Prints have been around for centuries, but they continue to reflect the present. NoDef Art Writer Kathy Rodriguez recently went to Antenna Gallery to see how a group working in New Orleans today fit into the medium's long tradition.
The print is one of the oldest forms of visual communication known to modern man. Handprints are the most singularly unique human markers, and a common motif in parietal art, specifically cave paintings. At Chauvet cave in southern France, smudged red handprints date from some 30,000 years ago. Either by blowing material around the positive form of the hand, creating a negative shape, or by stamping their pigment-coated palms, humans marked their presence on walls in ancient graffiti. The Chinese invention of paper shortly into the second century C.E. inevitably led to the dissemination of prints. Carved woodblocks stamped onto sheets of paper relayed texts and images over and over again, resulting in multiples of layers and copies.
The barrage of images that now illustrates the world thus began. Eventually, with increases in technology, exponentially increasing numbers of images and texts began to flow into visual culture. Essentially printmaking is about these things: multitudes of information and the ability to reach far and wide with it. Images communicate directly without the limits of verbal language, and with printmaking they travel quickly and easily.
Ron Bechet, professor of art at Xavier University, notes the power of visual communication in a short release about his recent curatorial effort at Antenna Gallery, titled What We Can Do. Bechet references bell hooks (née Gloria Watkins), a critic, writer, and intellect on a variety of topics including gender and race, who says in an often quoted quote, “If I do not speak in a language that can be understood, there is little chance for a dialogue.” Bechet defines the image as the most direct language, and he hoped to foster dialogue with it among the five artists included in this show. All are female, all have some association with the print in their work, and at the time none of them knew each other. Bechet found that anonymity alarming, and felt that it was important for these artists, who shared his respect for their persons and art, to engage with each other in meaningful conversation through linked themes in their art and practice.
Since all the artists were community involved, Bechet felt they would create a powerful community among themselves. The best way to do this was to group them in this show. Besides resulting in multiples, printmaking is also inherently collaborative. Many hands and eyes work the steps of the process and the meticulousness of the practice. And, the equipment is expensive, heavy, and large. One well-outfitted space serves many as a means to image-making and professional networking. The collaboration of printmaking is echoed in the design of the group exhibition. In general, the work in group shows has to work together. The process of printmaking and exhibition design is a metaphor for the community Bechet hoped to generate.
Though the theme of printmaking generally unified the show, other themes emerged. There was a tension within the work based in the ancient opposition of man and nature and the otherness that relationship defines. It’s a theme deftly represented by those centuries-old graffitists and these heirs to the visual tradition.
Organic imagery in small-scale, mostly monochromatic, lithographic and encaustic works by Vanessa Adams are ghostly and complex. Adams layers expressive lithography and transparent wax to make ethereal portraits of humans and wildlife. Multiple layers of prints and translucency between them suggest inextricably interlocked, and extremely complex, memories and narratives hesitantly told to the viewer. The artist herself is the other to the viewer.
Pippin Frisbie-Calder, a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design’s prestigious printmaking program, also depicts nature: an approachably sized etching of sergeant fish paired with a monumental woodblock print of a cypress tree. Frisbie-Calder works in the tradition of Japanese woodblock printing, the kind used in the famous print The Great Wave of Kanagawa from the early 1830s. This was the first of a monumental series of 36 images depicting Mount Fuji by the artist Hokusai. In it, a proportionately skewed swell frames the strangely small but stoic peak, which watches as fishermen are pitted against the swelling strength of the water. The wave pushes against intrepid fishermen, who push back in their fragile boats. Like Fuji, the men take strength from the land, but both they and the mountain are vulnerable against the scale of the water. Frisbie-Calder suggests a similar confrontation with nature, as her fish stream forward toward the front of the picture plane with mouths bared, and her gigantic and complex print of the cypress, which symbolizes immortality, looms over the viewer in economic black and white.
Christine Bagneris, Toni Graham, and Katrina Andry use the figure to explore ideas of identity, and the opposition of self to other. Bagneris’ paintings look like depictions of weird birds at first, but then a face skewed across a curved surface reveals itself. Bagneris touches on ideas of abjection and unification by smearing a figure across a silhouette of a figure. Like Adams, she creates an otherness with the viewer. Graham’s extremely meticulous stippled drawings depicting post-Katrina urban decay are next to a self-portrait – linking the artist to the architecture. With her gaze and proximity to the architectural drawings, Graham defiantly reveals the truth of destruction, the other to community progress. True, neither artist uses traditional printmaking in the work. But the imprinted impressions of figures in Bagneris’ paintings and the repeated stamping of a pen tip in Graham’s drawings touch on the idea and process of printmaking.
Andry’s large-scale block prints explore racial otherness and are the most obvious example of that theme. The breasts of a blackface figure in Western Interpretation of the Other peek through her outfit of bananas and pineapples, like a defiant Josephine Baker. The figure poses like a classical Venus, her arms gracefully curving around her body as her gaze demurely averts from the viewer. Surrounding the figure are repeated curvilinear shapes that are abstract enough to read like rouged butts and breasts, testicles, or cloven feet. Andry combines Western traditions of beauty with its opposites in a figure whose gaze might not be as much a coy downward glance, but rather a refusal to entertain any question to her authority.
Bechet also organized a blog – whatwecandoblog.wordpress.com – that the artists could use to communicate with each other during the show. It looks like a work in progress. The artists linked websites and made friendly posts to each other, and Bagneris provides a critical self-analysis of her work that reads like a brief thesis. Otherwise the discourse is sparing, if at all evident. It’s a physical sign that the images speak louder than words, but also suggests that the real collaboration happens in the making of the work or the show itself. We must use language to become visually literate, to communicate about the world we see. But it is the artist’s role to communicate through images first, as they reach from the art world into other environs.
Antenna Gallery is located at 3161 Burgundy St. The exhbition runs through August 7.