Art Werger’s Shifting Tide of Realism

“I want that verisimilitude that comes from being there, not photorealism, just realism, or heightened representation.”
The artist sat on the deck of his Montauk house recently. Jennifer Landes

How does one enter “Tidal Shift,” Art Werger’s six-panel, 12-foot-wide tour de force aquatint etching of which six panels are presented below? In the crowded downtown Montauk beach scene, depicting July 4, 2013, do you start from the ocean side at the left, where people dip in and out of the surf, and move to the right? Or does it make more sense to start at the right, where the oceanfront resorts line up like ducks in a row? 

Then there are all those bodies: seated, standing, swimming, snacking under hats and umbrellas, and that guy wearing socks! Although clearly a drawing that’s been transferred to a plate and then printed, it’s an image alive with movement and rhythm, with a bright sun threatened by gathering clouds. 

The plates, each three feet by two feet, which are huge by printing standards, require a sturdy support, something close to cardboard, otherwise they would be too flimsy to press or hang. From start to finish, the process from original photograph to the final printing took three years. 

He described his method from a perch high above the bluffs of Old Montauk Highway in a house he has been coming to since childhood, once his uncle’s property and now his. It involved taking a panoramic photograph, refining it in Photoshop, and then making a series of drawings from it, which became the six cartoons he used to transfer the outlines of the scene to the copper etching plates. He spent the remaining time carving and working each plate to get the landscape, figures, and details just right: the deep dark richness of the umbrellas and swim trunks and the dancing highlights of the surf, sand, and sky.

Most days of the year the award-winning printmaker is in Athens, Ohio, where he has been a professor of art at Ohio University for the past 18 years; for 18 years before that he taught at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga. In the late spring and early fall, however, he returns with his wife, Karla Hackenmiller, to Montauk, where he monitors the changing tides of the Atlantic and captures the ever-morphing coastline in daily drawing expeditions.

Mezzotint and aquatint are his preferred mediums. The beach scene is an aquatint, a type of etching that creates the tonal areas that look like watercolor, which are central to this composition. In the process a resin is applied to the plate and heated to bond to it. The plate is submerged in acid, creating recesses in the areas that are not protected by the resin. Then, the coating is removed and the plate is inked. Mr. Werger complicates the process by using other variants of printing, like litho crayons to block out certain areas. It can get very technical and confusing, figuring out the relationship between positive and negative, the chemicals involved, what happens to the recessed areas and the ones that are raised.

“In painting they never ask you what brush you used, but in printmaking it is always how did you get to there?” he said at his Montauk house recently. “I want people to be able to look at the work and experience it, but those questions of technique always come up.” 

“How is this made? Oh, there’s pieces of rosin [a type of resin] and litho crayons, and then everybody gets lost. I didn’t understand the process until I started doing it. To a degree there are things I still don’t fully understand. After working in the medium for 40 years, it still provides surprises.”

Although he has always been aware of the erosion that has plagued South Fork beaches over the past several decades, “I was dumbfounded with the amount of erosion downtown this year,” due to winter storms and the failed attempts to shore up those beaches. “In that six-panel work, there was still 150 feet of beach, now it’s an extreme slope.”

It has become part of his recent art to focus on the hoodoo formations in the bluffs. There’s a symbolic symbiosis between the etching process and this natural phenomenon that he said he finds satisfying, “how the acid eats away at the copper, the liquid eats away at the solid.”

He mostly draws on black paper with colored pencils, having long ago chosen the print medium because he didn’t like dirtying up a pristine white sheet of paper. “In printing you’re starting from the dark and bringing the light through. There’s something very positive about that.” For 25 years, he has worked on a series of drawings from nature, each one taking about an hour or two, and he has often used them as inspiration for later prints. “I don’t always work from photographs. I like to work from life as much as I can.”

There is something unusually engaging about his realism, which in other hands can seem stilted and static. It comes from his own artistic interpretation of the thing depicted, with an added element of movement and a distorted view. Previously he achieved this through aerial viewpoints, what was once known as a bird’s-eye view. Here, he took more of a peripheral view to expand the idea of the picture plane. “I wanted to draw something in a way that engages the viewer, because of our shared perspective. We all see things the same way, which gives ourselves a sense of being present.”

Mr. Werger eschews the term photorealism. “I want that verisimilitude that comes from being there, not photorealism, just realism, or heightened representation.” Saying it looks like a photograph “is a double-edged sword. It’s like we don’t trust reality unless it’s interpreted through the media, this medium being photography.”

He acknowledges his debt to the photograph, which in this piece he used as a jumping-off point for his image. Yet, “I’m using my retina and the image I see internally, but we’ve sort of given that over to the camera.” He would rather have a viewer say that it “looks like something I’ve experienced before rather than a photograph,” and particularly not one from social media. “The images we see on Instagram and Facebook are the most artificial images in the world.”

The greatest compliment would be to say that something he produced “opened up your experiential interaction with the world.” It happened once with one of his underwater images, a series of color etching and aquatint prints. “A woman was looking at one very intensely and then walked away abruptly. I spoke to her afterwards and she said, ‘I didn’t realize I was holding my breath, and that was as long as I could hold my breath.’ That was an experiential reaction.”

Those who wish to have a similar experience can see his work next year in a new exhibition space opening in a print studio in Noyac.

Art Werger’s “Tidal Shift” is an aquatint etching in six panels, three of which are seen here.
The last three panels of Art Werger’s “Tidal Shift” include the oceanfront resorts near Edison Street in Montauk.
“Bronzino Dream,” a color etching, is the product of the artist’s innovative approach to color, using only two plates, one for warm colors and one for cool colors, instead of the usual four.