“Man in a Tree” -- the current show at the Rockford University Art Gallery -- is a survey of works by printmaker David Driesbach, looking at selected works over the former Northern Illinois University art teacher’s nearly 70-year career.
The title of the exhibit refers to a sepia print that looks like a line drawing of – you guessed it – a man in a tree: Driesbach himself. There also are a banjo, a light bulb and other oddments, along with a Driesbach signature -- a top hat.
Other prints are very different. Some are full of color and look more like pastels or oil paintings. There's “Flaming Meatballs,” which shows a couple at a table, a man with an eye patch in some sort of uniform, and a waiter bringing the aforementioned meatballs that do, indeed, appear to be flaming. So what’s going on here?
Almost all the prints share that odd mix of characters and objects – serious, comic, or just plain puzzling – and questions for the viewer.
Driesbach uses an old technique called intaglio. The design is incised or engraved into a material, like a copper plate. But what he does with it is very contemporary.
Driesbach likes to create a collage of things that, at first glance, don’t seem to go together, said Peter Olson, assistant director of the NIU Art Museum. He said Driesbach presaged a sort of postmodern approach that’s particularly American from his earliest work.
“Where you don’t necessarily have a finalized idea of what all’s going to be included in your composition,” Olson said, “you sort of start with something, and then think about what would look good relating to that. And then, if that starts to build a story, what else you would need.”
Olson said the result is something that can have multiple meanings for the artist – but also for the viewer.
Olson, who helped select materials from NIU’s collection for the Rockford University show, also was the last graduate student to work with Driesbach, finishing just after the older artist retired in 1991. He said Driesbach would try to get students in his printmaking class thinking outside the conventional art box, too – sometimes in novel ways.
“His final exam was not anything about printmaking or image making, even,” Olson said. “It was like a creative writing assignment. So he would start a story, and your job was to finish the story and make your own world.”
Olson said it was a way for students to engage with another part of their brains, to free up the imagination, and follow the possibilities – something, he said, that was very important to Driesbach.
The work isn’t totally freeform. Olson pointed out recurring motifs. Besides Driesbach himself, a musical instrument usually appears somewhere. And there are stylistic references to other artists hidden in plain sight. Olson said it all adds up to a surreal -- and at the same time theatrical -- effect that is identifiably Driesbach.
Rockford University Art Gallery director Christina Warzecha, a recent NIU alumna herself, marveled at the layers of textures and lines.
“The number of colors he uses is also something you don’t see in a lot of printmaking,” she said. “It’s definitely a way to see how advanced the printmaker is.”
Born in Wisconsin, Driesbach graduated from Rockford High School in 1940. He spent four years as a Marine fighting in the South Pacific during World War II, then came home and studied art at several schools. Finally, he went to the University of Iowa, where he studied with Mauricio Lasansky, who’s been called one of the “Fathers of 20th Century Printmaking.” It was an important experience, though it seems matter-of-fact the way Driesbach described it.
“He sold me on the idea of doing all these things on plates,” Driesbach said. “So far as the subject matter goes, Lasansky liked what I was doing, and I just did more of it.”
Driesbach then embarked on his career, showing at many exhibitions over the decades. He also taught at a number of schools before coming to NIU in 1964.
Olson said looking at the pieces in the show inspires him, both as a former student and as a curator of art. He said he appreciates how Driesbach used old techniques that go back centuries in new ways, maintaining a tradition while adding to it.
At 96, Driesbach needs a walker to help him get around. But he could still enjoy the reception he and his work received at the Rockford University show. And he was not afraid to give advice to anyone seeking to follow in his footsteps.
“Feel free to expand your universe,” he said. “If you’re an artist and you want to try intaglio, go all out for it. Give it a chance.”
It’s advice that Driesbach himself long ago took to heart.
- "Man in a Tree" runs at the Rockford University Art Gallery through March 16.