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Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

Installation image, Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

If there ever was a bright line of distinction between what we call contemporary fine art and what is now considered to be craft, that line has long ago been crossed and obliterated.  The mixed bag of artifacts on display in the exhibition at Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center from May 6 to June 2 illustrates this, with a range of objects and images that contrast the useful with the expressive, the carefully crafted with the emotionally contingent.  “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” takes us on a tour of the increasingly porous borders between objects that can claim to be fine art, but qualify as craft only because they refer tangentially to traditional crafts and finely handmade objects that are intended for utilitarian purposes.

Wall Vessel V, Constance Compton Pappas, unfired clay, cedar

 

Balanced, Constance Compton Pappas, cedar, plaster, clay

The objects in the exhibition fall roughly into two categories. Works by artists such as Constance Compton Pappas, Dylan Strzynski, Sandra Cardew and Sharon Harper privilege the expressive properties of the materials and push them to the limits of their identity. Often there is a toy-like mood to this work.  Any pretense to utility is deeply submerged beneath the artists’ emotionally poignant themes. Pappas’s wall-mounted, naturally irregular wooden shelves support clay objects that only refer to vessels, and certainly were never intended to function.  They are signs for cups and the considerable pleasure to be derived from them rests upon their rough, stony texture contrasted with the irregularities of the wooden support. Elsewhere in the gallery, Pappas uses the abstract shapes of 3 cast plaster houses, again placed on a raw wood pedestal in a stack, entitled Balanced, that implies a state of wonky precarity.  Dylan Strzynski’s playful, barn-red house model, Attic, made of wood, sticks and wire, suggests a kind of Baba Yaga cottage on legs, poised to jump off its pedestal in pursuit of the viewer. Sandra Cardew’s Boy with Broom continues the preoccupation with play. The subdued color and rough fabric of the golem-child is both a little funny and a little ominous. Sharon Harper’s Pink Trailer makes an interesting kind of mini-installation by hanging a 2-dimensional photo landscape on the wall behind a diminutive clay trailer, suggesting the possibility of travel through wide open spaces.

Attic, Dylan Strzynski, wood, paint, sticks, wire, string

 

Sandra Cardew, Boy with Broom, mixed media assemblage

Danielle Bodine’s wall installation, Celestial Dance, offers a floating population of tiny woven wire and paper elements that might claim to be plankton or might be satellites.  Whatever they are, their yellow starlike shapes weightlessly orbit a larger, spiky planetary body, and cast lively shadows on the wall. The basketry techniques that Bodine has employed for nearly 20 years allow her complete freedom to invent these minute entities in three dimensions.

Sharon Harper, Pink Trailer, low fire clay, photograph

The fiber artist Carole Harris, who has several works in the show, continues to be in a class by herself. From her beginnings as a more conventional quilter, Harris has traveled far and wide, taking inspiration from Asia, Africa and beyond. Her carefully composed, expressively dyed and stitched formal abstractions are emotionally resonant and reliably satisfying. The artist employs a mix of fabrics and papers, along with hand-stitching and applique, with the easy virtuosity of long practice.

Danielle Bodine, Celestial Dance, mulberry and recycled papers cast on Malaysian baskets, removed, stitched, painted, stamped, waxed linen coiled objects, plastic tubes, beads,

Carol Harris, Yesterdays, quilted collage

Russ Orlando’s pebbly pastel ceramic urn-on-a-table, Finding #171, is covered by contrasting buttons and frogs wired to the substrate. The vessel evokes a friendly presence: it wants to know and be known.

Two artists in “Many Voices,” Lynn Avadenka and Karen Baldner, are masters in the craft bookmaking/printing, whose work perfectly balances function and form, though to different ends. Baldner’s snaky, wiggly rice paper centipede of a book, Letting Go, shows how exquisite technique can pair with creative expressiveness to yield an original effect. The restrained elegance of Lynne Avadenka’s handmade screen Comes and Goes III demonstrates that utility and esthetic pleasure need not be mutually exclusive.

Karen Baldner, Letting Go, piano hinge binding with horsehair, mixed media print transfers

 

Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes III, unique folding screen, relief printing, letter press, typewriting, book board, Tyvek

Among the objects in this collection, Colin Tury’s handsome, minimalist metal LT Chair hews closest to traditional ideas of craft, as does Cory Robinson’s smoothly crafted side table, which looks as if it belongs in a hip, mid-century bachelor’s lair.

Colin Tury, LT Chair, aluminum, steel

 

Cory Robinson, Canberra Table, American black walnut

In this time and place, and as illustrated by the artists in “Many Voices,” the categorization of an object as “art” or “craft” has become less and less useful. Historically, crafts based on highly technical knowledge—ceramics, fiber glass and the like –have been assigned a lesser status because of their identity as objects of utility.  It is undeniable too that many of these crafts were practiced by women, which devalued them in the estimation of collectors and galleries. Fortunately, those preconceptions are receding into the past, as artists progress toward a future that is more open to new forms and voices, new materials and subjects.

The artists in “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” are: Kathrine Allen Coleman, Lynne Avadenka, Karen Baldner, Danielle Bodine, Sandra Cardew, Candace Compton Pappas, Nathan Grubich, Christine Hagedorn, Sharon Harper, Carole Harris, Amanda St. Hillaire, Sherry Moore, Russ Orlando, Cory Robinson, Dylan Strzynski, Colin Tury.

Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center runs until June 2, 2022.

 

 

Susan Goethel Campbell:  Second Nature @ David Klein Gallery

Susan Goethel Campbell, Installation Image, Second Nature, David Klein Gallery, photo by DAR.

“This exhibition is a marker of transitions, not permanence,” says multimedia artist Susan Goethel Campbell. In her solo show Second Nature, on view from March 12 – April 30 at David Klein Gallery in Detroit, the artist continues her collaboration with the environment, creating elegiac artworks that speak of impermanence and transition, loss and rebirth. In this latest, process-driven iteration of her ongoing art practice, she collects fugitive elements of the world around her—blossoms, fallen leaves, the shadowy stains of walnuts–and transforms them into potent meditative objects.

Although a printmaker by training, Campbell’s art practice has expanded over time to include video, installation, and environmental and community-based art. Second Nature builds upon her established art practice but adds an element of spirituality, a creative development in her work that she describes as “a reminder of the bridge between life, death, and reformation.” She has produced two separate but related bodies of work for this exhibition that complement and reinforce each other.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Seasonal No. 4, 2022, walnut stains with hand perforation and hand-sewing on Japanese paper, 108” x 59.” Photo: Samantha Bankle Schefman.

Seasonal Series

In Seasonal, a series of five large new works on paper, Campbell has made shadowy dye from walnuts and arranges the resulting translucent, circular brown blotches in loosely symmetrical compositions on sheets of Japanese rice paper. This repetitive dripping process is followed by folding the sheets onto each other and yields a tapestry-like image that seems both random and intentional. The artist employs the resulting dorsiventral symmetry, found throughout nature in most animals and many plants, to imply an adumbral presence. The artworks also immediately call to mind projective psychological Rorschach tests. Tiny, meticulously placed perforations that punctuate the ad hoc stains give emphasis and a kind of ceremonial dignity to the work. The sheets of paper are sutured together by the artist’s hand, creating the effect of subtle scarring, an implication of remembered pain.  The assembled layers have been mounted several inches away from the wall and cast shadows of the perforations on the wall behind the paper, forming a fugitive second artwork behind the foreground image. The resulting pattern drains away from the random quality of the staining in favor of the purely intentional punched design.

Susan Goethel Cambell, Hibiscus Years No. 3, 2022, archival inkjet print, 19” x 25.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

Hibiscus Years

The simple image of a hibiscus blossom, magnified to many times its original size, is the subject—or a pretext for–the digital photography series Hibiscus Years. The routine nature of the flower as a subject in art conceals the true preoccupation of this work: time, beauty, impermanence, and their relation to each other. Each hibiscus blossom, which lasts for only a day, has been fixed in time through digital photography, and the blooms are layered one on top of the other. The resulting composite images in Hibiscus 1-4 are simple re-iterations of the blossom shape; the layers create densely dark centers that transition at the edges to delicate chiffon-like veils of plum, mauve and buff. The torn edges and slightly faded colors undermine the natural prettiness of the image and give them psychological depth. Campbell adds a sense of linear time in Hibiscus Years No. 5 Scroll, with the symmetrical image repeated in a vertical format that calls to mind a roll of film.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Hibiscus Years No. 5, Scroll, 2022, archival inkjet print on Japanese paper, 92 ¼” x 48.” (scrolled) edition of 3. Photo: Tim Thayer.

Perhaps the most mysterious works in the exhibition, both in process and intent, are Hibiscus Years 6 and 7. The images seem both allusive and elusive while being the most purely abstract images in the series. These circular shapes invite and frustrate perceptions; they are both evocative but indistinct, circumventing an easy reading of the image. They withhold meaning that we reach for but can’t touch.  The flat gray of shadows against the milky whiteness of the paper hint at a transcendent reality just outside our field of vision.

Susan Goethel Campbell, Hibiscus Years No. 6, 2022, altered archival digital print, walnut stains, 38” x 12.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

In Second Nature, Susan Goethel Campbell has created a collection of fragile yet resilient poetic images that express the spirit of this moment, a visible and resonant record of the calamitous years we have just experienced.  It has been a time of the pandemic, climate change, political unrest–and now, war. But rather than suggesting that we dwell upon our losses, the artist has found us some solid ground to stand on. She tentatively proposes a spring of renewal, when death is followed by rebirth, growth proceeds from decay and hope wins over sorrow.

Susan Goethel Campbell – Hibiscus Years No. 7, 2022, altered archival digital print, walnut stains, 31” x 29.” Photo: Tim Thayer.

Installation image. Photo by Samantha Bankle Schefman.

Susan Goethel Campbell:  Second Nature @ David Klein Gallery is on view through April 30, 2022.

With Eyes Wide Opened @ Cranbrook Museum of Art

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Sculpture Court and Mixing Chamber, installation, photo: PD Rearick

With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art since 1932 has just opened at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in Bloomfield Hills, to great acclaim and national attention. Covered by the New York Times Magazine with a spiffy video tour and ample media attention both local and national, it’s a hydra-headed beast of a show with many sponsors but no single curator. Objects and images from every period of the Academy’s history compete for space and attention, with no fewer than ten dueling accounts threaded throughout the museum’s seven galleries.

The organizers seem to have had difficulty settling on a single narrative for this exhaustive survey of the Academy’s history–and no wonder. The tapestries, sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs, product prototypes and mass-produced products tell a kaleidoscopic story of the many creative minds whose vision and creativity have emanated from the school over time.

The history of this premier American art institution is told through objects in only piecemeal fashion in the physical exhibit; the accompanying printed volume, a 624-page doorstop of a book, contains a more complete narrative of the school’s history, along with one-page profiles of many (though not all) of the artists and designers represented in the show.

Untitled (Aluchair) by Christopher Schanck (MFA, 3D Design 2011), 2019, aluminum foil, resin Collection Cranbrook Art Museum

At the entrance to the main gallery, visitors can watch American Look. Commissioned in 1958 by Chevrolet, this cold war artifact celebrates many of the post-World War II designed amenities that were newly available to middle class consumers of a certain limited demographic.  Throughout the celebratory video, the “American-ness” of the consumer lifestyle is promoted relentlessly. Even though the uncritical materialism may seem cringe-worthy to a modern viewer, the optimism and can-do mentality expressed in the video amply show why the period beginning in 1950 is often called the American Century. The film provides a good starting point for With Eyes Opened, which takes us on a visual tour not only of the mid-century American esthetic, but also, by implication, through a consideration of how those perceptions and values have grown and changed over time to include contemporary preoccupations with equity, diversity and sustainability.

Model 1601 Stacking Chair by Don Albinson (Cranbrook Academy of Art Sculpture, 1940-1941), 1965, aluminum, nylon, molded plastic. Photo PD Rearick

The video serves as an introduction to one of the more successful elements of the exhibit, which celebrates the modern chair. Designers like Charles and Ray Kaiser Eames and Don Albinson  were uniquely successful at conceptualizing and producing practical, relatively inexpensive and attractive mass production chairs, many instantly recognizable today as fixtures of modern life in home and office.  The chair as a concept unifies this display;  in addition to the mass produced chairs there are a number of hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind examples such as Chris Schank’s Alufoil  Chair and Terence Main’s  Queen Anne, Queen Anne doubled chair. Here, as throughout the exhibit, the organizers have decided to mix the mass-produced and the hand-crafted, without comparing or contrasting the purposes and philosophies involved.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, Sculpture Court, installation. Photo: DAR

The physical and esthetic center of the exhibition, which brings the concept of design and art to a satisfying apotheosis of the handmade and the mass-produced, comes in the Mixing Chamber. There,  the room-sized mural of black and white figures by Cleon Peterson suggests the sensibility of a 21st century Egon Schiele. Tortured, semi-nude bodies surround the wittily conceived bench by Vivian Beer, whose automotive-painted red drape on the slipper shape is at once modern and baroque.

Untitled (Asthma, High Blood Pressure) by Beverly Fishman (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Painting 1992-2019) 2018, urethane paint on wood. Photo: PD Rearick

In the adjacent North Gallery, 34 paintings, works on paper and photographs hang floor to ceiling, with abstraction as the ostensible unifying theme. The hanging of contemporary art salon style is a fraught strategy that calls for sensitively selected and carefully coordinated curation and enough space around each piece to allow the work to breathe.  Here the disparate artworks compete visually, like guests at a crowded cocktail party shouting to be heard.  Beverly Fishman’s brightly colored, sharp-edged geometric polygons (almost) hold their own, and McArthur Binion manages to succeed simply by installing a painting, DNA: Study (Lake St. Clair), too large to share the space with other artwork. As worthy as each piece in the gallery may be, a little editing would have been welcome.

Untitled by Rebecca Ripple (Artist-in-Residence, Dept. of Sculpture, 2017-present) 2016, plastic, aluminum brass, photocopy, pencil, hair, champagne foil. Photo: K.A. Letts

In the Sculpture Court, through the Mixing Chamber ‘s other doorway, Nick Cave’s exuberant  SoundSuit (2012) holds the floor, with a recessive companion, Flamer, by Mark Newport, hanging on the adjacent wall.  Duane Hanson’s provocatively banal figure lounges nearby, unimpressed. Other strong work in the sculpture court includes several fiber pieces which seem to have wandered in, perhaps to provide space between the large and diverse 3-dimensional works–not a bad idea as it turns out. The white-on-white tapestry Montana 30, by Colombian artist Olga de Amaral, made up of small squares of white painted canvas relieved with touches of red, is especially welcome here. Sculptures by artists of the past such as Marshall Fredericks and Carl Milles share the space, more or less peacefully, with artworks by younger artists like Tyanna Buie and Kate Clark. Toward the back of the gallery, James Surl’s spiky mobile floats in its own private galaxy, next to a terrific assemblage by Rebecca Ripple that radiates an ad hoc starburst of Miro-esque energy.

Auburndale Site, Detroit MI (#4) by Object Orange, 2006, archival color photograph, 1/25 Cranbrook Museum of Art. Photo: K.A. Letts

In a small side gallery near the elevators, three photographs by the art collective Object Orange deliver a moment of surreal surprise. From 2005-2007, these (anonymous) Cranbrook graduates undertook a conceptual project called Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland which involved painting–in “Tiggerific” Orange– derelict structures in the city as a form of both public performance and protest. The photographs, brilliant orange structures against bleak gray backgrounds, are arresting, unexpected and a bit melancholy.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, Object Islands, installation, Photo: PD Rearick

The Wainger Gallery, last stop on the main floor galleries, features a clever installation of “object islands,” table height circular plinths that subtly guide the viewer through a broad array of fairly small- scale ceramics, metal objects and product design prototypes. Many of the objects in this gallery are one-of-a-kind art objects in a variety of media, often in unusual combinations, such as Iris Eichenberg’s untitled brooch made of porcelain, silver and linen.

With Eyes Opened takes on a lighter tone in the museum’s lower level gallery with The Menagerie, a whimsical collection of figures and objects inspired by the natural world, from Marshall Frederick’s chunky Two Bears to Stephen Malinowski’s photograph Cafeteria, a surreal bison-in-a-dining room.  The playful theme of The Menagerie is echoed nearby with a small collection of toy and playground designs that, while welcome, seem like an afterthought.

In the adjacent hall gallery, prints and posters highlight Cranbrook’s influential graphic design program. Installed next to printed media that feature collage, photomontage and progressive typography, several unique works hint at the endless formal potential of paper as a medium.  Elizabeth Youngblood’s elegant, silvery process drawing is tucked into a corner near Laurence Barker’s more exuberant hand-made paper piece.  Layers from the Disemboweled Series by Winifred Lutz takes the medium into the realm of expressionism.

Yet Untitled by Elizabeth Youngblood (MFA Design, 1975) 2018, paint, mylar. Photo: Glenn Mannisto

And last–but not least–some of Cranbrook Academy’s most recent graduates inhabit the lower level deSalle Gallery with distinction. Many of these young artists currently live and work in Detroit and continue the Academy’s tradition of excellence in both craft and conception. The growing diversity of the school is on display here, pointing to a more inclusive future, now enabled by the recent $30 million gift from Dan and Jennifer Gilbert to support student diversity.  Ricky Weaver’s gray and white photo-apparitions emanate spirituality, across from Ebitenyefa Baralaye’s Portrait II, a comic-sinister stoneware head.  Around the corner, Marianna Olague’s painting El Pleno Dia seems to emit its own light.  The emerging artists in this gallery demonstrate the continuing influence of the Academy’s alumni on the Detroit art scene and beyond.

With Eyes Opened is multi-faceted, rich and a little chaotic, more of a class reunion than a retrospective.  What comes through loud and clear in this exhaustive–and sometimes exhausting–survey, though, is the Academy’s continued vitality and its ongoing relevance to any discussion of the 21st century designed environment. And really, that’s enough.

Cranbrook Museum of Art, With Eyes Opened, deSalle Gallery, installation, Photo: P.D. Rearick.

Eyes Wide Open at Cranbrook Museum of Art through September 19, 2021

Art + Labor & The Long Goodbye @ MSU Broad

24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Aaron Word/MSU Broad.

COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on how we work; even as we return to normalcy, it remains unclear if the workplace will ever fully return to how things were in pre-pandemic years.  An intimate, single-gallery exhibit at the MSU Broad offers an ensemble of works which explore labor as depicted in art, with a particular focus placed on the ambiguity between domestic vs. work spaces. Anyone who has worked from home this past year will immediately relate to the contents of 24/7: Art + Labor Around the Clock.

This is a show which brings together an eclectic ensemble of photography and works on paper which span just over a hundred years.  Together, these works speak to the notion of work beyond the boundaries of the 9 to 5 workday. COVID forced many of us to work from home, but for many people in certain lines of work this was historically the normative experience.  A trio of anonymous photographs shows workers in telecommunications, textile, and agriculture, all industries which once were performed principally in domestic settings (telephone operators once had switchboards in their homes, for example, so they could be on call day and night).

The Hidden World Collection, (Picture of women working at a telephone switchboard). MSU purchase, Eli and Edythe Broad Fund for the Acquisition of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Two works approach this theme with tongue-in-cheek humor.  In a wry parody of the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, Krithika Varagur and Eric Macomber give us Good Night Zoom; its imagery, color palette, and style echoes that of the original classic, but now our beloved rabbit protagonist is wishing goodnight to the things which have become fixtures of our pandemic-era lives (“Goodnight screens,” for example).  Also approaching the subject with humor is the animated film El Empleo (The Employee) by Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, in which there’s no boundary between work and domestic spaces, and humans are paid to perform the roles of functional, inanimate objects.  The redundant, joyless lives of the film’s characters echo the pulverizing tedium of the fictional worlds envisioned in the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett.

El Empleo (The Employee), Santiago Grasso and Patricio Plaza, 2008.

Some of these works are visually mesmerizing, such as Michael Kenna’s moody, backlit photographs of Dearborn’s Ford Rouge Complex, which manage to turn the factory into something that verges on the sublime and the surreal.  Together, these images seem to suggest that this complex is a living, breathing behemoth that never truly shuts down.

Michael Kenna, The Rouge, Study #1, 1992. MSU purchase, partially funded by an anonymous donor.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Concurrent with (but unrelated to) 24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock, a second gallery space explores the human impact on the planet’s biodiversity.  The Long Goodbye is a considered ensemble of sculptural work by multimedia artist Jenny Kendler, who tactfully integrates the media she uses with the message she delivers. Although inhabiting a comparatively small space, the visual impact of this exhibit is striking.

Nearly filling the length of one of the gallery walls is Whale Bells, a collaborative project by Kendler and glass artist Andrew Bearnot.  This is an ensemble of two dozen functional glass bells.  The ropes for each bell incorporate traditional sailor’s knots, and the clappers are actual fossilized ear bones from Miocene-epoch rorqual whales, the ancestors of today’s humpback.  Kendler makes the point that 5-20 million years ago, these now-extinct whales, equipped with the ability to create music, were once very likely the most culturally advanced entities on earth. Here, the bones that once allowed these whales to perceive sound are now employed as the literal instruments which project sound. The environmental commentary here is understated, but the installation invites us to consider that today’s humpback whale was once an endangered species before it became the center of one of the first international environmental campaigns (Save the Whales) in the 1970s.  Through this installation’s use of sound, we’re also reminded that in recent years noise pollution caused by human commercial activity in the ocean (tand he oil industry in particular) has had a detrimental effect on whales’ migration patterns and mating activity.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The literal centerpiece of this exhibition space is Amber Archive, a circular table on which are displayed approximately 130 fragments from different plant and animal species which are vulnerable to extinction as the direct result of human activity.  Each specimen is individually encased in a glowing orb of amber resin.  These include (among many other things) fragments of bird feathers, whale baleen, and snakeskin.  This installation is visually striking, but it also serves as a sort of DNA time-capsule, not unlike the world’s seed-vaults which aim to preserve and protect Earth’s biodiversity.

Jenny Kendler: The Long Goodbye installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2021. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Each of these two exhibits nicely supplement the Broad’s current lead exhibitions.  Interstates of Mind, with its focus on Michigan’s automotive industry, certainly parallels much of the content of Art + Labor, particularly Michael Kenna’s photographic series on the Rouge automotive plant.  And Kendler’s work certainly underscores Seeds of Resistance in her emphasis on preserving biodiversity.  Taken together, this quartet of exhibitions prompts us to consider the relationship between industry and the environment, and how our commercial pursuits have lasting ecological consequences.

24/7: Art + Work Around the Clock is on view through August 22.

The Long Goodbye is one view through June 27, 2021 at the East Lansing Broad Museum.

Modern American Printmaking @ DIA

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Installation image, Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking, at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking brings together over 75 works of art, from multiple collections, to celebrate and emphasize Blackburn’s unrelenting dedication to a collaborative artistic community and the accessibility of art making to all. The exhibition chronicles Blackburn’s life through visuals and text. Placards strategically placed throughout the exhibit offer breaks between the works and section the pieces based on relevant themes. They also provide visitors a storyline through the exhibit, rather than overwhelming them with a large haphazard grouping of works. At the onset, viewers learn about Blackburn’s beginnings. He was born the child of Jamaican immigrants in Harlem, New York just as the Harlem Renaissance was beginning. New York was also still experiencing the transitional period of the Great Migration, which together brought an influx of Black people who relocated to New York from many other areas of the country.

African American artist Charles Alston was part of the movement to New York from the south.  He played a crucial role in educating Blackburn as a teen and encouraging his interest in art and activism. Similar to Alston, a number of other artists played a role in Blackburn’s artistic development and he, in turn, maintained those values and continually aided other artists throughout the remainder of his life. Blackburn’s establishment of The Printmaking Workshop in 1947 changed the trajectory of many artists’ lives by creating a community and offering a space for artists of various skill levels to learn from each other, experiment, and perfect their technique.

Charles Alston, Young Boy, Charcoal, 1937

The exhibition ebbs and flows through multiple spaces, leading the viewer through a journey and introducing new artists and artistic techniques with every turn. Within the first gallery space is a very distinct 1949 Charles White lithograph, “John Brown”. True to his aesthetic and the conceptual nature of many of his lithographs, the rendering of the solo figure in the work depicts White’s graphic style, brilliant use of light and shadow, and poignant subject matter. John Brown was an American abolitionist leader from the nineteenth century who dedicated his life to ending slavery. Brown’s legacy is two-fold. Within many Black and abolitionist communities, he is thought of as a martyr because of his participation in the assault on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he sacrificed his life. However, he is often criticized as well because of his use of violence within his abolitionist tactics. White’s piece was printed by Blackburn and honors Brown by including the seriousness, determination, and visionary nature that’s applauded as part of his legacy. White and Blackburn maintained a relationship as friends throughout their careers and Blackburn printed many of White’s works.

Charles White, John Brown, Lithograph, 1949

A great majority of the works in the exhibition were printed on paper through linocut, woodcut, and lithograph processes, yet Faith Ringgold’s 1984 “Death of Apartheid #2” was made by intaglio printing with a relief roll on canvas. From the beginning of her career, Ringgold  addressed social issues, often centering on overt and underlying racism. The abstraction in this work makes it particularly interesting because Ringgold’s most well-known works are predominantly figurative. The print also stands out visually because of the simplicity of the curvilinear aspects, the red color choice, and the layering technique used. Nonetheless, the commonality of interests in activism throughout the developed printmaking community was pronounced within many of the artists’ work, including Blackburn’s.

Faith Ringgold, Death of Apartheid #2, Intaglio with relief roll on canvas, 1984

Although small in scale, one work that is prominent within the context of the exhibition is Blackburn’s “Refugees (aka People in a Boat)”. Blackburn printed the work during his late teen years, already displaying his craftsmanship and interest in commentary around complex social issues. The work portrays a group of individuals in a small boat navigating calm water, yet it is subject to multiple interpretive possibilities. The ripples surrounding the paddle boat hint at movement and the simplified landscape offers information regarding the distance between the group and the shore. Their previous location and destination are left as mysteries to the viewer.  Blackburn gives visitors an idea of subject matter and social relevance with the title, leaving the context and more conceptual understandings in the hands of the audience.

Robert Blackburn, Refugees (aka People in a Boat), Lithograph, 1938

Just ten years later, Blackburn’s work experienced a shift to more abstracted forms, which remained a focus throughout the rest of his career. With his friend and teacher, Ronald Joseph, Blackburn began creating vibrant, abstract gouache paintings based on still lifes consisting of everyday objects. As he continued, Blackburn’s works became more abstracted. Many Black artists made a similar decision around the same time, contradicting the expectation of Black artists to concentrate their work solely on addressing social and cultural issues. Joseph and Blackburn instead experimented with the power and visual language of shape, color, and line.

Robert Blackburn, Blue Things, Color Woodcut, 1963-1970

Mildred Thompson’s “The Third Mystery” is installed with no additional descriptive text. Assumptions can be made regarding Thompson’s intention and the meaning of the work, yet what’s most important is always the work itself. What makes the piece stunning and arresting is the centralized grayscale merging within abstracted forms, penetrated from multiple directions and entry points by Thompson’s signature linework.

Mildred Thompson, The Third Mystery, Intaglio, 1990

In keeping with the tradition of Blackburn’s desire to teach and make the process of creating accessible to all, brief definitions, descriptions, and examples of artistic techniques are included in the exhibition. Two small adjacent gallery spaces in the center of the exhibition examine woodcuts and etchings. The two separate spaces showcase works by members of Blackburn’s artists’ community as examples of each process.

Ed Clark, Yucatán Series, Etching, 1977

The exhibition culminates with a color lithograph bookending the show. It highlights the most significant aspect and the connecting thread of the exhibit, Robert Blackburn himself. The image of Blackburn printing from a lithographic stone was created by African American Detroit-born artist Ron Adams the year before Blackburn’s death. After Blackburn’s life of transforming the printmaking realm, investing in the careers of some of the most well-known artists of the last century, and ultimately proving the importance of artistic communities, Adams’s print is a perfect tribute, honoring Blackburn at the end of his life.

Ron Adams, Blackburn, color lithograph on tan paper, 2002

Of course, the exhibition features multiple incredibly brilliant works by Blackburn. Along with his innovation as a printmaker, an overarching theme of the exhibition is his unwavering dedication to the many artists who impacted his life and the lasting printmaking community they became. He wasn’t satisfied with receiving opportunities to create artwork for himself. He wanted printmaking to be available to all artists, at any skill level, and that’s exactly what he created through The Printmaking Workshop over seventy years ago

Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and curated by Deborah Cullen. It will remain on view at the DIA through Sunday, September 5, 2021.

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