Of Light and Shadow: New Works by Andrea Dezsö

Pucker Gallery
Aug 13, 2016 4:58PM

“I am interested in silhouette drawings because of the kind of mystery I can create through them. Even though silhouettes can be very detailed and elaborate one still needs to use their imagination to fill in all the information that is not directly in the picture but is only implied. It's like seeing indirectly, seeing a projection of reality and filling in the gaps of that projection with our imagination.”

-    Andrea Dezsö[1]

    [1] Dezsö, Andrea. Personal Interview. 12 May 2016.

Born in the Transylvania region of Romania, Andrea Dezsö grew up under a communist regime where everyday life was met with extreme shortages of food, fuel, medicine, and other basic necessities. The dictatorial administration ruled with a brutal secret police force and heavily restricted travel between neighboring cities. Dezsö describes how this childhood influenced her art:


This exposure to danger and the extreme confinement of my physical world, no ability to travel or move around freely, led to an expansion of my imaginary world. To occupy my mind, I created alternative universes, which I often draw upon in my work.[2]

Dezsö gives these imaginary or alternate universes concrete form and shape through drawing. She fills sketchbooks with drawings rooted in observations of nature and people, often witnessed during her travels to foreign countries. Some examples include contour line drawings of wilted leaves from a garden in Mexico, a detail of the lacy wing of a dragonfly found in Kamiyama, Japan, and lush ferns and flowers in Bali. Other sketches burst with color and read more as free-form experiments, such as an abstract geometric composition from a 2015 sketchbook that is suggestive of a flower opening, petals accented with a gradient of bands made by marker that go from pink to deep red, dotted and outlined with black pen and ink. These sketchbooks contain the DNA of Dezsö’s visual vocabulary, which she then refines to create the precise silhouettes that fill her finished drawings, prints, and tunnel books.

In this exhibition, her use of silhouette is fundamental to all of the assembled works. The limited black and white palette of the selected works heightens how surface quality, depth, and light change as Dezsö explores new techniques. This is noticeable as an identical image may go through multiple transformations from ink drawing to glass etching to relief printing.

Dezsö started making her tunnel books in 2004, and she has perfected the technique of making these handmade books over the last decade. The roughly shoebox-sized structures borrow from the Victorian era’s toy theaters and carousel books. Unlike conventional books that lie flat and must be flipped through, Dezsö intricately cuts pieces of paper by hand, layering one behind another to create a foreground, middle ground, and background. Akin to a mini-stage set or diorama, the books are small, three-dimensional worlds of incredible detail where layers recede into hazy, deep space.

In her recent tunnel books, Dezsö strips her books down to their most essential elements by leaving the hand-cut paper white and illuminating the books with a narrow range of white, yellow, or orange LED light. In earlier works, she often painted the layers of paper with color or used colored lights to saturate a scene. Here, the paper is left unpainted. Silhouettes in the foreground read as dark shadows. The background characters and scenery appear as ghostly shadows.

As she has narrowed her color palette, the detail of her hand-cut silhouettes have only increased in intricacy and complexity in her recent works. In each world, overgrown, stylized landscapes of dangling vines, snaking branches, dripping stalactites, and encircling plant life frame and nearly swallow the humans, animals, aliens, and imaginary creatures that inhabit these mysterious portals. Rather than being descriptive and literal, the imagery is evocative, formed out of abstract shapes often filled with dense patterns of small holes that become porous dots of light. Some titles allude to places—Intergalactic Cave (AD70), Ancestor’s Garden (AD74), and The Island of Rauma Lace (AD75)—but the scenes remain implacable. In one, we could be looking underwater, inside a cave, a fecund garden, or a spooky forest. The books Bat Cave (AD78) and Forest Stroll with Goat (AD79) are displayed side by side as a diptych and show how these different places are set apart, yet share stylistic characteristics to create one universe. On the left side of the diptych, Bat Cave depicts a horned and hooved devil character playing a recorder to charm what looks like a two-headed, alien snake with antennae. In a separate, subterranean world, a bat perches on a kneeling girl’s open hand. The diptych’s right side, Forest Stroll with Goat, portrays a similar looking girl with wild, blowing hair, walking through the forest with a goat and soaring birds. Below her, a bushy tailed, devilish creature lurks. The four vignettes are like separate chambers of a dream or nightmare where we could imagine the characters caught temporarily in the middle of traveling from one place to the next.

Intergalactic Cave, 2016


Forest Stroll with Goat, 2015


In these worlds of light and shadow, there is a connection between the living and the dead, lending a hint of something sinister or foreboding to them. For instance, in The Island of Rauma Lace, skulls dangle along sinewy vines in the background as a scorpion or crab-like creature grabs a smaller animal in either a predatory or protective grasp. A fox passes through a lush scene seemingly unaware of a skeleton buried underground. In The Path Lay Hidden (AD76), a girl walks in the foreground as a skeleton hovers just above her with outstretched arms like a Grim Reaper. Our initial attraction to a beautiful world formed out of lacy, cut paper and atmospheric lighting is complicated by darker premonitions. 

Children often appear in Dezsö’s work, and she does not shy away from darker content. This is evident in her illustrations for The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm, translated and edited by Jack Zipes. Famous for not shielding children from grizzly subjects like murder, the Grimms’s tales suit Dezsö’s artistic style. She formally distinguishes light from dark through the silhouettes that rely on positive and negative space and conceptually through whimsical subject matter that is set alongside thematically darker imagery. In this exhibition, her original drawings are on view. Dezsö chose to illustrate tales from the book that gave her “immediate, strong, clear mental imagery,” and she was also partial to those with non-human characters like the devil.[3] Drawing with black ink to create the illusion of cut-paper, she constructs the images out of negative and positive space with incredible sophistication. For example, in The Frog King (AD92), the white of the paper forms a landscape of trees and a woman’s body. As the woman extends her hand into a pool of water, it becomes black as it reaches out to a swimming frog.[4] Dezsö uses the shift from black to white to dramatically emphasize the division between the two protagonists in the story: the princess and the frog, and the human and animal realms.

Grimm Illustrations: The Frog King, 2014


In this drawing and others in the series, Dezsö ingeniously tells entire stories without relying on conventional, diagrammatic methods. For example, a comic strip might use sequential frames to show a linear story, but Dezsö conveys the feeling of a story in one cohesive image. This is much like her tunnel books where a tale is recounted through a multi-layered image, rather than an ordinary book. For the illustration accompanying the tale of The Singing Bone (AD96), Dezsö constructs the drawing so that the story effortlessly flows from a shepherd’s horn like a puff of smoke. Inside this black cloud, different parts of the story are depicted. This representation perfectly suits the narrative of a shepherd forging a mouthpiece for a horn from a human bone he finds. When the shepherd blows the horn, it magically sings the entire, tragic story of the bone’s owner, a young man murdered by his older brother.


Images emerging out of or dissolving into darkness are also explored in Dezsö’s series of Night Drawings (AD86-91). Using graphite on translucent mylar, she covers the surface with shades of graphite from dense and heavy, to light and ethereal, to create surreal scenes partially inspired by photographs she saw of child laborers working at fish canneries in the 19th century. She related to these girls “who never had a chance to live a leisurely childhood—free of struggles and danger,” and who reminded her of “growing up in Romania where families did not have power to shelter their children from dangerous times and [an] inhumane regime.” In the Night Drawings, these children wander amidst strange creatures: alien-like characters with crab claws and exposed brains and fish with human legs that pass through ambiguous landscapes of clouds, flowing water, ferns, and exotic trees. Instead of using flat silhouettes, the images are modeled and shaded with some of the faces left ghostly white. 

In her black and white prints, drawings, and tunnel books, Dezsö describes “presence and absence as the main characters.”[5] Her use of silhouette indicates that her images never have empty or inactive space. Each pool of ink defines the white space next to it. Each layer of a tunnel book frames whatever exists behind it. Something tangible, drawn observationally from nature, is stylized and becomes as fantastical as something intangible or culled from memory. Ghosts and skeletons are as real as people. The absent past of childhood is lively and present. Dezsö welcomes us into these mysterious worlds, leaving us to contemplate them. Through beginning to look and describe what we see, we invent our own stories.

Joshua Fischer

Curator, Rice University Art Gallery

Houston, Texas

[1] Dezsö, Andrea. Personal Interview. 12 May 2016.

[2] Dezsö, Andrea. “Andrea Dezsö: Artist Interview.” Interview by Mark Murphy. Scribble08. n.p., 2013. Web. 22 May 2016.    

[3] Andrea Dezsö. “Artist Andrea Dezsö’s Enchanting Black-and-White Illustrations for the Little-Known Original Edition of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales.” Interviewed by Maria Popova. Brainpickings. n.p., 2014. 22 May 2016.

[4] In the published images in the book, this relationship is flipped as white becomes black, but the original drawing sets up the basic relationships of positive and negative space.

[5] Dezsö, Andrea. “Andrea Dezsö: Artist Interview.” Interview by Mark Murphy. Scribble08. n.p., 2013. Web. 22 May 2016.

Pucker Gallery