When curator Michael Costello conceived Pressing the Limits, he included himself among a quartet of Santa Fe, New Mexico, printmakers he thought were pushing technical limits. While true that all four have broken new ground, however, each artist also remains deeply rooted in traditional methods.
Three, including Costello, use photography—which has a long and complex relationship with printmaking—as a starting point. But unlike Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, who appropriated photomechanical imagery in the 1960s to both comment on the repetitious devaluation of the image and juxtapose high and low imagery for poetic effect, Costello uses photography as a starting point. From there, a complex and experimental process evolves—a way to meditate on the very nature of seeing and consciousness. In his series of cloud-covered views of the North Atlantic, my favorite is “Leaving London (in the Rain),” which suggests a hidden reality not seen by the eye. Fericchloride, normally used to bite etched lines into a copper plate, is employed here to rust paper; and beeswax, commonly used to repel liquid, here keeps the imagery from being eaten away. That it incidentally makes the paper transparent is a plus, because it allows abandoned images on the back to show faintly through, adding a layer of meaning.
On several prints, Costello added a layer of dots, not unlike the magnified screen pattern of Ben Day dots featured ironically in pop art. Costello uses the pattern as a screen, forcing the viewer to become aware of the process of seeing—to “interrupt” the seeing process and “change the focus of the viewer.” An interesting concept, but I don’t think it adds to the work’s aesthetic or visceral appeal.
Willis F. Lee and Jennifer Lynch utilize photography to call our attention to worlds usually out of sight, either below ground or too small to be noticed. Lee digs up rocks, plants and sand, then rearranges them into an invented “subterranean landscape” where what’s below the surface is as visually important as what’s above. The resulting velvety-black silhouetted images are beautiful in texture and detail. In large contact print “Subjacent X,” Lee includes reconstructed skeletons, whose bony fingers transform into flower roots.
Lynch’s sketchbook is her camera; she seeks patterns in nature, not only for their intrinsic beauty but as a way to contemplate “our relationship to nature and creation.” Her “Fractal” series is the most successful. Although her intuitive grasp of nature’s geometry, confirmed by the science of fractal geometry (microscopic geometric shapes that split into reduced-size copies of the whole) is interesting, it’s her process mimicking those natural processes that makes the work compelling. My particular favorite is “Fractal 28,” an 18-inch-square Solarplate etching on which her cutting and collaging of photographic elements are like jazz riffs on the theme of a square.
Mitchell Marti takes a totally different approach to nature—not as a source of inspiration but as an exploited natural resource; specifically, the destructive methane gas mining in the Rocky Mountain West. Eschewing the scenic and picturesque, he etches fictitious cross-sections of strata, graphs and charts, combined with lithographic and relief-printing elements, to create complex, colorful prints. The largest, with their ungainly, interlocking blocky forms and clashing colors, are deliberately unaesthetic; “ugliness” is the point. But the smaller prints have a charming sensibility, with their looping lines, pastel colors and crudely cut-out shapes. The fuzzy, delicately etched lines juxtaposed with small blocks of color in “Generalized Section I” are beautiful in spite of Marti’s efforts.
Pressing the Limits is heavy going, but the exhibit ends in a lighter spirit, in the outer gallery space. There, Costello’s monotype napkin doodles are refreshing, reminiscent of Picasso’s late drawings and Saul Steinberg’s surreal and fantastical illustrations for the New Yorker.