It’s been a long time since the ‘60s, when prints were flashy and fashionable. Mentally comparing the brisk, cheeky Pop images of, say, Warhol and Lichtenstein to those on view at the Pasadena Armory for the Arts reveals a deeply altered spirit.
Titled “Changing Media: Books and Prints,” the show presents about 70 works by 19 artists. Co-curators and artists John O’Brien and Ruth Weisberg assembled a handsome, well-made selection that veers from such standard media as etchings and lithographs into hybrid forms, assemblage and book-like objects.
There’s nothing particularly new about any of that. Neither is one surprised by a by-now-predictable artistic preoccupation with such public issues as gender and ethnic identity. What is striking is that virtually none of the artists seems to have anything to say about the subject matter. They appear, rather, to simply be deep in thought.
Printmaking is technically demanding and thus greatly time-consuming. Historically the activity stands as a metaphor of complexity and rumination. One thinks of great Old Master prints like Durer’s “Melancholia.” O’Brien makes such an allusion directly in his “Untitled (The Blake Series).”
These artists, taken as a group, have moved the art of the print back to that meditative kind of spirit. This comes as no surprise in the work of an artist like Marvin Harden. His tiny images of trees, animals and unidentified wisps of ectoplasm have always been thoughtful and poetic.
Neither is it out of character for a veteran graphic artist like June Wayne to come up with a series such as her “Stellar Wind Suite.” The images recall galactic dust and swirls that might also be immensely enlarged fingerprints. Yet they don’t read like imaginary abstractions. Rather, they have the authority of real phenomena as if scientific in origin.
Nobody is really out of character but all look as if they’d encountered some situation that slowly gave them pause and induced a kind of trance-like state.
Weisberg’s “Separating the Waters 1-VI,” for example, is a set of four monotypes of a woman adrift under water. What might otherwise suggest sensuality or even a feminist tract becomes instead a study in serenity. The figure is like someone floating in her own amniotic fluid.
Masami Teraoka appears to have set about his “AIDS Series” with his usual satirical spirit. Some of the images are as sexually explicit as the erotic Japanese pillow books that inspired them. Yet there is a quality of frozen terror about them as well, as if the artist had eventually realized that there is absolutely nothing funny about the disease.
John Valadez’s lithographs mainly layer pictures taken from the Latino popular press with historical representations of pre-Columbian people. Far more decorative and abstract than polemical, they muse on art’s ability to deal with the ideological.
Dennis Olsen, Peter Liashkov and Laura Paley separately share the making of prints in which recognizable imagery is included only as if to say that this is not what counts. In art, it’s art that counts.
Artists like Pamela Zwehl-Burke, Pamela King and the team of Laura Stickney and Vilma Medillo are more graphic but also withdrawn. Their work often longs for a comforting past. King’s “Salem Witch Trial” is an exception. It mourns the demonization of women.
There are, of course other exceptions, but even they are not complete. There’s a curious quality of nostalgia in a series by Glenn Ligon, in which he imagines himself as a runaway slave. Alfredo de Batuc’s series on the fall of L.A. City Hall mixes affection and satire. Steve Murakishi’s “Smart Car” is a real windshield dotted with invented decals, like a parking sticker for Buddha. Harry and Sandra Reese’s series, “Off the Record,” are about as dead-pan as you can get.
Maybe Vida Hackman’s “Squire Raven’s Boat” sums the whole thing up. It’s a wonderful assemblage of a flying ark that seems to be going nowhere and doesn’t care. It’s just enjoying the trip.
* Pasadena Armory for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, through April 6. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. (818) 792-5101.