Like so many recent arts events, this year’s “The Contemporary Print” exhibition is unlike previous shows. Before the pandemic, PrintAustin and Big Medium marked this annual celebration of contemporary printmaking with showcases of 30 or more local, national, and international print artists.
This year, organizers have limited “The Contemporary Print: 5×5” to just five selected artists: Chloe Alexander of Atlanta, John Klosterman IV of Alabama, Oliver Pilic from Slovenia, Fort Worth-based Laura Post and Cleo Wilkinson of Melbourne, Australia. Each displays five works in an online exhibition.
Although prints lose some of their punch when seen on a screen, this year’s format benefits both participants and viewers. In response to the hardship of recent months, each selected artist was rewarded with a sizable stipend. And while past iterations featured only one print per artist, the new show allows a much fuller view of each artist’s methods and motifs.
“It’s a very scary time for artists, but it’s also a wonderful time,” said exhibition juror and printmaker Delita Martin on a video call at the exhibition’s online opening talk. “It’s almost like a Renaissance that’s happening, because artists are creating in a way they’ve never created before.”
Martin has experience with forging new paths. The founder of Black Box Press Studio and the Art As Activism Fund is a prolific artist and activist based in Huffman, Texas. Her intimate printed portraits of members of the Black community often incorporate drawing, collage, and hand stitching. For “5×5,” Martin selected printmakers who also push the technical boundaries of the medium while emphasizing its potential for deep, human connection. Accordingly, most of this year’s participants combine several working modes together in their prints, and work in a figurative language using human or animal forms.
In her artist statement, Atlanta-based Alexander says that she strives to create works that transcend spoken words. Fittingly, the two boys seen in profile over the same map of northwestern Mississippi in “Aiden” (2019) and “Etienne” (2019) look like they’re lost in thought. Though both prints were created before quarantine, the artist’s careful rendering and the boy’s physical resemblance suggests that they may be family members observed in close, loving quarters.
“Something to Believe In” (2020) — Alexander’s portrait of a young Black teenager wearing a hoodie — resonates strongly in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter movement and social justice protests. Alexander’s photographic figure is broken into shades of dark blue and stands against a stark, gold background that focuses all attention on his face. Perhaps in response to this unprecedented moment of conflict in this country, the young man’s clouded expression seems saddened but resolved as he gazes determinedly ahead of him.
More timely work comes from Tuscaloosa artist Klosterman, whose laborious process and disturbing visuals are a response to his personal struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Klosterman’s 2019 “Manifestations” series fuses monotype, chemical transfer, silkscreen, and linocut techniques to depict a grim landscape of lonely motels, birds of prey, and decomposing animal carcasses. The artist’s hazy gradients and semi-transparent layers lend an disorienting, diaphanous feel to the prints, while his rural, bleak imagery signals desolation and darkness. Klosterman’s prints seem especially relevant at a time when mental health and human wellbeing remain at constant risk for so many
The most experimental take on printmaking comes from Post of Fort Worth. Whether hanging from a wall or standing on a pedestal, Post’s printed human heads and faces occupy three dimensions. The artist’s studies in China and interest in non-Western printmaking traditions come through in her use of woodcut and handmade paper, which Post creates sustainably from invasive plant species where she lives. The artist shapes her paper pulp — sometimes by directly casting it onto her subject’s face — into these unusual portraits, which fragment, multiply, and overlap their sitter’s features. In “Tension” (2019), a ghostly face emerges from a young woman’s hair. In “Breaking Through” (2020), a woman’s face pushes out from a larger man’s nose and mouth.
Post’s most complex piece is “Fractured Transition” (2018), an asymmetrical, freestanding bust of the artist’s husband. On one side, the man’s left eye juts startlingly away from the rest of his purple, mottled face. Another 3D face emerges from what would be the back of his skull, with yet another smaller face printed in black over its eyes. Not quite Picasso-esque, Post’s distortions don’t completely obscure her sitter’s likeness. And while the artist’s tactile forms, and dusty colors recall plaster, her unfinished edges and wrinkled surfaces foreground the fragility of their paper substrates. In all, Post’s work is a subtle comment on emotional and material ambiguity that, as with the previous two artists, feels relevant today.
While it would be ideal to see these and the show’s other works in person, this year’s changes have afforded viewers with a much-appreciated depth to “The Contemporary Print’s” purview.
“The Contemporary Print: 5×5” is on view online through Feb. 19, 2021.