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When rigor and softness come together

Graceful is the word for this etching by Lila Ryan: grace and a sense of peace. We seem, like the fanciful creatures at the oasis, to drink in a filling kind of gentleness. But what has struck me most about this work, which I have known and loved for some years now, is that this is a gentleness that endures for an uncommonly long time. "Why is this?" I've wondered many times as I gazed at it, often almost hypnotized by the contained elegance of the thing.

Ultimately, I've found the explanation lies in the art of etching itself. Why do this subject in a strict form like etching, instead of making, say, an ink drawing? Lila Ryan, who lives and works in a rural sport in Sussex, New Jersey, has worked in all the media, of course. She admits that etching, among all of them, is the most laborious, tedious, exacting, limiting, and frustrating. "Sometimes," she says, "I think I must be crazym to keep after etching: to labour all day at setting up, then the process itself, and afterwards cleaniong up -- all to pull maybe two or three satisfactory prints the whole time. "But she also confesses that it's "an addictive thing, "almost," a medium which affords depth and line like no other.

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And this in part explains why this portrait of peace works so well and is so well-served by its medium. Etching carries with it a built-in interaction, between artist and his defiant materials, which drawing must travel further to match. It may at times add struggle, true, but it also succeeds here in providing a more naturally remote setting for such mythical beasties as these.

This points up an interesting paradox, presented by a lot of the world's art: that tension can succeed, when expertly used, in distiling a thing so unlike itself. Philosophically, this is mirrored by the spirit of dialectics,m whose principle is that, basic to intellligent thinking, thesis is followed inevitably by antithesis.m A basic tension is reasoning thought, a pull and tug effect, eventually produces a synm thesis. This, it is expected, lifts us to a place higher than where we were before the pulling began. Certainly an artist exemplifies this, in contendiong with the elements of a difficult medium which in the end helps him to shape a more pointed reflection of what he meant to convey. The fact that the delicate result of the crucible action can belie the grinding is one of the wonders of art.

As for the animal figures themselves, they occupy a frequent and familiar place in the work of Lila Ryan. They have been, one might say, her artistic compansions, a connecting thread through much of her output. Of course, it doesn't matter exactly what the creatures are (they remind me of a cross between giraffes and pteradactyls). In fact, they could be defined as anyone's concept of tranquility and poise. And benign-looking sky sets off their sense of airy freedom and swooping, carefree dignity.

Packing so much unearthly earthiness and mirth into an etching is no mean trick. And perhaps it's just the very discipline required by the process that makes it fuse into a work of such melting assurance.

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