OPEN EYE Gallery

The twentieth century has seen a remarkable revival in the art of wood engraving. Where Blake and Bewick left off, a number of artists have continued the tradition, manipulating the medium and carving out significant reputations at the forefront of relief printmaking. In the 1930s Ravilious, Gill, MacNab, Raverat, Hermes and Nash to name but a few, were all instrumental in keeping the tradition alive by pushing the boundaries and increasing public awareness of an art form which has stood at the crossroads of printmaking and illustration for many years.

Jonathan Gibbs is one of a number of artists who have sustained this tradition in the present day. Over a period of years, he has produced a series of superlative prints that have established him as a leading exponent in the field of contemporary wood engraving. Working into the end grain surface of boxwood or holly, he skilfully engraves layers of evocative images creating small worlds of the imagination overflowing with hidden narrative, highlighting a unique approach to printmaking. Many artists have found that working within a small and clearly defined area, with limited means, holds too many restrictions, strangely these constraints have been liberating for Jonathan Gibbs. Working directly and spontaneously, often without preparatory drawings, has led him to many intriguing areas of subject matter, which he has assimilated and exploited thoroughly for his own purposes. His deep belief that the thrust of any good art depends on the ability to draw is seen in every work, be it the simplified Matisse-like engraving of Woman (6) — which is a lesson in the economy of understatement — to the packed jazz age composition of Django Tango (32), which vibrates with rhythmic organisations and forms. The works reproduced in this catalogue illustrate the depth of his talent, the range of his aesthetic ideas and emphasise his ability to draw lines of communication with the viewer; often difficult on such a small scale. The Car on the Quay (25), Mr and Mrs Jack Sprat (21), Metropolis (19) and the Piscatorial Alphabet (29, 30) are among many that succeed in enticing the viewer into his world, and, at the same time leaving enough space for personal interpretation.

Wood engraving has always had its roots in the commercial world of illustration — from Victorian ironmongers’ catalogues to the rarified world of the Golden Cockerel Press. Many artists have worked successfully in this field and suffered no ill-consequences. Jonathan Gibbs is no different in this respect. Far from being trapped by the graphic restraints of the illustrator, he successfully manipulates the written brief into his own pictorial vocabulary with the intriguing result that the finished article stands on its own right without the burden of explanation. Tackling the problem in the same manner as he would respond to a thematic challenge for an exhibition, he often breaks down sections, adding and subtracting compositional details, storing them up for future projects.

Since discovering his work at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1983, the Open Eye Gallery have been proud to present a series of exhibitions which have given him ample scope to illustrate the changing nature of his work. In parallel with his teaching at Edinburgh College of Art (where he runs the Illustration Department) and his output as a painter, Jonathan Gibbs continues to produce a steady flow of wood engravings. These diminutive yet complex images confirm his position as a leading exponent of graphic expression.


Thomas Wilson
November 1999