by Christine Temin
Boston Globe, August 13th, 1987
Two quotes from a brochure accompanying a show of works on paper by Nina Bohlen — at the Boston Public Library’s Wiggin Gallery through September 6 — sum up the ground rules of this Boston artist’s style. Hyman Bloom, her most influential teacher, once praised Bohlen’s work for running “counter to the cynicism of current art fashion.” Bohlen also borrows a line from Anthony Burgess: “Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered.”
Fine craftsmanship and an almost isolationist lack of trendiness characterize the works in this show — mostly colored pencil drawings and monotypes, done between 1957 and 1985. Bohlen is fascinated by animals, and some of her drawings record birds, dogs, and even a rat with textbook attention to detail. Occasionally these works can seem dry. More consistently satisfying are the monoprints. The monoprint technique itself dictates the giving up of complete control.A couple of extremely dark charcoal views of a stable are the earliest works in the show. It’s just barely possible to make out the horses and their elaborate, heavy trappings. Bohlen situates them at the bottom of a tall, looming, cathedral-like space pierced by diagonal shafts of light. There is a real cathedral in a gritty 1964 drawing of gargoyles scampering up a buttress. The gargoyles look like distant cousins of the baboons Bohlen drew for the 1981 children’s book “Baboon Orphan,” written by Diana Harding and Deborah Manzolillo. The baboons are sweet, lumpy, cuddly creatures, but there is nothing condescending or cute in Bohlen’s treatment of them. Nor is there anything condescending or sensationalist in her pictures of circus freaks, whom she treats as rare natural specimens. The palette she uses is often restricted, even monochromatic: The baboons are all blue. The 1981 “Freak Show Poster,” on the other hand, uses a whole rainbow of color to describe a two-headed man riding a large
Some of the oddest works in the show are views of exotic puppets and dolls, some menacing, others with the vulnerability of a Petrouchka. A 1979 “Burmese Puppet” monotype is an eerie figure with sloping, quizzical eyebrows; the puppet sags, tangled in a web of the strings that will control its movements. Some of the puppets are jumbled in uncomfortable heaps, their legs and arms bent at angles impossible for a human to achieve.
My favorites in the show are a couple of monotypes of dogs; Bohlen catches their individual personalities. “Tippy,” fluffy and asleep, is Man’s Best Friend, while “Zazi,” whose paws are neatly folded, is vain.