“The Honest Medium:” Ted Davies Woodcuts at the Romany Kramoris Gallery in Sag Harbor
By Tessa Raebeck
When Romany Kramoris first opened her gallery space in Sag Harbor, it was on the recommendation of Ted Davies. Nearly 40 years later, the Romany Kramoris Gallery is showcasing the work of the late artist, an innovator in woodcutting, screen printing and photogram techniques, who captured the intricacies of New York City street scenes and created timeless pieces of social criticism.
“He’s the one that got me started in the art world,” Ms. Kramoris said of her friend and mentor, who died in 1993.
Ms. Kramoris was renting a small studio space at the end of Main Street in Sag Harbor during the 1970s when one day Mr. Davies, who had a second home in Sag Harbor and spent much of his time out East in his later years, wandered in and suggested she open a gallery.
“I said, ‘Well, how do you do that?’” Ms. Kramoris recalled.
“He said, ‘Well, I’ll help you do it and I can be your first show,” she added. “I said, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good.’”
He showed her how to create a press release, mount a show and host a reception and in the summer of 1980, Mr. Davies became Ms. Kramoris’s first artist.
“Ted was always getting involved in the different art community situations here and helping other artists,” said Ms. Kramoris. “He absolutely loved doing what he was doing—he was an artist through and through.”
A Queens native, Mr. Davies studied under Harry Sternberg and the German Expressionist George Grosz, who instilled in him the importance of political commentary in art.
“Ted’s work was sociologically charged,” said Ms. Kramoris.
Mr. Davies captured the New York he loved in his woodblock prints, intricate carvings of famous destinations such as Central Park, Broadway and Wall Street, as well as common places like the old elevated train stations, Chinese laundries and shoe shine stands. He captured 1960’s New York City through renderings of barbershops, second-hand bookstores and bars frequented by artists and writers.
“His vision of the city is intimate and amused, catching the quirky details and human touches, the city’s hard edges softened into tilts, curves and loops,” Christina Schlesinger, a cultural historian and art critic, wrote of Mr. Davies.
An old friend of Mr. Davies, master printer Dan Welden, called his friend’s technique of woodblock printing “the honest medium,” because mistakes are permanent and every stroke made is clear.
Mr. Davies would take a piece of wood, usually a soft type that was easier to mold, and first draw a pencil outline. The artist then pounded chisels, hammers and other hand tools into the block to make impressions before he chiseled away the negative space.
In order to make a face, for example, Mr. Davies would draw the outline and chisel it down from the flat block, leaving the nose and other parts of the face that jut out. Undercuts would be made around the eyes, then he would chisel away the whites of the eyes, leaving the iris raised. After ink is applied to the raised parts, the piece is put through a hand press, so that the raised areas are reflected in the print while the chiseled negative space remains plain.
Mr. Davies also “developed certain techniques in the photogram genre that he more or less invented,” Ms. Kramoris said.
In photogram, a photographic image is made without using a camera. Objects are placed directly onto a light-sensitive material and then exposed to light, resulting in a negative shadow image that highlights the textures and depth of objects with gray and pale blue tones.
In the mid-1960’s, Mr. Davies created his “Cards of Life, Cards of Death” series of woodcuts, a politically satirical pinochle deck of cards.
“They’re certainly not outdated even though he did them 50 years ago,” Ms. Kramoris said of the prints, which highlight the abundance and excess of American culture.
Unattractive prostitutes surround the King of Hearts in “The Great Lover,” while a 1960’s Playboy bunny—closely resembling the king himself—serves him drinks.
In “Resources,” the Ace of Diamonds card has a circle filled with money, factories and consumer goods flanked by oceans, mountains and the sun. The King of Spades is a matador, who faces a pair of bullhorns in the grim sport of bullfighting as an audience of spectator skeletons looks on.
The King of Diamonds appears as Uncle Sam in “The Government,” standing on a pile of money with crosses and the capitol building behind him and fighter planes, grenades and helicopters overhead.
In addition to the standard critiques of capitalism, big business and war-mongering, “there are many subtleties to which such a simplified reading cannot do justice, and close study is repaid by many delightful discoveries in both form and content,” Helen Harrison said of the suite of woodcuts in a 1981 New York Times article.
The work of Ted Davies will be on display at the Romany Kramoris Gallery, located at 41 Main Street in Sag Harbor, from Thursday, September 18, through October 9. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, September 20, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. For more information, call (631) 725-2499 or visit kramorisgallery.com.