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  • Writer's pictureJay Abel

BADLANDS - 35 YEARS in the CALIFORNIA STICKS

Updated: Apr 21


Old Highway 80 is a crumbling a back road now, and it was worse back in the day. It was one of only two semi-paved routes from the east county backwoods, a mile or two from  the Mexican line, to San Diego. 


Pleasant, or at least interesting recollections of a year spent in the general area, when I was 10, began my visual romance with the place. The promise of affordable real estate near San Diego, California, where I taught college courses, led me back, many years later, scouting for land on which to build a studio. I bought a half-acre in Morena Village CA, population 300 alcoholic and/or evangelical ne'er-do-wells. There I cobbled together my house and studio, one 2 x 4í at a time. It was finished in 1994, or at least it had a roof.     


I have lived there ever since.  


This graphic compilation was essentially begun around 35 years before this writing. The first example was printed in 1989.  


I always liked the fractured rocks, dead weeds, scrub-oaks, crazy-quilt domestic architecture and bug infested junk piles that informed the place. I partly grew up in places like that so I had a feel for the landscape.   


In the dog days of Summer a less benevolent piece of sun-burned mountain chaparral does not exist. 


I guess you could say it has character. 




I had been fooling around with etching, off and on, since college but didnít do anything with it, that was worth mentioning, until the late 80s. After 4 years of professional illustration my drawing was almost up to the demands of that ruthless and fickle medium. 


I made a series of small prints documenting the bony backcountry to be seen in and about my new rural bivouac, and the first examples were pulled between 1989 and 1995. My process was heroically archaic, copper plates and Dutch mordent and one hell of a lot of hard labor.  


Scale was brutally limited because I was working out of a 16 foot trailer while I built my house. 



I put about 12 landscape prints into a show at the San Diego Art Institute (when it was actually a viable space for local, non-university sponcered talent) and a week later I read the following, life-affirming review in the San Diego Reader, February 28, 1993, by their critic-at-large, Jonathan Seville.  The Reader was a decently sophisticated local tab that I freelanced illustrations to, occasionally, but they had no connexion with the Art Institute. 


An excerpt of that review is quoted Here.    


HOW DARE AN ARTIST IN 1993 ACTUALLY 

CARE ABOUT HIS SUBJECT? 


"Abel's subject in this collection is the natural world of rural southern California, along with the modest additions and modifications made by human beings in that setting. People do not appear, although there traces do; in fact, many of the most  powerful pieces communicate the poignant sense that people once lived and worked here but for some reason abandoned the place, leaving their dwellings, machines, and general detritus behind. A lost past is implicit in these images, the decay of human enterprises subject to the relentless movement of time and an essential and inevitable loneliness. There is no sentimentality however; if this is nostalgia it is rendered with objectively and with dry eyes.


What is marvelous is that out of shabby, worn out objects in a grubby, tattered environment, Abel can fashion such beautiful works of art. The visual appeal of these miniatures is enchanting and gripping and the impact of the emotions they evoke comes as a surprise. Itís all in the energy of the     drawing, the power of the composition and in the artist's rare  knowledge of the medium. Typical is "Descanso" where the cab of an ancient truck looms in the foreground, in an exaggerated perspective that dramatizes both the truck and it's

s setting with the vigorous, irregular, organic lines that might be used to characterize a human face. The entire etching is covered with continually changing textural patterns each one rendered with lyrical expressiveness and confidant technical control. The technique is that of Rembrandt, from whom Abel obviously derives his inspiration and whose tradition he is proud to continue. But Rembrandt stands behind Abel in an even more profound way; the etchings of both artists display a passionate attachment to visual reality. 


For someone like Abel, finding himself in a period in which art wallows in a proclaimed absolute autonomy and in which romantic realism is considered regressive or worse, to actually care about the world, as seen and understood by a human eye, is a revolutionary gesture. Both he and Rembrandt share a reverential sense of the great continue between soul and matter. Realism can become the gateway to the spiritual; everything that exists is god".



Well, I don't imagine I'll ever see another review like that one and if it stands as my epitaph I won't be displeased. The original print exhibition is reproduced on the first 12 pages of this book, plus a few etchings done after that with the same idea.   


Another set of landscape prints, begun in 1999 for another show, was never finished on account of major illness. After that I just wasn't up to the demands of traditional etching any longer.  My trusty, junkyard etching press, cobbled together from industrial scrap and 2x4s, now basks in storage, under an old army blanket where it will probably remain until it's donated to another junkyard after my passing.  


In traditional etching a minor correction requires cleaning the plate, re-coating the plate, working the correction, re-biting the plate, re-cleaning the plate, going to bed and getting some sleep, soaking and blotting the paper, re-inking the plate, pulling another proof and subjecting the now worthless plate to the business end of a 6 pound hammer, in blind fury when the correction goes south, as it does about half the time. 


After 2000 all of my landscape ideas were sketched in ink or pencil and filed away. 


I'd had enough of etching. 


Much later, in 2016 or thereabouts, I became more or less conversant in Photoshop and discovered what can only be called an endless new world of printmaking. I pulled the old drawings out of mothballs and reworked them extensively in the new process. With 1/10th the labor I could reinvent almost all of the richness one sees in the old Dutch prints I love, and that Saville correctly identifies as my defining influence. There is a gap of 20 years between some ideas, and the final state seen in this book. 


A book is, incidentally a near ideal format for small scale graphics. 



About half of the prints in this collection are portrait renditions of cars or trucks that have now become, or are in the process of becoming, rusty hulks. They are an indirect portrait of the old cowboys, Indians, rednecks and rubber-tramps who drove them until the engine blew-up and then walked away, sad and drunk. 


85 Pages, Premium Stock, 24.92 plus ship

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