What's a nice former fiber artist like Carol Crouppen doing with technology like this: ominous contraptions such as a high-resolution monitor with its own camera and computer somewhere inside its bland frame to precisely manage the gamut of colors it can make; a scanner that can "read" and reproduce the phosphorescence of a butterfly's wing; a 1,000-pound beast of a printer that shoots jets of dyes through filaments as thin as capillaries?
In the case of Crouppen, she's making the best work of her career, a collection of Iris prints (Iris being the name of that 1,000-pound beast) that were recently exhibited at Elliot Smith's gallery in the Central West End. Granted, Crouppen has been removed from the warp and weft of the loom for some time. Throughout her artistic evolution from painting to collage and installation art, the initial tactile nature of the materials has been her first motivating pleasure. "It's really foreign to me not to have my hands on what I've made," she says in her spacious studio in the City Museum building.
Yet it is the very foreignness of Crouppen's recent prints that makes them stand out. She's been an interesting artist over the years, not in the lame, noncommital sense of the word "interesting" but as one whose work with artifacts (she's an obsessive collector of memorabilia from estate sales) and old photographs (sometimes of family members) has involved elements of memory and scale in ways that are appealing but not mesmerizing, more like being engaged in a thoughtful visual conversation. An installation at the A.D. Brown Building a few years ago suggested the discovery of an ancestor's secret closet.
But where her former work attracted interest, the new prints are more visceral in their effects. These are collages but seem made from ghost traces rather than old snapshots. A woman in a bridal veil is obscured by a dark mask; her gown throbs with an orange stain as she seems to be led by the hand, invisibly, to some dim future. Gold wrapping paper with a floral design absorbs the red imprint of two figures in silhouette. The smiling face of a Japanese bride is blocked by another image, that of a well-dressed mannequin, and another figure, shot from below, reclining, framed in red, suggests a body laid on a slab or a political figure slain in the street; at the edge of the collage, a woman, eyebrow arched, invades the scene like a conspirator.
Crouppen says her process of image-making involves "subverting the context. I'm interested in context in terms of our personal history, of how stories get told and retold. Things that we're really sure of that we think are gospel, when you ask again or look again, can be quite different. When you translate that to something visual, it opens up so many horizons."
The wedding scenes, for example, come from old photos in which Crouppen "was just fascinated by the dresses because they're so exquisite and feminine, the visceral sense of their being so beautiful, and the era was so innocent." But through her manipulation of the photos, the faces are obscured, the background is made a black void and those caught in the "innocent" ritual of the wedding-reception dance look to have the psychological menace of a Pinter play. "There's no intent to do that," says Crouppen, who looks every bit the pretty, well-to-do wife and mother that she is (she's married to Terry Crouppen, one-half of the legal team of Brown & Crouppen). She's the last one to suggest that underlying the happy wedding-day photos are subterranean nightmares of violence and rage. "I just come here and make the work that I make. I put one foot in front of the other and come here every day. Sometimes it surprises me what I've made." She refers to the wedding photos: "I'm sure everyone had a delightful time." The murdered tyrant is really a photograph of someone getting his hair washed.
Part of what makes these images cause such unease is the medium the tactile-loving Crouppen has enlisted for their production. In creating these collages, Crouppen is already working with the remains of the past, tokens of former lives. By working with the Iris printer, not only does the technology bring "authority to the image that transcends the original collage," as Crouppen describes the product, but metaphorically, in these scenes incarnating shadows and ghosts, the printmaking process takes them into a territory further removed from their physical origins. Rather than being works from the artist's hand, they are like specters emerging out of space.
The prints were made in the studio of Randy Barker, who owns the $100,000 technological marvel. Crouppen says she was referred to Barker after having worked with a major printmaking firm but becoming dispirited by working with "techies, not artists." Barker is himself a painter and printmaker who grew up in the Bay Area and moved to St. Louis to be near his son. He got involved in Iris technology when a "very, very small niche of people" were experimenting with it in Southern California, including the singer Graham Nash.
In Barker's Central West End studio, the air conditioning is turned up high to protect the sensitive equipment (another sharp contrast from Crouppen's working space, in which relief comes only from a few fans on a muggy July morning). He's casually dressed in shorts and summer shirt; he sports a goatee and reddish blond hair. There's nothing laid-back in his approach to his craft, however, and he receives praise for his diligence from those who've worked with him. Photographer David Casper, whose haunting photographs of landscapes taken from a moving car have been produced as Iris prints and are currently on view at the Locus Gallery in Clayton, says Barker is "tireless about getting it right. He pays attention to detail."
Crouppen gives a sense of the intimate nature of the collaborative process with Barker: "It was like a bad marriage. I was like a director, so it was clear it was my work. It was no struggle in any way. He was attentive to the way I perceived the details. He was great to work with. I couldn't believe he came to the opening (at Elliot Smith). I thought, 'Haven't you seen enough of all this?' But he was delighted to see it framed on the wall."
Barker began his collaboration with Crouppen with a visit to her studio. "The collages were all over, with stuff still hanging loose from a lot of them," he says. He suggested that she first hire a photographer and build up a library of 4-by-5-inch transparencies of her work. That library became 175 images.
"She was taking a trip to Florida," Barker continues, "so I told her to take a lap light table with her and edit." The group of 175 became 45, which Barker scanned into his computer. They then began the long process of manipulating the details of the imagery. Crouppen perched on a window seat by Barker's monitor, investigating the effects of differing gradations of color and tone.
Barker says they kept experimenting with the process, getting so involved that "I had to tell her we were going to run out of time." Crouppen's prints, like Casper's, are printed on thick handmade rag paper, which Barker buys from England, paper that has been made in the same manner for 500 years -- on which marks are made with 21st-century technology.
The Iris can print on a host of materials, however. One local photographer has printed his works on canvas, and Barker wants to continue investigations of printing on silk, metallic paper and other media.
The printer itself is a long-bodied machine with a big black cylinder to which the paper is taped (the $100,000 technological marvel still requires good old-fashioned masking tape to hold the paper down). Four inks are used -- cyan for blues, magenta for reds, yellow and black -- environmentally safe and nontoxic vegetable dyes. A computer server sends the image to the printer, the black cylinder rolls and the inks jet. "The colors make a pass over each other and fill in the microdots," explains Barker.
Computer technology, for the most part, has gained acceptance within the hands-on traditions of the printmaking field. "The fine-arts highway's paved," Barker says. He is encouraged by how Crouppen "basically went to school for a month. Now she's talking about buying a Mac and a digital camera." He looks forward to the possibilities inherent in her "next movement, a deeper departure."
Barker has also witnessed the attention Casper's first investigations with the Iris print received at the In/Form exhibition at the Lemp Brewery a few years ago. The Locus Gallery immediately sought to represent the artist, despite director Patience Taylor's initial misgivings. "I'm old," she confides in her gallery, the brooding colors of Casper's prints on the walls around her. She clings to the concept of the craftsman's hand's being an actual hand, but she couldn't resist Casper's new work. The printmaking process gives his photographs the rich textures of watercolors.
It is also a process that has further removed Crouppen from the preciousness of the objects she obsessively collects and, perhaps, has made her imagery bolder, taking emblems of domesticity and marriage -- the bridal suite, the spotless 1950s-era living room -- and imbuing them with film noir anxieties. By taking her hands off the object and experimenting in the strange new realm of technology, she's realizing the truth in a statement by the artist Man Ray, one that inspires her and that she paraphrases in the natural St. Louis summer swelter of her studio: "It's only when you develop a total disrespect for the materials that you can transcend them."