by David M. Roth
To call an artist a sign painter is, in most cases, a grave insult. But with Ed Ruscha, it’s merely a statement of fact and, very possibly, a source of pride, given that the artist has rendered signs of one sort or another for most of his 60-year career. Many of his images have become as ingrained in public consciousness as the brands and landmarks they depict, eliciting pangs of nostalgia among those for whom auto travel still conjures Kerouacian visions of the open road – a pleasure denied us by the pandemic.
No doubt, that is why Crown Point Press (CPP) made several of his recent prints, created through a remote collaborative working process, the centerpiece of Signs of a Series, a show devoted to serialism and signs. Both are subjects for which printmaking in general and this blue-chip printmaking facility, in particular, are uniquely suited. Founded in 1962, CPP grew to maturity alongside many of the artists it now represents. The show, in addition to Ruscha, features nine other artists, each of whom demonstrates the ways printmaking can be used to develop or extend an idea.
Ruscha’s Lonely Highway, for example, shows an elongated road sign in the middle of nowhere that reads: “Gal chews same piece of gum since 1970,” a deadpan riff on roadside attractions of yore. Equally droll is Sign in a Rainstorm whose off-kilter positioning vis-à-vis the edges undercuts the message (“Sea level”) within — a telltale sign of the times if ever there was one.
For Wayne Thiebaud, serialism means revisiting Central Valley locations he’s painted most of his adult life, now 100 years and counting. The standout among the three prints on view shows Highway 5 from what looks to be a freeway overpass. With fiendishly economical incisions, the artist turns a mundane scene of lumbering tractor-trailer rigs into something cartoonish, pulling humor from a place we least expect it. Charline von Heyl adds color and vertical bars to an anatomically skewed figure, transforming what began as a loopy Surrealist drawing into something approaching a deformed heraldic symbol. I’d seen the print before, but I never knew how it originated. Seeing it next to the source felt revelatory.
The London-based geometric abstractionist Tomma Abts delivers Op-ish constructions blending lines, dots, swirling circles and drop shadows that rivet attention from across a room. So, too, does the metallic sheen given off by the unravelled strands in Alyson Shotz’s Knot Theory prints; each shows an interior view of the subject that would otherwise be invisible.
Pat Steir, a painter who’s long worked with water imagery, and Tony Cragg, a British sculptor of muscular, nature-based forms, take a looser approach that relies on staining: Steir with Rorschach blotches set against crosshatched geometric volumes, Cragg with images of test tubes marked by pale blue droplets. The first read as psychological self-portraits; the second as laboratories from which vaccines for the latest mutations of the coronavirus might emerge. Until then, Signs of a Series might well serve as a balm for those tired of waiting.
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“Signs of a Series” @ Crown Point Press through April 24, 2012. The show also includes works by Darren Almond, Jacqueline Humphries, Patricia Treib and Richard Tuttle.
About the author:
David M. Roth is editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.