Commentary: Sheldon show celebrates St. Louis print presses and printmakers in abundant variety
A visitor finds it difficult to move along to the next picture when he’s looking at Radcliffe Bailey’s absorbing and many-layered glittery print, “Tricky 3.” This large, complex and challenging picture at the Sheldon Art Galleries sets the tone for a new exhibition, “Printmaking in St. Louis Now.” In size, scope, substance and intention, the show qualifies as a respectable blockbuster.
The show brings forth work such as Bailey's which was printed by Island Press, one of the five St. Louis fine-art print presses represented in this exhibition. These businesses are not well known by most St. Louisans but are an extraordinarily important resource for local artists and dealers. Their clients come not only from St. Louis but also from around the world, and each shop is famous for its high standards of quality. Besides Island Press, they are Wildwood Press, Pele Press, Firecracker Press and Evil Prints.
Although these presses and their printers are celebrated, the showy stars of this exhibition are the champion St. Louis printmakers themselves, many of whom have toiled literally for decades not only to produce work of quality and aesthetic integrity but also to lift St. Louis to a status as a center of printmaking.
What’s so good about these endeavors? Well, back up for a moment to Radcliffe Bailey’s print. This is the sort of image that seduces you slowly, then puts a hammer lock on your imagination, and then, when you have managed to move along to the next picture, the previous image is fixed in the memory hauntingly, like the sway of curtains in a sunny bedroom animated by a zephyr in the summertime.
Bailey’s is the first work one encounters in the exhibition, thus it provides with its impact a strong introduction to the show. It invites speculations, creations of narratives, shock and horror. It is a collection of various objects and shapes and forms surrounding a seated human figure, probably a family member of Bailey’s. Like many images of 19th century Americans – recorded in tintypes, ambrotypes, Daguerrotypes -- the figure was obliged to sit still to produce the desired sharpness of the image. While that image itself may be keen, the demeanor of the subject, in his shabby clothes and ironic top hat, this man, perhaps called Tricky, is a vacant, woeful expression of his time and his place in it.
The artist may have intended the top hat as metaphor for domination — wealthy, white domination or ownership pressing on his head. The number three is a symbolically and spiritually rich figure in numbering and numerology. In this print, the number looks to be confined in a glass box, like a street-address number, clearly enshrined, perhaps, because of its importance to the artist.
To the right of the figure in "Tricky 3" is an African ritual sculpture; in the bottom right corner a sturdy packet sails round on a route or a rail that seems destined to connect to connect with railroad tracks. Packets were routinely used to bring human cargo in chains and in squalor from the west coast of Africa to the east coast of America. My supposition is the artist had such a transport in mind, presented in the visual scheme at the bottom of the page.
The figure is veiled in a rising fog, such as those that appear in dreams, either to conceal something or to act as agents of mystery. The device works powerfully here, demonstrating the magnetism of the enigmatic, a quality that in this instance is a manifestation of a hard-to-beat, provocative visual intelligence.
“Tricky 3” deserves its starting position in the show: it sets the bar high for the other works whose company it keeps. To the show’s credit — to the credit of its curator, Olivia Lahs-Gonzales and the assembled artists — the challenge is met.
Printmaking, print collecting and the processes and technology of printing itself have a rich tradition in St. Louis. The celebratory exhibition of prints now at the St. Louis Art Museum takes note of more than a century of collection building, and brings forth a treasury of images, thoughtfully chosen and beautifully exhibited. Related to the museum show is the news that last week, on Feb. 23, the museum's collections committee voted to acquire a suite of prints by Damon Davis called "All Hands on Deck." The images in these prints are related to Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown. The prints were produced by Maryanne Ellison Simmons at Wildwood Press.
The Sheldon show has a side beyond the lessons in connoisseurship it offers and its aesthetic content. Many of its works have a social consciousness. In a number of prints, attention is paid to to social and environmental issues, and to historical tragedy. Work in this show proves that politics can appear on the the wall of an exhibition and in other situations with integrity — avoiding descent into the vile wallow of propaganda.
Printing technology is intimate to printmaking as much as the brush is to painting, although in recent times the means to the end is more fluid and often more intricate. An example of this is Joan Hall’s "Acid Ocean” that bursts from the wall and flows to the floor like a toxic tide, for a brilliant and telling example. Then there is Jane Hammond's bravura "Natural Curiosities," a "print" so complex and magnificent you have to see it to be properly stung by it.
What counts in the end, no matter what means is employed, is the image, however it is produced. The best of the best of St. Louis printmakers are represented in the exhibition, and here are mentions of just a few. One is the awe-inspiring designer, artist and professor Lesley Laskey; another is the fantastically inventive and sensitive Bunny Burson, whose "In Plain Sight" is a triumph, produced in a new and rather exotic fashion. A collagraph (a process in which wood or paper is used as the printing suface) on paper by pioneer master printer Peter Marcus is a prominent feature of the show. Likewise, photographs by former Art School dean Buzz Spector, and a winning handful of clucking kings named Louis by the redoubtable artist Stan Gellman round out the shows appeal.
A number of works, in addition to Bailey’s, are unabashedly concerned with racism and discrimination and our dissembling about them. Kevin McCoy’s “Cognitive Dissonance Lessons” are words-as-pictures that pound the viewer with a mighty wallop of revelation, sometimes by use of simple editing techniques. Terrell Carter’s tough, frank and pointed series made up of funny cartoon prints telling what “good Negros” should be and what they should do, is a punch on the nose.
A show for all ages
There is a pendant to this exhibition, a show of work by pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade students in area schools. This is the sort of show that, when advertised, encourages anyone other than relatives and close friends to head for child-proof hills. This one is an exception. The work in it has a uniform quality of thoughtful excellence, revealing pedagogical determination and dedication and genuinely hard work on the part of the students. The Sheldon, to its credit, treats the work with respect, and frames it handsomely and exhibits it with professional care and diligence.
When you think of it, what could be a better launching for potential careers? Some of the hands that helped to pull these prints just may continue on making art, one way or another, and before you know it, they may be knocking at the door of one of the St. Louis presses, or hauling their portfolios to local gallery directors.In any event, they’ll probably be around when the show opens at the Sheldon Galleries on Friday (March 4) with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m.
On Saturday, April 16 from noon to 2 p.m., the Sheldon also will present “Printmaking in St. Louis Now” in open houses of the local presses mentioned above. Visits to the presses are free and open to the public.