It may be a small show, but it's an important one. "Contemporary Prints by American Women" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, consists of 30 works that use a variety of print methods to stunning results, blending craft with artistic vision. It's about half of a collection given by patrons Martha and Jim Sweeny so we also have the expectation of another such exhibition in the future.
The title needs to be addressed. I doubt there will ever be a show containing the term "American Men" in the same context so the implication some could take away in this case is that female gender is used as a marginalizing description. But historically, women artists have been marginalized, usually taken less seriously. Fortunately, that has changed over the last century, as we see here with names that bear weight and star power, women who earned the right to be considered simply as artists when their work is discussed.
As in any good print show, we see how the medium can fool the eye. Sylvia Mangold's The Locust Trees looks like a poetic pen and ink drawing; Elaine de Kooning's lithograph, Jardin de Luxembourg, could be a painting; and Vija Celmin's screen print, Ocean With Cross, seems at first to be a photograph.
Domesticity has a subtle presence but in unconventional ways.
Botanical-type images include Georgia Marsh's Rumi Riffs and Joan Mitchell's Flower I, for example. But Mitchell's aggressive abstract expressionist style muscles aside preconceptions about flower paintings by women, and Marsh grounds the ephemeral images of leaves with a geometric grid. As with many of the prints here, this one bears close study to appreciate the intricacy of the composition and print layers.
Needles and thread are traditionally women's tools, and they are deployed here. Marie Yoho Dorsey's delicate embroidery on Starry Night isn't used to pretty-up the print (thought it does) but in service to her map that illustrates the ancient creation myth of the Japanese archipelago's formation. Leslie Dill also hand-sews a lithograph printed on silk and muslin for a haunting double image not meant to comfort. And Faith Ringgold's Under a Blood Red Sky resembles her famous narrative quilts that deal with racism.
The Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s and 1980s is represented by one of its pre-eminent practitioners, Joyce Kozloff, and her Homage to Robert Adam. Adam was an 18th century British architect and interior designer who installed elaborate wall and ceiling treatments in the baronial homes he built. In Homage, Kozloff uses equally elaborate design with etched patterns overlaid with more patterns set into cast paper frames that emulate the wood moldings Adam used. It avoids mere beauty with its intellect.
Louise Nevelson also uses cast paper but, in contrast to Kozloff's exuberance, Sky Gate I is an austere and cerebral meditation on form with the artist's signature monochromatic palette.
Abstraction plays a big part in many of the works, though few would be considered purely abstract. Pat Steir's Peacock Waterfall is a recognizable rendering of that force of nature but is more about stunning, saturating colors allowed to follow gravity's pull downward. The riotous bundle of forms in Nicola Lopez's three-dimensional Urban Transformation #3 resolves itself into an explosive construction site filled with pipes, hoses, plastic netting and shards flying beyond the borders of the print. It's a gritty take on Red Grooms' witty pop art constructions.
Of all media, I think prints are the most misunderstood because of the many techniques used to make them. So I encourage you to attend a gallery talk at 3 p.m. on Nov. 18 about this show by Erika Greenberg-Schneider, an internationally admired master printer who has worked with some of the great contemporary artists and whose atelier, Bleu Acier, is in Tampa.
Jim Sweeny, who with his wife, Martha, donated these works, will talk at 6 p.m. on Oct. 4 about their experiences as collectors, which should also be interesting. We don't often have the opportunity to meet the people whose generosity is evident on gallery walls and hear them explain the hows and whys of their collecting choices.
Both are free with admission.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.