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‘Modern Women’s Prints’ Exhibit showcases artistic depth, but lacks unifying message

| Friday, February 2, 2018

Dominique DeMoe

Small, cartoonish bubbles float across a bright green field of color, interlaced with wiggly sketches of leaves, seedlings and stems. In another work, strong black markings repeat in rhythmic curves and slashes. On yet another wall, an anguished, woman-like skeletal figure hangs from a thread attached to her bellybutton, her mouth gaping wide as though she has been captured mid-scream.

These are the kinds of distinct images which comprise “Modern Women’s Prints,” one of the current exhibits at Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art. The exhibition boasts an impressive collection of prints made by female artists working in the “modern” period, with an emphasis on art made in the past 10 or 15 years.

In one highlight of the exhibit, Lorna Simpson’s “Details” series (1996) includes tightly-cropped images of African-American female figures, where each image focuses on the actions of hands. Hands rest at the sides of their owner, put weight down on a table and pick up a phone or raise a flower to a nose. Each photo is paired with a suggestive word like “reckless” or “member,” a technique which enters the text into dialogue with the image. 

The exhibit also features a three-piece set of works created by Louise Bourgeois near the end of her prolific life. “Triptych for Red Room” (1994) includes many motifs visible throughout Bourgeois’ career, such as the breakdown of the family unit, the vulnerability of bodies and sexual imagery juxtaposed with simple, infantile renditions of faces and forms. The bright sky blue in the background appears jarringly out of place compared to the raw pain and distortions of her figures. The writhing figure in the middle print also recalls her eerie, hanging sculpture, “Arch of Hysteria” (1993), which was recently displayed alongside many other prints in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait.” The show aimed to draw more attention to Bourgeois’ printed work, which it argued was vastly understudied compared to her sculptures.

Other interesting pieces include prints by Emmi Whitehorse, an American artist whose “Pollination” (2011) presents an abstracted, codified version of a natural landscape which draws inspiration from her home state of New Mexico, her Native American heritage and linear geometric forms. A few works from Lee Krasner and Grace Hartigan, members of the abstract expressionist movement, emphasize their interest in gestural expressionist techniques. In one example, the famous drip technique championed by Jackson Pollock manifests in Krasner’s “Primary Series: Blue Stone” (1969).

Although the works seem to be from a myriad of unconnected artists, nearly all of the featured artists are linked by their histories. Many of the works were printed in Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), a pioneering print workshop that began production after World War II. Other works were printed by artists trained in the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, or the Segura Arts Studio in South Bend. Both ULAE and Tamarind were owned and operated by women, although both male and female artists participated in their work.

Beyond the connections between the origins of different works, however, I found myself at a loss for how to relate the works in the show to one another. Not all of the works in this exhibit share historical links, and besides the item information next to each work, the exhibit contains no other explanatory text.

Exhibits usually provide a unifying thesis or at least a general theme which suggests why one might try to put all of the works in a room and in dialogue with one another. Yet the general terms “modern” and “women” are so broad and all-encompassing that I struggle to see how they could be unifying qualities, especially when all of the works are themselves so different. I hope that we’ve moved past an era in art curation where the only undergirding reason for a collection of pieces would be the simple fact that they were made by women — that, to me, reads like laziness.

It’s possible that the exhibition eschews any kind of guidance on purpose, to allow the viewer to make connections between works in their own way. Yet this explanation strikes me as unlikely, especially considering the thesis-driven quality of the other two exhibits currently on view in the Snite, “Money Worries” and “Dimensions of Power.”

At its best, “Modern Women Prints” showcases the proliferation and profundity of women printmakers, and also displays the work of underrepresented artists working in an often-underestimated field — printmaking. At its worst, the structure of the exhibit runs the risk of confusing its audience by substituting large descriptors such as “Women” or “Modern” in place of an actual specific theme, perhaps unfairly detracting from the inherent quality and importance of its subject material.

“Modern Women Prints” runs from Jan. 14 March 18. Admission to the Snite Museum of Art is free.

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