The current exhibition at Aisle Gallery, Rendered Obsolete: Printmaking by Rachel E. Heberling and Katherine Rogers, focuses on the centuries-old practice of printmaking. Of course, the practice has changed and expanded since its inception, but Heberling and Rogers seem to have found their niche in concentrating on straightforward lithography and etching, and the beauty that can be found there. Likewise, both artists draw on aged and abandoned subject matter for their prints, often revealing a sad splendor in the relics of a past era.
Heberling, an MFA candidate at Ohio State University, has a clear focus to her work. According to Aisle’s statement, she concentrates on her natural surroundings. Natural, in this sense, having nothing to do with nature, but with the immediate surroundings of her home — that is, rural Pennsylvania, on the “borders of anthracite mining regions.” Such a focus allows her to examine the “remains of abandoned industry.”
Interesting, then, that the first work a visitor will encounter is “World Champion Typists,” a lithograph with imagery borrowed from an old book (a typing manual, perhaps) with the page number still intact at the bottom. Heberling adds words to the work, making the figures — in a facing-off position — actual competitors. Though not having much to do with anthracite, this imagery has a distinct air of outmoded industry. Coupled with the lithography process itself, the work is strikingly at odds with the year in which it was made: 2009.
“Vacated Presence,” an etching and aquatint with Xerox toner from 2006, deals more directly with Heberling’s concern with abandoned industry. The image is at first simple: A deserted building, complete with broken windows and dark, moody shadows. It is, in some sense, the typical image of semi-urban banality, but Heberling takes the image in a different direction. The vantage point is odd, like you’re looking up at this building as you would a grand cathedral. The shadows and stains pour across the faade, allowing an amazingly accurate sense of the cracking paint, the crumbling walls, the weather-beaten exterior.
Another of Heberling’s works, “Auto-Graph,” is perhaps the oddest and most interesting in Rendered Obsolete. Here the artist has created a common, anonymous cityscape except that everything seems at a standstill. A car is parked in the middle of the road, ostensibly abandoned. A lone figure outfitted in some sort of outmoded/futuristic diving gear stands in the center of the print, as if about to set out on an exploration of this vacant, dead place. The image is curious and provoking, and you might not know where you are here — on the side of the defunct city or of the futuristic explorer.
Rogers, a printmaker based in Mertztown, Pa., also casts her eye to abandonment. Her etching and drypoint print, “Opened,” is one of the most obvious examples of her inclination. The work shows a car, clearly broken down, used-up and discarded in an auto graveyard; its hood is up, exposed for looting or probing. The image is profoundly sad and unsettling, calling to mind a crime scene. Something once new is now dead, robbed, raped, worn-out.
Other prints by Rogers are less obvious, taking the mechanical workings of industry and factories almost to an abstraction. Broken pipes, crumbling walls, bits of machinery all build up the surfaces of almost all of her works.
Printmaking has gone post-modern and beyond in the contemporary art world. A time-consuming, delicate and intricate practice has morphed into the often-outrageous, stacked-upon, punched-out, layered, cut and twisted forms we see in a lot of contemporary galleries. It’s amazing what those artists can do.
But there is something to be said about Heberling and Rogers finding their way back through time, into the era when printmaking was just that — delicate, fastidious, detailed and beautiful.
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