Stencils, watercolors, paper: In Craig Mains' hands, these are the tools of disaster - radio towers snapped in two, sinking ships, houses floating in dark water. "It is the part of disaster which is not about tragedy, that puts objects in unexpected places or in flux," he says of Calamity: Vehicles, Dwellings & Structures, his solo exhibit of monotypes at the Ink Shop Printmaking Center, on display through Oct. 29. Mains earned a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art and has studied printmaking at Cornell University. He is on the board of directors at the Ink Shop and also works at Cornell's main research library.
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ITHACA TIMES (IT): A character in Ithaca writer Alison Lurie's latest novel says, in the context of 9/11, "It's especially dangerous to have an aesthetic take on any disaster" (lest you appear callous). Your show comes in the wake of two major hurricanes. Have those calamities given you any new insights - or reservations - about your work?
CRAIG MAINS (CM): I've had a lot more questions lately about the connections in my prints with real disasters and have had some pause. I think sensitivity around human suffering is important. I tucked away some images of crashing jets, which I had made just a few weeks before 9/11, because of their proximity to the event. I don't consider this current show callous, however, because these images are not of one disaster, but are depictions of calamitous events in general. The subjects are more symbols than specific representations, and the focus is on the destruction of objects we build, not the human tragedy associated with disaster.
IT: Yes, your prints don't feel tragic, though some are disquieting. For one thing, human figures and other life forms don't make an appearance. Can you explain your fascination with man-made structures?
CM: I like the way they can be an extension of human personality and easy to anthropomorphize. I was really impressed by these giant structures designed to scoop iron ore from ships along the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland, where I grew up - colossal rusty machines, moving fluidly, seemingly with minds of their own. Some of the early prints in this series, like the Blast Furnaces, are inspired by the steel industry in Cleveland. I went down to the "Flats" at night for picnics, would bring a bottle of wine and watch trains pulling giant, glowing ingots. The "Flats" were lower than Cleveland, and driving down to the steel mills seemed like entering purgatory. The furnaces were mythic. There was Blast Furnace #1, where super-sized trucks loaded scrap steel into a drawer as big as a city block. The drawer would slide shut, and then flames would shoot out the main stack. We would drive through a maze of hissing pipes to see the different furnaces; each had different colored flames.
IT: In "Bird Nest," flames erupt from a transmission (steel latticed) tower. What happened?
CM: I was researching the tower imagery for the ensnared aircraft pieces and discovered that there can be problems with raptors building their nests among power lines. Fires can be set when birds, mostly golden eagles, spread their wings or when the large sticks they use to build their nests are wet and bridge the gap between lines.
IT: Does your research into what structures look like often lead to this kind of information?
CM: When creating the large triptychs, "Cessna, Cloud and Mountain Range (2 and 3)," I wanted to show the portent of disaster with a small aircraft. I thought I'd use a Cessna because I had some notion that they were vulnerable. Google searches often bring up unexpectedly appropriate results. I did an image search just to see what one looked like from the rear, a view that was not really easy to find. However, there were plenty of photos of Cessnas underwater, littered across fields and in crumpled heaps.
IT: In "Fallen Water Tower," how did a New York City-style rooftop water tower end up in a desert?
CM: If these types of towers don't exist in the West, well I'll admit that it is simply what came to mind when I was making the print. The top of it can be shown flying off, with the water soaking into the earth. I placed the event in the desert because it is easy to imagine that this would be the only tower for miles, which amplifies the misfortune.
IT: A few of the works seem quite funny. In "Hedgerow & Helicopter," for example, the hedgerow - those stiff, sculptural bushes - seems to have fared better than the helicopter. And then there are those ice cream trucks on fire. Other scenes are a bit mysterious. In "House on Fire," a tree, felled by a saw, looms in the foreground. What's going on there?
CM: I was curious about the apparent cause and effect implied by the placement of the two elements in the picture. The tree has been cut down, an act of will by man on nature, and now the house is on fire, so then that would seem to be an act of retribution on man by nature, the wrath of God. Trees are cut down and houses catch fire all the time, but their placement in the picture implies connection; and, when it is art, meaning is assumed over coincidence.