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“Pressing Innovation” tracks 50 years of printmaking history in the Upper Midwest

The exhibit will run at the Chazen Museum Of Art through May 15.

Photo: Visitors to the “Pressing Innovation” show in a large gallery at the Chazen Museum of Art. Photo by Hannah Keziah Agustin.

The late 20th century was an era of rebellion against form and tradition, giving rise to postmodernism and existential nihilism. This called for revolutionary forms through which artists could grapple with sociopolitical happenings, from the Civil Rights Movement to the HIV/AIDS epidemic to the rise of third-wave feminism. Only within this context can we understand the works featured in Pressing Innovation: Printing Fine Art In The Upper Midwest, an exhibit of work from five fine-art printing presses from Madison, Minneapolis, Missouri, and Chicago between 1970 and 2022, running through May 15 at the Chazen Museum Of Art. Coinciding with the 2022 Southern Graphics Council International, which takes place March 16 through 19 on the UW-Madison campus, the exhibition celebrates 50 years of American printmaking history in the region and recognizes the explosion of resourceful techniques that made it all possible.

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“Printmaking is a uniquely positioned form of art to articulate a diverse set of ideas,” says Dr. James R. Wehn, the Van Vleck Curator of Works on Paper at the Chazen Museum Of Art. “Because there are so many techniques, papers, and mediums that can be combined in a variety of ways, it really gives way for presses and artists in collaboration to come together into the page.” Wehn, who curated Pressing Innovation, chose the five presses featured in the exhibition: Landfall Press, founded by Jack Lemon in Chicago in 1970; Vermillion Editions, founded by Steven Andersen in Minneapolis in 1977; Island Press, based at Washington University in St. Louis; Highpoint Editions, founded by Carla McGrath and Cole Rogers in Minneapolis in 2001; and UW-Madison’s own Tandem Press, founded in Madison in 1987 and currently based on Madison’s North Side.

At the fundamental level, printmaking is an art form that involves the transferring of ink from a matrix to a surface in order to make an image. This process of replication goes back hundreds of years to practices in both Western and Eastern cultures. Because printmaking is an art form that is multipliable, relatively affordable, and easily movable, it democratized the process of creation and made production accessible to more artists and to a wider audience. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, major printing presses emerged in New York City and California. The Chazen exhibit focuses on the Upper Midwest because of its distinctiveness as a geographic location, removed from privately funded urban art centers on the coasts. 

As a result, the origins of the five presses in the exhibition were vastly different from those of their counterparts on the East and West Coast. Island Press started as a research-driven printmaking workshop at the Washington University in St. Louis. Vermillion Editions started on the sixth floor of an old warehouse building in downtown Minneapolis. The Highpoint Center for Printmaking started with a mission to make printmaking arts accessible, creating the only community-oriented space in the area. These collaborative printing presses in the Upper Midwest region do not rely on the glitz and glamor of big cities. Instead, they focus on developing a reputation for outstanding technical print work that supports the vision of both local and international artists and articulates their artistic styles.

“Dali Salad” by Red Grooms, a 3-D print piece depicting the face of artist Salvador Dalî on a bed of greens. Photo by Minneapolis Institute of Art

Among the most adventurous works that the presses have produced is Red Grooms’ “Dali Salad,” a three-dimensional lithograph sculpture of the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, served on a platter alongside fresh greens and butterflies. Created through a combination of multiple printing techniques by Vermillion Editions, which eventually closed in 1993 because of financial insufficiencies, the piece parodies identity and portraiture through its disembodied aesthetic and flagrant display of vegetables. Another stellar print included in the lineup is Cameron Martin’s “Conflations,” a print of a volcanically active Mount Rainier. Produced in collaboration with Highpoint Editions, the piece responds to the commoditization of nature under late capitalism. At first glance, it seems simple and straightforward with its deep plum hues, pristine chiaroscuro, and subtle gradation. However, when looking closely, one can see the complex layering of 39 colors rolled individually on a screen and pressed onto the paper. 

“Conflations” by Cameron Martin depicts Mount Rainier in layers of black, pink, red, and white. Photo by Minneapolis Institute of Art.

All of the pieces in the show capture the craftsmanship of the presses, the societal loci of the artists, and the milieu of late-20th-century America. Julia Mehretu’s “Entropia (review),” from Highpoint Editions, uses bold lines and a muted palette to underscore a sense of organized chaos. Its abstraction captures the disintegration of the psyche. Lesley Dill’s “Throat,” from Tandem Press, a monochrome piece that features a woman with Emily Dickinson’s words “I am afraid to own a body. I am afraid to own a soul” written on her throat, centers on female agency and ownership of one’s own body. Robert Arneson’s “Brick,” a mundane terracotta brick from Landfall Press, demonstrates satirical kitsch of high and low culture, irreverent toward hierarchical demarcations. Hung Liu’s “Missing Parts,” a woodcut with found photographs of different facial features printed on handmade paper from Island Press, confronts artist censorship in China after the Cultural Revolution. Inseparable from these masterpieces are the politics behind them. “These works reflect changing ideas around identity,” Wehn says. “They grapple with questions about race and gender.”

The 55 works in Pressing Innovation reveal the evolution of social ideals over the last 50 years, as well as the ways in which artists have responded to the societal upheavals around them. The show makes a strong case for the Midwest as a uniquely positioned birthing ground for art that challenges the current frameworks used to understand our changing world. 

The show also makes good on the “innovation” part of its title. Across these works, artists and presses are introducing novelty into printmaking and abandoning antiquated ways of meaning-making. While looking back into history, Pressing Innovation also projects hope into the future. Just as printmaking is an art form of various modalities, the exhibit imagines a life where all of creation comes together to make something new.

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