Wednesday, December 05, 2007


The Ink Shop is unique among Ithaca galleries. Comprised primarily of skilled printmakers working with a variety of styles and media, it is mainly a working studio. Complementing this activity is a busy schedule of classes, visiting artist speakers, and of course, print exhibitions (all public).

Also remarkable is their dedication to networking with out of town print organizations and to introducing Ithacans to art from around the county and beyond. No other non-university affiliated gallery in the Ithaca area has been doing so in such an organized manner. While other galleries call for open submissions, the Ink Shop has taken a more systematic approach, seeking out artists that fit a particular vision or goal. The result is better and more coherent exhibitions. Their latest catch is "Selections From the Collection: Lafayette College's Experimental Printmaking Institute".

EPI founder and director Curlee Raven Holton lectured at the gallery last Thursday to a mostly insider crowd. A confident and articulate speaker, he spoke for about 50 minutes before taking questions. The lecture felt like a pep-talk, with exhortations to self-confidence mixed with anecdotes and recollected practical experience. While acknowledging some of the problems faced by foundling studios, his philosophy is one of calm determination.

The Institute was born in 1996 as a semi-autonomous collective affiliated with Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where Holton teaches. Although he describes the school as being not particularly artsy (and lacking a BFA program, for example), he says that the EPI has become a respected and integral part of the curriculum. It has also been successful in drawing well-known printmakers and other artists to the modest community. Students work for and learn from them.

According to Holton, an early inspiration was the pioneering NYC Printmaking Workshop and its founder Bob Blackburn (1920-2003), a friend and artistic collaborator. He cites Bob's commitment to printmaking and its communal ethos. But he mentioned his differences as well, in particular his dissatisfaction with the studio's poverty and with Bob's inclination to treat it as "his spouse" rather than something he was willing to let go of. "I made a commitment that I would try to create an environment similar to this, but it wouldn't be impoverished," Holton said. "I wouldn't be at risk, and it wouldn't be my spouse... I couldn't covet it." The EPI, he said, is intended to be a place where artists can experiment without financial worries. He plans to retire as director.

Holton presented work from the Institute's Master Artist Printmaker Portfolio, the core of the Ink Shop show. As he explained, the project paired a well-known artist (typically a painter) with an expert printmaker. His goal was to elevate the reputation of both partners by association. He is also interested in raising the profile of printmaking, which has been sometimes marginalized.

The show is eclectic. With one exception—a painterly abstract monotype by Al Loving showing a hollowed cube frame—all of the work is from the current decade. The work was created principally at Lafayette, with the assistance of students.

Sam is a gorgeous mixed media abstraction. The print is the work of Sam Gilliam, a well-known Washington D.C. artist. Although part of an edition, it is a one-of-a-kind production. Like much of his work dating back to the sixties, it combines three-dimensional and painterly elements. The relief construction is supported by an upright oval of orange felt covered with calligraphic swirls of blood red. Although the piece is not overtly figurative, the shape evokes mirrors and portraiture. Angular and curving bits of cloth and rice paper have been applied on top, with the visible stitched lined (arcs) forming an important compositional element. Colors and textures include white translucent and wavy striations of green, red, and yellow green. Holes have been cut to let the orange through.

According to Holton, each print in the edition was created using cloth scraps cut from one of Gilliam's large paintings. A woodblock for printing was created using a scanned drawing along with CAD software and a laser cutter owned by Lafayette's engineering department. The master printmaker was Wayne Crothers (who is represented by the loopy, maze-like woodcut, Humanitarian Camouflage). The rice paper sections were printed in Japan by an Australian artist and the stitching done by the students. Not suprisingly, Holton describes it as "one of our most popular prints."

An untitled triptych of silkscreen prints is by frequent collaborators Ian Short and Robert Beckman. Three identically sized paper pages are framed together behind glass. On first glance, the piece is a disorienting visual buzz of bold colors and hard-to-decipher textures. Further inspection reveals layers of discrete color: black over green, red, cyan, cool green-gold. Letters and other typographic symbols can be seen along with the intricate maze-like texture of circuit boards. Similar details are repeated from page to page but with jarring shifts of color and arrangement that engage the eye. Read a sequence, the effect is dynamic like an animation.

Another screenprint, Mark's Tale, by William T. Williams, achieves its dynamic effect via more economical means. A flat black is printed over greenish off-white tinted paper. Its the off-white that forms the foreground image: a trapezoidal jumble of calligraphic swirls evoking plant-life and musical symbols.

Richard Anuskiewicz's silkscreened Twin Portals, is another sequential triptych. Like his mentor, the pioneering German modernist painter Josef Albers, Anuskiewicz is interested in optical effects created by juxtaposing hard-edge blocks of color. The individual panels in Portals, with their upright rectangular blocks enclosed in frames, echo Albers' famous Homage to a Square series. The pieces are intended as a 9/11 memorial, alluding the absent towers as they might appear in morning, mid-day, and night. In this regard the sequence also echoes Monet's well-known Rouen Cathedral paintings, which also tried to capture the effect of changing natural light on a constant architectural form. The colors and their contrasts in Portals are however much sharper and less naturalistic.

A number of pieces sport themes associated with the artists' African American heritage. Curlee Raven Holton's own Blind Spots I (etching and silkscreen with embossing) incorporates photos depicting rather fetishistic details from both black and Asian woman. These appear against a dull yellow-green background in baby blue portrait-ovals. The blind spots—apparently allusions to racial ignorance or confusion—appear as large black circles dotting the picture. Painter David C. Driskell's sensitive, earth-toned etching Brown Derby features a crowd of overlapping, angular faces pressed up against the plane of the picture (the one in front wears the titular hat). Like that of Romare Bearden, much of Driskell's work updates early 20th-century cubism—and Picasso's appropriation of the African mask—with specifically modern African American resonances. Wynton's Tune, a folk-art-like silkscreen by Faith Ringgold, shows the jazz trumpeter in a red suit, backed by band members in cool, contrasting blues.

Two untitled relief prints are by German artist Bodo Korsig. The rough black lines form strange images: on the left hand piece, what looks like a handful of chicken drumsticks hanging on horizontal wire, on the right a pair of sponge-like blobs tethered to the right and left edges respectively. The rich texture enlivens these reductive, cartoon-like pictures but not quite enough to make them come together.

Antidote, a stylish abstract digital print by Berrisford Boothe, has a grainy, video-like texture. A column running down the middle recalls a film-strip with the horizontal frame-borders removed so as to suggest the seamlessness of projected film. Its contents are bluish, aqueous and drippy. Outside is warmer with tan, reddish ochre and whitish green. The middle strip is flanked by four symmetrical, semi-circular curves running up and down. The right and left edges are blackened with flame-like streaks.

Grace Hartigan is veteran Abstract Expressionist painter, currently in her eighties. Her lithographic diptych is entitled Cleopatra and Marie Antoinette and features thick brushy black lines against colored fields—blue and yellow respectively. They form organic, loosely figural clumps. The work has a remarkable material presence.

As exciting as it is to see some of these artists in an Ithaca gallery, the actual work is unexpectedly uneven. The result is that Selections stands as merely another compelling but imperfect Ink Shop show. Viewed positively, this attests to the strength of the collective's own homegrown talent.

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