Jane Glaubinger Curator of Prints
Stolen Faces 1991. Annette Lemieux (American, b. 1957). Three offset lithographs; 229.8 x 123.6 cm overall. John L. Severance Fund 1999.326.a–c
Contemporary printmakers explore diverse ideas. While some artists reinterpret traditional printmaking techniques, others experiment with new technologies or print on unusual materials. New large-format papers and presses allow prints to rival the scale of paintings that dominate the field of vision. Printmakers today are free to work realistically or abstractly and to examine a multiplicity of subjects.
The past 25 years have brought not only political and social turmoil and strife but also computer technology and rapid communication networks that promote a more global perspective. Annette Lemieux’s Stolen Faces (1991) acknowledges the incessant hostilities and the ubiquity of the photograph in our experience of the modern world. The pixelated faces of anonymous soldiers resemble people on television news shows who wish to hide their identities. A war photograph is represented on the right panel as the image would be seen on a black-and-white television while on the left is its color television counterpart. The central panel of the triptych further dramatizes the anonymity of war with an image of only the pixelated heads of soldiers, disembodied, as if vaporized by the technologies of war, photography, and electronic mass media.
Christiane Baumgartner’s work also reflects political events. She evokes her childhood in Communist East Germany through themes of anonymity and surveillance. Huge woodcuts like Amsterdam (2005),a scene of cars speeding down a superhighway at night,are based on frames from videos the artist films from a moving vehicle. She selects impersonal views of bleak urban landscapes overlaid with a grid of horizontal lines that swell and narrow, producing grainy optical effects that recall old untuned black-and-white television images and expressionistically lit film noir movies set in spartan surroundings. The freeway symbolizes freedom of movement as well as the network of environmentally destructive motorways that now crisscross Europe, allowing too many people in oversize cars to travel at top speed.
The River (State) 2003. Ellsworth Kelly (American, b. 1923). Lithograph; 101.6 x 276.9 cm. Gift of Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro 2004.66
Frank Moore, who died from AIDS-related complications in 2002, increasingly grappled with issues like environmental degradation in such works as Oily Rainbow (1999),which depicts a landscape despoiled by oil wells, factory smoke, and acid rain. Man’s relationship to nature is a prominent topic addressed by a variety of approaches in the exhibition. During a visit to Basel, Switzerland, Ellsworth Kelly stood on the balcony of his hotel room, mesmerized by reflections of the lights from a nearby bridge onto the rapid and rugged flow of the Rhine as it raced by. The scene inspired Kelly to execute The River (State) (2003),a monumental lithograph that juxtaposes four equal vertical sections, each of which depicts the river as uneven bands of black and white at a different angle, intensifying the sensations of shimmering light and rushing water. All of Kelly’s work is based in nature, on his observations of the world, distilled into pure, abstract shapes.
Other artists use realism to investigate intensely personal matters. Female practitioners, battling to be recognized, are often concerned with issues of identity. Banshee Pearls (1991) was the first work in which Kiki Smith focused on her experience as a woman. “It’s the internalized self/cultural hatred of feminine stuff,” she said. “To me it’s much scarier to be a girl in public than to talk about the digestive system.” Banshee Pearls, made up of ten lithographs, includes dozens of self-portraits and round, traditionally feminine symbols. It presents the human body forthrightly, as imperfect but beautiful, and suggests a summoning of ancient female spirits—the banshees of Irish folklore who foretell a death with a high-pitched wail—a kind of mystical pearl unearthed from a patriarchal past.
Born 2002. Kiki Smith (American, b. 1954). Lithograph; 172.9 x 142.5 cm. Gift of Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro 2004.34
More recently Smith edited myths and fairy tales with subtle feminist revisions. Little Red Riding Hood, while taking food to her ailing grandmother, meets a wolf in the forest. Learning her purpose, he rushes ahead and devours grandmother and then Little Red Riding Hood herself when she arrives at the cottage. Born (2002) illustrates the episode in some versions of the tale where the women are saved by a hunter who cuts them out of the wolf’s stomach. Smith presents them standing in cloaks with the wolf forming a semicircle below, an allusion to images of the Virgin Mary on a crescent moon. Smith depicted both figures as self-portraits, suggesting many feminine apprehensions, from adolescent rites of passage to aging.
Portraiture is also the basis of Lucien Freud’s work, but he has redefined the genre through dispassionate and unflinching scrutiny of the human body. Unnatural distortions and radical compositional arrangements reinforce penetrating psychological tension. By eliminating any background or context, the subject confronts the viewer in a frank but unnerving way. Large Head (1993), a dramatic and powerful portrait, depicts the Australian performance artist and transvestite fashion designer Leigh Bowery, who at 240 pounds and a height of seven feet had an outsized presence. He sat for some ten paintings and four etchings so that Freud knew him well and could portray him honestly, revealing not just his physiognomy but also his inner emotional life. “I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them,” Freud commented. “Not having a look of the sitter, being them.”
Large Head 1993. Lucien Freud (British, 1922–2011). Etching; 79.3 x 63.4 cm. John L. Severance Fund 1996.233
Fresh Prints: The Nineties to Now offers just a glimpse of the multitude of prints produced in the past two and a half decades. While some artists look inward to personal issues, others look to the larger world for inspiration. Political and social upheaval, feminism, ecology, and AIDS, which has dramatically changed the view of life and death, are just some of the topics addressed, along with formal issues such as design and color. Whether made by well-known artists or newcomers, prints continue to offer visual stimulation and provocative ideas.
Cleveland Art, March/April 2015