Of all artistic media, printmaking seems to allow for the greatest experimentation, the boldest risk-taking and the most innovative approaches. Printmaking is the most open of all media it's a practice in which one can combine traditional print approaches (intaglio, relief or screen printing) with any number of techniques and materials associated with other arts (digital imaging, collage, hand-painting, sewing) to create never-ending variations.
Perhaps that's why, so often, artists who specialize in other media, like painting or sculpture, let themselves go a little nuts when they get into a good print studio. Freed from the constraints of their familiar practices, they seem excited by the "anything goes" character of printmaking. And there's nothing better than watching what happens when accomplished artists let down their guard and start experimenting with a new medium.
The results of just such experimentation are on display in a fantastic show called Expanding Expressions: Contemporary Master Prints, now on view at the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Gallery 210. The show comprises 36 prints produced by seven internationally recognized American artists who otherwise spend most of their time painting, sculpting or working with fibers. Each had a chance to work at the Berghoff-Cowden Editions print studio in New Port Richy, Fla.
For the artists (Brad Davis, Frank Faulkner, Sam Gilliam, Roberto Juarez, Miriam Schapiro, George Sugarman and Robert Rahway Zakanitch), it must have been like a trip to art Disneyland. Working in collaboration with master printer Carl Cowden, they had access to everything the studio had to offer in the way of colors, paper and any other materials or equipment their individual approaches required. All of these works are serigraphs, or screen prints, a technique that is sometimes considered one of the simpler printmaking approaches. But the variety of effects these artists were able to achieve with the serigraph belies its simplicity. Compare, for example, the serigraphs by Miriam Schapiro and those of Sam Gilliam. Both artists layer images, and both make references to fabric. But their works couldn't be more different. Schapiro's "In the Heat of Winter" (1994) is a collaged screen print that borrows its shape from her well-known fabric fan series. In this work, she renders abstract patterns from Navajo, African and ancient Greek art in eye-popping colors and overlays them with the soft, supple forms of hand-cut printed flowers.
In "Bay to Bay #1" (1994), Gilliam uses rich but muted colors in laser prints that are literally stitched together, piece by piece, with zigzag sutures. Where Schapiro plays on the tension between rigid patterns and organic softness, Gilliam taps into the tension between depth and surface, part and whole.
George Sugarman, for his part, pushes Gilliam's line of questioning even further by extending his prints into the third dimension. (This makes sense Sugarman is the sculptor of the group.) In "Flat over Fold #6" (1992), Sugarman pairs two prints one with an abstract, scriptlike form printed on flat paper and one with the same image pressed onto pleated paper. The latter print is fanned out, revealing the unexpected color and textural effects of the pressure on folded paper. Sugarman's work is best when it ventures into the third dimension; the images on his straight prints, as in the diptych titled "The Vanishing Landscape," simply don't hold the same kind of visual interest.
Frank Faulkner's "Palm I" and "Palm II" (1996), on the other hand, are stunning abstract visual arrangements. Alternating bands of purple and green frame a stylized seascape as glimpsed through palm fronds, with a gold-silver moon centered in the sky. The symmetry of the compositions, the flattening of space and the lush color evoke the Egyptian or Art Deco style. Faulkner's strictly controlled aesthetic is very different from the loose, gestural quality of Brad Davis' "Chair in the Garden" or "Landscape Triptych" (both 1993), which are informed by the monochromatic Chinese landscape painting style. Both Faulkner and Davis are able gracefully to evoke the styles of these other cultures without descending into the derivative.
Rounding out this show are very different works by Roberto Juarez and Robert Rahway Zakanitch. Zakanitch, a well-known painter of the Pattern and Decoration movement, shows the strongest sense of design (and humor) in the entire show in his two Sportsman Series prints (1992), which feature abstractions based on fishing lures. Juarez's images in the Calamus Series (1996) simply must be seen to be appreciated. Juarez's technique includes flocking peat moss into paper and saturating soft Japanese papers with dyes and paint. The results are dreamy floral images suspended in sumptuous space.
This exhibition of prints is one of the best anywhere in recent years. The artists have clearly enjoyed being able to experiment, and their joy shows through in every work. This exhibition will put the Berghoff-Cowden Editions print studio in Florida on the map.
Expanding Expressions: Contemporary Master Prints is on view at UM-St. Louis' Gallery 210 until Oct. 19.