correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled artist Richard Peterson’s last name. This version has been updated.
The museum shows that draw big crowds these days tend to be large-scale installations that immerse and overwhelm the viewer. (Think back to the Hirshhorn’s “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.”) How can any exhibition of prints rival that kind of experience?
“Forward Press: 21st Century Printmaking” has an answer: a large-scale installation that immerses and overwhelms the viewer. Among other things.
The American University Museum show includes art that fills walls, towers above spectators and plays on video screens. Much of the work employs such centuries-old techniques as etching, woodcut and lithography. But what the 10 artists in the show do with these processes is bold and unexpected.
Curated by Susan Goldman, a virtuoso local printmaker who runs Rockville’s Lily Press and is founding director of the Printmaking Legacy Project — a nonprofit group that documents and conserves the art form’s history and practice — “Forward Press” is the project’s first national print exhibition.
There are two possible pathways into the show, but visitors will probably be pulled straight toward the piece that’s visible from the museum’s front door: Dennis McNett’s “Vulture Medicine.” The artist’s mixed-media tableau features a trio of bird-headed 3-D creatures that appear to be about 10 feet tall. They preside over a printed-fabric landscape hanging on the wall.
These figures evoke Native American costumes and totems, linking them to a message suggested by the role that carrion-eating birds serve in ecosystems. As McNett explains in the show’s catalogue: “Vulture Medicine cleans and clears all the things no longer serving the spirit, the planet or the creators.”
Two other large pieces, Nicole Pietrantoni’s “Implications” and April Flanders’s “Filter,” also address environmental concerns, while bending the rules of printmaking.
The first work, at 9-by-33 feet, offers a monumental vista of retreating Icelandic ice. From a distance, the image, based on a photograph and created by a series of 30 inkjet prints arrayed side by side, melds into something like a grand, 19th-century landscape painting. But the prints are literally connected in a different way: They’re a series of accordion books that together make up the entire scene. Pietrantoni has taken another customary way of presenting prints — the small volume — and made it as big as all outdoors.
Curving 25 feet across a white wall, Flanders’s “Filter” consists of hundreds of blue-green forms, representing mussels of the zebra and quagga varieties. The simplest way to depict these filter feeders — invasive species in the Great Lakes — would have been to print them all out on a single sheet of paper. Instead, Flanders arranges hundreds of pieces of paper, individually laser-cut and mounted on pins, like specimens in a natural science museum. The shadows they cast seem to animate them.
Sangmi Yoo also uses incised forms and shadow play, although her multilayered pieces evoke not nature but the suburbia of her Korean childhood and her current home in Texas. Yoo overlaps cutout houses and trees, draping her prints vertically or in hammock-like swoops that yield shadows more complex than the cookie-cutter homes themselves.
Michael Menchaca draws on Meso-American mythology for his exuberant animations, which play on a video screen mounted against a backdrop of patterned silk screens. It’s not the only screen in the show; another monitor rotates Richard Peterson’s expressionist iPad drawings of drag queens, made on a digital device that — while far different from a press — could be output to a printer.
More traditional, although hardly old-fashioned, are prints by Tom Hück, Steve A. Prince and Carrie Lingscheit. Hück and Prince are woodcut artists, the former contributing images both intricate and comical, the latter delivering extravagantly detailed scenes of New Orleans jazz funerals. Lingscheit’s sparer work, in intaglio, includes a portrait of a jackalope family.
The fictional jackalope, a rabbit-antelope mash-up invented by a pair of Wyoming taxidermists in the 1930s, actually makes another appearance in the show. It’s one of the featured attractions in Beauvais Lyons’s “Circus Orbis,” advertised in a set of lithographed posters that both lampoon and celebrate 19th-century popular entertainments.
Lyon, who’s been known to wear a ringmaster’s costume in public, is the self-styled director of the Hokes Archive (pronounced “hoax”), an art project dedicated to the “fabrication and documentation of rare and unusual cultural artifacts.” His affection for circuses and sideshows is clearly genuine, and his posters are as stupendous as anything in “Forward Press’s” array of ink-on-paper wonders.
American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. american.edu/museum .
Dates: Through Aug. 11.