Returning to Place


The Emblem

“In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.” -- Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics

The etchings in this series, which I began seven years ago, are based on the 17th century emblem book. The Renaissance emblem book presented engravings of familiar elements and scenarios (sometimes called “personal devices”) in association with a motto and a brief verse, intended to invoke meanings with a particular lesson in mind. [illus. rara avis] Put simply, the emblem was a pictorial representation of an idea, and the image was a reservoir of commonly held meanings The emblem created a web of analogies, associations, and implications on different elements of the universe, guiding the mind through, by means of visual experience, often to simultaneously different, and often contradictory levels of meaning, a visual paradox that sparked different interpretations within a somewhat rigid, schematic spatial setting. The sometimes tense or contradictory relationship between word and image created a reflective cognitive model space in which the audience discovered meaning. The emblem book slowed the pace of reading and invited an intimate meditative relationship with its audience. The emblem was meant to be seen, read, meditated, understood, judged, sung and listened to in solitary contemplation and immediate sensual experience.

Despite the abundance of, and easy access to electronic images, we no longer share an iconography of things; we see lots of things but things don’t mean what they once did. [illus. a lumine motus] The digital icon has replaced the image as shorthand for the things we still do hold in common (hence the emoji) but in that what is signified is instantaneous and narrow. We are connected in temporally and geographically but not with shared context or is a way that is complex or resonant. This is not something to be lamented; a world that is strictly encoded is itself narrow and limited, and the fact that it is largely the individual who simultaneously confers meaning on or extracts meaning from an image makes interpretation a creative (and in response to an artist’s expression, collaborative) act. What you or I see may be quite different or simply untranslatable, since the ground on which we stand when we engage with them is our highly individual realities, but maybe something resonates for us both, and a new connection is formed.

The most important things to us take more time. They stand quietly apart from the world, take us away from it, then recall us to the world, mirror it, model it, intensify it, and reflect it. 
[illus. te stante, virebo] The unique object is indispensable, irreplaceable and irreplicable.  What do we see in it?  Things do not carry within them intrinsic meaning, but become projections of images, ideas, and analogies. “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are,” says Anais Nin, and art historian James Elkins offers: ““No two people will see the same object; we change along with the object, we see a new experience … A picture is the ways and places it is viewed, and I am the result of those various encounters.” Elkins savors the perception of the “betweenness” of objects rather than their “thingness.”  This betweenness is a numinous layer; what we value in them is what we have brought to them. Rather than saying a thing means something to you, perhaps we can say it “is” something to you.

My selection of images in this series of prints is pretty open-ended, mostly things I like or encounter to which I attach significance or look for meaning. [illus. minima maxima sunt] Naming objects shortcuts our visual experience, and I borrow Latin quotes to slow and complicate the process of interpretation, following in the tradition of the emblem book.
You recognize the object, and as you look more closely as your interpretation of the object is confounded, challenged, elaborated by the text in a language you probably don't understand. The English translations are there anyway. The Roman poets had a lot to tell us about nature and ourselves, without the conforming ideology and elaborate iconography of Christianity. My own pairings of image and text allow the viewer to construct significance from the sometimes unpredictable and contradictory friction of text and image, and in that gap is a tension that challenges and engages the viewer in the business of seeing, much as it confounds and provokes him or her. They are not puzzles to be decoded or unraveled, but small unanswered questions.

The etchings are heavily worked, returned to, elaborated, simplified, and lived with for years. [illus. vivat, crescat, floreat]
They are small, hushed, quietly focused. How they were created — returned to, fixed upon, belabored, altered, struggled over, lost and found – is itself a reflection of the process by which we see, acquire, and apprehend things, and what they mean to us, in their variety and complexity, beauty and presence. I hope they reward slow, immersive looking and contemplation. 


to introduce a kickstarter project

fides non apparentium (Trust in things not seen)

About this project

I am planning a series of note cards based from 75 of my etchings based on the form of the 16th C emblem book, each with an accompanying Latin aphorism and English translation. The Renaissance emblem book presented familiar elements and scenarios in association with a common saying, intended to invoke associations and meanings with a particular lesson in mind. The physical is presented in order to reveal the spiritual, the metaphysical, the abstract, and the symbolic. Since we no longer apply shared meaning to things to the same degree as our 16th C forebears, our own “lessons” are more diverse, varied, and personalized. The reader/viewer of this book will construct significance from the often unpredictable and contradictory friction of text and image; in that gap is a tension that challenges and engages the viewer, much as it confounds and provokes him or her. This book is about the process by which we see, acquire, and possess things, and what they mean to us, in their variety and complexity, beauty and presence. The book will “instruct the eye of understanding.” 

The cards will be printed by Puritan Capital Press of Hollis, New Hampshire, one of the nation’s leading fine art and photography printers with over 75 years of experience in printing books and catalogues for major museums and cultural institutions. Each card will be 7” x 5” overall, with the image printed at about 80% of original size for highest fidelity to the etching. The cards will be printed in high-resolution duotone on 100 lb. Mohawk Superfine Text. The first run this summer will reproduce 25 images; second and third printings of 25 more images each will be completed by the end of 2017.

Despite the high degree of detail and surface incident in each print, I start out each etching quite broadly, but with a clear geometric underpinning. I don’t really want to know how the image will look beforehand — too many unexpectedly and potentially satisfying things may happen to exclude the accidental or the momentarily inspired ahead of time. I work on as many as 50 or more etchings at once. The process of etching is physical and elemental, requiring force and pressure, inviting aggression and then delicacy, conjoining fire, water, earth, and air. There is something about setting an image into metal that implies permanence, duration, and enduring presence, and I hope my images mirror the medium in that sense.

I found a wonderful quotation from Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics that fits what I'm doing in this series -- 

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.  

On historical emblem books -- 

But if someone asks me what Emblemata (emblem books) really are? I will reply to him, that they are mute images, and nevertheless speaking: insignificant matters, and none the less of importance: ridiculous things, and nonetheless not without wisdom... — Jacob Cats (Dutch 17th C author of several emblem books) 


Etching on handmade paper, 9” x 7” (image), 12” x 9 “ (sheet), 2007

In addition to religious and devotional images among the several uses of the earliest prints made in Europe in the 15th C. were as Tarochi cards. The game of Trionfi (Triumphs) played with Tarochi cards was a sort of Renaissance allegorical “The Game of Life” with all its virtues and temptations, the cards each depicting emblems in a succession of “triumph” over the preceding image. The trump (picture) cards evolved into the 22 major arcana, representing archetypes of a path of spiritual ascension and evolution, and over the past 500 years successive artists would create new decks on that set pattern.

The Renaissance notion of cosmography, that pictures can be a simulacrum of the world and not just a representation of it, appeals to me. I am fascinated by the attempt to embrace philosophical themes through visual images and by the historic conflation of physics and metaphysics. It is a naïve or at least anachronistic view.

The Fool’s Journey is a book of twenty-three etchings of the major arcana of the traditional tarot deck (and including a title page). Modeled on Renaissance cosmography, the book is a visual portrayal of a philosophical world-view, each card presenting a universal archetype of human experience and a parallel, symbolic element or quality of the physical world. In my interpretation I took the major arcana more or less as is, inserting the four elements in place of the emperor, empress, priestess, and hierophant, who didn’t really play much role in my life, and using my own image as the Fool. The text for the book is the titles of the cards themselves. Angel is the second to last card and the apogee of spiritual ascent, while the last card, World, returns us to the place we started and discover anew.













Hanged Man










Adam and Eve’s Lament

Etching and letterpress, 11” x 15”, 1997

The broadside format is a direct and straightforward (and a relatively low investment) opportunity to set a text (poem) and image on one side of a single sheet. Chard deNiord and I had worked together on a few books and broadsides in the years after we first met in 1988, and for a new project I chose his two companion poems Adam Lament and Eve’s Lament. Chard’s Adam and Eve talk right past each other with their wishes, regrets, complaints, and suppressed disdain. For a defining image I had originally taken the iconic Apollonian Adam and Aphroditic Eve forever linked and divided by the ornamented squiggle of a snake. I designed and etched an elaborate diptych, with panels that opened to a small inner image of an abandoned building.

My friends at Brighton Press ( in San Diego, Bill Kelly and Michele Burgess, offered to print and publish the broadside.  Brighton Press proposed this after I had been unceremoniously tossed out of the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at the Museum of Modern Art for having unwittingly skirted their no-artist-allowed policy, which I had trespassed as I was the publisher of my own work. The Brighton Press people thought this was ludicrous, and kind of funny, so they offer to publish a piece to get around the MOMA artist prohibition. (Though as far as I know they haven’t gotten the broadside inside their walls).

Michele looked at a mock-up of the elaborate broadside and suggested I dispense entirely with the outer folderol and use only the small etching of the building. I don’t usually invite anyone to make suggestions about what I’m working on, at least not until I’m pretty well along, but Michele is a sensitive and insightful observer and had a stake in this project, and she was right. It’s hard to set aside months of work, but harder to live with less-than-right decisions that are set in metal, printed, and propagated. The unadorned emblem of a structure (Where is it? Is it a home? Is it on fire?) stood as a quiet image of ruin, disappointment, and failed possibility. 

Adam’s Lament

by Chard deNiord

You came the last but were the first to learn

that coming last you were the first in turn,

a second thought of God and dream of mine.

I understand the curse of your position.

I too would pray for an obvious sign.

My case unravels as my faith conditions.

You were blessed with cause I can’t object.

I understand your wanting back my dream.

Your bitter syllogism is correct:

I am a man and thus not what I seem,

the only child for whom my children grieve.

I would have vivified them too from dream,

but they, unborn and yet to be conceived,

came only after we had been deceived.

Eve’s Lament

by Chard deNiord

I am granted a few last words by an oak

that only listens: a few vain wishes

and cigarette that I refuse to smoke.

I wish my husband, the minor poet of fishes

and trees, had seen the world with greater vision,

had stopped for a moment to hear the ocean’s legion

of silent names. See how he tags and ribbons

the trees as if they were endangered women.

See how he stares forever at what’s forbidden

again, each flower and drupe, each apple and lemon.

Why listen to a man who’d rather polish his tongue

than study the koans of the child beside him,

than cleanse his mouth with the coal of a seraphim?

I’m on my way to a country that can’t be sung.

Copyright © 2007 by Chard deNiord.

Tree Trunk (Douglas fir)

Etching, 9” x 6”, 2015

Last November I headed to Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest to make prints for a week at a friend’s studio. My intention was to work from a small number of the hundreds of photographs I had taken during a trip to Italy last spring, but when I went to find them on my laptop, I discovered that I had inadvertently deleted every one single photograph from the trip. I was at a loss and disconsolately looked out the back door where a massive Douglas fir was growing about ten feet from the studio. There it was -- that wonderful tree became the basis for the several prints I worked on that week.

I had forgotten something I had earlier discovered: when traveling (i.e., to a temporary location) open your eyes and see things anew. I believe there’s a corollary guideline, when you move to a new studio (i.e., a semi-permanent work space) keep working on something you’ve already started and are already familiar with.  In the first instance unfamiliarity is your ally; in the second, continuity is.

The Wood

Etching, 13” x 19”, 1988

In 1989 I began to work on an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. It was hubris to take on perhaps the most illustrated text in Western art, but I didn’t choose to print the entire text. Chard DeNiord, now Poet Laureate of Vermont, offered thirteen poems to parallel my thirteen etchings in this, the first artist’s book I published.

I interpreted the Inferno as landscapes, structures, and spaces suggesting moral and emotional states. I left people out altogether. This etching represents a passage from Canto XIII in which Dante steps into a rambling thicket, each twisted vine the petrified remains of a suicide. “…We moved on into a pathless wood that twisted upward from Hell's broken floor. Its foliage was not verdant, but nearly black. The unhealthy branches, gnarled and warped and tangled, bore poison thorns instead of fruit.” I had recently taken a trip to Italy and imagined for this etching a vineyard gone to seed, an image of utter neglect. Dante plucks a shoot from one trunk, discovering that he has hurt the inhabitant of this surrogate body. “Therefore my Master said: "If you break off a twig, what you will learn will drive what you are thinking from your head ' Puzzled, I raised my hand a bit and slowly broke off a branchlet from an enormous thorn: and the great trunk cried: "Why do you break me ' And after blood had darkened all the bowl of the wound, it cried again: "Why do you tear me? Is there no pity left in any soul?” (John Ciardi translation).

This scene reminded me of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy plucks an apple, angering the tree.

Dorothy: [Reaches to pick an apple from the apple tree, the tree grabs the apple and slaps her hand] Ouch!

Apple Tree: What’d’ya think you’re doing?

Dorothy: We’ve been walking a long ways and I was hungry and… did you say something?

Apple Tree: She was hungry! Well, how would you like to have someone come along and pick something off of you?

Chard DeNiord saw in his bedside geranium a more patient otherworldly messenger from the plant kingdom (an excerpt from Devotion, the poem that accompanies the etching The Wood):

I am consoled by my geranium

Which sits in glory beside my bed.

Its leaves are the ears

of the dead listening to my complaints

with perfect patience, defining

existence by default:

You are only yourself in another world.



to Place

Brian D. Cohen

Brian D. Cohen is an educator, artist, and writer. In 1989 he founded Bridge Press to further the association and integration of visual image, original text, and book structure. Brian has shown in forty individual exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Fresno Art Museum, and has participated in over 150 group shows.  Cohen's books and etchings are held by major private and public collections throughout the country, including Yale, Harvard, Brown, and Stanford Universities, Middlebury, Smith, Wellesley, Swarthmore, and Dartmouth Colleges, the University of Vermont,  The New York Public Library, The Library of Congress, and the Philadelphia and Portland (Oregon) Museums of Art, as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the United States Ambassador's residence in Egypt.  Brian was the first-place winner of major international print competitions in San Diego, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC., was awarded the Best Book in Show at the Pyramid Atlantic Book Fair, and has received grants from the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Community Foundation. He is the illustrator of two popular natural science books, Reading the Forested Landscape and The Granite Landscape, and is a frequent contributor of artwork to literary reviews and other publications, including the Paris Review.  A book of his work, Brian D. Cohen: Etchings & Books, was published in 2001. His essays on arts education are a feature of the Arts and Culture section of the Huffington Post.



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