An artistic process that’s been practiced for centuries, from Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts to Andy Warhol’s silk-screens, printmaking is a dynamic art form with capabilities that extend far beyond its typical associations with wall posters or flattened reproductions. Contemporary printmaking surprisingly lends itself to a variety of processes, from installation art (or “printstallation”) to sculpture, bookmaking and large-scale works on paper. Weber State University’s Shaw Gallery introduces these variations and more with Perspectives in Printmaking: An Evolving Dynamic, featuring six international artists who revolutionize their medium in exciting ways. Viewing their work together in a single show will quite literally shift your perspective on what you think printmaking is, and what it can be.
“What we really wanted to do with this show is give at least a snippet of contemporary printmaking practices being used today, ” says Shaw Gallery Curator Lydia Gravis, who co-curated the exhibition with printmaking professor Kathleen “K” Stevenson. “Traditionally with printmaking you would think of small works, posters, things that are flat — so with these pieces we wanted to push scale and show the sculptural possibilities of printmaking.”
This message is made clear immediately at the gallery entrance where Shawn Bitters’ 26 paper stones are piled high and cradled between two partition walls — a statement that quickly blows up any preconceived notions of printmaking as static or two-dimensional. Every piece in the exhibition, including Bitters’ “Yes, Yes, Yes, Now, Now, Now,” calls for prolonged looking and active engagement to fully appreciate the artist’s intellectual message and intensive process. Bitters, the Utah representative in the show who now lives in Kansas City, challenges the viewer to uncover a “geological narrative” within his work, with the help of a legend that matches each distinct stone to a letter in the alphabet. Perhaps this is meant to draw the viewers into the real fascination of the piece — which is that each stone is constructed from layered handmade paper and then silk-screened to achieve rocklike textures. The meticulous and laborious process results in a work that is playful and interactive as the cascading “rocks” physically encroach into the viewer’s space. Creating rocks from paper brings many dichotomies to mind, which Bitters touches on in his artist statement: “They are both print and sculpture, weighty and weightless, active and paralyzed, object and sign.”
Looming beyond Bitters’ sculptural piece are two floor-to-ceiling installations on the gallery’s north and west walls, one of which is Susanna Castleden’s ghostly airplane rubbing, or “frottage,” titled “1:1 Airplane Wing.” Hailing from Australia, Castleden explores how global mobility affects the way humans perceive the world, specifically in relation to leisure travel. As a result, mapping and geography play a central role in her projects, as does her own mobility and travel. The piece on display at Shaw Gallery is part of a larger project that took Castleden to an aircraft bone yard in the Arizona desert, where planes are decommissioned and disassembled. Here, these once powerful machines sit silent under the sun after a lifetime of globe-trotting. Their eerie presence is felt through Castleden’s piece, which is a life-size, conglomerated rubbing of an airplane wing formed from 126 pieces of paper. Each paper was initially a map of western Australia’s desert, reflecting Castleden’s fascination with antipodal geographical relationships. The artist prepares the paper with layers of gesso and seals it with a final black coating. The rubbing process is then subtractive rather than additive: in the heat of the desert, Castleden placed her prepped maps against the airplane’s surface and sanded down the top layer of black gesso, revealing the shapes and nuances of the plane’s wing in ghostly white. The final work provides an overwhelming feeling of stillness in the midst of our mobile world. Could it be that our current excessive air travel and its environmental impact will cause us to share this airplane’s fate?
Castleden was selected to be the Hurst Artist-in-Residence at WSU, allowing her to work on campus and lead student projects for two weeks following the exhibition opening. She was also able to do an airplane rubbing at Hill Air Force Base to add to her evolving series.
Adjacent to Castleden’s monochrome frottage is Annu Vertanen’s woodcut installation, “The Day of Absence,” in which 100 sheets of layered paper reach nearly 60 feet high and extend over 14 feet long. The piece was created and printed out of woodblocks using blue ink and a relief process, another labor-intensive method, from material preparation to final installation. Viewing the work is a sensory experience with an almost dizzying quality; lines and marks vibrate beneath thin layers of paper that flutter with shifting air. Its ethereal sensibility draws a myriad interpretations from tributaries to typography, but rather than offer an explanation of the work as specific forms or landscapes, Vertanen simply aims to create a spatial illusion and mesmeric experience.
Vertanen teaches at the Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts in Finland; in addition to “The Day of Absence,” she also presents a multilayered piece in collaboration with her printmaking students. The three-part installation includes a handmade book paired with sound and corresponding wall piece. The work requires time and presence to fully engage, and brings the viewer into an intimate and immersive experience in which the piece can be seen, felt and heard simultaneously.
While these installations provide the biggest push in perspective for the exhibition, works on paper by Sean Caulfield, Miriam Rudolph and Miguel Rivera hold their own despite the scale and drama of the surrounding works. Each artist contributes value to this multilayered conversation on printmaking in offering varying techniques and narratives within their work. Rivera, a Kansas City artist of Mexican origin, combines traditional printmaking techniques with current digital technologies for vibrant mixed media pieces that layer geometric shapes with organic forms, architectural lines and cultural symbols.
While she uses subtle color and flatter dimension, Rudolph is a stand out in the show with her “Colonization by Cattle” and “The Soy Field.” Both comment on the environmental impact of industrial agriculture in the artist’s home country of Paraguay. Caulfield also speaks about environmental crisis with his large-scale wood relief, “Flooded House,” and series of linocuts and woodcuts. Rudolph and Caulfield represent the printmakers’ shared desire to use this communicative medium as a vehicle for social agenda. Whether it’s the outreach ability, mass production capabilities or community connection, printmaking has been used as a tool to speak directly about issues and advocacy since its resurgence in the 1970s. In line with the medium’s ability to connect communities, Stevenson and Gravis chose artists from far reaching locations and of diverse cultural backgrounds.
With Perspectives in Printmaking, the Shaw Gallery continues to offer compelling exhibitions that contribute to important conversations and trends within the wider contemporary art world. “I don’t think we’ve had a printmaking exhibition anywhere in the intermountain west that comes close to this — at least in the past decade or so,” says Stevenson, who, along with Gravis, has spent years researching and planning for the exhibition. “I really think that experiencing this exhibition will change your ideas about printmaking,” she says.
Perspectives in Printmaking: An Evolving Dynamic features Shawn Bitters, Susanna Castleden, Sean Caulfield, Miguel Rivera, Miriam Rudolph and Annu Vertanen, Shaw Gallery, Weber State University, Ogden, through November 9.
Kelly Carper is an Ogden-based arts writer with a background in Santa Fe’s commercial gallery world in sales, marketing and management. Her current freelance work extends from arts journalism to gallery marketing and can be found at kellycarper.com.