Steven Cushner’s recent woodcuts present a lexicon of motifs that have evolved over the last four decades. Whether an endless knot, a splash of water flowing upward, or an inverted reflection, each composition grows out of a single traveling line and ripples outward. A sense of constant motion and vibrating energy is embodied in each work.
In the last few years, the artist has folded a new approach to making woodcuts into his studio practice. Cushner burnishes the prints with a baren traditionally used for Japanese woodcut printing or Ukiyo-e. The circular motion of the burnishing echos the overlapping and unfurling compositional elements. With the addition of stamped accents and the application of ink with a palette knife, no two prints within an edition are completely alike.
"I had been encouraged by Dennis O’Neil of Hand Print Workshop International to come to his studio and make a screenprint. We worked off and on for a few years on 5 or 6 prints before I felt comfortable, no longer trying to recreate a painting but to embrace a new language (it was a slow and tentative embrace). I went through the same dance with Dennis a few years later as he encouraged me to experiment with woodcuts. It took some time to slowly let go of painting and allow the printmaking process to lead the way. As a painter, I want and need the solitude and control of my own studio (I’m the boss). Painting is immediate, and I am an impulsive painter: if I want red, there it is. Printmaking introduces a different pace - you need to draw the motif, reverse and transfer the drawing, prepare the block, do the carving, mix the ink, ink the block, print the block, study the results to plan the next step. Making prints forces me to slow down (a bit), to plan (a bit), to strategize (a bit).
I believe the visual arts are similar to music, to dance, to sport. Think about music - there is the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, the noise and the surprise. In my work, the motif is the melody, the color is the harmony, the process and the mark making create the rhythm, and the material welcomes the noise and surprise. There are many parts to the job of being a musician - stretching, playing your scales, writing a piece, practicing the piece, reworking and editing, performing the masterpiece, playing with and jamming with other musicians. There are many parts to the job of being an athlete - you stretch, you practice and develop your moves, you learn new skills, you plan for an opponent, you play the game, you improvise with friends. I’m neither a musician nor an athlete (one can dream), but for the visual artist the game is the same - there is the performance of the masterpiece, and this is fed by the practice, the challenge and friction of learning new skills, the play and improvisation with new processes and materials.
Over the years, I have developed a set of motifs which I continually revisit, revise, play with and expand - as a way to get unstuck, as a way to start over, as an attempt to find something new in something which is very familiar. I will pick up a new material, a new color, a new tool, a new process. Painting is the boss, but I am always playing with other things. I have tried acrylic, oil, watercolor, ink, charcoal, lots of color, black and white, squares and rectangles, unusual shapes, flat, relief, extremely large, tiny, fast, slow, upside down, backwards. I’ve made paintings, drawings, painted ceramics, screen prints, woodcuts. Sometimes I am working out ideas, sometimes I am exploring variations, sometimes I am rethinking or playing with a feeling, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes out of frustration. This play and improvisation feed my painting - at times this experimentation follows my painting, sometimes it ends up in the trash, but more often it leads to a new way forward."
- Steven Cushner, 2021
Steven Cushner was born in Cleveland, OH in 1954 and lives and works in Washington DC. He received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1976 and received his Master of Fine Arts in painting from the University of Maryland in 1980. His work is included in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, The Washington DC Convention Center, and the Yale University Art Gallery, among other private and public collections.