By David Brickman
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.)
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
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
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
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.