Visiting the printmakers’ show at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe is like attending a lively and engaging cocktail party. You start to associate names with looks and, by the end, previously unfamiliar figures become acquaintances that you’d like to see again. Helen Day Art Center director Nathan Suter, the curator/host of “Impressed: Vermont Printmakers 2012,” facilitates the introductions by including a generous sampling of each artist’s work.
Here’s Rachel Gross, a creator of geometric abstractions. She’s a habitué of Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction and the wife of James Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies.
And meet Lynn Newcomb of Worcester, a blacksmith as well as an etcher. She slashes black/purplish slabs of ink onto white paper, producing a monumental effect that may remind you of the muscular, minimalist work of the sculptor Richard Serra.
May we also introduce Bobbi Angell? The Marlboro-based illustrator might be familiar to northern Vermonters who have seen her books, or who remember her drawings for the New York Times’ weekly gardening column from 1995 to 2008. Angell’s botanical etchings, titled with the scientific names of their subjects, are as precisely observed as studies of plants by the great German printmaker Albrecht Dürer.
Gallerygoers from the Burlington area likely know the work of Bill Davison, who taught printmaking at the University of Vermont for 36 years until his retirement in 2003. Davison is the poster boy for this exhibit. His “Mosaic/Portal,” a grouping of 40 small squares of varied colors and patterns arranged in five horizontal rows, is featured on Helen Day’s website, while another of his watercolor monotypes is given a prominent placement in the gallery.
This piece of twinned images in separate but closely hung frames is similar in composition to “Mosaic/Portal,” except that here the squares are vertically oriented. It’s a well-wrought work that suddenly takes on an explosive, disturbing meaning when one reads the title: “Moments of Darkness 9.11.01.” Brilliant.
Suter ought not to have placed a second, almost identically titled and conceived, print a few feet away. The redundancy saps both pieces of the power that one or the other initially attains by whacking the viewer with a painful recognition.
This gathering of 10 invited artists from around Vermont serves up a broad array of styles. There’s the funny/macabre works of Briony Morrow-Cribbs, represented in “Impressed” by aquatints of human skulls atop birds’ bodies. Her “Scorpion vs. Snake,” a roundel inside a silver frame, may strike some onlookers as a miniature version of the mythic showdown between King Kong and Godzilla.
Morrow-Cribbs founded Twin Vixen Press in Brattleboro with Helen O’Donnell, whose nature scenes also make an impressive impression here. In “The Green River (Utah),” O’Donnell uses a desert palette on a three-plate color etching to produce the swirl marks left on boulders by prehistoric floods. Her standout piece in the show is a midsize study of a hayfield with gray grasses writhing in the wind against a black backdrop, à la van Gogh.
To a certain extent, Suter says in an interview, “the show is a story of three presses in Vermont.” In addition to Two Rivers and Twin Vixen, a couple of the represented artists have an association with the BCA Print Studio in Burlington.
The printmakers selected by Suter employ many different means of applying ink and other materials to surfaces. “Printmaking as a fine art is highly technical,” he notes in an introduction to the show. That complexity is mind-bogglingly exemplified in the works of Stowe artist Don Hanson. The wall text accompanying his “Equus Ferus I,” a composition on Japanese Kozo paper, lists the materials as “carborundum, graphite, oil paint and encaustic on aluminum plate on panels.”
Hanson creates shadowy, splotchy images of rearing and galloping wild horses, one of which could be winged. It’s likely, then, that Hanson is responsible for a plate depicting a striding horse in the center of one gallery room. But there’s no label attributing this work, which is part of a larger assemblage of accoutrements, such as inky rubber gloves, that presumably are meant to demonstrate the nitty-gritty of printmaking. In the absence of explanatory text, the uninitiated may be unable to decipher what they’re seeing.
A handout at the entrance to “Impressed” does offer a helpful glossary of printing techniques. But Helen Day misses an opportunity to bring the process to life by at least labeling the featured tools or, better yet, including a voice-over video of an artist producing a print. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., does exactly that in an illuminating show this summer of 50 prints by Jasper Johns.
Vermont’s biggest-name printmakers are not represented in “Impressed” — by design. In recounting his selection process, Suter says his long list of candidates for the show included “some obvious ones like Sabra Field and Woody Jackson.” He then adds, “The question for me was, is this going to be the best printmakers in Vermont, [or] the most successful printmakers in Vermont?”
Suter is too tactful to say it explicitly, but he implies that the two options are mutually exclusive. “I’m not saying these are the 10 best printmakers in Vermont,” he cautions. He could say with justification, however, that these are 10 of the most engaging Vermont printmakers you will ever be fortunate enough to meet.