An appreciation for the involved practice of printmaking does not necessarily come naturally to those of us better acquainted with images on a screen and printers of the desktop variety. But after passing the humming and hawing machines that create them, the prints on view, curated by Pyramid Atlantic founder and former director Helen Frederick, seem more tangible, more complex — louder, even — than they would if stumbled upon in a white cube gallery.
Work in the show ranges from 1981 to 2007, years roughly aligned with Frederick’s tenure as director. It features work by artists she invited to Pyramid Atlantic through residency programs, much of it made on those same machines you’ll pass downstairs. Pulled from an archive of 700, the 40 works emphasize the institution’s diverse printmaking practices and wide geographic reach. Forty years after Pyramid Atlantic started as a small studio space in Baltimore, it has produced work that has found its way into the collections of such major museums as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art. Pyramid Atlantic boasts an influence that, as noted in the catalogue, stretches to Japan.
You might expect an anniversary show at a small arts venue to be parochial, or in this case to be dominated exclusively by printmakers, but Frederick seems to have a knack for luring artists of all kinds. Many big names, from near and far, have made cameos there: Chinese American Hung Liu, the subject of a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery; Washington’s William Christenberry, acclaimed for his photos, paintings and sculptures inspired by the American South; Miriam Schapiro, the Canadian American feminist collage artist and key figure in the Patterns and Decorations movement; and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Joyce J. Scott of Baltimore.
Throughout the show, you’ll see well-known artists navigating uncharted artistic territory. For some, the freedom of a different medium allows them to reveal curiosities left unexplored, or to return to well-trodden ideas and leave them newly refined.
One of the earliest artists to work out of the original Baltimore workshop, Scott is known for taking on dark themes of poverty, hunger, bodily harm and racism in exquisite beadwork sculptures and jewelry. In her 2000 monotype and intaglio print “Got Milk!,” Scott prints a rough-hewed, emaciated figure over a backdrop of flowers, printed from photos that her mother (and longtime collaborator) cut out from magazines. Above the figure, a glass surrounded by a blistering shock of red has the energy of a comic book exclamation, a visceral cry. The fine, fading florals and the desperate figure in the foreground reflect the tension at play in Scott’s beadwork. Here, Scott’s signature style — juxtaposition of pretty things with harsh realities — is distilled into its raw, salient parts.
Known for her intensely detailed watercolor nature scenes, Patricia Tobacco Forrester also appears in an alternative form. An image of vibrant flowers, “Miami” — made with pulp painting, screen printing and digital editing — looks almost Warholian. Forrester’s watercolors emphasize nature’s wildness and abundance, but here, nature seems strikingly high-resolution, intricate, as if she’s alluding to the carefully aligned variables that make the natural world tick.
In some works, the medium underscores the message. Liu — widely admired for her portraiture done in a style she termed “weeping realism” — appears in the show with “Plow and Hands,” a pulp painting of hands and tools she would have used sowing fields while growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Though far from realist in the conventional sense, the work has a psychological realism to it: The images overlap; the lines depicting the tools seem to quiver; the crinkly, handmade paper frays. The work reads like a recollection that fades at the edges, a memory carried in the artist’s fingertips.
Christenberry’s foray into printmaking shares in that psychological acuity. A lithograph of a simple rectangular building, “Memory Form” is a kind of visual summation of the many Southern structures he photographed and returned to over the years. It’s as if his life’s work has coalesced around this very simple, stamp-like image. Amid the vastness of the white paper it’s printed on, the rectangular structure seems to click into place, like the long-sought solution to a puzzle.
The exhibition has no thematic through-line. It’s about paper and printmaking, an homage to a medium. In daily life, we are used to media that try to disappear: Phones, TVs and computers all get lighter and thinner with every new release, as if trying to merge us with the content we consume. There is something almost radical about highly textured, well-crafted works on paper. They seem to honor the exchange between the maker and the viewer, as if the creation is not merely content — but an offering.
Correction: An previous version of this article incorrectly stated the address of Pyramid Atlantic Art Center was 4813 Gallatin St., Hyattsville. It is 4318 Gallatin St., Hyattsville. The article has been corrected.
Reflecting Back to the Future: 40th Anniversary Exhibition
Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, 4318 Gallatin St., Hyattsville. pyramidatlanticartcenter.org.
Dates: Through Nov. 14.
Virtual artist talk: On Oct. 16 from 2 to 4 p.m., National Gallery of Art curator Shelley Langdale will lead a Zoom conversation, responding to works in the show, with a group of artists, educators and printmakers. RSVP online at Pyramid Atlantic’s website.