Make yourself small and imagine the beauty of skating across a copper plate, maybe with rusty skates, and seeing incisions that result from this action. You’ll see there is a certain fragrance to a line cut with a tool. Some lines will be razor sharp while other parts will be staccato flecks, all waiting to be filled with ink. Scrawling, scratching, drawing, dripping upon, and otherwise talking to a plate of metal illustrates the true nature of this medium. So it’s a kind of 3-part harmony: the artist, a metal plate and a device to make marks. All of these artists have clearly fallen for the seductive elements of this art form. –Ed Ruscha
by Maria Porges
At a time when curating is often used to describe a kind of fancy choosing of everything from shoes to sausages, Scratches, Spit and Vinegar restores meaning and substance to this sadly debased term. As the statement above suggests, this exhibition’s apt and catchy title refers poetically to the range of marks and methods used in the process of etching. Its curator, artist Ed Ruscha, a lifelong fan of printmaking, selected 32 prints by 17 artists out of the considerable archives of Crown Point Press. Over the span of 54 years, Crown Point’s founder Kathan Brown has invited a select group of artists to work at the press and produce editions from plates made in its San Francisco studio. The earliest works on view in this exhibition, from Robert Bechtle, date from 1967, when the press was located in Brown’s home in Berkeley; the latest, by Crown Point regular, Wayne Thiebaud, are from 2011.
Ruscha has worked at Crown Point several times, producing some 39 prints. His familiarity with both the physical space of the gallery and the contents of its racks and drawers (not to mention his friendships with many of the artists) might suggest that the job of curating an exhibition like this would be relatively easy. But the exquisiteness of the show’s composition and presentation — the thoughtful juxtapositions, both in terms of scale and subject matter, and the way the pieces are installed — suggest that the process was meticulous and thorough. It began with an initial survey of the archive’s contents online, followed by a site visit, during which Ruscha looked at everything he had considered for the show and a great deal more, according to Valerie Wade, CPP’s director. Ruscha then constructed a model of the gallery, pondering the placement of each work. The result is a spare, elegant installation, with prints that feature a wide range of etched lines or marks.
One of the signature characteristics of prints published by Crown Point is a mixture of intellectual rigor and conceptual brio, often encapsulated in an austere beauty. One of the first works encountered in the show is Vito Acconci’s 20 Foot Ladder for Any Size Wall (1979-81) —a photo etching that pictures a silvery-grey aluminum ladder rising up across multiple, separately framed sheets. Here, the top edge of the uppermost of four sections is slyly tucked up out of sight behind a beam, suggesting that the ladder might extend into infinity, like Brancusi’s column. (An alternative installation envisioned would have extended the panels across the ceiling to their full complement of eight panels.) Nearby, Robert Barry’s faint, spare arrangements of words in a print from Suite Six (1978) are only visible from a distance of a few inches, requiring the kind of intimate examination that is sometimes associated with the connoisseurship of prints. Other works, in contrast, like the white-against-black spiral of Robert Hudson’s Dark River (1986), are compelling both close up and from across the gallery, as is Walking Drawing (2006), Tom Marioni’s where undulating, repeated lines function as the record of time and movement, captured in layers of etched marks.
As in Ruscha’s own work, many of the works here use color strategically. The splash of orange in Rammelzee’s Sirpier-E-Ule's Luxturnomere, Staff Landing (Future Futurism)(1984), and the mirrored red in Joan Jonas’s Double Lunar Dogs
(1982), are fine examples. In a nod to the history of the medium, most of the prints are explorations of black and gray with color serving more as a kind of delicate punctuation, as in Unclosed, Julie Mehretu’s dizzying sea of marks and starbursts of line — a print made with pretty much every technique an artist can employ while “talking to a plate of metal.”
The centerpiece of the show is Terry Fox’s Pendulum Spit Bite (1977). The “spit” in the title refers to the process used to make this sensual, spiraling oval of grey drops and dots, in which acid is applied to a pre-wetted copper plate. Hanging a hose like
a pendulum from the studio ceiling, Fox had it drip acid as it circled over the plate in ever-diminishing loops. The hypnotically beautiful result of that experiment is a reminder of other brilliant exercises that have taken place in the press’s studios over the years — John Cage burning pieces of paper on the press bed, for example. But that, as they say, is another story.
It seems appropriate that this museum-quality show is being presented during the frenzy of festivities surrounding the reopening of SFMOMA, located directly across the street from the press, as well as the opening of Gagosian Gallery downstairs, in space leased from Crown Point. Scratches, Spit and Vinegar is part of what could also be described as a Ruscha moment in San Francisco. In July, the de Young Museum presents Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, a sprawling survey of the artist’s work on this theme. That exhibition surely merits a visit, as does this jewel-like grouping at Crown Point. In the tradition of other artist-curated shows drawn from archives and collections, it suggests the unique viewpoint artists bring to this activity, elevating it from the pit of lexicographical debasement to something elegant and worthy of our attention.
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“Scratches, Spit and Vinegar,” curated by Ed Ruscha, at Crown Point Press, through June 4, 2016. The exhibition also includes William T. Wiley, Steve Reich, Gunter Brus, Chris Burden and Joel Fisher.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.