You have to be careful when wielding a knife. Cutting the matrix for a woodblock or linoleum print requires finesse, diligence and calculation. The resulting artwork has an innate affinity for orderly, well-balanced depictions in which no stroke is left to chance. That doesn’t mean that such prints are necessarily realistic, as “Relief,” at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, demonstrates. The show, which spotlights 15 artists from across the country, is packed with meticulously etched whimsies and reveries, mostly based on the natural world.
Among the many frisky entries are pictures of anthropomorphized creatures both natural and mythological. Heather O’Hara’s coyotes sit at a typewriter or carry a balloon, wearing everyday human clothing, while Brent Bonds’s bullheaded “Minitaurs” sport only men’s briefs. Johanna Mueller’s “Jackalope,” a relief engraving that riffs on the fictitious hybrid proffered on postcards in the American West, embeds a small antelope inside a comparatively mammoth rabbit. Despite the impossible arrangement, both animals are realized with the precision of a natural history textbook.
Several of the most striking efforts depict idealized cycles of life, such as the two “Young Pines” that neatly entwine in a print by Valerie Lueth’s Tugboat Printshop. Other kindred pieces required post-etching use of a blade: Daniella Napolitano’s “And to All the Beasts of the Earth and All the Birds in the Sky . . .” and Melissa Harshman’s “Orange and Red” are made of individual prints that were cut out and assembled into circular compositions.
Napolitano’s work sends black-and-white wolves and raptors, flawlessly detailed, in a roundabout frolic; Harshman’s is a wall-filling bouquet of individual blooms in a narrow range of warm colors, centered on a nucleus of crocheted yarn flowers. The three-dimensional flourish seems apt in a show with such a strong, if playful, sense of the material world.
Other portrayals of nature are rendered fantastic partly by the canny use of color. Nicole Parker’s stylized moth nestles in a bright red cocoon, and Lili Arnold’s hand-colored “Sunset Crows” perch before a sky that shifts from blue to pink. In Jun Lee’s monumental yet bucolic “Whisper and Wait,” rabbits gaze at a moon that appears to be made of flowers; the print’s intricate black lines are supplemented by blocks of red-violet — the hue of the bunnies’ luminous eyes — and light blue.