All the prints that are fit for views
Biennial show anchors an ocean of ink
Printmaking, the visual arts' country cousin, is making an inky splash in Boston this month. It's not a sexy medium. Comparatively, paintings and sculptures are cash cows; video and new media art are more contemporary and hotter.
There's something distinctly unglamorous about printmaking: It's done in a print shop, not the more romantic studio or garret; there's the geek factor of perfecting complicated techniques. Plus, often many of the same images appear in a single edition, so the cachet for collectors of owning a unique object is gone.
Yet printmakers soldier on for the love of the medium, and many make gorgeous works of art. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Boston Printmakers, a nationwide organization started by art students who first staged a national open exhibit on the fourth floor of a local furniture store.
That show continued every year until 1995, when it became a biennial. This year, images of close to 2 , 200 submissions from 600 artists were viewed by juror Judith Hecker , assistant curator of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art. She gave the nod to 152 prints, on view in The Boston Printmakers' 2007 North American Print Biennial at Boston University's 808 Gallery.
The Biennial is one of several shows in the Boston area celebrating the art of the print . The BU Art Gallery has "Sixty Years of North American Prints: Collecting From The Boston Printmakers" (a similar exhibit is at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury). At BU's Sherman Gallery, you can see "Episodes and Itineraries: Installations in Print Media by South American Artists." The Concord Art Association has "New England Impressions: The Master Printers." (For more print shows, see list above right).
The Biennial is the centerpiece around which all the other exhibits, as well as several lectures, panel discussions, and workshops, are arrayed. It's a show full of strong prints, but it has the hallmark flaw of all juried shows: no theme, no direction, no cohesiveness. The musical equivalent would be a CD featuring Led Zeppelin followed up by the Dixie Chicks and a little Shostakovich.
You might hope that it would evince contemporary trends in printmaking. But look at it side by side with "Sixty Years of North American Prints," which also offers a host of compelling works, and it seems that not much has changed in printmaking since the 1950s, at least in the realm of the Boston Printmakers.
Rather, what has changed is so well integrated, it's as if no change has occurred. Digital prints, which certainly didn't exist 40 years ago, fit right into the Biennial with etchings and lithographs. Look at Ross Racine's digital print "Subdivisions (Cedar Valley)," a clever bird's-eye view of a spiraling cul-de-sac mottled with clouds' shadows; it has the velvety quality of a mezzotint.
Technical virtuosity is the strength of both exhibits (artistry, while there, is harder to latch onto in such a hodgepodge). In the Biennial, Florin Hategan's remarkably detailed drypoint "Cityscape 1C" is an example; drypoint is a medium with no margin of error, and Hategan has delicately conveyed several dense city blocks, seen from above. Ann Conner , in "Westwood 7" miraculously uses the ordinarily bold medium of woodcut to create an ethereal, lacy mandala.
Conversely, Mardy Sears plays up her medium in the hand-colored woodblock print "My Curiosity Overwhelmed My Trepidation," a cheeky and pointed takeoff on old circus posters. Mark Hosford's comic and creepy screenprint "Where do They go to Learn These Things," uses that colorful technique to its advantage.
"Sixty Years" starts out in the '40s, with conservative but expertly made prints that recall book illustration, such as the self-portrait lithographs of Boston Printmakers founders Ture Bengtz and Otis Philbrick . From Janet Turner's exquisitely detailed linocut "Guinea Fowl" (1950) and Michael Mazur's haunting 1962 etching "Closed Ward #2," right on up through a vividly portrayed 1988 aquatint, "Newstand #34-A ," by Masaaki Sato , fine-tuned technique carries the day over art world trends. Mazur's work, depicting patients on a mental ward, is a rare exhibition of social conscience.
In the fresh, succinct and edgy "Episodes and Itineraries," curated by Alicia Candiani , five South American artists effectively tackle social, political and life-and-death issues. Cecilia Mandrile and Maria Bonomi offer installations, Candiani mounts transparent digital prints hovering in windows like ghosts, and Sebastian Garcia-Huidobro has a dark and ingeniously interactive work that visitors can scratch away at as they would a lottery ticket. "Episodes and Itineraries" pushes the envelope of printmaking more effectively than any work in the Biennial.
I saw only an inkling of a preview of "New England Impressions," which celebrates the collaborative nature of printmaking, highlighting prints artists such as Sol LeWitt , Neil Welliver, and Michael Mazur have made with the indispensable help of master printmakers such as Robert Townsend and Peter Pettengill . The show notes with pride the wealth of master printers right here in New England, and hints at the riches that arise when an artist of large and true vision partners with a superb technician.