Forces of nature

“Small Sky Icon” by Peggy Cyphers

“Small Sky Icon” by Peggy Cyphers

The newest exhibit at Cross Contemporary Art on Partition St. is fresh off the press.

Just two weeks ago, artists Catherine Howe and Peggy Cyphers holed up in a studio together to create some of the monoprints currently on display at the gallery.

“The ink is barely dry,” said gallery director Jen Dragon at the Nov. 8 reception.


“The ink isn’t even dry,” said Howe, leaning in to examine one of her new pieces. It’s a large, monochromatic, expressionist depiction of flowers in a vase, part of a triptych that acts as the focal point of this wall. The back wall belongs to Cyphers’ floor-to-ceiling painting titled “Woodpecker,” a tempest of swirled and feathery brushstrokes.

The artists’ pieces are similar in their large scale and vibrant color palettes, and it’s these commonalities that make for such a well-curated show. Even though the pieces are so energetic, they do not detract from one another, nor does one artist’s work demand all of the attention. The show was curated by fellow artist and mutual friend, Ford Crull, who, having known both of the painter-printmakers for a number of years, realized what a striking exhibit could be made from their works. Dragon cited the pieces’ gestural quality as the aspect that makes them work so harmoniously in the small space, as well as a shared “exuberance.”

Despite the similarities that make the artists’ works so complementary to one another, their styles are easily distinguished once you’ve had a moment to take it all in. Cyphers tends toward a representation of organic forms as they exist in the natural world and often from nature’s perspective. “Woodpecker,” Cyphers says, is the world from a woodpecker’s point of view. The textures and patterns bear resemblance to the bird, but they are blurred as if in motion, perhaps in flight.

Cyphers considers herself to be a naturalist artist. Her latest example is “Prairie Conversation,” a series Cyphers created while in a residency at the Grin City Collective in Iowa. There, she researched plant specimens in Grinnell College’s herbarium, some dating back to the 1800s. Her series appropriates the specimens, replicating and juxtaposing them in new ways, as a kind of collaboration with a bygone era of American conservation. Now that only 0.1 percent of the original American prairie still exists, Cyphers aims to create new awareness of the disappearing beauty with her unusual compositions. A group of cyanotypes on display at the gallery shows the beauty of nature through the lens of the past. The geometric collages of flora give the impression of a study of nature that, unlike Cyphers’ “Woodpecker,” is at once reverent and distant.

While Howe is equally fascinated with organic matter, she chooses to depict it through a peculiar kind of still life. She claims to have “an affinity for difficult nature…for post-nature nature.” Howe applies a vigorous, expressionist technique to old master structures, giving her still lifes a distinct immediacy. The term “still life” seems y inadequate to describe them; they are anything but still. One can see the energetic hand of the artist in the violent and gestural brushstrokes, and the red and orange hues are as evocative of human emotion as they are of an autumnal harvest.

The natural world is as much a vehicle as a subject for Howe. She says her art reflects her “physical relationship to the natural world.” She aims to capture “the emotional, the operatic…without resorting to the human figure.” She works in a manner as organic as her subjects. “I hate the math part,” she admits, referring to the careful calculations and calibrations artists typically use in the printmaking process. Howe does not make numbered editions of her work. She also prefers bleed prints, printing on large sheets of paper and trimming them down to size.

Both women take a hands-on approach to their works. While many artists employ people to handle the mechanical aspects of the printmaking process, Howe and Cyphers are painstakingly involved in the creation of their pieces. Their recent monoprints are the result of what Howe refers to as a “three-day marathon” in which they “worked like fiends” with the help of only one assistant.

In addition to being prolific artists, both women teach art; Cyphers at Pratt Institute and Howe at the New York Academy of Art. While there is an undeniable urban sensibility in their works, it is equally clear that each draws inspiration from the natural world. The artwork of Peggy Cyphers and Catherine Howe will be on display at Cross Contemporary Art until Dec. 1.

Cross Contemporary Art, 81 Partition St., Saugerties; (845) 399-9751,, open Thursday–Monday 12–6 p.m. and by appointment Tuesday and Wednesday.