Visual Art | Going to the Wolves: Printmaker Chad Tolley explores the animal side of the male psyche 

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Slam. The metal and wood surfaces of the press make contact with paper, the artist’s hand distant at the moment the dark, fluid ink rushes through the porous surface of the fiber like blood flowing under the skin. But where is the human touch?

The art of printmaking, like photography, might seem to be a mechanical art form. But a new name in the Salt Lake City art scene provides evidence that printmaking is not only very visceral but can depict something elemental about the human condition.

Chad Tolley began like many art students at the University of Utah, studying drawing and painting for which the school’s art department is well known. He stumbled into printmaking, discovering it through his fascination with Dada and absurdism. “Prints seemed somewhat foreign to me,” he explains, “more about imagination than the formalism of drawing.”

Tolley still draws and paints, and both skills inform his work. Since finishing his master’s of fine arts in printmaking from the University of Oregon in 2005, he has emerged with a strong, unified style at only his second local exhibit, following a debut at Saltgrass Printmakers in 2007. It’s enough to make you wonder why you haven’t seen his stuff before.

He notes that his U of U graduating class in 2001 produced some artists who have gone on to shape the local art scene, like Leia Bell and Trent Call. Unlike their pop-art influences, however, his images draw on much darker visions, recalling a more distant historical epoch. His screen prints and etchings are wintry scenes with bare trees and medieval-looking soldiers with swords often fending off wolves. Visually, they are minimalist, although the sense of menace and foreboding fills the frame. They look like they could be illustrations from some strange novel, and there is a bit of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton in them.

Tolley describes the work in this show as an investigation of the male ego. “The figures and their swords are phallic,” he admits, and some of the soldiers’ elongated hats even more so. One fallen soldier’s hat—and apparently part of his head—has been lopped off; make of that what you will.

And the swords aren’t very long, almost mere daggers with which they face canines with teeth bared. “I wanted them to be ambiguous, threatening yet vulnerable,” he explains, and he finds the vulnerable side no less masculine.

Some earlier work not featured in the current show depicted dead bodies decaying into the earth, returning to purely organic matter. In this show, he explores the natural in the trees that frame each scene, themselves ambiguous, bending over to provide shelter from falling snow but also seemingly a threatening presence as well, encroaching perhaps into the limbs of the soldiers.

“I like to think of humans as animals, in their most primal state, and the role of aggression,” Tolley says of this fascination. The soldiers are agents of conquest but are thrown into a kill-or-be-killed survival mode. The wolves themselves are figures of a kind of masculine aggression, the animal side of the male psyche. But as symbols, he says, they extend into our social lives as well, for example, the cutthroat competition of the business world. “How can we be aggressive and civil at the same time?” Tolley asks.

He prefers ambiguity in the art he looks at as well: “I’m attracted to strange dark beauty of things like David Lynch films. Most people find them eerie, but there is a real beauty there as well.”

Tolley even sees a political side to his work, if only indirectly. Perhaps the war in Iraq is an exercise in the male ego tragically gone wrong: “I’m fascinated by the idea that we have to go to war to make peace.”

CHADWICK TOLLEY Etchings and Woodcuts, Art Access Gallery, 230 S. 500 West, 328-0703. June 20-July 1.

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