As a show of prints, the quarter-century celebration of the print cooperative Peregrine Press, featuring works by 49 past and present members, is mixed – ranging from superb to something less – but as an introduction to the group and its goals, it a stellar exhibition.
Peregrine is Maine’s oldest nonprofit fine print press. It has 30 active members and a worthy mission that starts with the non-toxic artists’ cooperative printing facility and includes mentoring and education through lectures, workshops and exhibits.
In addition to an excellent catalog that accompanies this show at the Portland Public Library’s Lewis Gallery, Peregrine has published two impressive portfolios, “First Impressions” in 2008 and “Local Conditions” in 2013. Editions of each are held in notable museum collections, and their inclusion in “Art of the Hand-Pulled Print: Peregrine Press at 25” solidifies the show’s status both as a historical survey and a vehicle of collaboration.
The didactic focus of technical shows (such as those highlighting encaustic or wet plate photography) generally annoys me because it misleads viewers into confusing technique with content, but the Peregrine process displays are both informative and engaging.
Fittingly, the most impressive work is the giant collaborative peregrine falcon kite hovering above the gallery. It is playful and handsome.
Because the show is based on inclusiveness among the 30 current members and important past members, it was not curated with an eye to slick presentation. But I prefer jumble and integrity to falsified aesthetic veneers most any day. Besides, big shows of individual works like this one make it easier to focus on your favorites without needing to bend them all into a coherent narrative.
Jeff Woodbury’s DIY toy model weapon prints earn first mention. His two-color screenprint uzi practically quivers with dangerously playful brilliance. Building on ideas about children’s play culture, real security issues involving 3D printing, issues of weapons proliferation and a newly blossoming nostalgia for Cold War American exceptionalism, Woodbury slam-dunks an artistic trifecta: content, presentation and technique.
The visual standout is Alice Spencer’s color masterpiece “Tree Patchwork,” a joyous thing of happy beauty. For visual impact, nothing pulled me in like the late (and wonderful) Dorothy Schwartz’s woodcut “Darwin’s Bee” in eye-popping black, white and red.
Similarly catchy but with a looping complexity is Liz Prescott’s color-rich monotype, woodcut and collage “Sanctuary.” For its grasp on smoky painterly qualities in a horizontal landscape, Larinda Meade’s intaglio “Restless” is a worthy work.
The most creative piece is Lin Lisberger’s “Snorkel Book,” a spiky hot-dog-like carved wood sculpture with collaged monotype forms on it playing the part of tattoos on a swanky wooden frankfurter bun. Alison Hildreth, whose great hanging glass installation offers perpetual welcome to the library’s entry hall, is well-represented by a drypoint and etching imaginary archaeological treasure map punctuated by a series of pointed-to red destination forms.
Among many other elegantly detailed, well-drawn or well-designed works, I reserve particular praise for Grace DeGennaro’s “Weaving,” a hand-colored monotype that clearly sets a high bar for content and craftsmanship relating to process, pattern, piecework traditionally associated with women, mathematical design, sacred geometries and, on top of that, pulsing 1960s Op Art aesthetics.
Print scholars, collectors and dealers – including catalog essayist Aprile Gallant, a curator at the Smith College Museum of Art – will sometimes point to the 1960s as the critical starting point for the “collaborative print movement.” I agree with this, but I think the most accurate narrative smartly pushes printmaking into the studio craft movement, for all the right reasons.
After World War II, the art world was remade in the shape of the American myth of creative genius. The European erudition model of art had failed in its war-crumbled culture (or so we conveniently liked to pretend) and so artists switched from being students of cultural history to being self-expressionists.
Surrealism paved the way for American Abstract Expressionism to take the scepter of the arts – and its top market billing. This model was particularly appealing to artists who worked in technical craft media, such as clay, metal and glass, because of the directness of the material and the primordial feel (and framing finish) of fire. Clay artists at the American Craft Council gathered together to start the studio glass movement in the early 1960s.
Buoyed by academic communities funded by the GI Bill, artists worked together to find their way through technical media like glass art, wood-fired ceramics and printmaking. The logic of Abstract Expressionism dictated that any form-creating media driven by self-expression was a valid artistic vehicle, but many of the traditionally snobbier academic painters sought to maintain an art-versus-craft hierarchy.
This drove many social-oriented visual artists toward the lower barrier and more democratic art of printmaking, particularly because of the sense of community created around sharing tools and presses and working in shareable, exchangeable and low-cost multiples.
In other words, some of Peregrine’s finest qualities stem from the collaborative print movement’s intentional proximity to the values of the studio craft movement: technical excellence, community ethics, affordable art, collaborative culture and, fundamentally, teamwork. While these qualities may be more obvious in jazz and glassblowing, they are often similarly important to ceramics and printmaking.
It hardly matters that I see the work in “Peregrine Press at 25” as fine craft, since I see little value in distinguishing art from craft besides acknowledging craft’s elevated community standards. Such communities are vital to art-rich regions like Maine and, within them, standards of excellence and ethics come into focus.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: