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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville has spent the last couple of years staking out a place in discussions occurring in contemporary art circles about the line dividing art and craft. KMAC (originally the Art and Craft Foundation) was founded in 1981 as a platform for regional folk art but has since reconfigured its mission to reflect current modes of artistic expression that assume a range of forms. The recent exhibition PRESS: Artist and Machine was a romantic show focused on illuminating the relationship between 19th-century printing-press technology and 20th- and 21st-century art production.
Immediately before you upon entry was an exquisite facsimile edition of William Blake’s Jerusalem (printed in 1974, based on the original that was printed in 1804), propped up and opened to a pastiche of antique architectural forms and figures with a Greek sensibility. The pages have an earthy palette that ran through the entire exhibition, evoking my nostalgia for typography and illumination and my appreciation for knowledge and its dissemination.
Pages from William Morris and Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer (a facsimile printed in 1958, original in 1896) suggested big ideas about the power of pattern. Design motifs remain efficient mechanisms for assimilating foreign/outside forms and concepts into our own lexicon and developing new spatial configurations. In Morris’s time this would occur in all manner of design, from textiles to book illuminations and furniture design. These sumptuous artifacts placed in vitrines created a path leading to one of the steam-punk presses used by Louisville’s Hound Dog Press. They were one of a number of presses represented in the exhibition; another was Larkspur Press, who resuscitated the letterpress that Morris developed during the Arts and Crafts movement with gusto in the lush and playful reprint of work by Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson.
Specific choices in the show — for instance, artist Polly Apfelbaum’s robustly colored woodblock prints in “Dogwood Leap #8” (2009) — reiterated principals established by Morris’s work. David Schapiro’s works on paper, “Clearing 14” (2011) and “Clearing 15” (2011), with their motifs based on the elongation and manipulation of the line and contrasting grays, beiges, and blacks, revisited notions of otherness, the tensions forged between foreign forms, and a spiritual content akin to the kind Morris attended to.
The presence of the late Schapiro’s work suggested that we pay some attention to the art historical lineage of his teachers, the second generation of Abstract Expressionists and the avant-garde of New York in the 1950s and ’60s. In particular, the relationship between Schapiro’s pieces and an exhibition highlight, Helen Frankenthaler’s “Savage Breeze” (1974–76), was revelatory. While the two Schapiros effectively evoke the delicacy of the books at the entry, through the fragility of the edge and the imposition of color on the texture of paper set within rigid squares, they’re also undeniably flat, undermined by the artist’s haphazard laying of shapes and the casual treatment of the line that lacks any discernible rationale. The works are stagnant in striking contrast to the movement and freedom of the Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler’s woodcut with crayon and paint rippling across the surface draws the eye inwards to a crevice articulated by a coloration and texture with a topographical motif. It opened up so many of the works on display for a second look, particularly the reduction woodcuts that Susanna Crum uses to reveal the gorges of Ithaca, New York, which were installed at the exhibition’s beginning alongside Morris, Blake, and the various books on display.
An intriguing element of PRESS was the inclusion of Leslie Lyons and JB Wilson’s floor-tile work “BANK,” which is part of their larger Upswept Floors series. This functional, handmade floor that the artists fabricate for clients purposefully converses with art history, making a direct reference to the Roman tradition of creating floor mosaics to capture an image of the detritus of a hedonistic bacchanal. Lyons and Wilson produce their tiles through a sublimation process that makes the image part of the material product. In the case of “BANK,” they manipulated photographic images of $100 bills and a $100,000 bill that was once in circulation among the big banks to create a pattern that our dedicated socialist Morris would appreciate. The patten is one full bleed image transferred to a 12×12-inch tile. For PRESS, 64 of the tiles were laid out in a whole that was as disorienting as looking into a kaleidoscope.
The inclusion of “BANK,” installed in a far corner of the second-floor gallery, at the edge of the exhibition but along a direct and clear site line, was a strong exclamation point. I walked away with a heightened awareness of the power of form, symbol, and pattern, reminded of the ways artists intervene in unexpected ways.
PRESS: Artist & Machine was on view at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (715 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky) from March 29 through June 1.