News Column

Tacoma Art Museum corrals inventive energy of contemporary Northwest print artists

June 27, 2014

By Rosemary Ponnekanti, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

June 27--Maybe it's the rain, but the Pacific Northwest is known for print art -- and Tacoma Art Museum, with over 1,000 works in its collection of Northwest print art, has explored every niche of that tradition in "Ink This." Recently opened, the exhibition spreads out over 80 works by 75 Northwest artists, all extremely recent and all pushing the boundaries of centuries-old techniques with new concepts, new media and a very rooted sense of place.

"Ink This" is a big exhibition -- give yourself plenty of time to immerse yourself in the show's many corners -- but it does a fine job both explaining printmaking processes and delineating the many works both visually and by genre. Around the walls large works hang singly, while others are grouped dramatically in grids or groups, a design dimension that really helps this very two-dimensional artform. Others are spotlit by indigo-blue divider walls, a nod to the traditional inks of Japanese printmakers, perhaps; artist books dot the center (clearly curator Margaret Bullock has been influenced by the strong book-art focus at the University of Puget Sound, where she curates Kittredge Gallery).

And above all, Bullock's selection plays to a Northwest printmaking strength: innovation.

The show's roughly organized by genre around the four walls, and that helps unite works across techniques. Along the left, as you go in, are works influenced by the land -- by the Northwest itself. First up is George Johanson's delightful "Polar Bears" of 2011, a linocut where New Year's Day swimmers plunge into delicately-hatched water, their bold lines and hand-colored bubblegum pinks and purples shouting the crazy, shivering joy of this icy tradition. Dionne Haroutunian's "Outside My Helmet" series is one of many that play with the layers that print techniques make possible: the close-up motorbike view of a city is informed by a sense of history and place, with an etching of thickly corded teepee sticks superimposed on digital prints of skyscrapers, fading dusty-red into memory. Kevin Haas also layers his urban landscapes, using lithography (drawing an image with crayon, which repels water but absorbs ink in the printing process; TAM has a very useful (though incomplete) handout on printmaking techniques) to superimpose overhead wires, freeway signs and simple, hand-drawn cars to create a vision of I-90 that's both soft and fierce, as if seen through fog.

Joe Feddersen, a Colville sculptor and painter, here translates woven baskets into a relief print for an oddly archeological effect. With the basket texture reproduced in indigo ink, "Role Call" presents a humanity reduced to eight figures with sytlized glyphs for heads, a symbolism that recalls computer pixels as much as Native American imagery. Scott Kolbo, on the other hand, takes landscape into imagination: His "Inga Landscape" combines ink jet, intaglio engraving and lithography to create a dystopian city. Skyscrapers live on a high horizon, rooted into the earth with steampunk-style pipes twisting menacingly down; in the foreground a Christmas-light deer watches bemusedly across a sea of trash, stagnant pools and a smoky, ink-smudged sky.

Along the back wall we move from the land to the self. Ben Moreau's contemporary memento mori is confident rather than morbid. Allison Hyde's jumble of chairs and tables, their ink and charcoal smudged through a silkscreen, references the history of memory and loss (the two-dimensional echo of her Biennial sculpture of actual fire-burned furniture in TAM's inner courtyard -- here more reflective than demonstrative)

Then, by the right-hand wall, you get the innovative. Print-making is a very old art -- think Renaissance woodcuts, the Gutenberg Bible -- but its very nature lends itself to interesting combinations of techniques and media. So it's no surprise that Northwest printmakers are experimenting with both old and new to create unique art. Take Tyna Ontko's installation in the room's corner: Pinned onto the white walls like butterflies are cut-out scraps of paper, each one a lithograph of tiny bees and bulbous, Dali-esque hives. As they flow across the wall from gray to sepia, the bend and curve (pinned at each end), casting shadows and tricking the eye with a clever illusion of depth and fluttering movement.

Just in front is another clever marriage, this time of woodcuts with the old invention of the zoetrope, a spinning device whose viewing slits seem to animate the whirling images inside: Susan Lowdermilk, piling old-fashioned clock-faces, moon phases, rocking horses and endless streams of numbers, imitates time itself, jerking onwards but always repeating. Christy Wyckoff gives screenprints a third dimension by cutting her images and weaving their strips back into an undulating relief, oddly pixelated like a Chuck Close painting.

Then there's collage, which adds a different kind of texture to prints. Curt Labitzke's "The Spanish Couple" layers china collÉ (printed fabric) squares and dribbles of aqua and gold paint over his drypoint-engraved faces, achieving a haunted expression that the collage reassembly only magnifies. Joan Stuart Ross uses collage for abstraction, her rough, small-square grids over monotyped ink giving the picture plane a solid, net-like feel that throws back the light unnervingly.

Finally, Barbara Robertson animates her ethereal acrylic print lines in a video animation. The jump from static to motion is at first intriguing, but it's ultimately unsatisfying, with the shallow depth of the swirling animations so much less poignant than the original deep-gray of the print.

There's a wall of abstract prints, with Kate Copeland, Sally Schuh and Ben Beres all using text as a design element, rather than as meaning. It's nice to see Tacoma printmakers in this show, including Janet Marcavage, whose "Heap" is a lovely example of her calm, thoughtful work with patterns. Taking inspiration from a laundry pile, she assembles 50s-ish stripes in all directions, piled like garments and flowing in and out of vision while hovering crisply over their white background.

Finally, in the center of the room, Bullock pays homage to how printmaking has made its way (via letterpress and book art) into the hearts of Tacomans. Beautiful Angle is there, colors glowing against the indigo wall in three of their guerilla posters, including one over-printed again and again with different inks in a print melting-pot. Jessica Spring is there, her "Spiceography" series of broadsides the epitome of her work: studious, fascinating to read, with unusual types and thick, handmade paper in spice colors (turmeric, cinnamon, paprika). There are classically intricate woodcuts from Carl Montford, and a forest woodcut in sunny beach colors from Bill Colby.

And there's the final evolution of prints as movable sculpture: the artist book. Elsi Vassdal Ellis' "Icarus" is a tall accordion whose letterpressed image of piled bones creeps higher and higher over text about genocide, page by page, finally covering and muting it. Diane Jacobs' book "Alphabet Tricks" uses an ABC accordion format to comment on the derogatory sexism of words. Chandler O'Leary's incredibly conceived and crafted "Local Conditions" -- a "book" whose pages are letterpressed and gorgeously watercolored views of Mt. Rainier that can slot in a myriad of combinations into a diorama -- rolls printmaking, bookmaking, theater and user interaction into one delightful package.

"Ink This" may consist of works made just in the last five years -- but the print techniques and media span centuries, from hand-chisels to computers. It's Northwest art at its most creative and subtle -- exactly the kind of show Tacoma Art Museum is made for.

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(c)2014 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

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