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Opening a master printmaker’s treasure chest of human emotion.

There are two journeys of discovery taking place at the Seton Gallery January 31 to February 28.   On the first one, you’ll find yourself riveted to one spot after another, as you stand mesmerized before a passionate, impossible-to-ignore face on the wall.  The second one involves learning something about the painstaking process that put those faces there — the art, science, trial, error, and glory of printmaking.

The Gazers

The exhibit was conceived eight weeks ago when Laura Marsh, UNH’s curator of the Seton Art Gallery, was looking at prints at Milestone Graphics in Bridgeport, the oldest fine art printmaking workshop in Connecticut.  James Reed, owner, collector, and operator of the studio was pulling out piles of pastorals, battlefield scenes, and other landscapes.  But Marsh had other ideas.  Having a special love of figurative work, her attention was captured time and again by the eyes of the subjects she glimpsed in some of Reed’s portrait prints.  “I was seeing a lot of pathos in them — themes of love, death, longing, meagerness, despair, even representations of obesity.  There were people bonding together or separating.  Being secretive or socializing.  I was looking at 100 years of society at large.”  And with that, Marsh had her theme for the exhibit.

"The Gazers" is a study in the forcefulness of the human gaze.  The subjects of the prints gaze directly at the viewer, away from the viewer, or at each other.  Dragging one's eyes away from the power of one gaze to look at the next requires almost an act of will as each one draws from the viewer a range of emotions that may include feelings of sadness, humor, fear, even disgust. 

"If you want to be a gallery artist, you can’t be the only one to see what’s in your work. You have to create something that provides information everyone can see."  

All of the prints in the exhibit are from Reed’s personal collection, a collection that comprises 4 distinct threads:  prints of art by contemporary exhibiting artists who work with Reed; historic prints of master painters’ work; prints of Reed’s own creations; and prints of artwork created by his assistants. 

Ann Chernow, "April Showers" Etching, 2005

The contemporary artists represented in "The Gazers" include such note worthies as Ann Chernow and Nomi Silverman, who have worked with Reed in his studio for decades.  The artists, however, don’t walk in with their artwork already created and ready for printmaking.  Each artist creates original art directly on a lithograph stone (or copper plate) at the studio.   Reed offers his expertise as their work progresses, running off prints, assessing the results, and making adjustments until the artist is satisfied.  “It’s a collaboration,” he says.  “However, my vision is not allowed.  I have to gear myself to the artist’s vision.”

Lithography is a meticulous and painstaking process.  Each color in a print takes a separate stone, which has to be hand-inked and lined up perfectly with the position of the one before it.  To get 30 prints, each stone must be inked 30 times.  To get 30 prints that are consistent with each other takes an almost mind-boggling degree of expertise.

The historic part of the exhibit includes prints of works by Cezanne, Daumier, Delacroix, Goya, Manet, and Whistler.  One print — of a painting by Edme Jean Pigal — is sure to evoke a sharp pang of familiarity in every artist who views it.  Titled “Chien de Metier” (“A beast of a job”), it depicts an artist stabbing his work in a fit of rage, acting out the perennial love/hate relationship that artists have with their art.

The third and fourth threads of Reed’s collection in the exhibit comprise prints of art he created himself, including an intuitive self-portrait, and prints of art created by assistants in his studio. “Self-Portrait” by assistant Thurston Belmer is reminiscent of the mad Russian monk, Rasputin, and is, in Laura Marsh’s opinion, “One of the most disturbing prints in the exhibit.”

Not all of the prints in “The Gazers” are lithographs.  Some are woodcuts, where the ink is applied to raised areas.  Others are intaglio – e.g. etchings done on copper plate, engravings, and mezzotints – in which the ink is carried into carvings below the surface of the plate.

There are no digital prints in the exhibit.  “They’re not real prints,” Reed says dismissively.  “A print has to do with pressure.  Ink jets are just spray painters.  And laser jets are not that much different.”

Although printmaking is a required class for university art majors, Reed finds many students are married to the computer with its digital format and are not open to the pressure — literal or mental — of genuine printmaking.  “As with any art form, often we just have to tear ourselves away from our computers and use our own resources,” he maintains.  Explaining the art of drawing the way he does to his UNH students, he picked up a pencil, pointed to the graphite end and said, “This is your printer.”  Pointing to the eraser end, he continued, “This is your delete button.”  Then, pointing to his head, he concluded, “And this is your CPU.”

Assistants in Reed’s studio share his passion and, in fact, have benefited greatly from Reed’s tutelage. Several, with no previous printmaking experience and no undergraduate degree in it, have won full scholarships for graduate degrees in printmaking after having worked with Reed for just 2 or 3 years.

 In the end, the subjects in “The Gazers,” will say something different to each viewer.  But, as a whole, the exhibit has an especially important message for artists and would-be artists.  Both Marsh and Reed concur on what that message is: “If you want to be a gallery artist, you can’t be the only one to see what’s in your work. You have to create something that provides information everyone can see.”

“The Gazers” is wildly successful at doing just that.

The exhibit runs from January 31 to February 28, Seton Art Gallery, Dodds Hall

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