Prints, a medium that confounds so many, deserve more understanding. If that statement reads like a tedious homework assignment, please visit the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art and a lovely show-and-tell of prints in vivid colors and muted monochromes, realistic and abstract, that represent almost every technique in the traditional printmaking oeuvre. • "The French Connection: Prints from the Caroline Adams Byrd-Denjoy Collection" consists of 48 prints from a gift of more than 200 that Byrd-Denjoy has given to the museum. All were created in Paris between 1975 and 2005 by 20th and 21st century artists from Europe and the United States. She is American but has lived in France for decades, married to a French physician, and has been involved in the arts for almost as long.
In a recent interview at the museum, Byrd-Denjoy said that she was never systematic about her collecting. Her first prints were gifts from artists she befriended and she continued to buy more made by artists she liked and admired because they were more affordable than the artists' paintings and sculptures.
Her gift to the Leepa-Rattner was a result of serendipitous circumstances. She began visiting north Pinellas to see her parents, who, before their deaths, lived in Belleair, and continues to make an annual visit because she likes the region and has many friends here. She became involved with the Leepa-Rattner and decided to make the gift to it rather than to one of the French museums with which she also has connections because she believes that contemporary prints are underappreciated in France.
"I knew they would just sit in storage there," she said. "And I wanted them to be part of a collection in a museum affiliated with an educational institution so they could also be used for teaching."
And teach they do, for viewers who want to look more deeply than the works' surface pleasures. Herve Télémaque's The Blue Matisse opens the show and is a good entry point. You see the inspiration of its namesake in the vivid, amorphous shapes that resemble Matisse's bold prints and collages of cut paper. Except they're more complicated, with more colors imposed on the printed shapes. It seems like a fairly straightforward lithograph, done very well, but look closely and you see that the elaborate but subtle background is visible through the rich colors, definitely not a Matisse technique. Giving the primary elements that bit of translucence is a neat trick of the master printer when an easier opaque treatment is expected. And it makes an important point: Most printmaking is a collaboration between the artist and master printer. The latter is usually anonymous but is the silent star who in translates the wishes of the former. In this case, the artist clearly wanted that background to emerge as a visual metaphor for the past that is always formative of the present.
One of the tools the museum deploys is a video of curator Erika Greenberg-Schneider, a master printer and founder of Tampa's Bleu Acier print atelier, who worked in France for many years and made some of the prints in the show during those years. (She and Byrd-Denjoy didn't know each other back then.) I found myself going back and forth between the video and the galleries, looking at a print, listening to Greenberg-Schneider's comments on it, then returning to the work with greater appreciation of it.
Genevieve Asse's Untitled, for example, seems to be a nice Mark Rothko-type work using a compelling color, a gray-blue in this case, printed as two broad swipes bisected by a red line. Greenberg-Schneider explains how it was made — she knows just by looking at it — using both the lithographic and screen processes. She also points out the surface nuances and why they are both difficult and special.
One of the most dramatic prints is a lithograph which she created in collaboration with Jacques Monory in 1990. It was, she relates in the video, the hardest print she has ever made. You can see why. The artist drew onto a plate a detailed scene of a crowd at a circus watching hang gliders (one with a dog) that is printed in grays and blacks. Over that is a transparent rainbow of colors made by blending the primary ones of red, yellow and blue. She describes in the video how she attained that effect, requested by the artist, painstakingly applying an inked hand roller to the paper in sections for the gradual flow of blended colors. I wish there was a video of that.
Many of the prints use only black on white. The War of Scriptures by Jacques Villeglé uses the stark contrast between the two in his witty narrative that begins with an alphabet made from recognizable symbols, some emotionally or politically charged (Star of David, swastika, hammer and sickle, for example), all with a double meaning. There are two lines whose message I couldn't figure out than "Paris Musee d'Art Moderne" to which Villeglé gave it for a fundraiser. Richard Davies' The Crossing, on the other hand, is a brooding, densely worked mezzotint of two people crossing a body of water, surrounded by forest. Again, a video explanation of the mezzotint method (another technical doozy) enriches the experience.
A brochure has an essay by the curator and a glossary of printmaking methods. And the ever-present reminder that fine art prints are made in small editions, not by the thousands as are posters, is found on most in the lower right corner. There, two numbers are arranged as a fraction; the bottom one represents the total number made and the top is the specific number that print is in the run.
Yes, prints are multiples. But they are most accurately called multiple originals because each has unique details determined by its order and how the printing surface is manipulated by the artist or printer.
Knowing more about the process is important. Just as important is the immediate experience of seeing. You can enjoy this show either way.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.