Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: Ashley Cook

Writer

Printmaking @ DIA

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts All image courtesy of Ashly Cook.

On view at the Detroit Institute of Arts is an exhibition that focuses on printmaking with over 60 works by local, national and international artists. Clare Rogan, who is the Curator of Prints & Drawings at the DIA, unpacks the magic of printmaking through placards that explain some of the most widely used processes and their history dating back to 700 AD in China. Since the first moment that ink was applied to a carved plate and pressed onto paper, it became evident that this new technology would change the trajectory of creative expression forever. Printmaking, unlike drawing or painting, allowed for the production of multiples, which gave artists a chance to produce more and reach a broader audience while still remaining true to their vision. Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century presents a plethora of practices including woodcuts, aquatints, linocuts, screenprints, lithographs, intaglios, relief collagraphs, letterpresses, monoprints, etchings, drypoints, spitbites, photo etchings and engravings. While the featured artists draw inspiration from a lineage over 1300 years old, the works in this exhibition span from the year 2000 until now.

The Schwarz Galleries of Print and Drawing is where you can find this show. Depending on which door you enter, you will receive the body of work differently; however, all guests will walk away, having witnessed the breadth of concerns these printmakers have addressed. Experimentation is particularly evident in works like Shadows II by William Kentridge, Arise by Fred Wilson, Aerial #3 by Susan Goethel Campbell, and Untitled by Tara Donovan. Each of these pieces participates in conversations of abstraction through investigations of material and process. Visually, experimentation by printmakers seems to have furthered aesthetic potential and often achieved deeply mystical outcomes. Many times the printmaker’s multi-step process of creating is mysterious; the informative literature throughout the show satisfies the curiosity a fascinated viewer may have.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Aerial #3, Monoprint printed in brown and black ink with hand punching on kozo paper, 2010. All images by Ashley Cook

 

Kota Ezawa, X3D, Color aquatint on paper, edition 3/35, 2009.

For those who prefer representation, this show also has what you’re looking for. While experimentation is still evident in pieces like Watermark by Nicole Eisenman and X3D by Kota Ezawa, there is as much concern for producing a legible illustration as there is for exploring the different ways to do so. There are also impressively complex representations of birds in Dying Words by Walton Ford and bugs in The Bestiary of Museum Visitors Notable Bird Beaks of American Museum History Exhibition Paradise and Perdition Thorny Territory by Mark Dion. These two, however, utilize more traditional methods of printmaking to explore the possibilities of realism, which highlights yet another of printmaking’s many facets.

 Further into the exhibition is On Press Project: Prints for Non-profits organized by Detroit-based printshop Signal Return which invited local artists to produce posters for non-profits in the Detroit area. There are 24 linocut and letterpress posters that were made between 2018 and 2022 that bring awareness to organizations including Detroit Hives, Black Family Development, Keep Growing Detroit, Freedom House, The Children’s Center and Greening of Detroit. Amongst them are posters for Detroit Will Breathe, an activist group that represents and supports Detroit’s participation in the global Black Lives Matter movement. These simple yet powerful protest posters silently shout DEMOCRACY FOR ALL! and remind us of the essential role that printmaking has held in the realm of activism throughout time. Signal Return spent much of 2020 producing protest posters for Black Lives Matter activists free of charge, which have fueled the demonstrations in the streets. This gesture is not new; researching images of human rights marches throughout history, we see that mass-produced messages designed by artists and produced by printmakers have been critical.

Clinton Snider, Greening of Detroit, Linocut, 2021.

This exhibition does not shy away from themes of colonization and the oppression of marginalized groups. It confidently moves on to explore more ways in which printmaking can be a functional approach to critiquing such realities while honoring and supporting those who are challenged with underrepresentation. Curated into the show is a series of printed medical-grade masks by world-renowned political artist Ai Weiwei. They were created in 2020 and sold to raise money for Covid-19 relief programs like Human Rights Watch, Refugees International and Doctors without Borders. Sultana’s Dream is a large-scale imaginative series that depicts the array of achievements of women who live in a world free from the laws and wars of men. The purpose of these images is to illustrate a short novel by Bengali writer and women’s rights activist Rokeya Sakhamat Houssain.

Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei MASK, Screen prints on polypropylene masks, unlimited edition, 2020. 

Additionally, the beautiful life-size works of artist Dyani White Hawk represent the dentalium dresses worn by indigenous women of North America. Roger Shimomura addresses anti-Asian racism through his depiction of childhood memories as a boy living in Japanese internment camps during WWII. Robert Pruitt illustrates the complexities of Black identities through an image of a female basketball player with the Black Panther Party slogan “Black is Beautiful” on her jersey. Hernan Bas presents the male characters of Hardy Boys mystery novels with fairy wings to challenge gender norms and the disparagement of homosexuality. It would be safe to assume that nearly half of the works on display in this exhibition were done as a product of material experimentation with something to learn. In contrast, the other half was done as a product of support with something to say. The common thread is that they all require a curious urge to explore and an open mind to appreciate.

Exhibition view of Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century.

Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts until April 9, 2023, accessible with the museum general admission pass.

 

Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration @ Flint Institute of Arts

View of exhibition entrance with a large-scale digital print of St. George and the Dragon by Donato Giancola, oil on panel, 2010. All photos: Ashley Cook

The role that enchantment has played in the history of storytelling dates as far back as 2100 BC with The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is considered the point of emergence of the hero’s journey and various fantasy archetypes that we know so well today. The dragons, great floods, serpents and treks through the underworld are just some of the elements that have reliably appeared in scenes of imaginative tales told through time, so much so that the world-building efforts of fantasy writers have constructed an actual parallel universe complete with its own rules, landscapes, species and lessons. Since this first rendition of the dragon, writers and illustrators have contributed to further developing this place that conveniently mirrors our own to serve as a tool for catharsis, entertainment and morality. Enchantment: A History of Fantasy Illustration is the first ever full-scale exhibition to take a serious look at the expanse of this genre and its influence on the history of art, religion, popular culture, and subcultures, with a timeline of works spanning from as early as 1589 to as current as 2021.

Justin Gerard, Lair of the Sea Serpent, watercolor on paper, 2019.

 Two large galleries of the Flint Institute of Arts have been reserved for over 150 original works; the collection was curated by Jesse Kowalski of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, where Enchantment was first shown. It is not surprising to learn that Kowalski has worked on a number of exhibitions that highlight illustration and fantastical subject matter. A text for this exhibition asserts that “the many facets of fantasy illustration have often been misunderstood or overlooked” and this observation seems to be one of the driving forces behind these curatorial efforts.

Hendrick Goltzius, Creation of the Four Elements, illustration, 1589.

 Guests who are familiar with the Henry and Hodges galleries of the museum may notice the walls were freshly painted to set the tone for the rich colors and dreamy compositions of the show. Appropriate to the setting, the styles in which most of these pieces were done employ classical techniques like oil painting, etching, watercolor, and pencil drawings, with the occasional works rendered digitally by the 21st-century artists of the group. One may even occasionally forget that they are looking at scenes from a world of mythical landscapes and not from our own classical kingdoms of the past, as there is so frequently a thematic and aesthetic overlap between the two. Artworks like A Deep Sea Idyll by Herbert James Draper, Garden of Hope by James Gurney, or Allegory by Omar Ryyan place terrestrial beings and elements into impossible realities with a conviction akin to the old masters, and this blurring of the boundaries between imagination and reality is what makes fantasy so powerful.

Herbert James Draper, A Deep Sea Idyll, oil on canvas, 1902.

 The show has the potential to please visitors of many ages and backgrounds. For those whose palates are less versed in the world of fantasy, the exhibition space becomes a place for learning, with many sources of in-depth information and insight to contextualize the surrounding works. Along with exhibition texts focused on some essential aspects of fantasy including storytelling, adventure and the play between good and evil, there are also information plaques about each individual artwork which note the background of the artist and their role in the lineage of fantasy illustration. Taking in this information may be as enjoyable as basking in the quality of the material application or the beautifully carved frames surrounding the art, but for the visitors who are fantasy connoisseurs, it could be particularly special to read that some of the artworks before them were made for productions as big as The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. In fact, almost all of the artworks included in the exhibition have played an important role in the history of fantasy illustration throughout time.

Gustave Doré, Little Red Riding Hood, antique woodcut on thick wove paper, 1880.

 What is interesting about this show is the breadth of work it covers, successfully linking old masters like Gustav Doré, Hendrick Goltzius, Arthur Rackham and Howard Pyle with emerging artists like Victo Ngai and Wayne Barlow. Despite all of the artworks being displayed in a traditional museum style, framed and hung on a wall, many of them were actually originally produced for films and books. There are comic book illustrators like Hal Foster with a drawing from the Prince Valiant series and Dan Dos Santos with the illustration of Red Rose made for Fables. Then we have pulp fiction illustrator Mark Zugs with The Princess of Mars, which was produced for the cover of Mars Trilogy, a compendium which contains original novels originally released in 1917-1919 by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Henry Clarence Pitz’s Dark Water then brings us back to the early 20th-century ink on paper renderings, predated by the oil painting The Other Side by Dean Cornwell, yet throughout this extensive lineage, a strange consistency has been handed down from generation to generation that allows for almost anyone who has been read a fairy tale to feel at least somewhat at home.

Wayne Barlow, Demon Minor, acrylic on illustration board, 2018.

Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration opened September 24, 2022 and is on view until January 8, 2023. Please visit https://flintarts.org/ for more information.

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