Recently published in narrative form as a short book, Three Moderately Cautionary Tales is a series of 50 small etchings presented in three short cycles. Created over the last few years by painter-printmaker Alexander Massouras, each plate individually is a charming, simple study of figure, object, or place. Like an architect composing a blueprint, Massouras exerts restrained precision. The ruled lines and flooded patterns of David Hockney’s late 1960s etchings are a clear influence, but not the only reference to history.
A sparse portrait of a scruffy, fiercelooking man opens the Gilderbook, the strongest of the series. Even without the narrative of the book, the fifteen etchings in the Gilderbook offer a compelling revision of the greedy King Midas tale, turning him into a solitary, lonely gilder who finally finds companionship and leaves gold behind. Massouras’ text tends toward the whimsical, but his drafting hand is strong. The spare composition of these etchings, carefully touched with gold leaf, stand out as carefully nuanced nods to modernism, while simultaneously pointing to the modernist rejection of the gilt frame.
Across the series, it is Massouras’ portraits that intrigue, and it is their history that gives them depth. With quiet nods to his background in art history, these unmarked snapshots of artists appear in surprising contexts. It is actually a bedraggled Kurt Schwitters who appears as the first print in the Gilderbook. In another, Mies van der Rohe chews a cigar, bewildered by his golden companion. Later, a rather trim Brancusi sits lost in thought and conversation with Ruskin and R.B. Kitaj. Massouras is retelling folk tales, but in the process imagining a parallel narrative of art history, where temporality breaks down and any artist could make a surprise appearance.