March marks the official start of the biennial Month of Printmaking, or Mo’Print, which alternates with the more established Month of Photography. While many exhibits focusing on prints will open over the next several weeks, some are already on display, and two enormous print shows at the Arvada Center make it the current center of Mo’Print festivities.
On the expansive main level is 528.0 Regional Juried Printmaking Exhibition, while Imprint: Print Educators of Colorado occupies the upper and theater galleries. To determine who would be eligible to enter 528.0, Collin Parson, director of the Arvada galleries, drew a circle with a 528-mile radius from Denver, the Mile High City. Submissions came not just from the wilds of Wyoming, but also Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Utah. A jury comprising Parson; Brandon Gunn, from the renowned press at Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque; and Karen Kunc, a printmaking professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, chose 77 pieces out of more than 400 submitted.
In addition to living within the geographic boundaries, artists submitting to the show had to work in some kind of traditional printmaking technique, including etching, lithography and silk screening, with digital printing specifically proscribed. Despite this prohibition, several of the artists who made the cut apparently tapped into high-tech methods while preparing their images for the actual printing. So even though the show's requirements focused on traditional printmaking, many of the included pieces are far from traditional.
The realization that this isn’t your grandparents’ print show hits as soon as you enter the lower galleries, where there's a Taiko Chandler installation on the curved wall done in ink on Tyvek, of all things. The plastic sheets have been pierced and then twisted so that they merge into a continuous mass, rising off the wall’s surface. Opposite this is a more pristinely flat version of the same idea, with the prints hanging from the ceiling like banners.
Other installations use prints as a component, including the breathtaking collage mural by Sue Oehme on one side of the atrium, and a spinning set of print-covered cubes by Peter Yumi on the other. Yet another over-the-top extension of printmaking is seen in Stephanie Alaniz’s installation, a canopy made from rolls of silkscreened rice paper printed with text on both sides. The paper hangs from the ceiling like drapes until it hits the floor, where it’s been violently crumbled up.
These gigantic installations could overwhelm prints done in more conventional formats — flat, for example — but they don’t. Though much smaller than one of those room-sized pieces, Evan Colbert’s “Obscured by Clouds,” a smart post-pop parody of abstraction, has a powerful charisma that allows it to stand up to them. So does the witty, Chicano-style sendup of Warhol by Tony Ortega, which depicts a can of Campbell’s menudo. Also standing out are a pair of monoprints by Mami Yamamoto: dense, layered abstracts that have a Japonesque flavor, right down to the chop-mark signature. In terms of composition and color, they are not unlike the marvelous pair of Jay Vollmar silkscreens, though his footnote reference is not to Japan, but classic modernism.
Some artists did follow the rich, age-old traditions of printmaking, showing off the skills needed for etching, intaglio, woodcut and lithography. Given the glitziness of other works in 528.0, their pieces could indeed be overlooked, so make a point to note these subtle, typically small works, carried out in dark ink on light paper. Their appeal is only enhanced by their reductive, back-to-basics character. The pseudo-antebellum scenes by Kristin Powers Nowlin are really striking, as is the precisionist rendering of a grain elevator by Marc Horovitz that is also retro in feeling, but in this case it's early twentieth century. In Marco Hernandez's etchings, past and present mix in the depictions of time-traveling Latinos. Joshua Butler’s rondel-shaped etching of organic forms is also compelling.
Other artists in this enormous show deserving a shout-out include Fawn Atencio, Alicia Bailey, Javier Flores, Susan Goldstein, Michael Keyes, Chuck McCoy, Gregory Santos, Brady Smith and Ouida Touchon.
The show upstairs, Imprint: Print Educators of Colorado, is experientially parallel to the one downstairs. In fact, it functions as a continuation of 528.0, rather than as a stand-alone presentation, and many artists are included in both. But this show had very different requirements: An invitational, it was limited to Colorado artists, and then just those who teach some kind of printmaking.
Arguably the most significant artist in either show is Mark Lunning, the master printer of Open Press and one of the founders of the entire Mo’Print extravaganza. Open Press was based in Denver for decades, but Lunning was forced out of town — all the way to Sterling — by the relentless rent increases at his atelier in Baker. In 528.0, he is represented by a signature-style print of organic abstract shapes, while his group of prints in Imprint reflect a new direction in picture-making that he’s been exploring, though they still fall within his well-established aesthetic.
I've noted before that the old saw "Those who can, do, while those who can’t, teach" can't possibly apply to printmaking, simply because so many hard-to-master skills are involved. Several of the artists in Imprint display remarkable technical expertise. I’m always been impressed by Jean Gumpper's work, and her pair of woodcuts with pochoir views of tree branches caught as they're shedding their autumn leaves are exceptional.
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More fanciful, though equally well done, are the simple, nature-based designs in Melanie Yazzie's many small prints, hung so that they sprawl across a whole wall. Their bright, pop-y palettes are eye-catching, and her conventionalization of things like leaves, flowers and even seashells have a highly decorative look, like patterns found on fabrics or wallpapers. These Yazzie prints are among the absolute high points not just of the educators' show, but of the whole shebang in Arvada.
A different aesthetic — almost a Zap Comics style — is conveyed by Dennis Dalton’s weird narrative woodcuts. Also kind of cartoony are the charming renditions of robots printed on fabric by Jonathan Nicklow, who's made little pillows that are stacked up in a showcase. Nearby is a wall collage by Laura Grossett in which dozens of raccoons are arranged so that they overlap each other; in their mouths are little strips of paper printed with corporate, anti-unionizing talking points. Tony Holmquist’s intaglio and collage of a complex, non-repeating pattern of different circles and spheres is worthy of praise, as is Matt Christie’s winning, if slightly edgy, scene of crows in a large-format woodblock with hand coloring.
Mo'Print is off to an impressive start, with these two Arvada shows displaying a virtual who’s who of important, impressive printmakers active in this part of the country.
528.0 Regional Juried Printmaking Exhibition and Imprint: Print Educators of Colorado, both through March 29, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.