Filter by April Flanders, 2019
Filter by April Flanders, 2019

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The process of printmaking is necessarily technical, and not quite as easy to grasp as that of putting brush to canvas. The labor of carving, etching, or digitally formatting a matrix (or whatever material it is that the printer is applying ink to) ranges from straightforward block prints carved out of wood to mysterious chemical processes. 

Forward Press: 21st Century Printmaking, on view at the American University Museum, shows a continuum of printmaking, with some artists exploring ancient methods, and others embracing new technologies and genre-hopping. The exhibit is the first national showing of the Printmaking Legacy Project®, a nonprofit headed by local printer Susan Goldman and dedicated to archiving printmaking techniques. The result is a tantalizing look at where the medium has been and where it could possibly go—incorporating digital media, installation, and performance art along the way. 

Firmly on the historical technique side is Steve A. Prince, who has contributed a gigantic, multipanel woodblock print entitled “Communal Resurrection: Song for Aya,” across which an epic history of black American music unfurls. One must walk the entire 40-foot length of the work to glimpse the various scenes of jazz clubs and funeral marches and hip-hop turntables, as well as the close-ups of intent, expressive faces. It might as well be a motion picture playing in Cinemascope. 

Also reaching into history for inspiration is Beauvais Lyons, who has created an elaborate persona as director of the Hokes Archives (say it aloud), a researcher documenting the work of Everitt Ormsby Hokes. “Selections from Circus Orbis” contains an arrangement of faux memorabilia from an early 20th century circus, with the artist taking on the role of a carnival barker trying to pull one over on any rube walking by. Lithograph posters hawk characters like The Racoon Man and The Singing Camel; he’s printed popcorn bags, fans, tickets, and pennants, and even a plaque explaining the supposed historic significance of the collection. Lyons’ work demonstrates how the advertising tools of mass printing can create a whole world, or at least a misinformation campaign. 

Working with prints and multiples can also be a way to blow up the scale of a piece. Michael Menchaca has created a massive installation with an enormous silk-screen backdrop for his animation “The Wall,” a dizzying video game style adventure rife with emojis, demons in MAGA hats, and environmental pitfalls. The screens are flanked by silk-screen prints in his signature style, which blends the iconography of various Meso-American cultures and artworks with the slickness and punch of a skateboard brand. 

Another massively scaled work is April Flanders’ “Filter,” which was created specifically for the gallery and curves around a rounded wall of the gallery. Hundreds of delicate cutouts of microorganisms are affixed to the walls like specimens in a cascading pattern, each one’s surface distinguished by patterns created through silk-screening and textured monotype printing. The title refers to mussels that are “filter feeders,” meaning they feast on everything in their paths, and are therefore destroying the food chains of their ecosystems, and the sweetness and fragility of each little cutout calls out how tenuous nature’s balance can be. The piece expertly blends traditional and technological methods—what would be years’ worth of hand-cutting was accomplished here with laser cutters. 

Advances like these in computerized printing have shaped the work of many of the artists in Forward Press. Being surrounded by reams of printouts in daily life, it can be easy to forget that something an HP LaserJet spits out is in fact a print. When properly wrangled, variations on desktop printing techniques can be just as breathtaking as hand-done methods. Sangmi Yoo created several massive inkjet prints overlaid with intricately hand-cut layers of paper. They dangle from the ceiling and cast dappled shadows across the gallery. 

The earliest prints were used for making books and posters, and the history of the medium is tied up in these uses. Nicole Pietrantoni’s “Implications” blows up the traditional book format, presenting 30 separate accordion-folded volumes, hung from their front covers side by side so that their pages tumble out and form a curtain printed with an image of melting glaciers. The artist’s husband, poet Devon Wootten, used text from the Paris Agreement on climate change to create a concrete poem that runs the length of the book, but much of it is fading or missing, much like the glaciers themselves. 

At the American University Museum to August 11. 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free.