweg pierces the absurdist bubble in which the show exists. In a few key pieces, his images of dreams subtly incorporate the dreamer. We see a child in the bathtub standing at the bow of their imaginary ship. A diver poses, ready to plunge, but instead of water, they stand in front of the pages of a book. From its folds emerges the tentacle of some unseen sea beast. A walrus sports sunglasses and necklaces, the handwritten, penciled caption declaring his name to be “Big Poppa.”

Published in Volume 72, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 15, 2018)

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