Visiting the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, a visitor is struck by the stately Italianate 19th-century mansion. On the National Register of Historic Places, the John Notman-designed building opened as a museum in 1978 and is considered a jewel of Trenton. Over the years it has largely hosted exhibitions of Trenton-area artists, but its current display, From Dürer to Digital and 3-D, is possibly its most ambitious to date.
Part of the exhibition’s lure comes with its dynamic curator, Judith K. Brodsky, who founded the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper. (Renamed the Brodsky Center, it relocated to the Pennsylvania Academy for Fine Arts last summer.) A Distinguished Professor Emerita of the Department of Visual Arts, Rutgers, Brodsky is a self-described activist in the art world and, as cofounder of the Feminist Art Project, a major force in promoting exhibition opportunities for women artists. Her book, Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts, co-written with Ferris Olin, was published by Rutgers University Press last fall. Brodsky’s own artwork is collected at the Harvard University Museums, Library of Congress, Victoria & Albert, Long, and Stadtsmuseum, Berlin.
From Dürer to Digital and 3-D is divided into three parts, beginning with works printed at the Brodsky Center, then moving into photography, and concluding with artists experimenting with newer forms like holograms and 3D-printing. But it is particularly in this first section, focused on prints produced by Brodsky Center artists-in-residence, where the exhibition shines. Among the featured residents are Willie Cole, Margo Humphrey, Marina Gutierrez, Kiki Smith, Barkley Hendricks, Eric Avery, Willie Birch, and Frank Bowling, all of whom collaborated with the center’s master printers. More than 300 artists have completed portfolios since the center’s founding, including Miriam Schapiro, Carolee Schneemann, Faith Ringgold, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Joan Snyder, Pat Steir, and Carrie Mae Weems.
In a catalogue Brodsky produced to accompany the exhibition, she describes how printmaking got its start in the 15th century, and how Albrecht Dürer was the first artist to make an etching plate with acid, rather than hand-cutting the plate. “I established [the Brodsky Center] to provide access to printmaking studios and professional master printers for women artists, artists of color and artists from countries beyond Western Europe — populations that had little if any access to professional printmaking facilities,” she writes. Printmaking is an ideal medium to express ideas about social justice, identity, the body, racism, and aging. Photography and video descended from printmaking, she argues — “if one defines printmaking as a way of creating a reproducible image” — and this extends to 3D printing and lenticular prints.
In the exhibition’s signature work, Eric Avery appropriates Dürer’s engraving “Adam and Eve” (1504), which idealized the human form, and focuses on the diseases from which humans suffer in “Paradise Lost” (2011), a three-linoleum block print with polymer text block on okawara paper. Avery, at one time the HIV psychiatrist at the University of Texas Medical Branch and Associate Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Medical Health there, has dedicated his entire printmaking oeuvre to promoting health. AIDS, SARS and cholera are among his 14 major infections of Adam and Eve in “Paradise Lost.”
“Most of the major human infectious diseases … arose only after the origins of agriculture,” he writes in the print’s text inscription.
The Guyana-born British artist Frank Bowling, ordinarily known for his poured acrylic, light-filled Abstract Expressionist works, here returns to figurative work at a more intimate scale. “Mother Approaching Sixty” (2003), a photo etching with soft-ground and spit-bite aquatint (an alternative to bath etching), is his first foray into figurative work since the ’60s, although references to his homeland is a continual theme. “I don’t think what you see or feel in the world when you open your eyes for the first time ever leaves you,” he has said in an interview.
Combining photographic and printmaking processes, this close-up of the artist’s mother, a dressmaker smiling at life’s long sunset, was made in collaboration with the master printmaker Randy Hemminghaus and Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, New Jersey.
Brodsky makes the case that printmaking, because it is so labor-intensive, is an undervalued medium. The process Margo Humphrey uses to tell personal stories that combine autobiography with fantasy is indeed complicated. “The History of Her Life Written Across Her Face” (1989) includes collage and gold leaf and is a rebus — a story puzzle told through pictures. She begins with coating the plate with light-sensitive material, then exposing and developing it and further enhancing it with burnishing and highlights.
Kiki Smith, who grew up in New Jersey, has experimented with a wide range of printmaking processes, including screen-printed dresses, scarves, and shirts, often with images of body parts. When she arrived at the Brodsky Center in 1999, the studio staff photographed her in two dresses she brought. Smith drew these images onto etching plates for “Fall, Winter.” When asked whether there would also be prints called “Spring” and “Summer,” Smith responded that spring and summer were over for her, she could only look forward to fall and winter.
Many of the artists here use printmaking to address issues of aging. A series of vanitas photographs by Eileen Hohmuth-Lemonick, made while she was recovering from a fractured pelvis, includes the decaying bouquets she was gifted, as well as the remains of a dead deer found in her driveway.
Helen Zajkowski, a mixed media artist from Connecticut who was born in Poland, studied with Brodsky in the mid ’90s while earning an MFA at Mason Gross. She became aware of the billions of photos made of the Mona Lisa, and recalling Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the original and the reproduced image in his “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” created an infinite number of printouts of the enigmatic face, then cut them into strips adhered to wooden crates with shattered mirrors (2002). The words “sister,” “mother,” “cook,” “hostess,” “wife,” and “lesbian” can be seen, showing how the public viewpoint fragments her image; everyone sees her differently.
When Brodsky established the center in 1986, she intended it to be “an international forum for the exchange of new ideas in print and papermaking processes and education.” With this exhibition, Brodsky shows how relevant printmaking continues to be to this day.
– Ilene Dube