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‘Richard Kegler – WNYBAC Years’ exhibits a legacy worth seeing

A dazzling cross section of gig posters, advertisements and stylish prints that together looks like a sound wave unfurls across the walls of the Western New York Book Arts Center, showcasing the imaginative and masterful work of former director and co-founder Richard Kegler.

Covering only a sample of his work since 2008 at the WNYBAC, “Richard Kegler – WNYBAC Years” includes more than 120 pieces, from prints to handmade books. Chris Fritton, the center’s studio director, said it is Kegler’s first solo show in the space and probably the largest the center has held by volume.

“Rich has moved on from this position as director of the Book Arts Center to Wells College and it seems like the perfect time to feature all the work that he had done here at WNYBAC,” Fritton said.

Kegler’s work is filled with a playful energy, and includes fascinating experiments with papers, ink layers and collage. Since few of the pieces in the show are on standard-sized paper, fitting the prints into a wave pattern with peaks and valleys showcases the different sizes of each piece, which is one of the ways he pushed the boundaries of the craft.

According to Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, associate curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who contributed a short essay to the show’s program, Kegler’s work is steeped in history but constantly challenges, remixes and reimagines how centuries-old techniques can be used in the 21st century.

“[Letterpress] is a very interesting new-old palette with which to express yourself, and Rich has pushed the envelope of what you can do with it,” Hugill-Fontanel said.

One of the most engaging pieces in the show is the “34th Annual Wayzgoose Fair” poster, where Kegler illustrates a goose out of letters and symbols in black and silver ink on orange paper. The bird’s body is made up of a translucent sideways zero, with a black “S” neck connecting the “O” head with a sideways “A” beak. The playful simplicity of the design and the dynamic colors make an eye-catching poster that seems deceptively easy to re-create, and practically invites you to try.

Similarly, the Buffalo architecture series, which presents five stylized forms of famous city buildings and accompanying text, is a tight use of layered inks and stylish abstracted design that make pieces look illustrated, rather than printed. The skillful combination of complicated layers and different ink tones used to create Buffalo’s City Hall evoke the intricate details of the trademark building.

There always has been a sly humor to Kegler’s work, and this show brings out some of the more gleeful aspects of his portfolio. In particular, the “Put a herd on it” poster is a wry take on a sketch from the television show “Portlandia,” but as always with a very Buffalo twist. These twists and turns in his work, toward the humorous, formal, abstract or local, are what make viewing these prints so engaging and enjoyable.

Coupling that with his masterful handling of typography and woodblock forms, Kegler has created a postmodern letterpress style that has the right mix of energy to draw interest in both the work and in the process. Every piece he made during his years at WNYBAC is an ambassador for both the craft and community of letterpress printing and, at times, for Buffalo itself.

While this show could be considered a simple retrospective for Kegler, the energy, skill and effects of his work demand to be something more. What this show becomes is a collection of vibrant, mesmerizing and delightful prints, which are the literal love letters of a craft to its past, present and future audiences and practitioners. It is a legacy that anyone would be comfortable with, and that no one should miss seeing.

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