A Miss-Leading Assumption : Despite gender grouping, BankAmerica’s ‘Recent Prints by Women Artists’ features pleasant works not often seen locally.

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“Recent Prints by Women Artists”? How about “Recent Prints by Left-Handed Artists”? Or “Recent Prints by Artists Living in States Beginning With an ‘N’ ”?

Unless a curator has some point to make about the imagery or techniques that certain female artists may have in common, grouping work by the artists’ gender is a lazy, ridiculously arbitrary tactic.

Drawn from BankAmerica’s huge art collection, “Recent Prints by Women Artists” is at the BankAmerica Gallery in Costa Mesa through July 29. Though the bank mounted a show called “5 Guys” last year, at least the male artists shared a similar outlook and background, while the eight female artists have little in common.


But this summer promises to be about as slow as they come, and a few of the artists (Vija Celmins, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Susan Rothenberg and Elizabeth Murray) are favorites of mine whose work is not often seen in Orange County.

Celmins, the subject of a memorable retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles last winter, has been making exceptional drawings of seemingly banal things for more than two decades. Her prints retain the same exquisite control and the same double fascination with nature and the act of looking. Her resolutely neutral rendering presents space as simultaneously vast and microscopically detailed, crowded and empty.

In her lithograph “Untitled (Desert Landscape),” the harsh clarity of countless small stones illuminated by strong sunlight are at once breathtakingly literal and peculiarly abstract. At first glance virtually photographic (as befits an image copied--as is Celmins’ practice--from a photograph), the landscape also reads as an all-over pattern of irregular marks on paper. Although Celmins never lets you lose sight of the activity of drawing, her work magically keeps luring you back to its illusory depths.

In “Alliance,” she availed herself of the rich tonal possibilities of mezzotint and aquatint in combination with the velvety line of drypoint. The two-part print juxtaposes a workmanlike sketch of a sailing ship with a patch of night sky blurry with stars.

The vast “nowhere” quality of the sky (and of the unseen ocean that the ship will ply) contrasts with the notion of stars as fixed points of guidance for the navigator. More fancifully, the multitude of lines representing the ship’s rigging have an unseen parallel in the constellations of the night sky (commonly drawn with lines linking the stars).

Mangold also works with recognizable imagery, sometimes drawn from the natural world. But she, too, invests her ostensible subject matter with a special attention to the nature of space and of seeing.

In “Nut Trees”--a trio of aquatints all made in October, 1985--two bare trees with twisted branches are rendered with extreme linear delicacy against skies that shift from pink to pale apricot to a lazy swath of blue. Although the trees appear to be the same in each print, their branches vary in position and shape.


The disparities between these images are entirely arbitrary; they can’t be explained away by gusts of wind or shifts of the viewer’s position. Mangold constantly reminds the viewer of the fictive nature of the work of art, its dependence on pictorial formulas and personal interpretation as much as real objects and events.

Rothenberg takes yet another tack with imagery, whittling down her vulnerable-seeming figures into ultra-simple shapes charged with a gestural urgency.


After working in a purely abstract mode, she burst onto the scene in the mid-’70s with rudimentary yet iconic images of horses. (“Horses really don’t mean anything special to me,” she once maddeningly informed an interviewer. “I rode them at camp, but that’s about it.”)

In Rothenberg’s lithograph, “Four Rays Horse,” a horse’s head is shielded by two pairs of slanting lines forming a rough lean-to. Whether this structure is meant to be understood literally or as a sort of all-encompassing mood or spiritual radiance--or merely as a visual motif to keep the head “anchored” on the flat space of the paper--is left to the viewer’s determination.

Other figures have also entered Rothenberg’s spare universe, giving the glancing sexual suggestiveness of her earlier work a sharper flavor.

In the lithograph “Untitled (Hartford),” a broad-shouldered silhouette with one skinny leg fits within a dark, curving enclosure--a cave-like landscape that suggests a woman’s private parts. An etching, “Girl/Boy,” consists of a fetishistic, bone-shaped female figure fitting her upright body into the contours of her supine partner; in cartoon fashion, sexual differences are delineated only by hairstyle and lip contours.


Murray’s buoyant abstractions owe a lot to the swirling immediacy of comic-book imagery. Her paintings are often executed on a massive scale that lends piquancy to the stray recognizable object from daily life embedded among the curving, brightly colored shapes. Her prints are smaller and tend to zero in on the workings of a specific visual idea.

In “Sniff,” a lithograph from 1984, an abstracted tall blue creature kneels like a cartoon bunny and pokes a curving appendage into a small, egg-shaped creature with two ears. The silliness of the gesture, at once intimate, intrusive and awkward, is vintage Murray--as are the generously scaled repeated curving shapes.

Louisa Chase’s landscape woodcuts are filled with simplified, repetitive imagery: jagged chunks of earth (“Chasm”), stacks of curlicues representing gusts of wind (“Squall”) and large, scalloped clouds (“Dawn”). The simple appeal of her work comes from its embracing, almost folkloric vision and its childlike mixture of literal and fanciful elements.

Jennifer Bartlett and Pat Steir were enormously prominent during the ‘80s, for reasons that largely eluded me. (Bartlett’s career took off after the publication of an extremely positive review from former New York Times chief critic John Russell about a decade ago.)

With a predilection for huge, modular pieces and thin, obvious imagery, Bartlett seemed about as full of hot air as some of her male counterparts. A woodcut called “Graceland--State I” shares this banal outlook; at least it has only five parts. At her best, in “At Sea, Japan,” Bartlett creates a decorative effect in an evocation of underwater life as small lozenges and jabs of color embedded in transparent veils of color.

Similarly, Steir’s large print “The Tree, After Hiroshige” is a delicate, quasi-abstract evocation of tree limbs, sky and the rhythms of the wind. (Hiroshige was a major Japanese 19th-Century woodblock print artist, famous for his ability to capture intimate views of nature in delicate color harmonies.)


Unlike the other, younger artists in the show, who mostly came of age in the 1960s--the “cool” era of Pop and Minimalist art--Helen Frankenthaler is firmly linked with the second-generation Abstract Expressionists. She is known for the atmospheric “stain” paintings she began making in the early ‘50s, in which atmospheric washes of color soak into the canvas.


Also an accomplished printmaker, Frankenthaler studied Japanese woodblock prints at the source. According to notes provided by the gallery, she made “Cedar Hill” in Kyoto in 1983. A pale wash of blue barely veiling the insistent vertical grain of the paper is interrupted by horizontal areas of various colors that resemble aborted spills of liquid--or an abstracted view of an autumnal landscape.

Pleasant as it is to see most of these works, the show would have been more valid had the artists not been ghettoized by gender. At least we can be grateful that the exhibition was not organized by type of print medium, one of the deadlier forms of curatorial diktat , in which attention to the “trees” of technique tends to obscure the much more vital “forest” of contemporary ideas about art and life.

* “Women in Print: Recent Prints by Women Artists” runs through July 29 at BankAmerica Gallery, 555 Anton Blvd. in Costa Mesa. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission: Free. (714) 433-6000.