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PRINTWORK 2017; AIR: Artists Image Resource, Pittsburgh, PA; December 8, 2017-February 4, 2018

Review by Michael Slaven, California University of Pennsylvania

PRINTWORK 2017, Installation view, with Jason Lee’s sculpture Suburban Home (2015) visible at center. Photo: Michael Slaven.

Art is informed by the artist’s underlying social and political assumptions, from the choice to make art, to formal and conceptual decisions, to the ultimate meaning of the work. Often, these dynamics are sublimated, or obscured by other elements, but they are recurrent and overt in PRINTWORK 2017. This national exhibition juried by Joseph Lupo presents diverse works from contemporary printmakers who take advantage of their medium’s ability to foreground these issues.

The economic imperialism of coal barons in Appalachia is critiqued using many-layered symbols of oppression in Jeff Hindal’s The Scheming of the Coal Barons (2016). Similar historical allegory gives weight to Jenny Schmid’s 2015 etching Social Media Siren, which uses visual imagery from historical and contemporary sources to lampoon current cultural practices.

Jason Lee’s sculpture Suburban Home (2015) contains embossed paper elements to reproduce the faux wood details of aluminum siding, serving as an ultimate expression of the inauthentic blandness of the middle-class. This suburban uniformity is also pilloried in Kellie Hames’s lithograph History Upon Us (2015), depicting a house upon which is stacked row after row of identical houses pressing down on it, creating feelings of oppression and anomie. The intersection of built human environment with nature further finds sly expression in Matthew Van Asselt’s silkscreen Abstraction at Burger King (2015). Emmy Lingscheit’s lithograph with screenprint Longitudinal Study (2016) is an almost archaeological narrative of the changing environment, showing layered strata of different eras competing, assuming their own changing character, and being subsumed. A contemporary city is the penultimate layer, disgorging a commuter train into the air, while the uppermost stratum pictures this human layer succeeded by grazing animals where humans once lived.

Kelsey Miller’s White House (inkjet print) depicts a felt-board menu headed “White House Specials” with choices such as “freedom fries,” “bologna,” “white sauce,” and “vanilla cone.” A similarly subversive tone informs Matthew DiClemente’s Maximum Displacement (Complete). A cyanotype diptych, both panels are framed. In each, a silhouetted figure rides a bomb like a bucking bronco, reminiscent of the climatic shot from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The silhouette on the left bears an obvious resemblance to Donald Trump; the one on the right to Kim Jong-un. Ruthann Godoelli’s screenprint Reasonable Doubt shows a yellow POLICE LINE tape in front of a dark background with the word SUSPECT thinly outlined in white. The question of what precisely is truly suspect—the actions of police or those they detain—makes the irony of the title apparent.

Printmaking 2017 is a near-perfect vehicle for delivering direct messages about free speech, immigration, environmental degradation, social welfare, human rights, racism, sexism, and police brutality. The intersection between the inherently democratic nature of printmaking, Lupo’s careful selections, and the commitment of AIR as an artist-directed print shop produced a coherent and focused exhibition that thoughtfully addressed socio-political issues.

Michael Slaven is Professor of History and Department Chair at California University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in cultural history, printed propaganda, and imagery. He has written journal articles, numerous exhibition reviews, and a book chapter, and has presented papers on modern and contemporary art for more than twenty-five years.