TO WORK IN the field of handmade paper, artists' books and printmaking is to give up a little bit.
Wait. Before you fire off the angry e-mails about how that last statement only serves to perpetuate an unfair characterization of the graphic arts as a marginalized medium, secondary to, say, painting, allow me to explain. I come to praise Pyramid Atlantic -- the area's preeminent center for print, paper and book arts, which just so happens to be celebrating its 25th birthday this year -- not to bury it. The key to understanding what I'm getting at lies in the title of the fine and varied anniversary retrospective at Edison Place Gallery: "Collaboration as a Medium: 25 Years of Pyramid Atlantic."
"Friendship, Vitality and Strength," by Lonnie Graham, at Edison Place Gallery.
For what is collaboration other than a kind of letting go? As Pyramid Atlantic founder Helen Frederick puts it, in order to make art collaboratively (as the paper, print and book arts so often require because of the size and expense of the necessary equipment, and the specialized skills they demand), "you have to be willing to throw out." She means that in two ways. Not just in the sense that you discard pieces that don't work -- any artist does that -- but in the sense that, by working with another person, be she a printer, a binder, a papermaker, you also relinquish a little of the control you, as a solitary artist, have over the finished product. Of course, as with any form of compromise, you also gain something in return.
It isn't always immediately apparent what that is.
How different, in other words, is Kevin MacDonald's screen print of a suburban home or Bill Dunlap's paper-pulp painting of a trout from one of their similarly themed paintings?
A radical new look isn't necessarily the point. Some works in "Collaboration" do look significantly different from what we have come to expect from certain artists. Renee Stout's "Seduction Coat," for instance -- part lithograph, part screen print, part collaged elements -- very much utilizes the artist's aesthetic vocabulary, but it lacks the funky, 3-D theatricality of her installation work. Ironically, though, this feels like a gain, not a loss.
Sometimes what is added is merely the feel of the handmade paper (there are lots of gloves here for safe handling), or the way the etching plate "bites" deeply into the print, leaving an almost sculptural impression. Once the eye adjusts to seeing it, there's just something about the printed mark, whether it be letterpress, silk-screen or woodcut, that is indelibly different from the stroke of a pencil, pen, chalk or brush. "Collaboration" helps train your eye to look for it.
To work in a collective environment like Pyramid Atlantic is to bring ideas to the table and to trade them in for new, albeit sometimes only subtly altered, ones. Yes, there is a protocol, and sometimes a compromise involved, especially when you're relying on the talents of a master printer to bring your vision to fruition. After all, some things just won't work, as much as you want them to, and sometimes collaborative solutions produce less than satisfying results.
But this form of artmaking isn't a bureaucracy, Frederick says, who likens the collaborative studio to a "field of play."
That sense of stretching, of pursuing new avenues of artistic expression with the support and guidance of a partner or partners, is the hallmark of Pyramid Atlantic and everything it does. What comes across most strongly in "Collaboration as a Medium" is that these first 25 years have only been the beginning of a series of long and fruitful partnerships.
COLLABORATION AS A MEDIUM: 25 YEARS OF PYRAMID ATLANTIC -- Through May 24. Edison Place Gallery, 701 Eighth St. NW (Metro: Gallery Place). 202-872-3396. www.pyramidatlanticartcenter.org/studio/exhibit.htm. Open Tuesday-Friday noon to 4. Free.