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Essay by Dan Cameron
The parallel worlds of printmaking on the one hand, and painting and sculpture on the other, have had a long history of close but unequal interaction. Countless wielders of the paintbrush and chisel have, over the centuries, turned to printmaking primarily as a way of expanding the circulation of their work, so that the arduous and time-consuming creation of unique images can be offset by means of an inherently reproducible medium. But the art world has not always extended a reciprocal courtesy to artists who are more naturally drawn to the print medium from the outset, and who perceive in its technical intricacies a conceptual challenge to be responded to over time.
One of the biggest surprises for some members of the Winter 05 selection committee was the number of strong entries by established painters and sculptors whose printmaking activities were far more conceptually challenging (and in some cases barely recognizable) than might have been expected. A case in point is Enriqué Chagoya, whose satirical cartoon figures are familiar, but whose technical ambitions in the 7-foot-long, multi-panel lithograph The Ghost of Liberty (2004) were driven by his desire to produce a harsh political satire in which a sequential narrative is delivered in the form of a gradually unraveling story-board. Glenn Ligon's shimmering Self Portrait at Eleven Years Old (2004) is difficult to place as being his, although his iconic treatment of singer Stevie Wonder, once identified, can be seen as consistent with Ligon's often enigmatic and emotionally complex work.
By comparison, Sheila Pepe's two aquatints, Bi-Borough Paralax and East 4th Near Bowery (both 2004), explore the sinuous and malleable aspects of planar space in much the same way that her sculptural installations do in three-dimensional space, but her prints succeed by adding an entirely new chapter to her work rather than merely re-state its known parameters. Similarly, a fan of Ted Kincaid's dreamily patterned images of clouds might not immediately recognize his hand in the Art Nouveau-ish flourishes of his recent abstract etchings, but Kincaid's languid indulgence of decorative motifs is equally present in both cases.
In some cases, the essentially multiple nature of the chosen entry has been deliberately offset by some unique form of intervention. For example, each panel of Mark Dean Veca's four-panel screenprint, No Quarter (2004), whose wallpaper-like appearance is echoed by its interchangeable format of two red and two green panels, contains hand-drawn additions that have been carefully disguised to look like part of the ornamentation. By contrast, the hand-drawn parts of Michael Bramwell's linocut Cargoburst I (2004), which shows a cluster of humanity radiating around an absent core, are difficult to discern because they seem to exist more in the traditional realm of a touch-up done by the artist after the fact.
Within the final selection, the balance between artists whose work was familiar to non-experts in the print field, and those whose work was not, is close to equal. More importantly, there seems to be a significant correspondence between the two groups, as illustrated by the exhibition announcement's juxtaposition of newcomer Jungil Hong's mock-traditional rendering of the effects of industrial pollution with the renowned Robert Kushner's offhandedly elegant drypoint, Protea (2004). At first glance, the familiar swirl of urban archaeology in Julie Mehretu's recent combination screen print and lithograph may not seem to have much in common with J. Catherine Bebout's more illustrational Conquest & Evolution (2004). Yet there is an undeniable connection between both artists' use of layering devices to contest a monolithic view of history, and in Bebout's case the actual layers of separate etching, litho and collagraphic treatments resonates with Mehretu's more metaphorical layers of tissue-thin 'skins' of history.
Starting from a more literal frame of reference, the dialogue between Clara Lieu's woodcut Wandering (2003) and Isca Greenfield-Sanders' etching and aquatint Sky Beach (Blue) (2004) - both traditional scenes of crowds at a beach - is an intriguing one. Greenfield-Sanders' sun-drenched figures are essentially retinal manifestations of their shared luminosity, whereas the bleak isolation between solitary figures and small groups in Lieu's existentialist scene seems more real than the figures themselves. Similarly, both Jo Baer and Ann Conner employ the graphic isolation of hard-edge abstraction to create a space defined exclusively by shape and color, but in Baer's case the shapes are iterations of a 40-year quest for a kind of perfect form, while Conner's woodcut displays the flat outlines of bathroom appliances as envisioned by pre-made templates used in architects' section drawings.
Occasionally, the contrasts between distinct artists' individual approaches provide the basis for a dialogue between them. To cite one instance, the lyrical mode found in each of Brad Brown's series of nine etchings originates in the artist's skill at combining widely disparate techniques and gestures in a single field, whereas Carrie Moyer's decision to incorporate similarly lyrical motifs in her For Sister Corita, V. 1 (2004) is grounded in her ongoing effort to use painterly dynamics to reinvigorate the graphics of 1960s protest art - and, in this case, return the dynamically revamped version back into silkscreen. The delicate mark-making in Jill Moser's untitled 2004 monotype, familiar from her drawings, bears little immediate similarity to Gerald Marcus' more wiry lines in his 2003 drypoint, Mesa Near Taos. However, there is a similar improvisatory impulse behind each artist's physical creation of lines, with Marcus approaching it from the perspective landscape while Moser's abstraction suggests a literal transcription of movement within nature.
One of the most unexpectedly sympathetic conversations might be teased out of a meeting between Jeff Wetzig's deadpan intaglio, Moon Bread, and Bruce Pearson's eye-popping screenprint, A Displaced Game of Cat and Mouse (both 2004). Despite outward appearances, however, the bilateral symmetry found in both works, their obsessive rendering of surface textures, and their apparent quest to locate a mystical dimension within the everyday suggests that these two artists might be more kindred spirits than at first meets the eye. What this sort of dialogue between exemplars of two close yet separate communities appears to demonstrate is that the richness and variety of printmaking continues to appeal to a broad spectrum of artists on the basis of its capacity to challenge and/or expand on pre-conceived notions of image-making, to open up the myriad visual possibilities inherent to restricted formats, and to derive unexpected meanings from the application of new techniques to even newer concepts. Perhaps what it also hints at is the possibility that the playing field between printmaking and its kindred media may have started becoming just a bit more level.
Dan Cameron Senior Curator The New Museum of Contemporary Art