Tim Hughes finds beauty in David Laing’s thought-provoking woodcuts

STRANGE, exotic and strangely elemental, David Laing’s woodcuts offer a view onto an imagined world. They offer a sideways glance at the natural world and human form – but with a twist.

A collection of Laing’s work, called Invitation to Voyage, is currently drawing interest at the North Wall Arts Centre, in South Parade, Summertown.

An alumnus of the Royal College of Art, Ecole des Beaux Arts, Hornsey College of Art and Ipswich School of Art , David is the founder of the open access Block Studios London for Printmaking. Originally from Suffolk, he works in London and has exhibited across Europe and in New York.

The title for the exhibition is a translation of the title of the Charles Baudelaire poem L’Invitation au Voyage.

David says: “It is a poem that intentionally shifts the reader out of a harsh reality and beckons into one that is neither traditional heaven nor hell.

“It’s a poem that, very knowingly, builds illusion upon illusion and seduces the reader, or subject, into the warm sleep ‘where all is order, beauty, luxury, calm and voluptuousness’. It’s an interior world that stands in opposition to that which surrounds it.”

He goes on: “The wood block, once cut, is a fixed, simple matrix but with all the infinite possibility that the printing process, with its aberrations and limitations, offers.

“The woodcut, the oldest and most direct form of print, is very old tech in a, now, very high tech world; a technique with a strong tradition that runs through centuries of artistic practice the world over, and that is very much a part of its attraction. It certainly offers a lot of resistance, and it is physical and, on this large scale, very demanding.

“Each blow of the mallet, each cut, is a mark in time.

“Some of these woodcuts have, as their starting point, a tiny section, a background detail of an antique print – and I’ve spent half a lifetime looking at them – or a fragment of a distant romantic landscape, a scene from a past imagination, re-drawn, re-invented, pulled, for re-examination, into the present, out of its original context.

“Some are re-drawings of familiar paintings, some are worked from my own drawings, sketchbooks and paintings. Others are cut straight, with an ‘empty mind’, with no planning; explorations into the wood, into the interval between the ‘something’ of the wood left and the ‘nothing’ of the cut.”

He elaborates: “Whatever the source, I have, somehow, to make these extracts my own, to live again in a new context – standing apart. It’s a process of reducing and de-constructing an image, of analysing pictorial conventions, very freely manipulating, re-working, but, eventually, simply cutting into a piece of wood and from that surface, printing colour onto paper of some kind, and producing a new image that, unlike a poem, endeavours to create a single, unspecified thought.

“The work is a voyage itself, not always knowing where it’s going, sometimes getting lost but some sort of invitation to voyage, into the artifice and the romantic.”

David is the antithesis of the art school product. He initially studied sciences, and worked in medical research, before travelling overland to India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iran – experiencing the Iranian Revolution in 1978.

He has recently redoubled his efforts in the art of woodcutting after running art galleries with his wife, raising a family and founding a successful conservation framing business in London and dealing in antique maps and prints.

He says: “I have never lost my love of the physicality of cutting into wood, rolling up and burnishing a woodcut onto paper and risking the possibilities the medium offers.”

* Invitation to Voyage, David Laing’s woodcuts and drawings, are at The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, until January 7