Bruce Brown, independent curator and former director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), recently noted (in a panel about printmaking, in conjunction with a show he did about Maine printmakers) that the Maine art world this season has been all about prints. My season has been no exception.
Two shows at my own museum, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, have been about prints. The first, Fantastic Stories: The Supernatural in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Prints, focuses on the presence of ghosts and supernatural beings in gorgeous, hyper-colored, intricately-patterned Japanese woodblock prints. (On view til March 3rd)
The second, which I worked on more extensively, is a memorial exhibition to David Becker, a ’70 Bowdoin alum, print collector/curator/scholar, and extremely generous donor to the museum. Between his gifts and the bequest of his estate (he died in 2010), the Bowdoin Art Museum received 1500 artworks from him, mainly prints. And among the prints are absolute masterpieces: from fine, early impressions by Dürer, Rembrandt, Parmigianino, and Piranesi, to contemporary prints by Jim Dine, Elizabeth Murray, and Kiki Smith, and everything in between. To capture just the tip of the iceberg of these diverse riches in an exhibition of about 80 prints, it was decided (before I arrived) that the show would be organized by letters of the alphabet, each representing a theme, and was titled Printmaking ABC: In Memoriam David P. Becker. As the name suggests, the themes would introduce some of the techniques of printmaking (L for Lithography, W for Woodcut), but also take on thematic subject matters that were well-represented in Becker’s collection, because they were dear to his heart (A for Alphabet – he loved writing manuals and typography, another layer to the appropriateness of the show’s organization; P for Political Activism, T for Trees).
As part of the three-person curatorial team at BCMA, I was extensively involved in deciding what the themes would be and which prints would be in the show (though those two processes were reversed), and then writing texts for certain groupings. Through this, I now know the difference between various printmaking processes – knowledge I did not previously possess.
Hung in clusters by theme, on rich saffron-colored walls, the show looks great. We’ve only received positive feedback thus far, including in a guestbook that has been very actively used, inviting those who knew Becker to reflect on his legacy. There will also be an event on January 31st and February 1st, a two-day symposium of major print scholars and friends of Becker, that will do just that.
The biggest drawback to the show is that there’s just too much there: the prints are rich, small, intimate, detailed, and there are so many of them. Becker was all about close-looking and this show rewards that, but one can only do so much of it. Focusing on the whole of the show, I feel even I haven’t done the kind of intimate looking these prints deserve; when I do, I still find things I’m surprised by. I live with it everyday, and I don’t think I’ll be able to really absorb it all by the time it closes, on March 24th.
I mentioned a print show curated by Bruce Brown: I am referring to Prints: Breaking Boundaries, at the Portland Public Library, sponsored by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The explores the ways contemporary Maine printmakers are moving beyond traditional printmaking techniques, incorporating collage, assemblage, installation, three-dimensional surfaces and other supports, and digital printing.
The panel discussion, also mentioned above, that accompanied the show included three artists from the exhibition: Adrienne Herman (a Smithie, like me!), Karen Adrienne (confusing, isn’t it?), and Damir Porobic. The most interesting point that came up in their discussion was that with the increasing hybridization between the various visual arts, the constantly emerging new combinations of media, printmaking is escaping its perhaps once inferior position among them.
Another Bruce Brown print show up in Maine now is Dorothy Schwartz: Evolution of a Printmaker, at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. She is also a Smithie, and the wife of a former music professor at Bowdoin. I plan to check out the show this Friday during the Portland art walk. I’ll let you know what else is of note!