Making strong impressions
Print exhibit “Pressed” is proof that some art needs to be seen up close
There are certain things an artist can say by making a woodcut or lithographic impression that can’t be said any other way. This is one of the pulls for any artist to the demands of printmaking, which requires exacting technique and specialized equipment. And it is the pull into “Pressed,” the rich and sometimes surprising new show of six contemporary printmakers at Skidmore’s Schick Gallery.
Nearly all art is at itsbestseeninthe flesh in a gallery. If you think that lithographs and woodcuts, since they are made in multiples on paper like photographs, and since they are often rather small, might reproduce just fine, think again. And absolutely not here. The tactile, materially rich objects in “Pressed” do have to be seen to be understood.
For starters, some of the work is huge. Tom Huck’s comic, epic woodcut, “The Transformation of Brandy Baghead,” is some 6 feet tall and almost as wide in three sections. And it has room for a complex riot of entangled figures printed in dark ink on bright white paper in a kind of alternative comic book style (think Robert Crumb out of control and life size). The large effect is overwhelming, but there is a hint of sense in the nonsensical details—women fighting, food flying, shackles and scissors, a Viewmaster and an unhappy cat, flames and headpieces and masks, and an improbable pageant queen. Is there a commentary about beauty and gender stereotyping here? Probably.
The equally imposing woodcuts of Sean Caulfield are more mainstream as illustrations, but they still exaggerate, inventing improbable contraptions with logs and flames and whatnot. And a third artist making woodcuts, Karen Kunc, wanders a more familiar path (and more usual size), plying color onto rounded abstract shapes in formally attractive terms. Without narrative pull, Kunc’s woodcut prints depend on the visual pleasure of the very tactile layering of pigment on the paper.
The strange, finely executed narrative lithographs by Kathryn Polk give us situations of women in crisis, or in moments of what I would call self-doubt, though any interpretation steps on thin ice. In “Let This Be a Warning,” a woman dressed in an open overcoat showing a slip, her hair in bobby pins, is wielding a kind of wimpy divining rod. Near her feet, clad in athletic socks, is a glass of water tipped over. Her face is relatively blank, or curious, or maybe resigned.
The prints most requiring a personal visit to the show must be those by Miguel Aragon, which have a subtle dimensional aspect that is essential to their shifting, elusive, haunting imagery. The label reads “burnt residue embossing,” which sounds like pushing a pliable paper against an uneven plate (embossing) that has some charred quality surface (transferring a faint burst residue). This is almost a return to the most basic printmaking methods before the discovery of ink, though here the paper is pressed against a cardboard surface that has been cut with a laser.
For his source material, Aragon appropriates Mexican newspaper photographs of people killed in the drug war. The results are filled with hints of tragedy, and yet only in the barest traces of evidence left in the bright gallery, many steps removed from brutal reality—much as a viewer in upstate New York is necessarily distant from what is truly happening there. It takes some negotiating, and maybe squinting, to get the figures to rise out of the little jolts and bumps scattered over each surface.
If printmakers occupy a curious corner of the arts, equally hampered and enabled by their cumbersome craft, they also come through with works that make the most of deliberation and execution. Through size, material, imagination, and sheer innovation, these six artists make physical proof of the ongoing relevance of their techniques.
■ Where: Schick Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
■ When: Through Nov. 28
■ Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-thursday, 10 a.m.4 p.m. Friday, 12-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
■ Info: www.skidmore.edu/ schick or 518-580-5049
William Jaeger is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.
Above, Kathryn Polk,“Beside Myself,” 2018, stone and plate lithography.