Reproduction Rites

Colorado's printmaking tradition is so rich, its influence spreads far beyond state lines. In the first decades of the twentieth century, George Elbert Burr plowed new ground with his color etchings made right here in Denver. In the 1930s Guy McCoy and Paul Gallagher, working in Colorado Springs and Aspen, stretched the boundaries with some of the world's first fine-art silkscreens. Starting at about the same time and continuing well into the early 1950s, Lawrence Barrett set an international standard with the lithographs that were pulled at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School.

And for the past twenty years, Shark's Inc. has expanded on these traditions of Colorado printmaking with lithographs, monotypes and woodcuts executed perfectly by Bud Shark and his longtime assistants, Roseanne Colachis and Matthew Christie. To mark the twentieth anniversary of this renowned studio workshop, CU Art Galleries manager Doug Fey has pulled together the mammoth and spectacular Working Proof: 20 Years of Prints From Shark's Inc., a show that celebrates not just Bud Shark, but the big picture of contemporary printmaking in the state.

As a high school student in North Dakota, Shark got hooked on lithography when he saw the lithographs of Robert Nelson, one of his native state's premier artists. "I became fascinated with Nelson's work," he says. "At first his prints looked like drawings, but unlike drawings, the image was in, not on, the paper." In the late Sixties--when appreciation for lithography was at its nadir--Shark studied at the University of Wisconsin, where he produced his first prints under the direction of Jack Damer.

Shark had found his medium.
He went on to work at the famous Tamarind Lithography Studio, then located in Los Angeles and now in New Mexico, and at the University of New Mexico, where he served as Garo Antreasian's studio assistant. (The Tamarind tie-in is particularly interesting; as Clinton Cline has noted, in many ways the workshop was heir to the legacy of the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School, which makes the mid-twentieth-century CSFAC school and today's Shark's Inc. two links in the same chain of events--the development of printmaking in the American West.) By the early Seventies Shark was living in England, working for fine-art printers Editions Alecto and the Petersberg Press. But he was "burned out in London," Shark says, and in 1974 he decided to move to Boulder with his wife, Barbara, a painter who became an important part of Shark's Inc. subsequent success. They chose Boulder not for its aesthetics, but because Barbara's sister lived there--one of those happy accidents that stud the art history of our region.

Shark's formidable resume meant little in Boulder, and at first he made his living doing odd jobs, including sign painting. But he began to think a small storefront print shop could make it commercially, and in 1976 he opened his workshop in its first location (it's now in its third). Shark launched the new enterprise by inviting local artist Gordon Mansell to do a print--for nothing. Within a few years, however, the print shop had gained international prominence. Shark's connections paid off early on, when London's Waddington Galleries commissioned him to execute a suite of prints by Bernard Cohen. One of these, a 1976 lithograph entitled "The Second of Six Images for J," is included in the current exhibit, along with "Imitating Shadows," a four-panel lithograph Cohen did on a return trip in 1989.

The lengthy working relationship between Shark and Cohen is no aberration; Shark often prints again and again with the same artists. Among the nearly 100 prints by more than 40 artists included in Working Proof--about a third of the print shop's production excluding monotypes, according to Shark--are considerable bodies of work by several of the people selected for inclusion. There are four prints by Betty Woodman, five by John Buck, six by Janis Provisor and an astounding nine by Red Grooms, many of them three-dimensional.

Woodman, a world-famous ceramic artist living in Boulder, could have had a second career in two-dimensional work, judging from the evidence of these prints. All four feature an earth-toned palette heavy with ochers and umbers that's enlivened by lyrical forms reminiscent of Woodman's ceramics. In "Nile View," a woodcut with chine colle done this year, gestural arcs and loops of dark colors, including blue and brown, are densely packed across the picture plane in an almost geometric abstract arrangement, continuing a dialogue between gesture and order that also surfaces in "Ladies on the Balcony," Woodman's three-panel color lithograph and woodcut from 1994.

Buck made his artistic reputation as a sculptor from Montana, but he's also a celebrated printmaker. The five oversized Buck woodcuts in Working Proof are so good, they could stand on their own as a separate exhibit. "The Lamp," a breathtaking 1994 woodcut incorporating rubber stamping and hand-coloring, depicts a glass jar filled with fireflies; the jar glows yellow and green on a dark field of two shades of blue. The field is as heavily populated with images as the jar is filled with fireflies, but Buck's subtle handling of color and luminosity keeps the fireflies at center stage. Buck's work, like that of several artists in the show, is further illuminated by a display that shows elements of the production process. In this case, it's the inclusion of the multipart woodblock used to print "The Eternal Flame," a 1996 woodcut that depicts the cliche of a Chianti bottle holding a candle against a field made up of people shown at work and play. Here again, Buck's use of color and luminosity causes the center of "The Eternal Flame" to generate its own inner glow.

New York-based Janis Provisor maintained a part-time studio outside Aspen for many years and for a time was considered a Colorado artist. Her six works done at Shark's Inc. constitute some of the finest pieces in this extremely fine show. In "About Face," a lithograph and woodcut incorporating metal leaf and chine colle, the composition has been divided into three panels. Each illustrates a different approach to abstraction: a dark calligraphic form against a light ground; a pattern featuring colors closer in value; and finally, a nearly homogeneous color relationship. Although "Home Journey," a 1992 monotype with metal leaf and chine colle, also features a multipart format, a calligraphic approach dominates three of the panels and spills over onto the fourth.

One of the great strengths of Shark's Inc. is its commitment to innovation. For Provisor's work, Shark needed to develop a method that would successfully adhere metal leaf to the print. He had to think even more creatively for Grooms; the mega-famous New York artist wanted to make three-dimensional prints that were essentially paper sculptures or wall reliefs made in multiples. Working Proof shows part of the process Shark devised for Grooms. Next to a cut-out and reassembled "Hot Dog Vendor"--a 3-D lithograph from 1994--are the two sheets required to make the single piece. One lithograph captures most of the background; the other places the foreground figures in a free-form, interlocking arrangement like a page of paper-dolls--and, like the dolls, these figures cry to be cut out. "Hot Dog Vendor," like "DeKooning Breaks Through" and "Little Italy," hangs on the exhibit wall in a shadow box, with elements of the foreground literally--rather than metaphorically--placed a few inches in front of the background.

Even more radical, though, are Grooms's prints that have been cut out and assembled into true sculptures, such as "Ruckus Taxi," a well-known 3-D lithograph from 1982, and the 1983 "London Bus." But Grooms isn't the only artist that Shark took into another dimension. Both Jeffrey Brosk's 1989 "Dakota Ridge" and Hollis Sigler's 1985 "Where Daughters Fear Becoming Their Mothers" are 3-D wall-hung reliefs in shadow boxes.

This show is so vast that it's impossible to point out all the worthwhile pieces--but some prints demand your attention. William T. Wiley's "Leviathan II," a hand-colored woodcut, is positively magisterial. The three prints by Italo Scanga--a lithograph and two monotypes--have a clarity often lacking in his better-known sculptures. And in his tour de force "Nine Views of Water," made in 1995, Hiroki Morinoue divided a woodcut into a grid of nine squares, each featuring a different op art pattern.

The excitement generated by Working Proof could result in the show traveling to other venues after it leaves CU next week; even the Denver Art Museum has reportedly expressed an interest. But up in Boulder, Shark's Inc. has already made its mark.

Working Proof: 20 Years of Prints From Shark's Inc., through August 20 in the CU Art Galleries, Sibell Wolle Fine Arts Building, University of Colorado-Boulder, 492-8300.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia