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Meet the Presswomen
By David Brickman

Girl Printers: Talented Women Strut Their Stuff!\
Mandeville Gallery, Union College, through Dec. 7

Admit it—you take the printer’s art entirely for granted. After all, you’ve got an inkjet printer of your own, it does a great job when it works, and it’s no big deal. Right? But what about letterpress? Never heard of it? OK, here’s the real deal—a show of amazing stuff at the Mandeville Gallery at Union College. Most of it is produced by the old-fashioned, hand-turned letterpress process, and it’s all by women. (Whom, by the way, we are no longer allowed to take for granted.)

The art of craft: Felicia Rice’s Codex Espangliensis.

 

Mind you, Girl Printers: Talented Women Strut Their Stuff! is not an art show, per se. Printing is a skill, a craft even, but it’s a guild-level tradition in which the printer is more a technician than a creator, with centuries of hard-won working-class pride and history. Hence, among the nearly countless objects in this selection are many for which the creative functions were performed by people other than the press(wo)man whose name is on the label—artists, designers, authors, publishers—i.e., clients who’ve hired the printer to make the thing on display.

And that’s perhaps the No. 1 aspect of this show that sets it apart from most gallery exhibitions—a hugely collaborative process is being put on view. And there is a great variety of processes, including the aforementioned letterpress (in which type, usually metal but also wooden, is lined up, inked and pressed into a piece of paper so that the ink stays, as does an indentation caused by the pressure, giving the final piece of printed matter a subtle third dimension); woodcut; etching; linoleum block; calligraphy; handmade paper; foil stamping; offset printing; sumi-e; photography; laser printing; inkjet; and more.

The resulting broadsides, invitations, books, announcements, games and other objects are not only beautiful and fascinating to look at, they are remarkably varied in their authorship, intention, cultural value, cost, tone and even language (Polish, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Spanglish—yes!—and of course English are among those represented). The cross-cultural element is, I believe, a clear result of the almost necessarily collaborative nature of printing, where the process requires the client (artist, author, designer or publisher) to work directly with the pressman to get the job done right.

It isn’t necessarily democracy, but it fosters a lot of communication across social boundaries. And if, like me, you think that’s exciting, stimulating—and creative—then you won’t be surprised to see the richness of the results.

Now, before I go on to describe a few examples, let me address the inevitable feminist perspective of this show. As is plainly apparent from the title, it’s a comfortable, elbow-in-the-ribs feminism (thankfully), so there’s no need to get edgy, but it’s there and needs to be placed in context. And to help viewers do that, curator Carol J. Blinn (a printer herself, at her own Warwick Press in Easthampton, Mass.) has placed little cards throughout the installation with excerpts from a questionnaire that the printers answered. The questions range from “Which tools do you like and why?” to “Have you ever felt treated differently in your work because of your gender?” and the answers tell a lot about the craft and culture of printing in late- 20th-century America, from the perspective of these 37 talented and experienced women.

One of the answers posted bears repeating, because it boils down the issue while also mixing it up. Susan E. King, of Paradise Press (all the makers are identified by a press name as well as their own name), wrote, “The world of printing, much like the world of photography, has been a male domain.” Now, I know something about the world of photography—which, in the day of Margaret Bourke-White, was a very male domain. But is it now? Ask Annie Liebovitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Nan Goldin or Sylvia Plachy, all of whom have had awesome careers over the last quarter-century. If anything, their gender has become an advantage in their work, not a disadvantage.

For printers, an ink-stained, macho, machine-oriented bunch, this may be a tougher nut to crack. But I think the transcendent work on view in this show is ample proof that the gender issue is secondary, and that what matters is not any political or cultural struggle, but the process—the human process—that has given us this powerful and stimulating art to look at.

Oops, I just called it art. Well, there you are. Though the authorship roles can shift, and the creator as designated on the labels is not always the printer, the majority of work in this exhibition is art by definition; many of the pieces are artist’s books, with either the printer as the artist or with the inclusion of original art by another person (even a few men, as it happens), such as photography, etchings, woodcuts, even watercolors and other individually hand-done work. So, it’s art—and the results, as I’ve said, are beautiful.

A few examples:

Among the better-represented printers in the show are Lynne Avadenka/Landmarks Press and Elsi Vassdal Ellis/EVE Press, both of whom are looking closely at the interrelationship between Hebrew and Arabic traditions as reflected in language and history. Ellis, working solo, has produced some of the most original and elegant work here. Some of the pieces defy categorization, as with Women Dream, a 2001 set of boxes and folding panels that incorporates Arabic writing and mosaic patterns, lacy veil material and a feather. Her 2003 accordion book Icarus is a melding of columns of text with an ever-growing pile of human skeletons, a potent antiwar tome.

Avadenka works with the Hebrew language and Jewish themes primarily, using her own etchings and drawings, as well as those of other artists. Avadenka has also collaborated on a project with printer Kathryn Clark/Twinrocker in the capacity of papermaker, and Clark in turn has worked with poet William Matthews and calligrapher Brenda Kessler on her own project. So it often goes, round and round.

Many of the best pieces shown are artist’s books grouped together in a side room off the main gallery. Here you’ll find a number of gorgeous pieces by Robin Price/Printer and Publisher, including Language of Her Body, a delicate photography book with Japanese sumi-e brush painting on giclee prints; and the insider’s favorite Slurring at bottom: a printer’s book of errors, in which rejected pages have found a new use.

Also in this room are many beautiful books by Karen Kunc/Blue Heron Press and Coriander Reisbord/The Skeptical Press, who has created a tiny, one-sheet piece in the form of a Moebius strip called Endless Stupid Crush (and who can’t relate to that?).

Nearby are innovative works by Claire Van Vliet/Janus Press, Jean Buescher/ Bloodroot Press and Carol Schwartzott/ Lilliput Press. Van Vliet marries the old and the new, perhaps exemplifying the arc of this exhibition, with Circulus Sapientiae, a colorful accordion book with playful paper pop-ups—and text in Latin.

The show is a whole lot of fun, and very high quality. To the ladies, I say keep on struttin’.

An artists’ reception and talk by Carol J. Blinn, the curator of Girl Printers: Talented Women Strut Their Stuff!, will be held from 4:30 to 6 PM on Thursday, Sept. 18 in the Nott Memorial Gallery on at Union College.


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