Time Travel in Monterey

“The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley wrote in his 1953 novel The Go-Between, “they do things differently there.”  Following Hartley’s thought, it is easy to imagine the past as remote, as some other, distant place, far from where we are today.  But what about those moments when we find a window into the past, and look through it, and the years—or centuries—seem to dissolve?  Where are we?  Have we left the present?  Time-traveled to the past?  Or are we somewhere in-between?

Master etcher Justin Ward is a creator of such windows of the in-between, images that play with our sense of the past and present.  His current exhibit at the Monterey Conference Center offers sites and scenes familiar to anyone who has walked around downtown Monterey, yet they are transformed by a mode of artistry that evokes another time.

Etching is a centuries-old technique that is time and labor-intensive, demanding incredible patience.  You can’t rush an etching.  Ward’s exhibit includes an exemplary display of tools, books, and wall text explaining the process of creating an etching, helping visitors understand that etching itself is a deep experience of time: the unhurried time needed to create this uniquely beautiful kind of art.

Clearly inspired by the Old Masters, especially Rembrandt, Ward is working in sets of images.  The current exhibit focuses on Old Monterey, Fisherman’s Wharf, and a set of prints created in homage to Monterey’s own Armin Hansen, who also produced series of fine etchings in the early 20th century.

Ward excels at framing his images: foliage, clouds, and textured skies draw the viewer’s attention into the print.  In “San Carlos Cathedral,” trees seems to part open, as if to reveal the divinity of the structure.  In “Larkin House,” the foliage is positively luxuriant, lending the building a vital, dynamic quality, almost pulsing under a generous oceanic sky.

In “Cooper Molera,” the delicate clouds offer a handsome contrast to the dark graininess of the wooden barn and its densely textured stonework.

Ward’s marine skies are especially dramatic.  “Fisherman’s Wharf Pier (Large)” balances the sweeping movement of clouds with the endless pull of the tides.

Ward uses different techniques and differently-hued papers and inks to achieve a variety of tonal effects, from soft brown or adobe colors to steelier grays, blacks and whites.  In “Adobe Door,” the warm tones of antique paper become a cool, white adobe wall, its darkened door inviting us to imagine what lies on the other side.

I like the way these images play with the imagination, inviting us to visualize Monterey’s landmarks as places of history that traverse the ages, rooted in the past yet still living and breathing today.  And there is another kind of time-travel at work here, as we are also invited to slow down our own rhythms—think of the artist’s patient hand—as we take in each work.  Ward’s finely-detailed prints are windows into the past, and yet this is very much a present-tense exhibit, since the subjects of his attention are right outside the doors of the Conference Center, waiting to be discovered once again.

“Past, Present, Future,” an exhibit of etchings by Justin Ward, at the Monterey Conference Center, 1 Portola Plaza, through April 6.