Remembering Not to Forget: Lorain County Printmakers at Stocker Center
The the idea that an artist can live after death through his work is old, universal, and in a way central to the exhibit on view now at the Stocker Center gallery at Lorain County Community College. The stated idea behind the show is built into its name: Lorain County Printmakers gathers the work of five accomplished and prolific printmakers who happen to have that place in common. But what seems to loom larger than this geographic connection is the idea that through art, a person can have a voice after death, can be remembered, and maybe help build continuity across generations. That’s because three of the five artists passed away sometime in the last five years. Printmakers in the exhibit are Paul Arnold, David Jansheski, Mary Owen Rosenthal, Claudio Orso, and Sean Crum.
Paul Arnold—the founder of the Oberlin College printmaking department–passed away in 2012. He grew up in China, but attended Oberlin College and was teaching there before he joined the Army to fight in World War II. After the war, he studied printmaking in Japan with Toshi Yoshida, then returned to teach at Oberlin and founded the printmaking department there in 1950. These are the details from his obituary, but for Arnold, or for that matter Rembrandt (whose self-portrait etching is the subject in one of Arnold’s works in this show) or any artist, it is another kind of connection to be in the presence of something made by his hand—years, decades, even centuries ago. To make these images Arnold—or any of the artists—carved wood with knives, and then rolled ink on it with a hand roller, laid on paper and then manually applied pressure with a barren, or in some cases, a wooden spoon: a significant investment of physical labor. Continuity through art history is a regular theme in Arnold’s works here, with artists from the recent and distant past figuring prominently in prints that pay homage to their innovations.
Besides the historic printmaking allusion to Rembrandt (himself a printmaker) there are other images of artists at work. There’s a printmaker with a press (Mauricio Lasansky, Intaglio Master, a reference to another famed printmaker). There’s Albrecht Durer with his grid. There are a couple of Arnold’s self-portraits. Arnold’s technique reflects Japanese Ukiyo-e prints in the way he divides space with color fields. This show is significantly process-oriented, with printing blocks juxtaposed next to prints in several cases. That’s a strength of the show, both for the uninitiated (who might not know the process) and for printmakers (who might be curious about how a given artist handled a challenge). In Arnold’s prints, the color separation and registration make the process especially interesting, as each image comprises the impressions of several blocks, one for each color, printed one at a time until together they make the whole image. Arnold composes and creates depth beautifully. The prints look roomy. It’s simple spot-color that transcends the two-dimensionality of the page.
Arnold and the late Avon Lake printmaker David Jansheski—who died of cancer in 2014—are probably the most widely collected artists in this show. Both have exhibited and have works in institutional collections around the world, including at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Jansheski was once commissioned to make an editioned print by the CMA affiliate group, the Print Club of Cleveland.
Jansheski’s works in this show are vividly colorful, exuberant, and mostly abstractions. Jancheski used a broad range of printmaking techniques—wood block, linoleum block, monograph, collograph, often combining multiple techniques in a single print. Before he died, he bequeathed his entire estate—his studio, all his remaining art, his house—to create the David C. Jansheski Fund for the Arts, which supports art programming in Lorain County. His works in the show are for sale to help build that fund.
A third printmaker, longtime Oberlin resident Mary Owen Rosenthal, passed away earlier this year. She moved to Chicago in about 2010, at which point her friend and fellow printmaker Claudio Orso took over her Oberlin studio. Orso is one of two living printmakers in the Stocker Center show. The affinity between Rosehthal an Orso extends beyond a friendship and the hand-off of her studio. Both have embraced wood block in traditional black ink on white paper, all information communicated through graphic, binary simplicity, either yes or no, the ink transferred not with a press but with a wooden spoon–the investment of labor and physical contact being a matter of principle. Their works share a bold, expressive commentary on the human condition through allegories. The emotion or energy comes from the cut of the knife.
Rosenthal’s works in this exhibit show a range of different pursuits within that realm. Her self-portrait –the artist’s face not once, but twice, as if seen in a mirror, is subtly shaded with fine lines that capture the falling light. The mirror image was created next to the original print direct from the block by working the ink through the paper from the back side in a second impression. The cappilary action of the ink flowing through the paper to its far side emphasizes the sensuality of printmaking. Nearby, an untitled piece shows a barbarous image of self-destruction—a kneeling, sexless human figure that seems to have beheaded itself, about to gouge out its own eyes with a pointed tool, a scattering of other severed heads laying about, their eyes rolling, while intensely black crows with empty eyes gather, threatening.
There are only perhaps half a dozen of Rosenthal’s works in this exhibit, and none that show the artist’s long and economical pursuit, which Orso described: prints made with 2′ X 4′ blocks cut from sheets of plywood, four blocks to the sheet, zero waste, printed on full, standard-sized sheets of on kozo paper—again, zero waste. More of Rosenthal’s prints would have been a welcome addition to this show. Orso and Rosenthal also have in common the practice of making large prints using plywood off the shelf from construction supply stores.
Several of Orso’s large wood block prints in this exhibit have been shown in Cleveland before. Of all the printmakers in this exhibit, these show the most energy, spontanaity, and perhaps allow the wood to speak more than any of the rest. For Orso, working with wood block is a “negotiation,” in which the wood grain pushes back, exercising its own will for the image that results. The prints are sometimes charged with family stories, as in King of the Wonderwall (an uncle on a bicycle, riding furiously as a crowd looks on), and sometimes with politics, as in The Middle Class Goes To Heaven (another image of bicycles and riders, in this case flying head-over-wheel across the page). The content as well as the carving lines and, in some prints, perspective make them move, pulling your eyes around the image, giving the beholder a tour of its details. They show people in various ways grappling with the forces of a crazy world, trying to define and maintain their place within it, struggling against powerbrokers of all kinds, especially fat cat politicians, corporate gangsters, and generally the forces of a money grubbing world. There’s much more written about Orso’s works in an article from the Summer 2015 issue of CAN.
Works of Sean Crum–the other living printmaker in this exhibit–could not be more distinct, either from Orso’s or those of the other artists in the show. First, Crum’s technique is exactly the opposite of the rest. While all the others are relief printers, carving away material that will not print, inking the high spots left behind, and printing from that, Crum uses the intaglio process, etching lines into the plate, inking it, and wiping the surface clean so that the etched lines below the surface are what holds and transfers the ink to make a print. Because his technique is distinct from all these other printmakers, including a block or two of his to highlight the intaglio process would also have been a welcome addition to the show. The process makes possible extremely fine lines, and a broad range of shading possibilities. Crum’s prints are technically masterful. They are images of dragons, and knights slaying dragons, and knights slaying other knights. While the technique is ancient, and the subject matter is associated with tales of ancient battle, a fantasy quality about the scenes anchors them firmly in the present.
All these printmakers compete for space in the cultural market, whether they are living, active participants or whether the artist died, leaving the work to fend for itself. Like any marketplace, though, there are other forces at work, determining their success: Institutions –whether colleges or regional historic art institutions like ArtNeo—can collect and exhibit, or even make catalogs. Those serve as resources to inform private collectors, thereby reinforcing the cultural record. In the case of these Lorain County Printmakers, the exhibit will have one more life, when a re-hanging of the show, necessarily edited to fit a smaller gallery, comes to Zygote Press in the Spring. It would be great regionally to see more exhibits that do that—maybe a show exploring relationship between Orso and Rosenthal? That would be a tremendous follow-up: a dialog on their shared affinity for allegory, politics, and the struggle of regular folks. We can hope, can’t we?