When artists and art students fall for printmaking, they fall hard. This love of print takes many forms, just as there are many different printing techniques, but it’s often ascribed to the alluring tension between hand-craftedness and device-assisted processes.
Artists are attracted to the expressive potential of drawing or painting or cutting on a surface and also to the suspenseful steps of using a press or another printing apparatus to turn their original surface into a print or two or eight.
This ability to create multiples is often part of the love. Printmaking can feel more democratic, less precious, than creating an individual painting or sculpture.
“Ink This!” — a striking exhibition of Northwest print arts at the Tacoma Art Museum — captures the unique characteristics and quixotic variations of printmaking. There are linocuts, letterpress prints, accordion books, posters, collages and installations. There’s even a zoetrope by Susan Lowdermilk that you can spin, sending her prints of rocking horses into motion.
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Frank Janzen creates monotypes (single prints) with smoke on paper. Kathleen Rabel creates bold, loosely structured images out of a combination of etching, woodcut and chine collé, a term that I’ve seen awkwardly translated as “tissue pasted” or “Chinese paper glued” and which involves bonding thin paper to the base surface during the printing pull.
Print can be both high-tech and low-tech. It’s a traditional medium that lures many artists into deep immersion in craft, while other artists enjoy tweaking or thwarting tradition. Several artists in the show exploit these contradictions.
The wall text that accompanies an untitled print by Robert C. Jones clearly explains his process of re-inking, rotating and rerunning a single plate. And then there’s a single, cheeky sentence: “This procedure is not recommended by master printers.”
Joe Feddersen’s relief print “Roll Call II” has a layered, expressive background that recalls the texture of baskets crafted by the Okanagan and Lakes people, Feddersen’s ancestors. But the texture is flattened out, and his figures look like traditional glyphs that have morphed into video-game characters. Feddersen lays out the changing cultural landscape through a fusion of tradition and technology.
Barb Tetenbaum and Julie Chen collaborated on a beautifully designed piece that draws on ideas of archiving and communication. The clever, interactive album with its midcentury modern graphics is so engaging, we want to connect with it, manipulate it. But, ultimately, it reveals a disconnect in communication. As the title “Glimpse” suggests, we only see fragments of the whole of people’s lives.
I suspect that print artists will get a lot out of this show. They’ll appreciate the varied forms, processes, inks and papers. The nods to tradition and the latest experiments. I love that the act of printing is emphasized in the museum’s object labels. Each one states where the print was made, at the artist’s studio, for example, or at one of the excellent art-printing shops in Oregon and Washington.
Because the museum promotes the show as a chance to learn about printmaking terms and processes, I would like to have seen this laid out more explicitly for the nonexpert. There is a handout with basic definitions, but perhaps some actual tools of the trade could have been included. Most people know what a paintbrush looks like. But how about a brayer, burnisher, dry point scriber or zinc plate? And it would have been fascinating to see some photos or videos of the artists at work.
But the exhibition does an excellent job of demonstrating the quality and variety of print arts in the Northwest and the distinctive blend of craft and concept that printmaking supports.