Oddball storytelling and dramatic visual style find a distinctive fusion in the work of local printmaker Craig Mains. Mains makes one-of-a-kind prints, manipulating stencils and water-soluble inks on acetate to create scenarios that find both humor and pathos in disasters both natural and man-made. Occupying eerily un-peopled settings, structures—houses, industrial infrastructure, vehicles, the odd tree or shrub—are subject to the ravages of fire, explosion, collision, drowning, and on and on.
His work balances the abstract and the narrative, the exuberant and the droll, the controlled and the chaotic. The tight forms of his stenciled “icons” (the artist’s own term) and backgrounds contain his brushiness evoking a metamorphosing world of tension and release.
His color is rich but restricted with a few bold ink colors typically appearing within each piece in both saturated and faded qualities.
The artist is currently showing a selection of monoprints and monotypes at the Bandwagon Brew Pub. (The show runs through the end of April.) His subject matter is characteristically diverse.
Mains participated in last year’s “No Land Escapes,” an anti-fracking exhibit curated by print artist Barbara McPhail and put on by the Ink Shop, where he is a founding member. Mains was gripped by the theme, which resonates with his characteristic fascination with mishap. Speculative fracking disasters account for the subject of several of the prints here.
Among the most imaginative of these is a series of Brine Pond Spills, which are meant to depict the potential flooding of wastewater containment pools. Characteristically, he finds a weird poetry in the plant-like branching forms of these noxious flows.
Another recent series here takes inspiration from the true-life story of a Jersey Shore roller coaster carried out to sea by Hurricane Sandy. “The image was very striking,” he said. “An amusement park is a place where they have controlled danger. It’s supposed to be dangerous, and it’s supposed to be safe.” This sort of slippage between the imaginary in the real is signature Mains.
He is showing several variations on the theme: layered and hectic transpositions of small and large, solid and faded tracks. The dizzying, disconnected curves and the patchwork of color and brushwork—his signature cartoon flames as accents—recall the “hand painted Pop” of Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘60s screenprints.
But Mains’ work is perhaps more compelling at its most austere. Among the best prints here are two pieces from his Personal Levee series in which green (grassy?) circular barriers enclose houses, protecting them against floodwaters—or often failing to.
Similarly, Filter, which Mains has shown before, is a particularly compelling older piece. Set in a rich array of browns—tinged yellow, orange, reddish—cartoonish houses tumble into a broad river as if they were dice. Echoing the dynamic compositions of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, an arched bridge slices diagonally across the water.
Mains is a printmaker associate at the Ink Shop (Ithaca’s independent printmaking studio collective), where he designs their publications and exhibits. The precision necessary for design work feeds into his fine art without overwhelming it. His is a distinctive, perhaps under-appreciated, voice in local visual art.
He has been working in this vein since the late '90s. According to him, the studio’s original location, “an old airplane factory,” resonated with the industrial settings of his hometown. “Being there reminded me of being back in Cleveland,” he recalled.
Prior to moving to Ithaca, Mains earned a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Arts. He traces the roots of his current approach back to his post-graduate studies in printmaking at Cornell in the '90s, where his professor Elisabeth Meyer introduced him to the technique of making unique prints using wet media acetate. As he describes it, he took to the medium eagerly, enjoying its spontaneity and the potential for repetition to be found in the use of stencils.