The Brodsky Center isn’t at Rutgers anymore. It says so right at the beginning of a spirited new exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. The audacious printing and papermaking laboratory relocated to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts five years ago.
Those pesky Philadelphians do have a habit of pinching star performers from the Garden State. “The Brodsky Center at Rutgers University: Three Decades, 1986-2017,” which will be on view at the Zimmerli until Christmas, provides a full measure of the upstart organization’s contributions to the emergence — and mainstream acceptance — of printing and papermaking as major forms of artistic representation.
It’s also a heck of a lot of fun. From the start, the Brodsky Center was a freewheeling place, encouraging experimental approaches to putting pigment to paper. Even when the subject matter is serious — and it often is — the tone of the Brodsky prints is usually playful, and often joyful, too.
While printing is sometimes considered a humble art form compared to sculpture in marble, the sheer variety of materials represented in “Three Decades” makes this show feel sumptuous. Drypoint! Overbeaten flax! Linoleum blocks! Chine collé! Black denim! Copper leaf! Paper enmeshed in bunches of yarn, glue, wire and cotton! Decades after the Brodsky Center began attracting imaginative printmakers to the banks of the Raritan, many of these adventures in fabrication retain the power to startle us with their resourcefulness.
The show constantly reminds us that paper is an amalgam of filaments, and that printmaking shares as much with the still-emerging field of fiber art as it does with traditional painting and drawing. The more “Three Decades” emphasizes the composite quality of paper — its similarity to fabric and thread — the more exciting the show becomes.
Joan Snyder’s “white field/pink & orange” is a raft of wrinkled, undulating paper, thick as an egg carton, decorated with floral prints like lipstick-smudges, and further complicated by the inclusion of strips of fabric. It’s harmonious in spite of itself, held together through the force of the artist’s imagination and care.
Ela Shah’s “Cradle of Faith” — a painting on a thin, tissue-like layer of pulp — is a sleek representation of a classical tower. The skin-like quality of the paper, its rough edges and the translucent paint reinforce the piece’s feeling of fragility and preciousness. It’s doubtful that the same effect could have been achieved with paint on canvas.
Newark’s Chakaiah Booker tosses us a tumbleweed of paper: strips like rasps, stained charcoal gray, tangled up and hung, precariously, on the gallery wall. Then there is the remarkable “Split Shield” by Corwin Clairmont: a rough circle, large as a city clock, of paper in wildly varying weights. The outer ring of the piece consists of black-dyed cotton, matted together and grooved like the treads of a tire. It is both industrial and deeply human, and looks as if it could steamroll right out the door and onto George Street.
Clairmont is a member of the Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and “Split Shield” juxtaposes totems of Native American culture with images reminiscent of a Pep Boys. This audacity is characteristic of the show, which, despite its roots in the social justice movements of the ’80s, can be marvelously, productively indelicate. Rutgers emeritus professor Judith K. Brodsky began the Center with a political mission: She was determined to provide opportunities for artists who weren’t straight white men. This she did. But once in the program, Brodsky had very little interest in enforcing ideological purity. Her Center encouraged collisions of all kinds. The prevailing tone of the artwork in “Three Decades” is playful impertinence, and the only thing held sacrosanct is the importance of expression.
Sometimes that means provocative stories are inscribed directly on to the pieces. “The History of Her Life Written Across Her Face,” a lithograph of an amber-eyed, brown-skinned woman by Margo Humphrey, tells her tale in handwritten white letters and ideograms emblazoned on her cheeks and forehead. This is the skin as canvas — one of several pieces in the show that makes a connection between paper and epidermis. Eric Avery’s “Paradise Lost” stands the medical infographic poster on its head by surrounding a pox-faced and pestilential Adam and Eve with sobering paragraphs describing infectious diseases.
Other uses of text are just plain mischief, like Melissa Gould’s Teutonic takeover of the Big Apple: “Neu-York,” a German reimagining of Manhattan, complete with streets named after historic figures lauded, controversial and downright infamous.
Refreshingly, the artists at the Brodsky Center did not take the mass-produced wall poster as the starting point for their explorations into printmaking. Their visions were too wide for that — and their drawer of materials was too deep. They don’t waste time satirizing advertisements or cheekily reappropriating imagery from famous campaigns. When they do engage with political symbols, they’re usually there to make a larger non-sectarian point.
Philip Orenstein’s riveting “Big Cheese” triptych, a centerpiece of “Three Decades,” loads classic American imagery on the prow of the ocean liner Ile-De-France, and counterweights it with busts of Soviet and Nazi dictators at the back of the boat. In the middle panel are the refugees, steaming from one state to another as the flotsam of European culture bobs in the waves around them. Is this a celebration of an escape to the liberated waters of the United States? Not quite. The bombs overhead and the hull of a capsized Middle Passage slave ship make it clear that the seas of the States have yet to settle into calm. Orenstein’s decision to present “Big Cheese” as a series of panels further suggests that this international vessel, stately as it may seem, is sundering.
Orenstein’s destabilizing triptych is an example of the Brodsky artists’ ability to locate and highlight the beauty in desperate circumstances. The Center’s artists were troubled by violence and injustice, yet the images they made in response to the parlous state of the world are, ironically, a treat to look at.
In Parastou Forouhar’s “Water Mark,” a harrowing print, scores of black bodies are sieved through a ring. Weighted by misfortune, they tumble headfirst into the midnight-blue depths of a cold sea. It’s as scary, startling and gorgeous as a sudden rainstorm.
Zelna Barakeh’s “Trojan Accords” is a nightmare congregation of horse-headed humans, some in military formation, busy detaining and imposing slave labor on less fortunate equine peers. Here, the virtues of the press — repetition of imagery, even application of color, a feeling of geometry unbounded, precision commensurate with a mechanized era in human history — work to amplify the visual storytelling.
Yet, as the show demonstrates, the press can also be as gentle as a kiss.
In Miriam Schapiro’s “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Di,” a lithograph created in tribute to the jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, rays of brilliant color stream from a red-orange semicircle that peeps over a horizon like a rising sun. Some are polka-dotted, some decorated with zigzag shapes; all tickle the eye and invite a feeling of conviviality.
“Gossip” by Elizabeth Catlett, captures a bond of knowing between two women in profile, leaning together at a conspiratorial angle, locking eyes, transferring a confidence. The intimacy of the scene is deepened by the detail that Catlett, one of the great storytelling artists in North American history, is able to tease out of her print: the sleekness of the form-fitting shirts, the wrinkle of the sleeves, the texture of close-cropped hair, the play of light on set cheekbones. It’s a piece to show anybody who argues that printing lacks the expressive subtlety of painting.
Not that there are many doubters left. The Brodsky Center leaves New Jersey with its arguments mostly won. Those of us who go to museums and galleries acknowledge that printing and papermaking are vital art forms peculiarly suited for our time of mass industrial production and infinite reproducibility. Minority voices are no longer drowned out.
In keeping with the Brodsky Center’s inclusive mission, exhibition organizer Ferris Olin has made this a bilingual show — all the wall text and explanatory notes are in Spanish as well as English. Moreover, she has taken pains to credit everybody involved in making these works, listing the collaborating printers, assistant printers and papermakers alongside the artists. It’s a nice egalitarian gesture, and further testament to the scrupulousness with which this show has been put together.
No, we don’t have the Brodsky Center at Rutgers anymore. But it certainly made an impression.
The Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick presents “The Brodsky Center at Rutgers University: Three Decades, 1986-2017” through Dec. 22. Visit zimmerli.rutgers.edu.
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