'Bipolar Biennial'

Marsh’s print show proves that two-dimensional surfaces can convey three-dimensional emotions.

by Edwin Slipek Jr.
June 9, 2004

The 6th American Print Biennial exhibition at the University of Richmond is exactly the type of show a college ought to mount regularly. In presenting a range of works on paper by artists from Brooklyn to Seattle, the Marsh Art Gallery gives students and the viewing public a valuable overview of highly competent work. Prints are a relatively conservative medium in an era when artists are free to roam and romp from medium to medium and combine materials in unlikely and even baffling ways. Yet this biennial packs some punch.
Recently I visited another, more highly touted biennial of contemporary works at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. There was a dazzling array of ideas in an amusement-park environment. On some floors, artists’ installations filled entire rooms with lights, mirrors, sound, videos, photography, silk-screened prints, found objects, painted surfaces and even pools of water. But I stumbled out onto Madison Avenue exhausted, and not altogether sure of what I’d seen.

The Marsh biennial had the opposite effect — it was soothing and satisfying in a different way. At this beautifully installed show, the viewer can go nose-to-nose with pieces and take time to contemplate each work, instead of being clobbered by visual overload. There may be excitement and bravura in the work, but it is subtle.

The pieces, representing 43 artists from 22 states, were selected by Marjorie B. Cohn, curator of prints at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. And since a third of the artists represented are working in Virginia, the show inadvertently offers a secondary pleasure. It provides a kind of mini version of the biennial print shows the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts used to juror a few decades ago, when the VMFA was committed to annual showings of works by Virginians.

Among the names at the Marsh perhaps recognizable to Richmonders are Margot Blank, Alan D. Entin, Frederick Nichols, Laura Pharis, Rachele Riley, Kevin Roberts, Barbara Tisserat and Randy Toy.

Entin, a psychologist known nationally for his studies of what family snapshots reveal, is represented here by a shimmering, impressionistic photograph entitled “Le Carrousel au Parc de la Villette, II, Paris, France.” It is understated in its coloration, but joyous in evoking the Paris of our minds where romance and beauty abound.

“Sentimental Messages” by Tisserat includes a lithograph of an exquisitely and delicately rendered bird. But the Richmond-based artist pushes through two-dimensionality by adding a small twig and small pieces of paper to create a highly refined collage. It is a celebration of nature.

Other works are far more threatening. New Yorker Tara Parsons is represented by “Terni,” a collograph (a photograph printed from a paper negative). It is a stacked image — head-on — of three jet planes coming in for a landing (or taking off?). Funny how powerful and changing images can be. During World War II, this same sequence of photos might have suggested America fighting fascism. In another context, Parsons’ piece could be an ad for an airline. To my eyes it was nothing if not disturbing — is the jet headed for the World Trade Center? And noting that Parsons lives in New York only reinforced my reaction.

Similarly, Charles W. Goolsby’s monotype possesses the power that loaded imagery, combined with assured technique, can deliver. In “Hillman Highway Transubstantiation” he presents a black and white image of a rural highway receding into the distance. The road appears to be chased by overhead power lines, and some oncoming light dramatically illuminates crossed telephone poles. Like Paul’s dramatic religious conversion on the road to Damascus, this is high drama in an unlikely place. No humans occupy the piece, but anyone examining this print feels the force of Goolby’s religiosity and artistry.

This is a strong biennial, full of surprises and delights, but why combine photographs and printmaking in the same show? One brings one set of expectations to photography and a different mind-set to viewing prints. There is a surge of popularity in photography with too few outlets showing it locally. Perhaps two biennials are in order. ⎯Edwin Slipek Jr.

The Marsh Art Gallery’s “6th American Print Biennial” runs at the University of Richmond through June 26. Call 289-8276 for more information.