Art review: Impressive prints at Summit Artspace

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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The Structure of Secrets, (2013). Electrostatic print on paper with collage elements, glue, staples and paper clips, Edition of 9 by Mark Soppeland, Jeff "JD" Dumire, Brenda Holland, and Jason Rudolf.
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The Akron area has a number of excellent printmakers, as can be seen in an exhibit on view through Nov. 2 at Summit Artspace.

First Impressions: The Process of Printmaking seems to be a response to the increasing number of printmakers in our area, so a show spotlighting their work seems like a good and timely idea.

As people become more aware of the increasingly interesting results that come from the process, they have become more enamored of the medium. And being done in multiples, prints offer a way for people to begin collecting fine art at a reasonable price.

The Northeast Ohio region is filled with artists who use printmaking in their work, and area colleges and universities have significant programs that have maintained the medium.

First Impressions, organized by Dan Coffield, is a means not only for viewers to familiarize themselves with the various printmaking processes, but to get to know the artists. They range from students to tenured professors, with individual pieces and collaborative works.

They include Zafi Ahmed, Charles Beneke, Joan Colbert, Ryan Craycraft, Joe Czalkiewicz, Debra DeGregorio, Jeff Dumire, Sarah Ellis, Brenda Holland, Meaghan Jodoin, Taryn McMahon, Bridget O’Donnell, Jason Rudolf, Nicole Schultz, Mark Soppeland, Stevie Tanner, Pamela Testa, Nathan Van Twisk, Hui-Chu Ying and Sue Yoder.

Some say printmaking came from Japan in the late 8th century; some say it came from China with the printing of the “Diamond Sutra” in 868 A.D.; others suspect that book printing may have occurred long before this date.

While the academics debate, we can at least agree that it’s a centuries-old technique that has developed as one of the most versatile and contemporary expressions for artists.

These days when we discuss the printmaking medium, we are talking about a vast array of methods and materials. A fine art prints exhibit can range from framed works hanging on the walls to three-dimensional installations.

Printmaking remains both a technical and expressive medium. In this exhibition, visitors will find monotypes, linocuts, etchings, silk-screens, stenciled and stamped images.

Coffield’s original concept for the show was to get a group of local printmakers together to showcase their art, their processes, and the “first impression” of their work.

“I wanted to provide the artists a way to share with the public the behind-the-scenes decisions, changes and evolution of an art work,” he writes in his curator’s statement.

And, he said, he encouraged everyone in the show “to share some insight in their methodologies, editing and printmaking processes. Printmaking is a process and First Impressions is a show about the way in which printmakers arrive at the final piece.”

So when we look at this exhibit, we see an accumulation of working methods leading up to a single finished product. There’s no end to the innovations in the printmaking medium. At least one multimedia work in the show is a collaborative print, and another was taken directly from the bark of a tree.

“It was important for me to make sure that First Impressions showed how versatile, flexible and creative printmakers really are,” Coffield said.

He has done an excellent job at that. From Joan Colbert’s meticulous notations on her “mnemonic” aphorisms, to Pamela Testa’s demonstration of how she went about printing the American Elm in Relief, to Charles Beneke’s essay on global warming, we are given key insights into the mind of the contemporary printer.

Colbert, whose work is as always clear-eyed as well as deceptively charming, offers us a means to an end.

She writes: “There’s a bit of whimsy in this mnemonic of the symptoms that, in combination, could indicate an atropine overdose — possibly the effects of ingesting poisonous members of the Nightshade family.”

The mnemonic happens to be the titles of her prints: Hot as a Hare, Blind as a Bat, Dry as a Bone, Red as a Beet and Mad as a Hatter. Each is done as a linocut block print, and consists of wonderfully drawn and printed images of the titular object.

Mark Soppeland, who headed the team that created The Structure of Secrets, explains that the work was created for the exhibit Monumental Ideas in Miniature Books 3.

“While many books have explored the potential of unfolding to create elaborate horizontal designs I decided to see what might be done vertically,” he writes. The 5-inch-by-4-inch book unfolds to create a 3-foot-high, freestanding tower.

“The book addresses the nature of the secret on several levels, beginning with those inherent in the difficulties of the design of this book; the complexity of keeping secrets; what is known and not revealed; and the immensity of all that is not known, what is for everyone still a secret.”

The display includes the book’s development, including prototypes, collages and graphics, and the pages in various stages. The book comes with two pages of instructions on how to assemble and refold it, along with 50 paper clips that are used to hold the three-sided tower together.

Each handmade book requires over 300 separate cuts and 170 folds in its production.

Whew. So you think that’s exhausting? How about this: Pamela Testa printed an elm tree for her work in this exhibit.

The work began printing directly from a tree in Testa’s backyard. She documents the process on the exhibit’s page at www.akronareaarts.org.

Testa climbed a ladder next to the tree and applied a nontoxic ink to the bark. With an assistant’s help, she wrapped a 15-by-6-foot piece of silk around the inked portion of the tree. She burnished the fabric by hand with a wooden spoon to make the print. She created acetate transparencies from the fabric print, which she then exposed onto a photo plate and etched the resulting marks.

“The intention was to reiterate the object’s origins by showing a resemblance to the depth and shapes of the bark of the tree,” she says in her artist’s statement. “The bark’s images are printed in relief. When printing the plate, successive impressions involve subtle changes to the color. Because of the direct way the tree was printed, the tree informed the decision to print the photo plate in relief and let it stand on its own as the tree does, in its natural environment.”

As you can tell, the fine art print has evolved from simple woodcuts to complicated processes. And as one might imagine, the concentration, dedication and time necessary to accomplish these prints is impressive (pun intended). It also might help to be slightly OCD, in a good way.

This is an interesting exhibit. Let’s hope it’s first of many.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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