Milton's mysterious world of etchings

Art history records some unusual and fascinating printmakers. These are the etchers, engravers, and litographers of personal vision and private fantasy who created haunting and provocatively imaginative black-and-white images of small size but extraordinary power.

Giovanni Piranesi, Rodolphe Bresdin, and Odilon Redon are among the more distinguished members of this group.

Peter Milton, whose work is on view at the Brooklyn Museum, can already claim junior membership in this club. Although his career is only at mid-point, he has already established himself as one of the very few contemporary printmakers with the skill, point of view, and overall graphic vision to fit into this unique tradition.

"Peter Milton: Drawing Toward Etching" includes many of this artist's most interesting prints and a number of the drawings done as studies for the prints. The show documents the evolution of his etchings from preliminary study to final impression. It also shows his interest in drawings as an end in itself. Most of these drawings have never been seen before outside Milton's studio.

Milton is absolute master of his art and craft, a consummate wizard at conjuring up fantastically detailed human and animal images out of thousands of nearly invisible lines and dots -- and at placing these images in exquisite counterpoint to a photographically exact but mysterious stairway or a precisely rendered Gothic house.

He is also a master of intriguing and amazing juxtapositions that remind one vaguely of Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, but without those artists' stark metaphysical implications.

There is a bitter-sweet quality to his art which neither pleases nor offends, but which keeps the viewer's reactions continually off balance. One senses that he composes sequentially: first the pure white paper, then an evocative single image, then another in highly subjective relationship to the first, then another , and another. With a few exceptions -- and these tend to be among his earlier prints -- this method creates a peculiarly dense effect which takes time to unravel.

But time is of the essence in 20th-century art. A contemporary painting or print is usually designed to be grasped instantly. To dawdle over a compositions is old hat.

This only partly explains the mixed reactions his prints have received from critics and public -- ranging from declarations of genius to claims that he is merely a clever technician. It is likely that these reactions are also due to contemporary prejudice against pictorial complexity and to the fact that his draftsmanship resembles that of unfashionable 19th-century academic art. In addition, he is accused of eclecticism. It's true he borrows extensively, but only with a specific purpose in mind.

We are inumdated today by second-hand visual experience. What we see on television and in films, in newspapers and magazines, is as much a part of our everyday landscape as the street on which we live or the woods down the road. Milton draws directly from this imagery. The roots of his art lie as much in collage and photo-montage, in photography and films, as in the traditional history and techniques of art.

It is this complex and ambiguous reality which Milton symbolically recreates as art. The disquietude of his prints reflects the disquietude he senses in our world.

A gentle melancholy pervades his prints, a faint and subtle remembrance of earlier times, of dreams, and of hidden desires. Some are particularly enigmatic: Why, for instance, is the Victorian couple in "Country Pieces I: The Couple" venturing out the winter landscape with an umbrella long after the snow has stopped falling? And what is the relationship between the children and the staircases in "Card house"? Why is it that the longer one studies these prints the more dream-like they become?

To spend time with Milton's etchings and drawings is to enter a world totally unlike and yet remarkably like our own. We recognize the logic of his world, which sees nothing odd in a huge deer floating above a seated man, as the logic of our own somewhat mad 20th-century world. But for him to convince us of that requires great and skill and the ability to sense and communicate an inner harmony between even the most disparate elements. he has that skill and that ability as this excellent exhibition proves.

It will be at the Brooklyn Museum through May 4.

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