Advancing Tradition: 20 Years of Printmaking at Flatbed Press

Austin Museum of Art

Through February 13
by Kyle Schlesinger

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      "Advancing Tradition: 20 Years of Printmaking at Flatbed Press" (exhibition view)

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      Printmakers have always been the bastard siblings of the art world family: the toothless hicks whose interests in ink, paper and the purely technical aspects of their trade make them subordinate to the “real” artists who are primarily engaged in conceptual, political, aesthetic and intellectual problems. The printmakers’ practice is presumed to be inferior because it is situated somewhere between commercial and fine art; because printmakers cannot decide among themselves exactly what it means to make original multiples (or multiple originals?); because they are technicians employed to realize and perfect the prints of real artists who have been somehow coerced into making an edition; and because they cater to amateur collectors who don’t have pockets deep enough to purchase paintings or sculptures. Now nestled in the second decade of the twenty-first century, there is no doubt that ‘print’ is an archaic term and an obsolete medium. One wonders what printmaking could possibly teach us about contemporary art?

      Advancing Tradition, Flatbed Press’ exhibition at the Austin Museum of Art, celebrates two decades of innovative printmaking by a team of master printers whose deep knowledge of the history and technique of the craft is engaged in a fruitful dialogue with the concepts and constructions of trends in digital and multimedia art. Museum visitors should not expect to see dark, sterile rooms filled with connoisseurs peeping through monocles at flat prints under glass. This exhibit features a spectacular range of prints produced through traditional methods such as monotype, woodcut, etching, lithograph, and silkscreen, often tweaked to create unique or hybrid effects. They join sculptures, paintings, and an array of tools, artifacts and materials that reveal some of the processes behind the products.

      Collaboration is an essential ingredient in the alchemy of printmaking. It’s what Gregg Biglieri likes to call the “cuckoo effect”: one bird lays an egg in another bird’s nest. Near a print by Margo Sawyer, a caption reads, “Among printmakers, there is a saying that sculptors make the best prints.” Produced in collaboration with Flatbed, this print (Index for Contemplation #4, 2001) preceded Sawyer’s related bright, multicolored cubic sculpture on the floor before it. Mastering printmaking takes years of experience and lots of specialized equipment, so few artists who are invited to collaborate with Flatbed possess the skills they need to realize their objectives independently. The exchange of images and ideas in the art of conversation that ensues is perhaps the most compelling variable in the printmaking process—there’s no telling exactly what the outcome will be when a meaningful dialogue gets one out of his or her own head.

      The concepts and processes of printing can be rather abstract, but this exhibition strives to demystify the tools of the trade. To enlighten those of us who have no experience with relief printing, for example, a vitrine displays the tools of the trade: roller, block, ball-bearing baren, medium U chisel, small U gouge, and V gouge. The lithography display is equally thorough and suggestive, while the copperplates and helpful gathering of literature at a table in the back make this intimate space a place where one can wander and learn. The exhibit is not chronological, but arranged by shape and color. The towering, yet slender Vine Line Suite: Mason Dixon Line (2000) by Dallas sculptor Linda Rigdway appears opposite Katie Van Scherpenberg’s 22 x 90 inch triptych Furo (2004). Furo depicts a hazy cinematic seascape in or out of time, in or out of focus. A mysterious red stain bleeds into the sand and surf while the boys darting in and out of the frame (taken from a single vantage) appear unfazed. James Surls is an artist from Texas who has been working with Flatbed since 1990. There is a particularly striking correlation between Surls’ Heartland: A Suite of Eleven Gravures (2005), a deluxe artist’s book in the tradition of the livre d’artiste, and Hanging Flower (c. 1990), a large sculpture hanging in the far corner of the first gallery. Bringing a poem by the artist and eleven images together on Twinrocker handmade papers, Heartland is an ambitious boxed edition that echoes many of the motifs and nuances of Hanging Flower (and vice versa).

      Part of the challenge of making art is discovering what’s not working and using it to one’s advantage. For all of the charges that might be pitted against printmaking, Advancing Tradition demonstrates how hand and machine can work together with fine papers and textures to make multiples, to move print off the page, and to remind us that collaborations often yield results that no one could have foreseen or accomplished alone.

      Kyle Schlesinger’s most recent book is Poems & Pictures: A Renaissance in the Art of the Book 1946-1981.

      + 1 Comment
      Jan 21, 2011 | 7:24pm

      How is the first paragraph and the rest of the article written by the same person? Anyone who is still holding up the hierarchy of the Academy is obviously not one to be writing on contemporary art, "What, a genre scene?! My word! Why, thats not a saint! I feel faint!" 

      There is also a great amount of naiveté if one thinks that "real" contemporary art exists outside a space between commercial and fine art.

      Anyone who holds to the notion that Real Art is only for those wealthy enough to afford it is living in another century, say the 13th or 14th, before printmaking took over the known world and not only made possible the Renaissance but every intellectual, religious and cultural movement from then on.

      I dare you to find any Real Artist who isn’t as passionate and finicky about their materials, tools, and techniques as a printmaker; whether a cloistered painter or a conceptual artist utilizing a assembly line in China to create their work.

      Collaboration is at the heart of all great art and always has been; the myth of the singular Artist is just that, to go along with the equally mythological assumptions that the first paragraph of this review sets forward.

      Might I conclude that ‘print’ is as far from dead as painting is, well over a century and a half after the advent of photography made ‘painting’ an "archaic term and an obsolete medium"

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