Vikings are famous for their wooden ships and their fantastical mythology, but a series of sculptures depicting Viking ships and Norse myths made from woodcut prints tells a different story. Dennis McNett has been making relief prints for over 20 years, and he's been turning woodcut prints into sculptures, installations, and performances for over a decade. Amongst his sculptural work is an ongoing series of masks and costumes used in ceremonies and public events, including a performance by the notoriously flamboyant heavy metal band Gwar.
Drawing on elements of various mythologies, McNett tells Creators that his work often illustrates his own versions of a particular myth. "An example is a story in Nordic mythology about three children parented by the trickster god Loki and the giantess Angrboða." One of the characters in this narrative is a wolf, an animal McNett finds especially endearing. "The gods were frightened that the giant wolf Fenris would one day harm them, so they bound him and put him beneath the earth (which I didn't appreciate)." In the original myth the wolf eventually dies, but McNett decided to change that. In McNett's version the wolf still dies, but his remains are found by his sister, who is a ruler of the underworld. "All that remained was his head, so she crossed him with a bat and resurrected him as a Wolfbat, so he could fly the earth and destroy the new gods. A Wolfbat, and the Wolfbat mythos was born."
Wolfbat is a moniker McNett uses to refer to his art practice and is the subject of his first big sculpture called The Resurrection of Fenris, which debuted in 2006 for the Deitch art parade in New York. "I made a Wolfbat about the size of a van covered in prints of wolves and patterns. Since then, I've used relief prints to embellish dozens of murals, sculptures and installations." But not all of McNett's work does refers so directly to Norse mythology. "Sometimes I just decide to use an animal, plant, pattern or form that best represents personally what I am trying to express and it is not tied to myth."
Just like real Viking ships, wood is the foundation for some of McNett's large sculptures, several of which happen to be of Viking ships. "Most of the sculptures that are characters are wooden skeletons, wire, cardboard and a paper mâché. All of them are finished off with pasted woodcut prints. I use a white craft and newsprint paper for the prints and gel medium to adhere them along with a poly finish."
McNett says his infatuation with woodcuts began when he "fell in love with the raw gestural mark of a carved line." He sees the sculptures, installations, and performances that he creates from his prints to be natural extensions of that love. "It's not that I got bored with prints; I just didn't see it stopping on a piece of paper." Considering the historic role of relief prints as book illustrations, it's almost as if McNett is pulling these images off the page and into a three-dimensional space.
Along with the twist McNett gives traditional mythologies, he also puts his own spin on traditional methods of exhibiting relief prints. Although McNett carves wood blocks in order to create his prints, he also carves them specifically for display, adding colorful paint to give them a finished touch. "People would come by the studio to buy prints and would often ask if the blocks were for sale. I enjoy carving more that the actual printing, so I tried making some carvings as stand alone pieces."
In a way, McNett's process is a lot like the myth of the Midgard Serpent, which he references in some of his work. In Norse mythology, the serpent grows so large that it encircles the Earth to grasp its own tail in its mouth, and McNett's work seems to follow a similar cycle of endless growth. By turning his prints based on mythologies and rituals into sculptures, installations, and performances that are then used in their own mythological rituals, McNett's art practice is constantly growing and reinventing itself.
Dennis McNett will be working with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to help kids make masks and sculptures this year. He'll also build a sculpture with the Lawrence Art Center in Kansas. See more of his work and get updates on his projects on his website and on Instagram.