There’s just a week left to see this beautifully curated exhibit at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center featuring prints by three artists: Curt Belshe, Jenny Freestone and Jake Muirhead. Using varied printmaking techniques, all three are working in grayscale, or effectively, in black and white. In the case of Freestone, the title, CONTRAST, is perhaps the most apt in that her prints, whether in etching or photogravure, show areas of deep black, in some cases, so dark that the contrasting image is barely visible. The experience is reminiscent of looking into a dark glass and seeing something reflected that requires time to recognize, but sometimes eludes recognition. In fact, the whole exhibit is like this. These are profound works, images each of which ask the viewer to slow down and look closely. They are intellectually challenging as well as technically brilliant.
Belshe’s contribution is a series he has titled 21st Century Caprichos (after Francisco Goya) referencing the Spanish master’s suite of eighty prints in aquatint and etching produced by the artist in 1797 and 1798, and published as an album in 1799. Goya’s prints are darkly ironic, condemning, in his words, “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest has made usual.” However, they also exemplified that world in crisis; that is in the sense of dramatic change that was also in process, despite the stratification of society and the stultification of its mores. Taking this as his cue, Belshe’s photogravure images are meant to reflect the current crises of behavior and the acute transition of manners in our digital age. Mining the point of Goya’s ironies, and borrowing his titles, Belshe’s prints have an antique appearance, with the titles printed in Spanish in the same script used in the originals, with a smaller English translation below them. To make them, the artist first photographed figures in various postures and actions that characterize modern life—taking selfies, texting, and other interactions with social media—and then “digitally sculpted” them with 3-D printing. He then photographed them in arrangements that could reflect Goya’s originals, and ultimately etched them in photogravure, manipulating the grounds to approximate Goya’s techniques.
The results are rather surreal, and somewhat frightening. The most famous print from Los Caprichos, titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, as well as many others, was an inspiration to 20th century Surrealists who were themselves working in a time of radical change following WWI. Belshe’s print by that name shows a strange hooded figure in long robes. One hand holds a book, the other an assault rifle. On either side are children, one taking a selfie, the other texting. The result is far more unsettling than Goya’s sleeping self-portrait surrounded by friendly-looking owls that lift his drawing tools. Belshe’s monsters are all too real.
Of the three artists, perhaps the most intriguing from an aesthetic point of view is Muirhead. He perfectly described the effect of his gestural drawing style in his statement to the show:
“My art is about the mystery of sight and memory: the need to reach out for and perhaps hold onto something that does not last. It is also about the wondrous process of making marks with my hands—be it on paper or metal plates”.
The sense of the mysterious, of something hidden and becoming under those marks pulls one toward them. The feeling of movement is always there, whether it be in the windswept face of a girl, or the petals of an iris. The artist very much wants that effect in his work. “I want the marks,” he says, “to move in and out of the world of figurative description.” Therefore, while the images they represent are recognizable, they have a freedom and liveliness that brings them to another level—one hard to articulate, but something like poetry.
Among Muirhead’s etchings here, there is also much that points to a kind of contemporary surrealism that is, I believe, the thematic element that also bridges the three artists in this show. Oil Can (2015) presents the object in an abstracted and tonally varied setting that suggests much more than it represents. A first look at Two or Three only seems to show the two human heads. It’s only by coming closer in that one sees the lines morphing into a cat brushing its head against one of them. And the spirit of Goya is here too in Muirhead’s Atelier Four, with its surrealist juxtapositioning of disparate elements alluding to the imagination and printmaking—an image that for me evoked Goya’s El Sueño de la Razon more intimately than any of Belshe’s analogies.
CONTRAST: Curt Belshe, Jenny Freestone, Jake Muirhead is on view at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, 4318 Gallatin Street (off Rte. 1), Hyattsville, MD through August 18, 2019. Open Tuesday – Friday, 10 AM – 9 PM. Visit Pyramid Atlantic Art Center online at www.pyramidatlanticartcenter.org
Banner image: Jake Muirhead, Oil Can, etching and aquatint, 2015. Photo courtesy of Pyramid Atlantic Art Center.