The art of coaxing an image from a flat piece of wood

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Wood engraving is not easy - as anyone who has tried it knows.

It is, however, simple enough. All it requires is a piece of flat wood, a tool for cutting or gouging, a roller, paper cut to size - and ink. For the actual ''printing,'' a spoon rubbed over the paper as it is pressed against the wood's surface will do. And that's it.

What results may not be as delicate nor as complex as a print made with carefully prepared wood and with special tools - and then run off on a proper press - but it will be a wood engraving nevertheless.

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The difficulty lies in producing a wood engraving that is art. The process can quickly turn into a duel between artist and wood that the artist can easily lose. Only an expert can force or cajole a clear, crisp image out of wood, especially one that is slowly built up out of numerous, possibly even thousands, of tiny cuts or gouges. It's not easy, but in the hands of such an expert - expecially one with real talent - the end result can be a joy to behold.

Among the very small handful of master wood engravers capable of this level of quality today, the name of Barry Moser pops up with increasing frequency. And for good reason. Not only has he produced a large number of excellent individual prints, he has also contributed masterful illustrations for some of the great classics - including ''The Odyssey'' of Homer, ''The Aeneid'' of Virgil, Dante's ''Inferno'' and ''Purgatorio,'' and Melville's ''Moby Dick.''

His latest project has been the production of 75 wood engravings for a new limited edition (of 350 copies) by the Pennyroyal Press of Lewis Carroll's ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.'' This is a work that required nearly two years to complete, but that will, I'm certain, achieve a sort of classic stature in its own right.

The book itself, the original engravings, and a group of preparatory drawings for them are on display at the Mary Ryan Gallery here. This is a double-barreled artistic and literary event in that it celebrates not only the publication of this new edition of Carroll's classic, but also the 150th anniversary of his birth.

It's an altogether distinguished undertaking. Moser's engravings are marvelously clear in conception and execution and convey Carroll's tang and quality without in any way mirroring or mimicking earlier illustrations for ''Alice.'' And the page design is excellent, with the text at no point overwhelming - or being overwhelmed by the pictures.

That Moser could sustain such a neat balance between style, technique, and story content in nearly all these engravings is no mean feat in itself. Even the fact that some of the images are minor - even at times largely decorative - does not diminish his accomplishment. Particularly important is the fact that his mastery of wood-engraving methods does not call attention to itself - something worth noting in an art form famous for its virtuoso potentials.

I was particuarly struck by the warmth and good humor that Moser manages to convey through a medium that is too often cold and formal. I have never seen a more delightful and ''delicious'' ''March Hare,'' for instance. I enjoyed him so much, as a matter of fact, that I'm sorry I cannot actually get to know him in person - although I know well enough that anyone with his qualities would make a difficult friend indeed.

I was also impressed by Moser's sense of design and by his ability to subtly evoke a Victorian flavor while remaining very late 20th century in attitude and style.

If I have any objections at all - and they are very minor - it is to the way an occasional image serves the layout of a page a bit more than it does Carroll's text. But then I suppose that's to be expected in a book this beautifully designed and printed.

This excellent exhibition will remain on view at the Mary Ryan Callery through Feb. 21. (I suggest that whoever gets there ask to see the gallery's selection of other Moser prints - especially his earlier etchings. They also are outstanding.)

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