Master Printers, Printmakers Speak in Pictures at the Zimmerli
A guide to art for children advises museum visitors to be selective and to try to avoid seeing all the artworks at once. It suggests picking a few to examine closely and "to engage them in silent conversation through your eyes."
To give a fair account of a show like the one that opened December 6 at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, a reviewer has to converse with more than a few of the works on display. The exhibit's name, "Newer Genres: Twenty Years of the Rutgers Archives for Printmaking Studios," suggests the extent of ground to be covered. It's not an inviting title. But, in fact, it's the only thing about the Zimmerli show I would criticize. It doesn't do justice to the wide array of lithographs, chromolithographs, pigment and acrylics, acquatints, etchings, and monotypes, among others, that make a treat for the eyes.
The exhibit could be compared to a cocktail party alive with fascinating company. Lots of New Yorkers are on hand, of course, but there are also master printers and artists from the Bay Area, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, even South Nyack, N.Y. My first "conversation" was with a man in an unidentifiable uniform whose head was a mushroom cloud. This explosive character was depicted in neutral tones except for his tie, which featured the atomic energy symbol and a red dot, the only point of true color. This was moviemaker Bruce Connor's Bombhead, from Magnolia Editions studio in Oakland, California.
The next encounter, Richard Shaw's Fairy Tales 2001, a lithograph from the same studio, could be compared to a meeting with someone adept at mind-games, a juggler of enigmas who asks more questions than he answers. Fairy Tales dazzles you with elements of show business, billboard fragments, an enormous shattered china cup and saucer, a witch on a broomstick, a scattering of playing cards, a raven, and a pagoda. Mr. Shaw also offers the scissors he may have used to cut things up, as if to say: "Take these and put together your own fairy tales." In viewing it, I recalled some of my own memorable experiences with childhood storybooks, not to mention comic books. I was probably only slightly less dazzled by images from the brilliant Carl Barks covers for various Donald Duck adventures and the full-page dynamics of Classics Illustrated scenes from Les Miserables than I was years later when I was overwhelmed by an exhibit of Van Gogh in Amsterdam that made the real world look small and tame.
In the exhibit, Terry Allen's acquatints from Teaberry Press in San Francisco have titles that are almost as important as the images: Broken Hand Angel, where Death kneels behind some kneeling mortal, and Secret Admirer, which shows Mr. Bones again, this time leaning over the form of a female pianist. As you move through the show, you become aware of an insistent, virtually constant undertone, as if someone were obsessively chanting a melancholy litany. At first you might think it's a deranged museumgoer. But eventually you find out that what you have been hearing is an audio-video installation from the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper. Pepin Osorio's Lullaby for Mother is a screenpainted carpet featuring the lifesize photographic image of a barefoot mother in jeans holding her baby face to face as she sings to it. Her hypnotic monotone may eventually get on your nerves.
The "Newer Genres" concept doesn't really cover some of the most representative pieces on display. Even the one chosen for the Zimmerli Newsletter, Andrew Raftery's Open House: Dutch Colonial, 2002, is a retro chromolithograph image of a familiar scene that fits right into the party context, with people conversing, pictures on the wall, and Mission furniture in evidence. The gathering could as easily be taking place in 1932 as 2002. Or look at Philip Pearlstein's untitled etching from the X Press studio in New York showing a nude in the foreground at a window overlooking New York rooftops more redolent of the early twentieth century than today. Out of all these vivid conversations, there are limits to what can be squeezed into a mere review. Stay with the party idea and think of the individuals you can fairly say will haunt you on the drive home. For me, these would be two works, both of a hazy orangish hue that blended with the setting sun's steady orange-gold glare on my return to Princeton. One, from the Lisa H. Mackie studio, was Nola Zirin's The Russian Girl, a face in soft-focus, closeup, whose large eyes are looking right at you above a fragment torn from a Lufthansa schedule. It was hard to think in terms of "newer genres" when the face might not be out of place in a sketch by Rembrandt or Durer. A second example was Ellen Peckham's muted but fiery crucifixion scene,from Yama Prints in New York. It also gave aesthetic overtones to the sunset. In it, figures appear to be lowering the cross with Christ still on it, using cables, or guy wires. The image evoked, no doubt inadvertently, last April's toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein.
Many more could be mentioned: Steve Murakishi's Sprawl Culture, Jane Dickson's Cops and Headlights, Phyllis Plattner's Legends II, evoking Mexican folk art, and Elene del Rivero's folio of iris print and four photo etchings documenting the actual dust and debris of 9/11 on objects in her studio. When you emerge from these encounters in an exhibit as well arranged, varied and vivid as this one, your senses should be heightened, your perceptions sharpened, and the colors of the world should stand out more intensely. You may even enjoy the notion that the sound of jazz on the car stereo makes an excellent counterpoint to your lingering sense of the rhythm of the show. In other words, you should feel that you've come out of a cocktail party where the conversation never flagged and the drinks were potent.
If you want to meet all these fascinating people, you can find them in the Voorhess Special Exhibition Gallery (and on CD-Rom) at the Zimmerli Museum, located on Hamilton Street on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, from now until March 24. Museum admission is $3 (except museum members, Rutgers students, and staff). Hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., weekends noon to 5 p.m.