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  1. Visual Arts

Review: Women artists shine in print show at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

Pat Steir, Peacock Waterfall, 2001, color silkscreen on paper. ?Pat Steir
Published Dec. 15, 2015

First, I regret the necessity of the subtitle of "Marks Made," a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. It reads: "Prints by American Women Artists From the 1960s to the Present." We would never see "American Male Artists." But it is a necessity. As Judith Brodsky notes in the foreword to the exhibition's catalog, in a world where a painting by Joan Mitchell makes auction news by selling for $7 million while one by a male peer can routinely go into the nine figures, there remains some inexplicable gender bias. That's all I'm going to say because I would rather use my column inches to praise the art.

Almost every form of printmaking is represented among the 90-plus works by 62 artists. The intimate entry gallery is a preface beginning with June Wayne's aerial view of a concert that looks like a heat map. In 1960, Wayne founded the venerable Tamarind Lithography Workshop, now the Tamarind Institute at the University of New Mexico. Two of the most famous modern female artists are also part of the introduction; Louise Nevelson casts paper, giving it the dimensional quality of her sculptures, and Helen Frankenthaler uses the woodblock print process for a lovely landscape that looks more delicate than most such prints.

Because of the number of different artists with the only unifier their gender, this show could have had the feel of an all-you-can-eat buffet mashup. Kudos to curator Katherine Pill for providing such a thoughtful installation with groupings that make connections. In another gallery, for example, still lifes by Janet Fish, Jane Freilicher and Laura Owens have a visual conversation about genre and medium, with Fish coaxing a bravura performance from the woodcut process, Freilicher hinting at Matisse in her etching and Owens going whimsical minimalist in weaving vines, tendrils and flowers against a pastel-washed background in her lithograph.

Barbara Kruger and Lorna Simpson could not be more different aesthetically, yet, as they almost face each other on opposite walls, they have a kinship. Kruger's style usually overlays a photographic image with a pithy comment printed in a muscular typeface such as Helvetica. Here, "We will no longer be seen and not heard" is paired with a smiling woman whose eyes are covered with binoculars. It's a lithograph printed on foil, an ambiguous choice that suggests domesticity. But the foil is gently rippled and suggests bars. Simpson's pair of binoculars is captured in a photogravure, that most elegant photographic process. Between them is a brief essay, almost a poem, about looking through them into other people's lives, seeing and not being seen. Similar observations could be made with Jill Moser's horizontal swirl of blue punctuated with a red dot and Pat Steir's vertical blue lines spilling down a vivid red surface.

Works in one portion of a gallery are united by their muted colors — grays, browns, blacks — and spiked with shades of red. In another, prints based on appropriated images — from a Barbra Streisand portrait to a Degas painting — are grouped. These affinities shouldn't be overstated or the main focus of how we view the individual works; for me, it enhanced their uniqueness.

In many instances, you will think you're viewing a painting or a straightforward photograph, and therein lies the art of the process that fulfills the art of the image. Printmaking is a partnership between an artist and master printer, though the printer works in service to the artist's vision. Erika Greenberg-Schneider is the brilliant printer and owner of her own atelier, Bleu Acier, in Tampa. In a catalog essay she writes, "There is a silent understanding between the artist and the printer as between the composer and conductor. I often look at this commitment as a voyage: the explorer with a cartographer going through new territory. ... You have to follow the path where the work takes you, where the artist takes you."

This exhibition comes almost entirely from the museum's permanent collection, like the huge photography exhibition that it follows. The works are almost exclusively donations from collectors Martha and Jim Sweeney, who recognized the dearth of female artists in the collection and sought to remedy it. Give them a silent thanks as you walk through the show.

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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